There’s a giant shiner enveloping his left eye, a swirl of red, yellow, and purple, like gases seen congealing in the atmosphere of another planet. His right eye carries a less vivid though distinctly purple bag – whether it’s another bruise or the toll of sleep deprivation remains to be seen. More conspicuously, his nose is bleeding. Both lips are, as well. Preparing to strum a baby blue Hagstrom guitar, his right hand is shredded. Still, despite all of these ailments, Krol clutches the instrument, blankly staring into the distance atop a bed’s pink sheets.
“It’s kind of referencing the process of making an album or doing anything that’s a personal expression,” Krol says of the image. “You go through a lot of self-examination, and you’re hard on yourself. Or hopefully that’s the case, because I think that’s what creates a good product.”
The thirty-something singer-songwriter is speaking with me from Los Angeles, where he’s lived more or less for the past eight years. It’s late February, the city’s “rainy season” he jokes, and sure enough, his adoptive hometown is awash with storms and overly cautious drivers.
“It’s a bummer when it’s like this for consecutive days, because L.A. is not built for rain” he says. “You start to get mad at the city. It’s like, ‘Dude, this is not what I signed up for.’”
Still, any weather-induced exasperation is nothing compared to what he endured on the winding, sometimes bruising path to Power Chords, his recently released fourth full-length. It all began in late 2015, after touring wrapped in support of his previous LP, Turkey.
“I found myself without an apartment and without a reason to stay in Los Angeles, and I was just a little bit stressed about what I was doing,” he recollects “So, I decided, ‘Why don’t I just go back home and stay with my parents and regroup and reevaluate things?'”
Krol retreated to his family’s Wisconsin home, where for four months he wrote songs and recorded demoes in their basement, just as he did growing up. But when it came time to properly record these songs, Krol consciously sought to break from any normal routines.
“I knew I wanted to work with someone new, just because the last three records I had worked with the same group of people,” he shares. “Those guys are all my friends, and we’ve known each other for years – there were no hard feelings or anything. I just felt like we got too comfortable. With Turkey, I had made the best record that I possibly could with those guys.”
Someone new would turn out to be Mike McCarthy, a producer who helmed Spoon’s sterling run of records from Girls Can Tell through Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, as well as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s early ‘00s output. Within the industry, McCarthy is known for microphone placements and studio mastery. He is not known for half-formed opinions.
“I don’t want to say he’s known for being difficult to work with, but he’s known for being difficult to work with,” Krol admits. “He has a strong gut, and it’s kind of his way or the highway. He’s going to tell you how it is. If the song sucks, then he’s going to tell you that it sucks. I wanted somebody like that. It’s not to say that my friends all yes-men – they definitely aren’t – but it was time for me to see what it was like if I worked with somebody who I didn’t have history with and who didn’t know my songs or style. It was time to see what would happen.”
Krol booked ten days of studio time with McCarthy in Nashville. It wasn’t long in those sessions that the guitarist realized the pairing of two Type As was yielding some unexpected tension.
“Immediately, I was like, ‘Maybe this isn’t the best fit for me, having someone who’s like, ‘It’s this way,’” Krol shares. “I’m very controlling. I’m very involved in every step of the process, from recording to mixing. I’m just so hands-on that I thought it would be healthy for me to try a recording situation where I wasn’t hands-on. And upon being in that situation, I realized that I needed to be hands-on, because if I feel like I’m losing control, then I don’t put my heart into it, and the performances really reflect that.”
Krol and McCarthy (along with bassist Sean Lango) were still productive during that week and change. They laid down the “bones” of his songs: drums, bass, guitars. But the vocals, which Krol has always recorded at least partially distorted, weren’t sounding right to his ear in the pristine environment. So, Krol informed the producer he’d be handling them himself.
