The cover art for Chicago quartet California Wives’ debut album, Art History, is simple: It’s a photograph of a bare room, white walls, stained brown floor—and, in the back right corner, a handful of framed paintings, stacked against a wall. The artworks are far enough away, and piled at such an angle, that it’s hard to make out more than a hint of what they depict.
It’s a beautiful image—precisely and carefully composed, and holding back just enough to keep the viewer interested. Art History itself is much the same way: delicate, romantic New Wave synth ballads that make the very best use of the space they’re afforded. On the album’s best tracks, like “Twenty Three” and “The Fisher King” (which we’re excited to exclusively premiere below), lead vocalist and songwriter Jayson Kramer evokes an exact, sweet wistfulness—perfect for tucking into the pocket of the first jacket you put on this autumn.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: How did California Wives come together?
JAYSON KRAMER: The three of us—Joe, Dan and myself—are the original members. We had another guitarist who left. I was going to school in Boston, and I came back after finishing. They were all living in Chicago, and their older band had just broken up. We became friends, and they were looking for a keyboardist. And then they let me play guitar, and I started writing songs. And that was that. Then Graham kind of came in later because our old guitarist left, and we auditioned a bunch of guitarists, and he was the one we wanted.
SYMONDS: You were on track to go to med school when you decided to do music full-time instead. What prompted that decision, and what was that time in your life like?
KRAMER: I think, when you enter college, on the whole one is probably too young to know what they really want to do. And it moves very quickly, and the workload is very demanding, and it was just moving so fast. It was like a dream or something: I woke up, and once I had finished the MCAT, it was still for the first moment in for years. And I was just like, “I don’t want to do this at all.” And at that exact moment, kind of, I was asked to join the band. So, it was a really strange thing, but it just kind of happened.
SYMONDS: Yeah, wow. It sounds like it was very sudden, as opposed to a gradual decision.
KRAMER: As soon as I got done with my MCAT, my dad had driven me there, I got into his car, I remember exactly where I was, I was in the parking lot, the sun was setting, and just remember sitting there and being like, “I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
SYMONDS: Do you remember the first record you ever owned?
KRAMER: The first record I ever owned, probably—it’s so difficult because I did grow up in a record store. My mom was the bookkeeper for a small record store in Chicago, which was neat.
SYMONDS: Ah, no way.
KRAMER: Yeah, it was amazing. So I grew up putting a lot of CDs away and also getting a lot of free promotional copies, just because they would give them to the record store. But I would say the first CD I owned would probably be either (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? or Dookie by Green Day.
SYMONDS: I feel like boys of a certain age who grew up to play instruments, a lot of them who are self-taught started by aping Dookie. My brother would just play bass lines from that album over and over and over again, and I still know them all by heart. Green Day was really formative for dudes your age.
KRAMER: It was also the first record I owned with a swear word on it, that my mom was cool with me having. So I mean I thought of it as being pretty rebellious, but when I look back on it now, it’s really not that rebellious. It’s more of like a pop record, which is fine. I love pop music. But it wasn’t really in the spirit of like, The Clash, you know, or something like that. The aims behind the record were a little different, probably.
SYMONDS: I wanted to talk a little bit about nostalgia on your record. You open with a song that is obviously set very firmly in the past, “Blood Red Youth,” which sets the listener up to be in a nostalgic place when listening to the album.
KRAMER: No, no, no. You’re right on. I mean, I think I tend to be a person, and I don’t necessarily like this about myself, but I tend to think back a lot. I would like to be more forward-thinking and kind of like next page, but I tend to go back and analyze the way things were. “Blood Red Youth” is not autobiographical by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think back, and a lot of what I like as far as my music and my place during the past. That’s not to say I don’t like artists now and what’s going on now, but yeah, I’m very interested by it, I’m very intrigued by it. So the fact that a lot of things end up in past tense or make people feel like they’re experiencing something from some other time… It’s kind of where the title of the record comes from as well.
SYMONDS: “Twenty Three”—can we talk about that?
SYMONDS: 23 is such a weird age—you’re equidistant from being 16 and 30, and you’re both looking back at what you’re thinking of as your youth, but also realizing that in 10 years, this moment is what you’re going to think your youth was. And that song, I feel like, kind of gets at that idea.
KRAMER: I get what you’re saying. I mean, I wrote that when I was 23, and yeah, it’s funny, because I still kind of feel that way now. But yeah, it is an age where you’re like, “What the hell am I supposed to do?” Inside of myself, I’m telling myself that I don’t want to work an office job, it’s just not for me, and I would love to do music, and I would love to do all these other things. But there’s also that social pressure, that pull. When you tell people that you’re gonna be in a band, they roll their eyes at you—you know, “There’s ten million bands out there, what’s so different about you? What’s so great about you?” So yeah, that was an age where I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do. And that song is pretty biographical. I mean, I sat in a room for two days straight and whatever was in my head came out. Even to this day, I’m still—you know, making a living as a musician is a very hard thing to do, and I think about it every day.
SYMONDS: Is it weird to play that song now, three years later?
KRAMER: You know, I think if I had titled it differently, I don’t think it would be. I don’t know if “weird” is the right word. I think the words still mean the same thing to me. It’s just that every time I say, “This is ‘Twenty Three,'” I think about it. It’s like I’ve dated it, like I’ve kind of stuck a flag in it and it’s like, “This is about when you were 23.” I think if I would’ve titled it something like “Fancy Shoes” or something, I think it would be just as relevant to me now. But yeah, when I do sing it, there is that nostalgia, like, “Oh, well, I was 23 when I wrote this. What the hell was I thinking?” [laughs]
SYMONDS: In the spirit of Art History, could you talk about visual art that’s been important to you?
KRAMER: Sure. Well, I guess design is something that I’ve really taken a liking to, whether it be on the front of a magazine or whether it be in a space that you’re not designing or filling out. And I guess minimalism is something that I’ve always really, really enjoyed. I like it when things are orderly, clean, kind of elegant—elegant is a word that I think is most important to me in art. Elegance is something that’s incredibly important. So I’m not a big fan of, like, Jackson Pollock, or other artists like that, which fill the canvas up with so much stuff that I can’t even focus. You know?
KRAMER: I did go to that Roy Lichtenstein exhibit in Chicago, and I did see some of his landscapes. I’m very familiar with his pop art, but some of his landscapes that he’s done, which tend to be a little bit more minimalist, less going on, more about leaving some of the space empty and open—if I could own one of those, it would be great, it would be amazing. Obviously they cost more than like, everything I own put together right now, but— [laughs]
SYMONDS: Yeah, no, that’s a great answer, though.
KRAMER: Yeah, no, I mean, obviously if you look at the front cover of our album…
SYMONDS: I was just going say, yeah.
KRAMER: Yeah, and that goes back to the idea of, I think what makes a great musician is not necessarily what you can play, but what you choose not to play, and I think that’s about leaving the space open where it needs to be open, and maybe a melody that’s less complicated, or a song that maybe doesn’t repeat a part too many times. Things like that, I think, that get to the elegance of the art form, which is something that’s really, really important to me.