It’s been four years and some change since we last caught up with Brooklyn band Grooms, who in fall 2009 were getting set to release their debut album under that name after changing it from Muggabears a few months earlier. We met guitarist Travis Johnson, bassist Emily Ambrosio, and drummer Jim Sykes at Death By Audio, the Williamsburg warehouse/show venue/effects pedal company where the band practiced and, at the time, Ambrosio was living.
Since then, some things have changed—though the band’s third full-length, Infinity Caller, is still rooted in fuzzy noise-pop, it’s tighter and more cohesive than anything they’ve released before. (Its catchy first single, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” below, sounds like the work of a band whose members have learned to read each other’s minds.)
And some things haven’t: when we called Johnson to chat about Infinity Caller, he was walking past Death By Audio.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: We talked when Rejoicer came out. What’s happened in the last four years, as a band and for you personally?
TRAVIS JOHNSON: Personally, in between then and now I developed a really nasty drinking problem and stopped drinking, over the course of that four years or so. Both of those things were unforeseeable at the time. I think as a band maybe one of our biggest differences is the way we think and feel about music. It’s a lot harder to listen to music made by other people than it was then. It’s a lot different, anyway. I wouldn’t say harder—but it’s a lot harder to hear it the same way you did.
SYMONDS: Do you mean objectively?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I guess so. Once you’ve seen the inside of the way the whole thing works, in terms of making records, in terms of a press cycle, in terms of knowing what things when you hear a record were probably recorded live and what was “fixed in the mix,” as they say. When [I] look at a music magazine now, a lot of stuff seems more obvious than it did when you’re kind of young and you think, “Oh, this person just made a record and now they’re being interviewed and that’s it.” And just getting tired of making the same kind of music and changing that up a little bit here and there is another gradual change for us.
SYMONDS: Readers and writers always want to be able to push this narrative of, “Emily, Jim, and Travis all sat down, had a conversation about it, and decided that this was the direction for Infinity Caller.” It seems it very often doesn’t happen that way.
JOHNSON: Yeah, this was probably the least thought-out and planned-out record in terms of just about everything. The other records were probably more like that, if anything. Being able to sit down and say, “Well, what to we want to do?” This one was really gradually written, really gradually recorded, gradually mixed.
SYMONDS: Do you think you’ve been playing together long enough now that you don’t need to have those kinds of conversations anymore—you can relate to each other nonverbally?
JOHNSON: I think that is part of it, and I think that it becomes maybe more obvious when Emily says, “I’ve really been listening to this band or this DJ or this singer a lot lately,” and then she shows it to me and then we get into it really hard together. It’s a lot easier to go unspoken on those things. We start to pick up on cues from those records, start to have it filtering in without us having to talk about it. “All the stuff we’re writing for this new record is really sludgy or jammy or it’s too concise, why don’t we stretch it out”—there are still those talks every once in a while, but it’s usually after things have gotten a little under way and people are like, “Are we happy about this?”
With this record, though, we weren’t sure we were still going to be a band. But we were just like, “We have five or six songs, so let’s record them.” So we recorded them and started mixing them a couple of months later and then recorded a couple more songs. It was an entirely un-thought-out process.
SYMONDS: You mentioned Emily would maybe come to you with, “I’ve been digging this or that,” or you would do the same. What were some of those things, this time around?
JOHNSON: I think towards the end of the last record we got into Broadcast really hard. I’d heard them before and I liked them a lot, but Emily just devoured it. So it was maybe too late in the process of writing the record for it to shake down as much as we would have wanted it to. I don’t know if any of this comes across in the music at all—but another huge one was that I had some how never really discovered Talk Talk beyond their New Wave singles in the ’80s. So I got Laughing Stock.
SYMONDS: Oh wow, now that you’re saying that I can totally hear it.
JOHNSON: Cool, that’s so great to hear, that you can hear it. Yeah, I was just tired of hearing that Laughing Stock was a great record and not being able to understand how. I always liked those New Wave singles—the New Romantic stuff that they did in the ’80s—they’re good pop songs. You hear about Laughing Stock and it’s described in this monolithic—it’s up there with OK Computer and Dark Side of the Moon and stuff like that. So when I heard that record, I couldn’t not think about that, in terms of the way I wanted things to feel and all kinds of stuff. Those were probably the biggest ones on this record. This is an old influence, but we just finally got it out—DJ Shadow, in terms of the way he would make his drums sound. So with a song like “Play,” we wanted the drums to sounds almost a little bit like some old soul drum blues sample. It’s not like this record is going to sound like DJ Shadow, but we like those things and we’ll drop it in as we want to and then see what comes of that.
SYMONDS: That’s a really diverse group.
JOHNSON: We’re always still going to be the melodic, slightly noisy band. Even if we did something entirely different, I’m sure it would still draw comparisons to Pavement or something. But those are the kinds of things that we don’t even have to listen to because we heard it so much growing up.
SYMONDS: Right, they’ve sort of seeped into your blood at this point.
JOHNSON: Yeah. The things that are really exciting to us lately are things that we maybe overlooked when we were growing up, or new things. Or things that my parents ignored—like my parents were never big jazz people, and in the last 10 years or so, I got really into jazz.
