Brooklyn’s Babies Built a House in LA
ABOVE: KEVIN MORBY (SECOND FROM LEFT), CASSIE RAMONE (SECOND FROM RIGHT) AND THEIR BABIES BANDMATES.
The hard-not-to-love garage-pop quartet The Babies represent 21st-century Northwest Brooklyn through and through: the band was born in Williamsburg and Bushwick, and founding members Cassie Ramone and Kevin Morby are best known for their associations with two indie essentials of the past decade, Vivian Girls and Woods. And yet it was that other coast’s rock enclave, the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, that gave birth to The Babies’ new second album, Our House On The Hill, as well as its title.
A temporary band relocation there in 2011 [The Babies’ lineup also includes drummer Justin Sullivan and bassist Brian Schleyer], and an LA recording session earlier this year, resulted in a record that is more focused and 50 percent less ramshackle than the band’s self-titled debut, which was largely a collection of singles. And while there are plenty of rocking moments—driving single “Moonlight Mile,” Ramone’s “Baby”—there’s a new wistful and folkier side on display as well, on the acoustic charmer “Mean” and “That Boy,” with its damaged, heartfelt shades of The Velvet Underground. Our House On The Hill is an undeniable step up, and another reason to make some room in your life for the band. And, West Coast inspirations aside, where else could we meet up with Morby and Ramone but Brooklyn? In keeping with the “familial” vibe, our chat with The Babies took place at Daddy’s, a certifiable indie hangout.
JOHN NORRIS: Hey guys! Second album—does it feel different this time, does it feel like there’s less need to introduce yourselves to people? And is there less of a tendency for people to refer to you as “Woods’ Kevin Morby” or “Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone?”
KEVIN MORBY: A little bit. But we’ll still show up to a show and the little quote that they’ll have is “Brooklyn lo-fi side project of….” Which is a little annoying, and I understand why people do it. But at the same time, it is going away a little bit. I feel like that with this record, we’re looked at as more legit in people’s eyes or something. The fact that we’re putting effort into a second album.
NORRIS: Speaking to the “lo-fi-ness,” it’s something that people almost reflexively write about the band. Do you think this record is gonna work against that a little bit, and was that even a thought in your mind in terms of the sound of the record?
MORBY: I mean, aesthetically I wanted it to sound crisper, but not in any sort of way of, “We’ve gotta get away from these assumptions that we’re a lo-fi band,” or whatever. People can think whatever they want about it, I don’t really care.
CASSIE RAMONE: I have problems with the word lo-fi, because it’s sort of like the term “hipster” in the way that it’s used to describe things. It’s kind of almost always used as a derogatory term, in the same way that “hipster” is. People can think what they want to think, like Kevin said, but I don’t think this record is lo-fi at all. And if it was, I don’t think that really matters. I like a lot of lo-fi music, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being lo-fi.
MORBY: I feel like no one would give a shit about it except for the fact that it was called lo-fi in the first place. If it wasn’t ever called lo-fi, people wouldn’t be paying attention to what the fidelity sounds like. No one calls Beatles or Stones albums “lo-fi” albums, you know? Although they sound as lo-fi as anything else.
RAMONE: Exactly. And also our producer Rob Barbato, who recorded and produced our album, he really loves clean music, and he prides himself on making these cleaner, crisper recordings.
NORRIS: In any case, it’s not something to worry about too much.
MORBY: Like with the term “hipster,” I don’t give a shit anymore, I’m so far past the point of caring if someone thinks I’m a hipster or not.
RAMONE: It’s gotten to where I’m proud to be a hipster. I decided to own it.
NORRIS: Well, back in the mid-aughts, when people were really using that term a lot, was when you guys first met.
RAMONE: Yeah, we met at a punk house, in I think 2007, The Fort in Crown Heights. And I don’t remember what was going on there exactly, but I know that after the show me and [Vivian Girls’] Katy Goodman and Kevin and Pete from The Good Good, we all went to the Court Square Diner together. And then Kevin and I got into a fight about Courtney Love.
