Grooms, operating under the name "Muggabears" until last spring, has teetered on breaking into indie-rock's collective consciousness since frontman Travis Johnson came to New York five years ago to play unnerving, mutilated pop songs. The best part is, this sort of widespread success that could likely come their way by CMJ's end doesn't seem to be something they're all that interested in. The trio's new album is a nod to old-school indie-rock purism a nearly two-year project of crafting 10 creepily good songs to form their full-length debut. Rejoicer is out October 20 on Death by Audio Records. Travis sat down with us to, you know, talk about it.
The L Magazine:In a recent interview, you mentioned that the sound of this new album is new for you in a lot of ways. Can you elaborate on that?
Travis Johnson: Well, one thing–maybe it won't sound new to anybody else–they'll be like, "Oh, yeah, they're doing the same thing they always do"–but, for one, the production.
We recorded with Jeremy Scott, who recorded Vivian Girls and These Are Powers and bands that sound nothing like us, or like each other. And it sounded really cool. Then we mixed with Nicolas Vernhes over at Rare Book Room who did Animal Collective and stuff. And he's kind of a real tinkerer, so the drums sound totally different than we've had before. He kind of does this Joy Division-y drum sound, which I like a lot–especially for a band that doesn't sound too much like Joy Division. Which is kind of weird, actually, because a few times we've played, and people have said, "You guys sound like Joy Division," but I think it's because other people tell me I look like Ian Curtis. It only happens when they see us live, so I think that's maybe what it is. No one has ever said it about our recordings.
The L: So, the Sonic Youth and Pavement comparisons. They're pretty rampant. Is that starting to bother you? Are you wishing people could hear more in your music?
TJ: I do think it's definitely fair–I don't know to how big of an extent, but definitely to some extent. I definitely think we do things that neither of those bands have done, and they do things that we wouldn't really want to do. I think [with] a lot of the stuff on this new album I was definitely trying to forge not just comparisons to those bands but also to what we had done in the past. Like, instead of having a bunch of guitar noise here, what if we all screamed together in a room and then added these crazy keyboards? Which isn't totally unlike something Pavement might do, but instead of going to where we would naturally go and make it, like, "oh, badass guitar noise."
The L: Are there influences in your life right now that affected the new direction?
TJ: Well, let's see. I was really, really into everything the Dirty Projectors had done, up to the point when we were recording–not to say that the new album isn't good, I just hadn't heard it. In terms of the basic songs, a lot of times what I'm thinking is along the lines of a really great Beatles song almost: A really great, emotive chord progression that has a certain feel to it and a certain texture, but it makes you feel something too. It's not just noise, or it's not just a good song. It's both of those put together. The Beatles are an obvious influence. Well, not obvious, but everybody likes the Beatles, so?But then there are a lot of other bands like the Pastels. I was actually listening to a ton of Joy Division at the time, and the Smiths.
The L: I would say that this album has a little bit more focus on melody. I don't know if you would agree?
TJ: I think it does. Another thing too, I quit smoking, maybe two years ago. So that just enabled me to sing higher. Actually, to a certain extent, it was kind of weird. When we recorded vocals, we were like, "Is this good?" Usually there's some rasp in there. I almost felt like it sounded strange, but it enabled me to break out of that sing-speak/Lou Reed kind of thing a little bit more.
The L: When you're writing the noisy parts, do you pay attention to the compositional elements–stuff like notes and chord progression–as much as you would if you were writing a more traditional part?
TJ: How sculpted is the noise? I think it depends on the part. If you do that kind of thing enough, then you learn that if I do this with my guitar, it's going to make this kind of sound, this kind of feedback, this kind of rumble or whatever. It's usually fairly off-the-cuff though. There's the song "Acid King of Hell" where there's this solo-y thing in the middle, and there's all these layers of squiggly guitars on it. Literally, I just went in there, and someone was like, "Get squigglin'." I went into the room and did two or three tracks. I mean, I think it definitely has a feeling to it. I think it's fairly comparable–and this is going to sound super pretentious–to something like jazz. Even though I don't understand what I'm playing, I'm not just hitting random notes. And if ever Emily and Jim on the drums are just going nuts, we have a certain language that we've learned to speak with.
The L: I do have to ask about the name change. Did you just want something new?
TJ: That was kind of the reason: wanting something new. But, also, us just not really liking "The Muggabears" anymore. That was a name I came up with so long ago, and I just kinda kept using it. I didn't really think about it past a certain point. I think I came up with it when I was 19, and I was like, "Oh, that's a really cool name because it's all soft and cuddly, and the music that I'm making at that time is not." And also just because it's a ridiculous word. I don't think Emily ever liked it. The point of it, I guess, was to be kind of ironic. But it just didn't end up working that well. I mean, there was a time when we almost changed it in 2006–to Children, I think is what we were going to call it. And maybe we were going to call it Teenage Cop, which was the name of the first EP.
The L: So this is something that you've thought about for a while now.
TJ: Yeah, and the longer it goes on, the more you're like, "Well, we can't change it now." And then just knowing that we had this new album coming out we were like, "Maybe we can do it now, right this second, and it could be helpful." Obviously, right after the album comes out would be a really terrible time to change it.
