Notes from the Brink – Reintroducing The Love Language
It’s become a familiar story in recent years: The heartbroken singer pours his sorrows into a spontaneous, cheaply recorded album. Via the Internet, it strikes an unexpected chord with indie music fans. Caught off guard, our hero has to throw together a band and tour before the spotlight roves on. Think Bon Iver, Wavves, the Antlers. In each case, there’s a charmed period when you exist as pure potential. Everybody loves you, but with a certain provisional expectancy. Suddenly, you have to decide how you want to portray yourself, almost cynically, in marked contrast to the soul-searching experience of making the album in the first place. Emphasis shifts from intuition to action. Your foot is in the door; you are not.
The Love Language, a 7-piece band based in Chapel Hill, is an ideal case study in how the world looks from inside that tenuous bubble. Everything is distended, curved, deformed to strange proportions––your reputation, the public’s perception of your music, and your sense of urgency around playing pop songs. You’ve spent your whole life idly dreaming of the world paying attention to you, and suddenly, it is. This is disorienting, and musicians handle it in different ways. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon seemed to adapt fast, sliding easily into upscale magazine profiles and Starbucks compilations. Wavves’ Nathan Williams, on the other hand, performed a notorious show at Barcelona’s Primavera Music Festival that the media have branded a “meltdown.” These two cases illustrate the extremes The Love Language must navigate on their way from potential to solidity.
The members of the band, when I met them at their home and studio in Chapel Hill, seemed to have adapted a sort of alert resolve. In the broad, tree-filled yard of their country house, amid yellow skeins of falling leaves, they appeared casual yet somehow posed. The gray, serious weather made the scene look even more like one of those band photos where the subjects scatter out, in various postures of studied self-possession, each gaze tracing a different plane. They talked about their plans for the band at length and with great optimism, behind which lurked the tension of the pressures they faced, which manifested in carefully worded answers and a tendency to refine each other’s comments. Frontman Stuart McLamb was prone to saying things like, “You might want to edit this part down,” as if he were already writing the article in his mind. They’re focused on the new album, but alive to the intricacies of shaping their media image, which has already crystallized around a few biographical points.
You’re probably already familiar with the sound bites around the first album: How McLamb was kicked out of the band the Capulets (which included current members of The Love Language), and later trashed their studio on a bad drunk; how a break-up and continued binge drinking landed him back as his parents’ house, where he recorded the self-titled Love Language debut as a one-man band, filled with cryptic autobiographical songs about destructive love. The album he began in 2006, recording on faulty equipment because it was at hand, was released on Bladen County Records in 2009, after a friend of McLamb’s played the demos in a record store where he worked, where it was overheard by a cousin of the label’s owner. All of this happened when lo-fi pop-rock music happened to be enjoying a resurgence of indie cachet, and McLamb’s songs, buried in buckets of reverb and stinging guitars, aligned with the trend. The record drew rapturous comparisons to Big Star, the Arcade Fire, and Guided by Voices.
But the bullet points that sold the first album have become obsolete. The drunken loner is now a professionally minded bandleader. His first big break came when Ivan Howard, after hearing the songs on Myspace, asked McLamb to open for the Rosebuds. McLamb quickly agreed, allowing Howard to believe that he already had a band put together. He quickly assembled the current roster of the Love Language, whose personalities immediately began to transform the songs. And the lo-fi quality of the first album was circumstantial; McLamb simply wanted to make the kind of classic but mysterious-sounding rock and soul music he liked, and the new songs will enjoy higher quality recordings. The debut’s substantial songwriting earned praise, but style garnered the attention in the first place. On their first proper album, for Merge Records, The Love Language will find out whether substance alone––sans mystique––can keep people’s attention.
Even as a seven-piece band, The Love Language’s live show retains a scrappy, ramshackle feel. The members, with old friendships full of twists and turns, have a long-honed sense of individualism within the collective. The live music has a great camaraderie, but also a working-stuff-out quality, a slight push and pull. Despite their shared history––several grew up playing in different bands together, while keyboardist Kate Thompson and bassist Josh Pope are a couple––the members of The Love Language come at the band from very different places. Most of them have had a brush with giving up music, seeming both grateful and a little surprised to find themselves on the edge of being working musicians.