NORRIS: Pro, con?
RAMONE: I was pro. I was like, “Courtney Love is so awesome, I love her. I love Hole.” Kevin was like, “No, she’s crazy!” And I was like, “No, she’s great!”
NORRIS: Not that crazy and great are mutually exclusive.
RAMONE: Yeah, but I just love her! No matter how crazy she gets, I just love her, sorry.
MORBY: I think my thinking has probably changed since then. I was 18 at the time.
NORRIS: Yeah, I think Hole were amazing too, are amazing. But when she has one of her moments and talks shit about people, I don’t know.
RAMONE: Yeah I don’t like some of that either, but I’m just happy there are characters in the world. I think that anybody who’s completely nuts and makes the world a more interesting place is good by me, as long as they’re not hurting others.
NORRIS: One of the headlines about this record is that you guys went out to LA in February. Did you spend like a month there?
MORBY: No, just like two weeks. But the year before, we had lived out there for about two months. Our first record had just come out, and we sort of toured down the West Coast, we landed in LA. And we sublet a place, Cassie, Justin, and I. And we stayed out there in a house on a hill, which is where the album title came from. It was on a street in Echo Park called Cerro Gordo, which translates to “fat hill,” and it was a very, very steep hill.
NORRIS: So did you begin writing a lot of these songs there?
MORBY: A little bit. I think just that move in general, for Justin, Cassie, and I, really solidified the band in a way. It was just kind of a band move, and there wasn’t any real goal in doing it, other than being a band that moved somewhere, and had this house together. And I did end up writing a lot of songs that made it on this album.
RAMONE: We got really creative when we were out there.
MORBY: But we weren’t recording that time around, so we kind of laid the foundation for the record with all that, and then a year later went and recorded.
NORRIS: You think it’s fair to say this is a more melancholy record? Or at least in places?
MORBY: Yeah I think so. The first record was a sunny, bright record for the most part. But why that is this time, I don’t really know.
NORRIS: Cassie one of your songs on the album, “Baby,” has been around for a while.
RAMONE: Yeah, actually it’s a song I recorded for my solo album in May of 2010, and unfortunately that album never came out, because of complications with the record label and stuff. But then Kevin heard the song, and he really liked it, and he was like, “We should make this into a Babies song.” And once I was positive my solo album wouldn’t come out, I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
NORRIS: Will you write songs specifically to be solo things, or will they maybe end up as Babies songs?
RAMONE: I don’t ever write with anything in mind, I just kind of write and I see how I feel about it when it’s over. Some songs like, it depends on the instrumentation. If I think a song would sound good with male vocals or Kevin’s style of guitar playing, it’s like, “It should be a Babies song” or if it’s really loud, it’s like, “Yeah, it should be a Vivian Girls song.” And I’ve been writing a lot quieter songs and more experimental songs. So those probably won’t work for either band. But then again, everything’s flexible, you never know.
NORRIS: But there will be a solo record at some point, you think?
RAMONE: I think so. I think I’m going to try and work on that next year.
NORRIS: So is it always that you write separately, or is there collaborative writing too?
RAMONE: There definitely is collaborative writing, it’s different for every song.
MORBY: Yeah, a lot of the songs I will write on my own, a lot of them Cassie and I will get together with the purpose of writing a song, or bringing a riff, and riffing off that riff. Or, some of the songs just me and Justin write together, and then we bring it all together.
NORRIS: And your “Baby” video involves some karaoke?
RAMONE: Yeah! My best friend and very talented director Timothy Fiore did the video. It was shot at Union Pool. And the concept is, I am doing karaoke in an empty room to my own song. I don’t know if you know this, but one of my lifelong dreams is to have one of my songs on a karaoke playlist!
NORRIS: I’m actually surprised a Vivian Girls song hasn’t made it onto one.
RAMONE: You should write a letter! I just really want to be able to walk into a karaoke bar when I’m like 50 years old, do my own song, and then walk out. I think that would be really fun.
THE BABIES’ OUR HOUSE ON THE HILL IS OUT TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 13. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.