SYMONDS: It must be the case that in order to grow, when you’ve been playing music for a long time, you must have to make some kind of conscious effort to listen to stuff beyond what you’re comfortable with.
JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. There’s no way I’m going to understand exactly what I’m hearing when I hear a Mingus record—or Talk Talk, even though that’s a much more familiar kind of rock. I don’t understand what I’m hearing. Even once I’ve heard the record a million times and even if it makes total sense to me, in terms of any kind of emulation—it’s entirely foreign.
SYMONDS: You were saying that because you’ve done this for quite some time now, you feel like you can dissect what you’re hearing when you hear it. Does that apply only when you hear new music, or does it also apply retroactively with things that you grew up with?
JOHNSON: It applies mostly to new music, in that it’s maybe more strikingly obvious because you’re doing the same things at the same time and you’ve heard the other stuff so many times without thinking about that. When I listen to an old record—I used to wonder how they do this, or why the record as a whole had this particular vibe to it. Now it seems more like they caught lightning in a bottle, instead of, “Oh, they sat down and they figured out every little keyboard squiggle and weird feedback burst.” Now I know that they probably smoked a lot of pot—depending on the record—and they went nuts in the studio for two weeks and then they had somebody they trusted to mix it and filter out what was going in and out of the sound that the listener would hear. But it’s still much more of a visceral reaction that makes it a lot harder to feel really romantically struck by any record. It’s kind of sad, because after a certain point you just can’t hear new music in the same way. But maybe you can hear it in another way that’s just as cool. It’s just different.
SYMONDS: Do you think your day job making effects pedals for Death by Audio contributes to this phenomenon too? The fact that you have a physical, technical understanding of how music is made in 2013?
JOHNSON: Right, like, I have an electrical understanding. I’m not the most knowledgeable about why sound does what it does, on a resistor or transistor level. But yeah, I think that’s definitely a part of it too. I’m dealing with circuit boards all day, and it maybe seems just a little bit less magical in certain ways. In another way, it kind of maybe is like, “All right, this tool is just that—it’s a tool. It’s not going to write a song for you, and it’s not going to write a song for anybody else.” When I hear an interesting sound on a record, I know that this is somebody who figured out how to use that thing really well.
SYMONDS: Right, it levels the playing field?
JOHNSON: Exactly. In a way, now that I build distortion pedals all day, when I hear an amazing guitar sound, it’s even more shocking and cool. But maybe it sends everybody above a certain notch up a level and everybody below that, including probably myself, down. It demystifies everything that’s below a certain level of innovation. I’m still blown away by guitar sounds on records that I find and love, and I just think it’s super impressive.
SYMONDS: There seems to be something lyrically in the record that’s resistant to a particular technological context. [laughs] It’s called Infinity Caller, and you talk on the record about talking on the phone. The only time that I talk on the phone anymore is when I do interviews on the phone, like right now.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I hate the phone [laughs].
SYMONDS: Yeah, I’m sorry!
JOHNSON: [laughs] This is fine. The [line about] a phone call is a reference to, if something serious were to happen to my family, they’re on the other side of the country and until I flew home, I would only be able to hear about it—and how lonely that can feel. Because I really love my family, but even then I still don’t talk on the phone to them nearly enough. I’ll send them a text message like, “Love you guys so much,” you know. I guess there’s another reference maybe to a Volvo on the record…
SYMONDS: Right, yeah.
JOHNSON: I still think they’re really cool cars but they’re not, you know, state-of-the-art in terms of fashion, I guess.
SYMONDS: Everyone’s family had a Volvo, too. I learned to drive in a Volvo.
JOHNSON: They’re supposedly the safest cars on the road and that song is about feeling safe and taken care of. I did try to stretch my reference points a little bit, and I think I still ended up repeating myself a lot more than I would have liked to from previous songs and albums. It’s fun to stretch what you’re referencing, and see how it makes you feel while you’re writing a song to think about this or that and see what direction that takes you in. A lot of the time, it kind of spills out and you maybe organize it. The record in general, I guess, a lot of it was me trying to cheer myself up instead of singing about things that I don’t like.
SYMONDS: Did it work?
JOHNSON: It did, actually. The last year or so has probably been one of the most peaceful—I mean, weird, but no matter what happened I still felt internally kind of okay. So I think it did work.
SYMONDS: Oh, that’s really nice to hear. How are you feeling about heading back out on tour?
JOHNSON: We’re doing three days next week with Clinic, then we’re going out for three weeks in October, and I’m actually really excited. I haven’t gone on a tour longer than a week or so since that first album, Rejoicer—we went out for four weeks, and it was terrible. It was unbelievably just like, “I can’t wait to get home,” in so many ways. I mean, I shouldn’t say it was terrible, but it was not like, “What a blast,” at the end or anything. I was dreading that, going into it. For whatever reason, [now] I feel really excited and curious and ready.
GROOMS’ INFINITY CALLER IS OUT NOW. THE BAND WILL PLAY AT GLASSLANDS IN BROOKLYN TONIGHT, SEPTEMBER 16. FOR MORE ON GROOMS, PLEASE VISIT THEIR BANDCAMP.