It's a quiet Friday afternoon at Carly's Bistro, and the members of Phoenix indie-rock act Snake! Snake! Snakes! shuffle in one by one. First comes guitarist/vocalist Jon Messenger, followed by bassist Chris Sanchez and, finally, drummer David Cooper, who slides down into his chair with uncalculated ease. The group announces that we regrettably won't be joined by the band's keyboardist, George "Georgie" Rodriguez, who's in California for the weekend.
The lunch rush has passed, and we're nearly alone in the cafe, with only a few patrons sipping afternoon beers and wine at scattered tables. A mix of vintage Mountain Goats songs plays overhead — the old stuff, warbly and distorted by cheap tape — and I can't help mentally comparing the lo-fi, homespun recordings on the stereo with the new disc from the Triple-S crew. The guys sitting down at Carly's exemplify the current trend of indie kids fetishizing '70s –style stadium fare; all huge drums, cavernous guitars and gigantic vocals, à la Arcade Fire. Snakes sound a world removed from the Mountain Goats' old sound, as trendy as it was a few years ago.
Snake! Snake! Snakes!
Snake! Snake! Snakes! are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, August 11, at the Rhythm Room.
SSS is in for a busy day. Sanchez has to work soon, and Messenger and Cooper are heading to a studio to record radio promos. Their new, self-titled EP was the ninth-most-added record on college radio, according to industry publication CMJ, and has steadily been gaining airplay.
Cooper tries out his best "smooth radio announcer" voice while Messenger shakes his head in amazement. He's been piloting the band for six years, though various incarnations and with rotating lineups, and it feels as though it's finally starting to take off.
Their label, Common Wall Media, has just inked a distribution with Modern Art, the former Phoenix-based label situated in New York. Given the steadily rising profile of Common Wall and Modern Arts — thanks to prominent records by Back Ted N-Ted, Miniature Tigers, and Gospel Claws — I ask the band how it feels to be part of the music industry mechanism, complete with a set of publicists pushing their record nationwide.
"It's a great feeling," Cooper boasts. "It's great to know that people around America are hearing it and feeling as excited about it as we are."
"It's a new feeling," Messenger adds, sounding genuinely dumbstruck. "It feels like it's been a long journey to get where we are now."
The band's journey has thus far consisted of one continuous hurdle: keeping a drummer in the band.
"We just were putting all our efforts toward making it through our drummer situation," Messenger says. "We didn't have a solidified band to actually push anything for a long time. We'd have a drummer, we'd think it was good, then things would start slowing down, and we couldn't record [because a drummer quit]."
Cooper found his way into the Snakes' fold when he moved next door to Messenger.
"I use to hear the band practicing," he says. "I'd pause my movie or whatever and just listen. I never imagined I'd end up playing with them."
"We went through nine or 10 drummers," Messengers says. "We even tried having no drummer, just the three of us playing percussion in addition to guitar and stuff," Sanchez adds. "It was kind of cool, but it just wasn't the sound. Things really came together with Cooper."
With a solid lineup intact and some financial assistance from Common Wall, the band headed into Bob Hoag's Flying Blanket Studios, a drastic departure from their previous recording experiences.
"At first it was a struggle. It was really different," Sanchez says. "We were used to bedroom recordings."
"[Hoag] does double the amount of work that a producer or engineer would do," Messenger says, describing how as the band settled into their surroundings, they began to feel more comfortable. "He's got a name for himself for a reason. A lot of bands hear the sounds that come out of there but don't know the amount of effort he puts into stuff."
The band decided to scale back their intentions in the studio and focus on recording their five best songs.
"We were like, we could have eight songs that sound all right," Cooper says. "Or five songs that sound amazing. So we went with that."
"He was sick as shit the whole time," Sanchez says.
The record aptly demonstrates the strengths of the band. At their best, they recall a cross between early U2 and The Stills, with a hint of the commercial appeal of the first Killers album, the one you had in your car stereo for weeks but wouldn't admit to owning.
The strongest track, opener "City on Fire" charges forward with Messenger singing over strident drums, echoing guitar, and steady bass: "We can die slowly in a crowded apartment / Or live our life long upon a city at night / While others grow cold as their city is burning / We can shed light on a city at night."
The band's massive sound is no accident. Though Snakes has considered adding members, they seem content to generate as much sound from their four members as possible.
"It's about putting simple things together to make something perfect," Cooper says.
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Messenger says that the band attempts not to allow their individual egos to get in the way of a song's inherent simplicity and power. "It's not even about the listener," he says. "It's about the feeling of the song. It's the overall notion of the whole fucking song."
"If we get compared to Arcade Fire, so be it, [because that's a band that's achieved] a full band sound, and that's what's important to us, a full band sound."
As our conversation dies down, I notice that the mix has segued into newer Mountain Goats material; songs from Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree, recordings that found songwriter John Darnielle scrubbing away the lo-fi hiss and static that once defined his songs in favor of cleaner, brighter, bigger arrangements. I wonder whether, in six years, I'll be listening Snake! Snake! Snakes! material that charts the opposite trajectory, transitioning from the polished sheen of their early work into gritty lo-fi abandon. Hard to say, but for now, SSS seem content with their current station.
"This is all new to us," Messenger expresses. "I've played in bands before, but this is the farthest I've gone."