Pretty Little Empire Marries Live Intensity with Refined Sonics on New LP
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.
Theo Welling for RFT
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.