This Saturday at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue; 314-773-0744), Pretty Little Empire will release its third album, and it is, perhaps, the clearest distillation of the local band's many powers. Anchored by Justin Johnson's insistent guitar strums and full-bodied songwriting, the quartet makes music to match the emotional intensity of its lyrics. With this self-titled LP, the band has broadened its sonic palette while capturing some of the energy of its must-see live show. Over coffee on a Saturday morning in early October, Johnson and bassist Sean McElroy talked with RFT Music about the process of recording the new album and the evolution from Pretty Little Empire's more rootsy beginnings.
Christian Schaeffer: It seems like this record has been written and recorded for some time before its release date. Take me back to the genesis of these recordings -- what was the process like getting the third record ready and produced?
Justin Johnson: In the beginning of things, we had a decent amount of new songs. So we did a demo with David [Beeman, producer and proprietor of Native Sound Studio], just one song to see what it would be like working with him. It felt really good, so we came in at just live, played fifteenor sixteen songs. But as we started recording with him, it turned out that the songs we thought would be really cool -- once we recorded them -- they didn't sound as cool. Through working with David, we really wanted him to produce and help shape the record. So I guess we recorded some songs and re-recorded song, and new songs started popping up. It was probably a year in the studio. We must have went into the studio 40 or 50 times to record.
Sean McElroy: There was a lot of abandoning things altogether -- stuff we had worked a good amount of time on that we just completely got rid of. Also, at the same time, some stuff that we had gotten together maybe days before we recorded it. Stuff wasn't 100 percent thought out yet, and in the studio setting we would get more and more ideas. There's a lot of instrumentation on this record that we don't use live. It's definitely very much a studio record. We really, really wanted a fifth person's opinion recording this album. Everything we had done previous to this had just been in a total vacuum -- just the four of us having ideas. We needed a fresh perspective. It's a good thing that David Beeman is a really creative guy; he has a lot of good ideas.
JJ: You say you want somebody to really talk to you and give it to you straight; David's not gonna hold back. Which at times, you needed to swallow your pride, but in the end it really did make for a better experience recording, having someone there to say, "I don't really think you've thought this one through" or, "This kind of sounds like something you guys have done three times before."
Was it hard to give that over to somebody? You've been playing together for five years -- those relationships develop over time. Was that hard for you guys to give it over to a producer who just wasn't going to press "record"? Didn't David play on some of the tracks too?
JJ: David definitely played on some of the tracks, though he didn't want to be credited as a musician. It wasn't really hard for me; I can't speak for everybody else. For me personally, it was good for me because I hadn't really been a songwriter too long. I started playing guitar in college and started writing songs after that. So to have someone with more experience and offer instruction was nice and refreshing.
SM: There are some great songs that didn't make the record and maybe hopefully get worked out at some point. Because there's some excellent stuff.
I listened to the record and I like the way it's sequenced. I feel that there's a lot of intentionality from one track bleeding to the next, and there's kind of an ambiance to the recording that your last two albums didn't have. What was the intent with putting these ten songs together in the way that you did? How did you sequence a record that, again, sounds very intentional?
JJ: We knew that we wanted there to be a sequence. We wanted the record to go together. We knew that we had more songs than could fit on a record -- we knew that going into it. Some songs didn't feel right. Will [Godfred, guitar] worked with David really closely; Will produced the last two records. He could tell what felt right for the record. There was one song that we really liked but that Will didn't think fit the record. We kept recording it and recording it, and in the end we cut it because once you stacked the songs up, it stood out. I came from a film background -- so did Sean -- and it's like when you're putting sequences together in scenes, in the scheme of things when you're done, this scene feels like overkill, or that you've already explained everything. You don't need to add fillers, so we cut that out. When I listen to the other records, I can hear songs that didn't fit.
SM: Will was there every single day in the studio, so he has more weight in saying what goes in. If anyone has lived in this record, it's Will. All of Justin's songs work in this solo-acoustic format. Everything else -- the atmospherics -- that's Will's vision. He spearheaded that side of it.
Pretty Little Empire performing "Something More" at the Carousel Lounge in Austin, Texas, on March 15th, 2013.
It's been five years since the band has been together. Can you talk about how the band has changed in terms of playing together, or in the way that you write a song? When I heard your first record Sweet Sweet Hands, I put you more in an alt-country vein -- it reminded me a lot of those Theodore records. Listening to you now, that's kind of gone away.
SM: Man oh man, did we like Theodore.
SJ: When I first came to St. Louis, it wasn't my intention to make music. I was in Texas and came back to St. Louis. Sean and I were playing in a weird garage-rocky thing. I started working in this coffee house and Andy [Lashier, ex-Theodore, current Demonlover] and he invited me to come see his band. I went to see Theodore and was worried because I worked with him and thought, "Oh, what if this band sucks?" But then they played and I thought, "Are bands in St. Louis this good?" So I had a couple songs that were already written, but at the time, Theodore was our favorite band. I went to a ridiculous amount of Theodore shows. That band was a huge influence on that record, and probably we hated that fact after. We tried to intentionally distance ourselves from that fact.
SM: that record was not a response to Theodore, but that album wouldn't have existed if Theodore didn't exist. But the second album [Reasons & Rooms], when Evan [O'Neal, drums] joined the band, we could have kept the Sweet Sweet Hands sound, but Evan is such a great drummer and brings so much else to it. He's probably the best guitarist in the band, and he can play keyboards. If you've seen Amadeus, he's like Tom Hulce and I'm like F. Murray Abraham. I'm like, "You fucking bastard!"
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the last song on the record, "You Are the One." It's almost your simplest song in terms of construction, but it carries the most emotional weight on that album and in concert. What's the duality between that simple setup and a very potent result?
JJ: My wife will love this. [Laughs].There have been times where I've written songs and people have told me that it's a little close to the bone. My songwriting is pretty spontaneous -- it's a result of whatever is rolling around up there. That particular song was the sort of thing where my wife said that there wasn't a song about her. Some people hear it and say it's kind of a bittersweet song, but it's not really. It more came out of, like, I really want to write a simple song and play it for you. But then when we started playing it in the practice room, and, live, it became a more emotional song. So many people talked to us afterward -- live, I get more into it because I'm emotionally attached to that song. But in the studio, it wasn't captured. Even David, right off the bat, didn't see it being the big song on our record. We added more and more to it -- it didn't have that emotion. When you're in the studio you have your headphones on and you're in front of a mic, and that's always been my biggest problem. That song came from a very simple place -- writing a song for someone I care about.
SM: I remember working on that song session after session -- that one probably has the most amount of tracks on it. I think it just comes short of going over the top. It skirts that line, but that was the most fun song to work on. It probably took us the longest, too.
That calls to mind the dichotomy between being a live band and being a recording band, wouldn't you say? Seeing you live, you are an emotional singer and it's a visible experience to watch you sing, versus hearing it on record. As the frontman, with the focus on your words and your voice, that there's something different about making that recording in a room versus in a club?
JJ: It's a wildly different experience. I am the least skilled musician in this band. When we play live, I get lost in it. We can play a set and an hour feels like ten seconds. When we're onstage, over the course of four or five years I've been able to command myself. I can let go and it can be this raw, off-the-hinges moment.
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