The L: I came across an interview you did with The L back in '06 where you were asked why you decided to move to New York. You said you knew that if you were still in Oklahoma or Dallas, the band wouldn't ever be what you wanted it to be. So now, a few years removed from that, are you happy with where you are as a band? Are you happy you're in New York?
TJ: Well, as a band, it's really cool that anybody cares at all. Even when it's kind of frustrating when something's not happening, it's still really cool to just remember—We could be playing for nobody for the rest of our lives. As far as geography goes, this recent trip to Dallas that I just got back from today totally confirms that this is where I feel at home, musically and as far as friendships go. I think it offers the correct amount of challenge and, after you settle in, comfort. We're lucky to have friends that are encouraging to us, as far as our music goes. There are obviously tons of obstacles, but in so many other cities, I can't imagine?I know in certain cities–two of them, Oklahoma City and Dallas–we'd find people, and they'd be like, "You shouldn't really stay in this city." I think we feel pretty at home here; we've made a little bit of a nest for ourselves.
The L: Have you ever been recognized on the street? Is that weird for you?
TJ: It's not really weird. Well, it depends on how they do it. Some people are kinda creepy. I can remember this one guy, I was walking with Emily down the street, and he was just like "Emily and Travis." And I was like, "Huh?" And he was like, "Muggabears." Stuff like that. It's cool. But it doesn't happen very often. It's still really cool..
The L: How did you get involved in the whole Death by Audio clan?
TJ: Well, Emily lives there, so that was the main thing. Although she moved in because a couple people there had become fans of ours, I guess, and so that was how she found out about it. And we started practicing there–there's a practice space that all the people that live there use. And then this past March, after I got back from SXSW, I was super broke, and I told Oliver from A Place to Bury Strangers and Matt from this band Sisters, "If you guys have any work making pedals, I'm so broke, I would do anything." A few days later, Matt was like, "Hey, I have work if you need some."
The L: How do you think the Brooklyn music scene has changed since you first moved here?
TJ: It's definitely changed?but the way it's changed to me could just be what I know about now versus what I knew about then. I mean, at the time, I didn't really know much about places like Death by Audio. I remember going to shows at, like, Asterisk, and seeing A Place to Bury Strangers and not knowing who they were. But I think one thing I see a lot more of is electronic/free-form noise, and I don't know if that's really what's more popular right now or if just more people are doing it. I never really thought about it until right now–but maybe this happens every couple years where things get really revivalist almost, where it's like, "Let's just play really good rock n' roll, man." And then for a while it gets kind of weirder, and it seems like it's back again. As far as what's really big, there're a lot more bands that are playing normal rock n' roll. But there are a lot more bands than there seemed to be doing things like electronic noise too.
The L: Do you think indie rock is in a good place right now?
TJ: It's always been a fairly nebulous term. It's more impossible to define now than ever, if only because bands that are considered "indie" are going out and opening for really big bands, or they're playing regularly on Saturday Night Live. It used to be a big deal if a band that was considered indie was on Leno or something, and now it's really not that weird. I think that can be really good. The only thing that concerns me at all about it is this idea in everyone's minds, like, "Oh, we could be that. We could do that." And people might change what they're doing. It's like, "We're just a little bit too weird to do this, so if we do something that maybe we wouldn't normally do, there's a chance that we could do the talk show circuit."
I think ultimately I'll never be totally happy because when I was in high school and found anybody else who knew bands like Fugazi or something, I was like, "This is amazing!" And now bands who are much more "way out there" are way bigger than they ever were. It's kinda cool, but, looking back, there was something special about having these things that were private–that even some of my closest friends didn't like to ride in the car with me because they were like, "What are you listening to?" It was frustrating at the time, but it was so personal..
The L: How many times have you played CMJ now?
TJ: I think this will be our third time.
The L: Are CMJ shows any different than a normal show?
TJ: Well, they're shorter. They can be really, really cool. Sometimes, even when there's maybe only 20 or 30 people, which isn't that great of a turnout, for some reason it can still feel like a really good show. It can be really hit or miss. It's definitely not the same as SXSW, where you can't walk around without feeling this palpable industry thing in the air. Which the Northside Festival was actually kind of on the way to doing, which is kind of cool–by setting it all in this one area, which is how SXSW is. That's one thing that's kind of weird about CMJ. It's like, "Oh, it's a festival," and you're playing these kinda weird shows, but it still doesn't always feel like a festival..
The L: Are you excited to see anyone else you're playing with or any of the national acts? I think Atlas Sound is being tagged as the headliner?
TJ: Oh, is he playing? Awesome. Yeah, I would like to see them. I've seen Deerhunter a couple times, but I saw them in 2005 at a loft party. At that point, they were this band that not a lot of people there had really heard of yet. It was the first time in a long time that I had been genuinely freaked out about what I was watching. But in a really good way. I really kind of miss that a lot, but it's understandably rare. It's the same thing as being a kid and hearing a certain song and being like, "I like that, but it sounds like it's coming from a terrible, terrible place." But it was really engaging. I've been into them for a long time, just because of that one show.