Hospitality’s second record comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
It opens with a bang, quite literally – the cymbal crash and ringing electric guitar of “Nightingale”, which punctuates Trouble like an inverted exclamation mark. There’s a disorienting rush to the moment, like you’ve just been returned to your regularly scheduled programming, and it’s already in progress, and why does everyone look so angry? But not far behind is singer Amber Papini, who serves as your guide through the peaks and valleys and haunted seaside of the caterwauling opening track.
Nine songs later, Trouble closes with “Call Me After” – a soft and sweet ballad that barely crosses the two-minute mark. For those 128 seconds, it’s just Papini and the strums of an acoustic guitar. In its closing moments, Papini wonders if you’ll walk her home in the dark, and as she hums and you head off into the night together, Trouble fades to black.
And in between these bookends, oh the places you’ll go. Trouble is a journey, from sprightly and charming indie pop not far from its self-titled debut (“It’s Not Serious”) to strobe-lit synth pop (“Inauguration”) to herky-jerky rock (“Miss Your Bones”) to nocturnal new wave (“Last Words”, “Rockets and Jets”). For a band that established a clearly defined sound and found an audience with 2012’s Hospitality, Trouble is an especially bold and adventurous album, and it’s one that consistently reaps huge rewards. It also boasts Papini’s strongest songs to date, which projected against backdrops that are less busy have more room to stretch and breathe.
BYT connected with Papini a few weeks ago. She was back home in south Brooklyn, fresh from a long weekend in the Catskills. “It was really beautiful,” she says on her time in the Hudson Valley, a perk of Hospitality “laying low for a couple weeks.” The band has otherwise spent much of the year touring the U.S. and Europe, and soon it’ll be getting back on its horse for a string of additional North American dates.
When you were making Trouble, were consciously trying of peel back Hospitality’s sound?
We were definitely conscious of that. We wanted to exercise more restraint, and I think we were definitely trying to strip back thing. But I think if you listen to Trouble closely, there are still a lot of nice arrangements happening. It’s more sparse overall, though.
What’s the story behind the “Super Timeline Version” of “Inauguration” on the Merge 7” series?
That song in particular started out as a band song. The Merge 7” is basically how we rehearsed it before we went into the studio. For some reason, we just couldn’t play it when we first started recording. [Laughs] We did, like, 20 takes of it, and it just wasn’t working, so we decided to just abandon the band version and just stripped it down and changed the beat, and it became almost an electronic songs. It’s nice, you know? It’s like really moody and cool.
Then, as we started touring the song, we wanted to play “Inauguration”, and we liked the band version, so we were playing the band version live, and then the Merge 7” opportunity came up and we felt like we had finally perfected the live version of it, so we were ready to actually record it. And it’s good. I think we successfully did it. We recorded it in two days. We finally got our shit together to play it and record it.
Were there any other songs on Trouble that took a similarly winding path?
Yeah, another one was “Rockets and Jets”. That started as more of a band version with real drums, and then it turned into more of an electronic version with like electronic drums. There’s actually a mix of electronic drums and real drums on the record, but that synthesizer is really dictating the tempo and the beat, and that’s something we didn’t have when we were originally playing it. That song really sticks out for me.
And now it’s kind of the inverse with “Sullivan” when we play it live. The recorded versions of these songs have now transformed into something a bit different live. “Sullivan” has a more laid back beat. And we’ve kind of updated songs from the old album too.
We’re always changing, I guess. Some people like it, some people don’t. Especially nowadays, I feel like bands that are successful don’t really change from one record to the next. [Laughs] Changing is not always a good thing in this day and age.
What was driving the greater incorporation of synthesizers and electronics and programmed drums? Was there ant part of you that thought, “We’ve found an audience with a particular sound, why take a chance on a bolder record?”
Nathan [Michel], our drummer and guitar player, comes from a really strong electronic background. Before he was in Hospitality, he put out, like, three electronic record. He had all this electronic equipment, and we actually used the same synthesizers for this record as we did on the first record. We just weren’t using everything that we had available – the instruments we already had in our vault. We don’t have a lot, but we have a few keyboards and a drum machine.
As far as anticipating what people would think, we’ve always just kind of followed our heart. We wanted to make a record that was minimal and really organic sounding, and I feel like Trouble did that. We accomplished that. I think the first record has more of a polished sound – it’s nice, you know. It was very radio friendly. We were just following our instincts. We weren’t really anticipating any negativity form our fans. The songs are still good. I think we’re still song-driven. Hospitality is a song-driven band, and that comes through on both records.
Has anything changed in terms of how collaborate as a band?
The process was pretty much the same as the first record. I write most of the songs on my own and then bring them to the band, and we sort of tirelessly work them out with all kinds of variations and different configurations of instruments or beats. Nathan, our drummer, is constantly searching for the perfect feel for the song. He really works hard on that. Brian plays off Nathan in coming up with his parts. That’s kind of how we always have worked together in this rehearsal space. So, that didn’t change.
But this was the first time that we made a record as a professional band, because when we made the first record, we were playing in small clubs in New York, and we weren’t signed to a label, and we did it very slowly. It took years. With this record, we had more support. We had a label. The recording itself was different, because we had much more time. The first record we recorded in four days. This record we were able to record and mix in a month’s time, so that was really luxurious.
You’ve mentioned that there’s an “out of place” theme for the record. Was there anything in your own life directly inspiring that?
I’m always interested in the underdog narrative. I feel uncomfortable in a lot of social situations. I always feel kind of out of place. I think we all do, actually. That’s one of the reasons we get along as a band creatively. We’re all people who are just shy and feel a little out of place in general.
The first record was more of like a post-collegiate narrative, and coming form that perspective. This record I was more interested in writing about not such a specific narrative. I don’t think any of these songs are super specific to a place and a time. They’re more… I don’t know if “universal” is the word for them? They’re not specific, but they do touch upon that outsider perspective, or something that’s not quite right, or an uncomfortable feeling.
The video for “I Miss Your Bones” is great. How involved were you with the concept?
We weren’t too involved. With all of our videos, we kind of let the directors come up with a concept – that’s what they do. Directors have the vision. That’s the reason why we worked with Lara. We really loved her work and totally trusted her instincts, so we just let her do her thing. And I really love this video. I think it’s really great.
Have you ever turned to YouTube for how-to tutorials?
I have, actually. I was pretty obsessed with learning all the Led Zeppelin songs a couple years ago, and there are really good guitar tutorials on a lot of songs. It would be awesome if I was a teenager learning guitar right now, you could like go crazy on Youtube.
How did you learn guitar?
My sister actually was younger than me and she asked for a guitar for her birthday, so she brought the guitar into the house. So, there was a guitar in the house, and I kind of slowly took it away form her, I guess. [Laughs] I started playing it. We had a [Male Bay?] book of chords, and I just would look at the chord charts and try to play. And ,immediately, I started writing songs and playing chords. Then I took lessons from this guy who was, like, a folk guitar player, and I learned how to play “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Blackbird” and “Summertime”. And then I took some classical guitar lessons, and that’s all my formal training, really.
And now you’re here.
Now I’m here. [Laughs]
Additional contributions by Emily Holland.