Thompson is new to the band thing, having grown up in a classical tradition. 24 years old, with razor-straight bangs fringing enormous eyes, she’s a stylish foil to the boys’ more laconic band-guy appearances. Thompson is still finding her feet in the strange world of hipster rock. She used to be a violist in a youth symphony, and sang in a chapel choir. She studied music at UNC-Asheville, but decided that it was an immature goal she’d grow out of, and left the program to study psychology. Pope was a customer at a coffee shop where she worked, and after they began dating, he dragooned her into the band life. (They have another project together called The Light Pines, a hyper-arranged new-wave counterpoint to the Love Language’s chaotic pop-rock.) At first, she was disoriented by the lack of sheet music and conductors; the lighter strictures of pop music were alien to her. This led her to underplay her parts, although the whole band marvels at how much she’s come out of her shell in only a year-and-a-half.
Josh Pope, on the other hand, has been playing in bands with Love Language drummer Tom Simpson since they were childhood neighbors; they were also in The Capulets together with McLamb. Pope has a boyish Southern smile, courtly manners with a rocker edge, and a businesslike air; he and McLamb gently vie for the role of band spokesperson, although Pope gladly cedes authority over the direction of The Love Language to McLamb. Including two songwriters in its ranks was a point of friction for The Capulets; there was a period after the band’s break-up when Pope and McLamb didn’t speak. Pope didn’t even know about The Love Language until he heard, and was impressed by, “Lalita,” on McLamb’s Myspace page. Pope says doing his songs in The Light Pines, which McLamb also plays in, and McLamb’s in The Love Language, alleviates the competitive streak that has always informed their friendship and driven their songwriting ambitions. They started their musical career together in middle school, when a cool social studies teacher hooked them up together to play the talent show, where they billed themselves Caffeine and played Smashing Pumpkins’ “Soma.”
Pope is in the National Guard, and was on his way to a military career after essentially closing the book on music. But he was medically discharged for hernias, had surgery, and four days later traveled with The Love Language to Austin for their 2009 show at SXSW, where the buzz began in earnest. Shortly later, many of Pope’s former colleagues were deployed to Iraq. Only the hernias put him in Austin instead. They also led to the house where several members of the band live, and where they’ll record their next album––they spotted it while taking Pope to the hospital for surgery. A chain of serendipities seems to have led The Love Language to this moment.
McLamb, now 29, regards the Love Language as his last shot at musical success, and pursues it with due diligence––in a way, he courts serendipity. I suddenly remembered meeting him for the first time, a couple years ago, when he walked up to me in a rock club and handed me the Love Language demos, with a rather mysterious air. It was as if he just sensed I was a music journalist somehow. He’s tall and thin, with softly chiseled cheekbones, and a sort of lanky insouciance. When we met, he wore acid washed jeans, a standard-issue cowboy shirt, and white sneakers. A bright red cut traced over one of his nostrils, shiny with ointment, where he was bitten by a Chihuahua while working the door at a local rock club the previous night. “My lo-fi nose,” he quipped, arriving as the band discussed the burden and benefits of the tag.
McLamb is a hard guy to put your finger on––he seems at once sincere and on the make, suave and kind of goofy. Before he joined The Capulets, he spent his time writing “these horrible Spinal Tap rock songs" in a band he called Electric Penguin Acid Test. “Jersey rock,” he described it. “A wall in my friend’s dorm room in college got vandalized by these beer-bonging Jersey boys, and that birthed this band about outer space and Jersey and rocking. I didn’t take songwriting seriously.” It was a far cry from the graceful, delicate music he loves and can write, indicative of this self-defeating period of his life, and this seems to make his craving for success now all the more acute.
