There was a time, not too long ago, when we consistently bemoaned the sub-par quality of the bands coming out of New York City. It was, we felt, all style over substance, and it sort of irked us that this was at the time when the national spotlight was pointed straight at us. Now, however, things are starting to change. There are so many good bands popping up around here that we’ve actually stopped checking Craigslist for apartments in Philly. One such example is the Muggabears, who are just getting started, but have already showed us enough that we’ve gladly added them to our list of bands to watch.
The L Magazine: Could you talk a little about how you wound up in New York, after getting your start down in Dallas? Travis Johnson: I went to school at the University of Oklahoma and was playing under the same name with some other guys who I’m still great friends with. And as much as I loved playing with them, I knew we’d never, ever be what we wanted to be in Norman, Oklahoma or Dallas, Texas, so I moved up here with Kevin Frost, who I started the band with a long time ago, and proceeded to get my ass kicked by gear theft and unemployment. I had been dating Emily, who also went to U.O., for about a year at this point, and she started playing bass with us. We found Kevin Murphy through Craigslist, which is extremely lucky, since he clicked musically and personality-wise with us pretty much right away. After we recorded the EP, we became a three-piece (I hear studio breakups are fairly common), and I’m now the only original member.
The L: That EP is your only recorded output, which is certainly understandable considering the relatively short amount of time you’ve been together. But in actuality, it’s become common to see bands misguidedly jump into much larger endeavors earlier on in their career. Has this been a conscious decision on your part, to follow the lead of bands from decades past and start small? And do you have any thoughts on this new way of doing things? Emily Ambruso: When we recorded Teenage Cop we had been a band together for less than a year. We also had/have no money and the EP was paid for with holiday gift money and apartment deposits. We were just really proud of the songs we had written together at that point and wanted to get them recorded. Making a full-length wasn’t even discussed. Of course, now we talk about it a lot. TJ: It was definitely a conscious decision to start small, recording-wise, this time around, starting over in New York. It wasn’t so much the old school indie 7’’ model that we were following, though I think we all like that model. We wanted to be able to do the songs well, with enough focus devoted to everything. But maybe more than anything, it was a financial constraint that forced the EP vs. LP.
The L: Your sound is influenced by a lot of the noisy indie rock that had its day back in the 90s. I hear Pavement, and I hear Sonic Youth. What is it, specifically, about those bands that wound up leaving such a mark on you? TJ: Pavement and Sonic Youth, along with a few others like Centro-matic, just make such an impact on you when you’re 15-16 and completely bored with radio, and still have nowhere else to go. Hearing Slanted and Enchanted and realizing how emotive, sad, rockin’, or fun something could still be even if it’s recorded on the cheap was important, as was realizing how communicative noise could be with Sonic Youth. I think they just got to us at the right time, or at least me. The time when you don’t like anything you hear and you need some kind of identity. And with all of those bands, the lyrics are generally vague enough for you to adopt them as your own and still feel sung-to when you listen to them. Bands like Pavement are probably getting cited as influences so much again because most of the bigger indie stuff these days has a level of sheen and sometimes even rote-sexiness to it that was almost completely absent in Pavement, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Centro-matic, etc. EA: Growing up I watched 120 Minutes every Sunday and built my CD collection from that. That’s how I found out about every band I love. I also thought Matt Pinfield was neato. You can’t stop writers from comparing bands to other bands especially if it has been written about you before. If you’re noisy at all, there’s always a Sonic Youth comparison. Nothing we do is intentional. We like pop music and we like noise. And we show it.
The L: Your songs are all driven by melodies that are, at their heart, pretty simple, yet really catchy. The accompanying instrumentation, though, is decidedly less straightforward — manipulated by various effects and interesting guitar sounds, ultimately keeping the songs from being viewed merely as pop songs. Is this something you try consciously to do, or is it just something that happens naturally when you play together? TJ: Some if it is conscious. I love the idea of a great pop song that is just completely damaged. A lot of it too is that with the instrumentation being less straightforward, sometimes really noisy or really chaotic or whatever, it would feel really lazy to just write these chaotic melodies on top of them. It wouldn’t be fun, or challenging enough, so we work on making the pop melodies stand out against the music just as much as we work on the music itself. It feels like you can say more that way, with that conflict. So I guess it’s natural to us, as three musicians playing together, to want that feel in the music, and we work on it in a pretty natural way as a team. Kevin Murphy: It’s definitely a conscious decision. We just played an eight-song set with six tunings. We talk about a song or a set or an album as having all these great moments, some of which are very fleeting where you’re listening and you kind of look up and smile.
The L: What are the band’s plans for the next year or so? Tours, new records, looking for a label? EA: We’re doing a three- or four-date East Coast “tour” thing in November. We are definitely concentrating more on writing more songs and putting them out there via a label or whatever. KM: Continuing to write more songs, and search for someone to help us go in and spend a couple of weeks in the studio. It’s exciting to have an EP come out and have there be a positive reaction to it, but we know that the newer songs are even better.