Over the past seven years and four LP’s, Boston’s The Hush Now have delivered a remarkably consistent catalog of intelligent and captivating indie pop. The band’s latest offering, Sparkle Drive, released just last week finds the quartet delivering their most diverse and engaging album to date. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the bands founder, Noel Kelly about the recording of the band’s new album, the collaborative process, and their record release show happening this Sunday at The Davis Square Theater.
Bryan Hamill: On Sunday you and your bands mates will celebrate the release of your new album Sparkle Drive, the album sounds to me as a true collaborative affair. Can you tell me what the writing process was for the album?
Noel Kelly: Overall, the writing process with this line-up has always been collaborative. But this particular album has been a long time coming. Immediately following our Memos tour a couple years ago I came down with a pretty nasty dose of the chicken pox. I remember lying in ball on the floor of my apartment in isolation and having dropped about 30 pounds in 2 weeks thinking I wasn’t going to make it through. It took quite a toll and really knocked the wind out of any momentum we had with the release of Memos. When I eventually recovered and we could get back together as a group, we each brought sketches to a listening session. Thinking back, there must have been over 70 ideas bounced around between all of us. We eventually whittled that bunch down to about 22 songs which we recorded over the course of 18 months between Mad Oak and Q Division. We definitely started to feel a stronger, singular voice for the album as we worked through the process. For example, of the initial 13 tunes we recorded, only 3 made the album in the end. All that being said, once we start working on tunes as a group, that’s when the song really starts to come to life. We really do feed off one another and it is a joy to work with other musicians that listen to each other and who create opportunities musically for each other, knowing when to step forward or lay back with the song being the final arbiter of what makes sense. It does seem to come quite naturally for this group.
Bryan: With other members of the band contributing material to Sparkle Drive as they did on Memos how do you as a band decide what songs end up making the record?
Noel: There are many factors that go into choosing what songs make a record. The first usually is the strength of each song to stand on its own. But that is then weighed against how a song exists within the whole. Does it fit on a record? It might be a terrific song, but doesn’t make sense when placed in context with the other songs on the album. So there is a bit of that. However, on this album, another key factor was that I wanted to showcase the different vocals from each member of the band. Past efforts have been predominately my vocals, which was the logical progression at the time. But Pat, Barry and Adam are also terrific vocalists in their own regard. We flirted with this notion on Memos a little bit, but I wanted to really try and create an album that had more diversity to it while maintaining a solid core or vibe. So there was an intentional effort to have songs sung by each member of the band on this album. I sing lead on 4 tunes, Barry is lead on 3, Adam has 3 tunes and opens the album with Panda, and Pat is showcased for the first time on Spyglass.There was the conscious risk that this might alienate some fans, but I really saw the future of the band as something much more interesting by embracing this variety. I guess I must have been listening to The Band a lot at the time.
Bryan: Once again you chose to record with Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios in Allston, what was the recording experience like this time around?
Noel: It’s always a pleasure working with Benny and Jeff Lipton at Peerless Mastering. The recording sessions were broken out over 18 months. I think I probably drove poor Benny nuts. We were all very proud of Memos. It’s an amazing sounding album, but we wanted to move away from the big stadium sound and Benny had to navigate us through as we found our feet with a sound that we truly wanted. He was always professional through all the revisions and turns of direction that I threw at him. I really dug in on this album, most likely because we weren’t playing out live and I had way too much time on my hands. I just didn’t have energy for live shows after the pox and spent most waking hours pouring over this album. In the end, I think Benny knocked it out of the park. I’m so proud of this effort and only Benny could have seen it through. Although I can honestly say that not only Benny, but the rest of the guys in the band were relieved when I settled on final mixes. It was sort of a running joke, that I was the only one listening to the updated mixes in the end. There does come a point where you just get burned out on the process and Jeff Lipton didn’t escape either. I think I had him do 3 different versions of the masters over a couple months. Again, Benny and Jeff helped us realize the vision of this album and I can’t praise them highly enough. I’ve since apologized to all for putting them through my madness. But I definitely had a vision for this album and was aware of the perils of introducing 4 different lead vocals and still have the album work organically. There was a huge risk that it could come off sounding disjointed in an indecisive patchwork fashion. I think it’s our finest effort to date.
Bryan: Sparkle Drive seems to be an even more varied song cycle than it’s, predecessor. What do you attribute that to?