When McLamb sent his demos to Merge Records, he impulsively included a dozen white roses in the package (which, incidentally, connote innocence and purity). “I’d have all these crazy ideas late at night,” he remembered. “I used to work at Papa John’s in college and thought about dressing up as a pizza guy, getting into the Merge office, and making them listen to the demo.” McLamb received a standard response letter in reply, addressed, rather pointedly, to “Stuart LcLame.” Nevertheless, a few weeks later, Merge’s Mac McCaughan posted on his Myspace page that he was listening to a Love Language song, and came to one of their shows. It was arranged for the band to leave Bladen County for Merge (McCaughan already knew the label’s owner, Matt Brown, who played in Merge band Ashley Stove).
The Merge album is slated for early 2010, and the recording will begin after CMJ. While the whole band is participating in shaping the new songs, McLamb has final approval over everything. “It’s a respect issue,” explained Pope. “Stu paid his dues on this, with eight or nine months of getting the band built up.” They still don’t have studio-quality gear, but the point isn’t to make a slick album––it’s about making a better-sounding one within their means. Pope has spent five or six years teaching himself about recording, and serves as the unofficial engineer for the Drug Horse Collective of which The Love Language is a part, along with The Light Pines, Max Indian, Mount Moriah, Justin Williams, Ryan Gustafson, Jeff Crawford, and Josh Moore.
Like The Love Language, Drug Horse is mostly potential at the moment. There is a website and a live showcase on the way. But right now, the collective is united by friendship, a commitment to DIY recording, and a common aesthetic––a sort of rootsy yet commercial pop inclination, with deep roots in classic rock, soul, pop, and folk. Bands outside of major centers like Brooklyn, Pope noted, need to consolidate, increasing their surface area, to stand a chance in the media. The hope is that Drug Horse will enable domino effects––when one band in it gets a good break, the others benefit by association. The Love Language is currently the most high-profile band in the collective, and with its establishment, there’s even more riding on their moves from here.
The challenge for the new album, beyond learning to work as a band, is for McLamb to figure out what to write about, now that his heartsick debut is out of the way. Pope opined that there are two types of songwriters, lyrical and melodic––Bob Dylan and the Beatles, basically. McLamb falls in the Beatles school, where melody leads the way, and lyrics fit into place later. The few demos I was able to hear confirm that McLamb hasn’t lost his touch for striking vocal melodies and haunting tone, but the real question is how the songs will sound once they’re properly recorded, and whether or not fans who love the band as a lo-fi thing will accept them.
“I’ll be honest, it’s tough,” McLamb said of writing the new songs. “I find I write the best when I can open up, instead of trying to write about what’s in me. When I sit down and try to write something I usually don’t like it, but when I listen to the music and hear things, receive them, and let them come through, I can admire them almost like they’re something I just found.” The question is whether McLamb will be able to maintain this sense of ghostly transmission he’s intent on while working in a more deliberate, collaborative, and professional manner.
But all of this is still up in the air. Right now, the band members are mostly still working service class jobs, living cheaply, making sacrifices, and focused on charting a path toward leaving that makeshift lifestyle behind. Drummer Tom Simpson lives in a “closet” in Carrboro, but still commutes to work at a chain bookstore several towns over because they let him leave for tour. Pope’s working at the well-known Chapel Hill rock club the Cat’s Cradle, McLamb at the Local 506. Thompson is still making coffee. The money doesn’t go far in a seven-piece band. Thompson’s idea of “making it” is “rent paid, bills paid, eating, maybe a new dress.” “Don’t mention these acid-washed jeans,” McLamb interrupts––oops.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to make this record,” he said finally, “but it’s going to be a bitch to make. I just want to get it done, cement the fan base, and then do a weird-ass third record.” In 2009, the desire to skip right over the dreamlike expanse between hype and reality, into the calmer seas of album number three, is entirely understandable.
*Photos on pgs 1, 2, 4 & 5 by DL Anderson. Check The Love Language out on their myspace page.
**For more by Brian Howe on Fanzine click here.