After a long absence, Jumbling Towers is again gracing St. Louis stages with its hypnotic, carnivalesque indie rock. Singer, pianist and guitarist Joe DeBoer's vocal style is at turns manic, petulant, overwrought and seductive, but his suggestive, richly detailed lyrics assure that the band's songs go well beyond posturing.
The quartet first made waves with its 2007 self-titled debut and garnered praise from within the city and across the Internet on well-respected music blogs. The band's long-awaited new album, Kanetown City Rips, pairs mutant funk grooves, basement disco rhythms and distorted hip-hop beats with a story line concerning a band of self-ruled adolescents in a not-too-distant dystopian future. The concept is both ambitious and playful, and the album amplifies the traits that have made Jumbling Towers a magnetic and polarizing band in St. Louis. B-Sides sat on the Royale's patio for drinks and conversation with DeBoer, bassist Nate Drexler and drummer Louis Wall, who made his recorded debut on Kanetown. The band unpacked the evolution of its sound as well as the story behind the album's young protagonists.
B-Sides: There was a feeling a few years ago that Jumbling Towers was on hiatus when you moved to Tennessee, Nate.
Nate Drexler: I went off for a year, and we had a whole discussion: "We're not done being a band, but let's be honest — we're playing the same shows over and over. We're not really looking to tour nationally right now, we're not at a place where there's even a demand for that. So maybe this is a good time for me to step away and go to school, but we're still going." And that was kind of how I left it, and you guys picked up from there.
Louis Wall: Joe and I built a good relationship over a year working together, recording and getting our studio game together as best as we could.
And a lot of those tracks came from drum and piano?
Joe DeBoer: We had a totally different approach. We used to write all together, and then I guess I had some songs that I thought we should bring to Lou and see what happened with them. You can probably tell they're a little different than the first two [releases].
ND: It's way different, because, like you said, we used to sit in a storage unit or in a basement, all four of us, and one guy would present a riff, or just a chord progression, and we would go until it was a song. That was our first LP – that's how that happened — and [how] most of the [Classy Entertainment] EP [happened], too. So this is a totally different way of doing it.
It's interesting that you say your first songs were developed piece by piece, because your first album had a very defined sound.
JD: Just as much time went into the songwriting then, but the approach was, first off, it had to be good live, which is very difficult. It had to be high energy, so that's where all the yelping started. We had this little storage space, and if it didn't sound good in the storage space it was nixed. Probably a lot of pretty songs got nixed. [Laughs] A lot of time was spent on a riff, and the bulk of the song, part for part, it was just everybody grinding it out. And if it worked live, then we kinda stuck with it.
So the "pretty ones" got thrown out because they weren't being transmitted well in that particular setting?
JD: Really, the formula in that storage space was that Scott [Ingram, former drummer and an ex-RFT courier] needed to be ripping on his drums, and he would go crazy. I had to be just screaming, and the parts needed to mesh together well.
Joe, was your vocal style developed more out of necessity than intent? Because that's certainly the thing everybody talks about.
JD: I always wanted to have a cool voice, and I didn't traditionally.
ND: You should listen to some old tracks when he tried to have a cool voice. [Laughs]
JD: I think Kanetown is the album where the songwriting progressed in different ways. Ultimately, now that we're onto the new stuff, it will be viewed as sort of a branch off and an advancement in some areas and kind of its own thing.
LW: For the record, we don't ever stop writing. Each batch of 30 minutes of music is a new period or a new sound. Bands search for a sound, and we search for it [for] a couple songs, find it and then find a new sound.
For Kanetown City Rips, what does that sound look like?
LW: We had an ideal when we first started it, that this is our first go at creating something in our own room with our own gear. We obviously had limitations, but we decided to capitalize on those limitations. This is a world about some kids that were perhaps exiled from rural Detroit — we wrote out pages upon pages of back-story about these kids living on their own, building a nice society on their own terms.
JD: Which all started from Louis bringing a totally different percussion vibe to the room. It kinda sounded like old street beats when I first got with him. I needed a fresh approach. Lyrically, I was so far from writing what I normally do, so I needed something to go off, so that's where that whole concept spawned from.
LW: We approached it like somebody else was writing it, that these kids — maybe they're in the forest or a burnt-out urban zone or something like that — and they were creating this stuff with broken instruments and gear that's totally fucked.
JD: It sounds really childish. We actually tried to write songs that the kids would write after this concept evolved.
LW: So Kanetown City is their place, and the Rips is their nickname for themselves.
Is the plot more Children of the Corn or Lord of the Flies?
LW: Lord of the Flies is the closest, definitely.
ND: Or Newsies meets Hook with Dustin Hoffman. [Laughs]
LW: If all those newsies got stranded in Lord of the Flies...
JD: I wish we had documented what we thought up when we were in the thick of this. [Laughs]