Upon returning to L.A., Krol sought out John Schmersal, a guitarist and producer beloved for the seminal bands Enon and Braniac. However, Schmersal currently releases music as Vertical Scratchers, and like Krol, Vertical Scratchers are signed to Merge Records. Taking advantage of that connection, Krol asked his label to play matchmaker.
“I loved the Verticals Scratchers record, I love how it sounded, and I knew that John had recorded a lot of that himself,” Krol explains. “He’s another guy who does the whole thing – he records and produces and engineers and plays. And I also knew that he lives in my neighborhood.”
Krol and Schmersal hit it off, and the two began recording vocals, in addition to some rhythm guitar. Soon enough, though, Krol would find himself in a slightly similar environment to Nashville.
“It was another situation where I felt like he started to get involved in it too much,” says Krol. “He was like, ‘OK, now you should do it like this.’ And I would be like, “No, actually, I want to do it like this.’”
Krol would fully reassume the reigns of Power Chords after Schmersal was called to go on tour. To see the record to completion, he partnered with Stephen Kaye, a friend and engineer also based in L.A. After recording a few additional overdubs, Kaye mixed the songs with Krol at his side the whole time.
“Really, the MVP award goes to Steve, because I sat with him the longest out of everyone,” says Kroll. “I feel like we got the record to sound the way it does in the mixing process.”
In the end, Power Chords would wind up a richly textured amalgamation of all four stages of recording, including Krol’s original home vocal demoes. Could it have been made another, easier way and still sound the same? Maybe. Maybe not. But as Power Chords stands – an airtight collection of fuzzy, infectious power-pop, an emotionally intense document, and surely one of the better rock records 2019 will bear – the bumps and bruises were well worth it.
“It’s hard to call the record a comeback, but it felt fitting for the feel of the record to be like, ‘I’m coming back to life,” says Krol. “I’ve gotten beaten up and downtrodden, but I’m still powering through.”
There’s a polished quality to these songs, but it’s interspersed with layers of distortion and a general fuzziness. It’s sort of like garage rock on 77mm film. How do you walk the line between making something partially spit-shined and partially worn? Or do you simply know something is right when you hear it?
It’s the latter. I always strive for that mix, but I feel like on the other albums there wasn’t enough polish just from us doing things ourselves and home recording. On those records, it was also a matter of time and trying to get things done quickly.
I always want things sound a little lo-fi, but I also want things to sound good. I have some friends in Canada who make similar music and we joke that we try to find “mid-fi,” not lo-fi or hi-fi. We don’t want something that’s ynlistenable, but you want it to sound like people playing music with imperfections and mistakes.
This record in particular, I worked the hardest on getting it sound the way that I wanted, because I did feel like we recorded stuff too well at times. That’s why we used a lot of the vocals from the demoes. The demoes are me recording into a computer and having it be blown out and me not knowing what I’m doing, but it’s capturing the lighting in the bottle. It’s me singing the song for the first time and figuring it out.
That’s why we married the two: the hi-fi of the drums and the guitars and the bass, mixed with the lo-fi of the vocals. And then we kind of added a little bit of lo-fi stuff here or there in instrumentation to make it gel together.
What’s the appeal of those lo-fi elements – that scuzziness? Is it something you seek out as a listener or is it just a preference for your own music?
That’s a good question, because I do listen to music that has sort of that quality, but it’s not something that I listen to exclusively. I listen to all kinds of music at all levels of production.
To me, it feels the most natural to my songs because I got into songwriting and playing music by being a one-man band. I would go into my parent’s basement, and my brother had a 4-track recorder, and we had a drum set down there, and I would record drums and then record guitar on top of that and then record vocals on top of that. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was recording stuff kind of blown out and fuzzy, but I didn’t know any better. It was like, “This is what I sound like.” So then I got used to that approach.
I’ve tried to record my vocals cleaner, and I’ve tried making them sound nicer, but it always ends up not sounding right. It’s just one of those things where this is what I thought I sounded like, so to hear it any other way sounds a little off. I sometimes worry that I rely on it too heavily. I know it’s not for everybody.
