When Traveling Sound Machine released its first EP in late 2014, the band was riding high on that initial blush of intimacy and excitement that attends new relationships. Within a week of playing its first show, the many-member band was in the studio working on what would become its self-titled record. If the group couldn't really figure out what it wanted to sound like — gypsy-pop? Indie-waltz? — that was part of the charm.
"With the first EP that we released, it was one of those situations where we really wanted to get the project going right away," lead singer and songwriter Steven Lickenbrock says. "With the first record, we definitely rushed into playing our first show and rushed into the recording. We didn't give it enough time to sit back and think about the songs and optimize them in any way."
If the band's first release was built on speed and assembled on the fly, its just-released follow-up The Time We Were Almost Swallowed by the Earth was borne of quite a bit more time and patience. It's just that the nearly four-year gap between releases was more than the band intended.
After accordion player Ena Selimovic left the band to focus on school, Traveling Sound Machine not only lost a key element of its klezmer- and Eastern European-styled pop; the band seemed to sputter out and stopped booking gigs.
Lickenbrock recalls that time as one of unrest and turmoil, both for his bandmates and for his own well-being.
"We basically stopped playing for a little bit — a lot of my bandmates were going through problems at the same time," he says. "I ended up getting diagnosed with a mental illness and I couldn't write anymore. I was going through this process of testing out certain medications. I was just spiraling out."
And while Lickenbrock makes no bones about the difficulty of righting his mental state, he found that the attendant insomnia was having a curious effect on his writing. "Over time, when I would go into this mode of no sleep, and when I would talk to my doctor or my friends or bandmates, and they would try to ask me to describe what I was feeling, I would go straight into metaphors to describe what I was feeling," Lickenbrock says.
Those metaphors, of fragile insects, trapped hummingbirds and busted elevators, found their way into a new batch of songs. Lickenbrock found his voice again, both as a singer and a songwriter, and the songs on Swallowed benefit from the focus on his journey through illness, confusion and doubt toward some hopeful resolution.
"It was one of those situations where I'm gonna try my best to say everything I wanna say in less words," says Lickenbrock. "We would go through and analyze everything and look for spots to trim it down."
If the goal was to pare back, the band didn't quite succeed; Swallowed feels overstuffed in places, and for a seven-track album it hits the listener more like a full-length than an EP. It is to Lickenbrock's credit that these thorny songs are performed in a captivating, unflinching fashion.
His bandmates offer a lithe, atmospheric backbone for these songs much of the time, with loose tendrils of Mellotron and open guitar chords providing a net. Elsewhere, Chris Kepley's trumpet pierces the air and the rhythm section asserts itself.
"I consider this more of a pop record," Lickenbrock says. "I use more pop elements, and I have more room to make this really colorful arrangement. That's something people don't do anymore, especially with this kind of music." Lickenbrock says that he leaned on Sparklehorse records quite a bit in making Swallowed. Mark Linkous' project also trafficked in warbly, vintage tones and fever-dream lyrics; he likewise battled with mental illness and ultimately committed suicide in 2010.
That connection isn't lost on Lickenbrock, and his ultimate motive for this album is to provide a space for those similarly afflicted to connect with the music. In concert, Lickenbrock says, it has already started to build a network of support.
"After shows and stuff, people are coming up to me and saying, 'I suffer from severe depression and these songs help me,'" says Lickenbrock. "It was almost like I wrote and built this image where I was able to capture these feelings that people have and they can't describe what it is."
For Lickenbrock, that kind of effect on listeners makes the gap between albums worth the wait.
"If you want to make an album that really has an impact, you have to be patient," he says.