Noel: I personally think there’s always been a lot of variety in our albums. From our first release to Constellations. Memos was a bit more of a straightforward affair, but even on that album there was a tune like Sitting on a Slow Clock. I think what makes this album seem more varied though comes specifically from the fact that more people were directly involved in the songwriting. I would not have written a song like Panda which Adam penned or Just Because You Can, which is a Barry tune. Thinking back, Slow Clock, from Memos evolved from a Barry tune although I’m singing lead on it. So, yes, having different folks offer their ideas to the song catalogue is a big reason for the sense of variety. What’s interesting with this is, just because somebody wrote a song, doesn’t mean that person sings lead on the tune. For example, I came in with the germ ideas for Parade and Spyglass, but it made much more sense for Barry and Pat to sing on those songs. And I think, as mentioned previously, this is the other main reason why there is a greater sense of variety with the album. Just more interesting, diverse and unique vocals across the board. Adam has an almost Neil Young quavering quality to his vocal approach which I love, Barry brings a David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) vibe and Pat is flirting with an almost John Lennon feel. Add my Irish-Morrisey like croon (not my comparison, but I’ve been told this is the case) and it’s a very interesting mix. I think our vocals work very well together. It also brings a much richer dynamic for background vocals.
Bryan: How do you feel The Hush Now has evolved in the 3 years since you released your last LP, Memos?
Noel: Well, we’ve all gotten a bit older. I’ve personally slowed down a bit. Honestly, I don’t feel a need to chase the dream, anymore. Sure, it seemed futile in some respects, but it’s also the realization that what truly makes me happy is writing and recording music, which I’m doing. And with a great set of musicians and friends. I don’t need any validation beyond that. I used to think I did, if I’m being honest, but not any longer. So I think that has driven the evolution of the band somewhat. Also, by not touring the last couple of years, we really learned a lot more about ourselves as a group and have tightened our collective approach to our music. We no longer have a keyboardist and I think that really opened room for Adam and me to fill the space sonically, at least on this album. We’re at a point where we can walk into a room after months apart and within 30 minutes, be right back on point with a new tune springing to life. You don’t find that with a lot of folks. It’s truly pretty special and the best part of being in this band. There’s nothing like the feeling when you’re clicking as a unit and something new just happens. Hard not to smile when that happens. As far as evolution for the future, we’ll see. Everyone in the band is a multi-instrumentalist and now that we’ve gotten the idea that we can all sing out of the way, I think it opens all sorts of opportunities. It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes from here.
Bryan: Last spring you released a cover of Neil Young’s Motion Pictures and earlier this week you released a version of Guided By Voices’ Redmen And Their Wives. Do you have a vision of how you want your rendition of the material to sound or is it more of a trial and error approach with covering other artists?
Noel: Honestly, I have a pretty simple home recording set-up that only sometimes works. So I’m limited to some extent with covers. I bought a 1958 acoustic Martin for my birthday last year and just fell in love with it. I think the first time I played a cover in my life was at the Ash Gray Proclamation Toys for Tots benefit last December with Motion Pictures and just haven’t stopped finger-picking since. So when it comes to covers, at least at this point, it usually comes down to me, the Martin and my cruddy computer which has a tendency to lock-up in the middle of a take. Not to mention the lovely sirens blaring throughout Allston. On my cover of Motion Pictures I went back the next day and thought, this song needs some accordion and trumpet. So I added accordion and trumpet. I’m always looking for an excuse to break those two instruments out. So maybe not so much a vision as much as a product of what’s available and a notion to take the song in a different direction while remaining true to the inherent beauty of the song I’m covering. Once I choose a direction though, I’m pretty much locked in. Don’t have much patience for trial and error, especially with a recording system that locks up constantly.
Bryan: What are your current plans to support the new LP, Sparkle Drive?
Noel: Well, We have a CD Release show at Davis Square Theater hosted by the Clicky Clicky Music Blog and The Ash Gray Proclamation which we’re really excited about. It’s also for a great cause, benefitting MS which is near and dear to everyone in this band. We also have a CMJ show on 22 Oct, but beyond that we haven’t decided if there will be additional shows at this point. We’ll see.
Bryan: For those who have never seen the band or perhaps haven’t seen them recently, what can they expect on Sunday at The Davis Square Theater?
Noel: I believe Adam will be wearing gold bedazzled leotards with high-tops and fat laces. That should be interesting.
The Hush Now’s new album, Sparkle Drive is now available as a pay what you want download at their Bandcamp site.