I’ve been mentioning The Strokes a lot in this cycle of things, but The Strokes came out when I was a senior in high school, and that album opened my mind to music that was bigger and lo-fi. I mean, I grew up listening to punk, and obviously Misfits stuff like Static Age is blown out, and there’s a lo-fi quality to it and other punk music. But a light went off in my head when The Strokes reached commercial success and, like, went on Dave Letterman while having a sound that was a little more lo-fi. It was like, “Oh, OK, you can do this sort of thing and people will like it.”
You mentioned the urgency of your initial demoes. How long are you generally living with these songs prior to recording them?
I write the vocals last. I always piece together the songs themselves and the structures first. Sometimes I’ll have them for months before I know what the lyrics or vocal melody are going to be. I’ll map out the chorus and verses and make demoes of that.
But I’ll record lyrics and melody as soon as I get them figured out, just to have a reference of what they are. A lot of the time, that first take – right when I’ve figured it out – is the best take. It sounds the most excited. Nothing sounds like the first take. It’s the first time it feels like the song is real.
What was the thought process in sequencing the record? When you have so many full-throttled songs, do you worry about not tiring out the listener?
I’m obsessed with sequencing and track order. There are so many albums with great songs but you don’t sit and listen to them as a whole because of how they’re sequenced. It’s a make-or-break thing.
So, I spend a lot of time thinking about what songs can go into other songs and how it all flows together. I think of the elements as a physical record, and I always try to end side A on a song that feels like it resolves or wraps up in a slower tempo. It’s the same thing with the end of side B: I want a song that’s not too fast and feels like it’s a conclusion.
In my mind, the arc of each side is always: come in real strong and catchy, then get faster, then slow down and dissolve.
How would you describe the selection process for Power Chords’ singles? When you’re making songs, are you trying to make every one catchy enough to be a single? That’s what it feels like.
Absolutely. And I feel like lot of people don’t, which is funny to me. Or maybe they don’t think every song needs to be one thing that works independently. Maybe they think about the whole album as a bigger picture and some songs fill different spaces – songs that space out the catchy songs.
But I try to write the catchiest song possible every single time – or at least, as finished and as memorable a song as possible. Obviously, there are some songs where it’s like, “This isn’t going to be the one that people are chanting for, but there should be something in there – whether it’s a hook or some section of the song – that is catchy.”
With this album, the first single was “An Ambulance”, which we made a 7” of. That felt like the song that showed the most growth from my other albums but was also still catchy.
For the next single, when we announced the album, I wanted “Little Drama” because it’s the heaviest song on the there. With the album being called Power Chords and the imagery of it, I was like, “Well, we gotta go tough out the gates. The first song that people hear, knowing that it’s from the album, should be the loudest, toughest one.”
The single after that was “I Wonder”, which had Allison [Crutchfield] singing backing vocals on it. That shows a little bit more growth, as well. We didn’t want people to only hear all of the fast and loud ones. We wanted to show that the album has some different textures to it this time.
And then we saved “What’s the Rhythm” to be the lead single for radio right before the album came out, just because it’s the catchiest song on the album, but it shows the least amount of growth. It’s a shorter song, and it’s more in the style of what I’ve done in the past, where’s it’s a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus, and then it’s done. There’s no bridge. There’s no real intro to it. It’s probably the catchiest song on the album, but it’s also the most like all of the songs that I’ve done before, so it didn’t feel like the best representation of what this album could hold.
I thought “Wasted Memory” might be the fourth single.
Really? That one was tough because it really changed in the mixing process. It sounded totally different when I demoed it and then how I recorded it initially. It just wasn’t working, so we changed it in mixing stage. We turned the chorus into that Cars-y, palm muting chnk-chnk-chnk thing. That happened later in the process. I was unsure of that one. I’m glad you like it.