“It was challenging to keep going with Young Rapids at times,” Dan Gleason told BYT in the fall of 2012. “We were learning how to work together in a creative way, and that took a lot of patience.”
Over two years have passed since that conversation, and yet one of DC’s best homegrown acts now finds itself right where it started.
“We are in that same boat again,” Young Rapids’ Joe Bentley admitted a few weeks ago, speaking from a van traveling between Baltimore and DC. “We’re getting the right feel.”
The flux in equilibrium stems from a change in personnel: Founding member Nick Martin played his last show with the band on Halloween at the Paperhaus, and has been replaced by Alex Braden, the guitarist best known for instrumental outfit Bella Russia.
Those seeking drama should look elsewhere, though. It was neither a messy separation nor a hostile coup.
But that’s not to say that Martin’s departure wasn’t initially the source of anxiety.
“The closest we’ve come to any real change was Nick deciding that he wanted to move on,” explains Bentley, who plays a number of instruments for the band – both live and on record. “That was the only point where we were really trying to figure things. But it didn’t last very long. Our transition to having Alex join was pretty swift.”
Such a copacetic picture is bound to come as a surprise to the dream pop band’s fans, many of whom are still operating under the assumption that Young Rapids had broken up earlier this year.
This past April, Young Rapids announced that it would be playing its last show.
Then, in July, it seemed to reverse course.
“Hello to All that are still out there. WE ARE STILL A BAND,” they wrote on Facebook. “Earlier in the year, we didn’t know if and how we were going to continue. We were having a kind of identity crisis and we let our emotions get the best of us and we acted too quickly.”
Bentley says that the intention was never for the four-piece to stop making music together – it was just to stop doing it as Young Rapids.
As they said at the time: A kind of identity crisis.
“We had made a new record that sounded so different from our last one that we thought it would be cool to change the band name,” the guitarist says. ““We wanted to shed the image we had and start anew. The idea was for it to be somewhat of a rebirth.”
But after “a million conversations with other people,” Young Rapids began to question the moulting of its moniker. “We realized that there’s value in growth – for someone to see a band grow and change,” Bentley explains.
Plus, it didn’t make sense to shed the reputation that Young Rapids had amassed as a formidable live band – one that could be counted on whether it fell at the top or the bottom of a line-up.
“I’ve been blown away every time I’ve seen Young Rapids,” says Jon Weiss, singer of The Sea Life and one of the founders of Chimes Records. “I instantly fell in love the first time that I saw them”
The thing driving Young Rapid’s identity crisis – that bold new record – is Pretty Ugly.
It’s the band’s sophomore effort, and according to Bentley its inception diverged markedly from Young Rapids’ debut, the sprawling Day Light Savings. “Day Light Savings touched on different feelings and moods. This time around, we had a much more specific idea of what we were shooting for,” he says. “Things took a more thematic direction.”
The theme is one of duality. “We had talked about juxtaposition – things that seemed opposite, but were complimentary in a way,” Bentley shares. “That’s where the name Pretty Ugly comes from.”
“We wanted songs to be beautiful and destroyed at the same time,” Gleason echoes. “We had made really pleasant sounding music [on Day Light Savings]. We wanted to get the darker side of things out. We wanted to make something that wasn’t easily attainable.”
A different kind of record required a different approach. While Day Light Savings was tracked live in the basement of Gleason’s mother’s house, Pretty Ugly was born from a painstakingly methodical process. Everything was recorded to a metronome. Every single instrument on every single song was tracked separately. “It changed the sound of things,” Bentley says.
There were rules too. One was the Young Rapids couldn’t reference other bands or albums when describing sounds and ideas to each other. “We never name dropped.” Gleason says. “It was all strictly feeling it out – communicating the exact thing that we’re trying to do.”
Erecting such obstacles prolonged the process: “It took a really long time. It was emotional. We were so far away from everything else – in this basement in the middle of nowhere. It could be depressing.”
Gleason takes a moment to reflect. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be done with the project.”
Young Rapids’ sense isolation was born in a remote farmhouse affectionately dubbed the Far Out House.
The Far Out House sat on seven acres of land outside of Silver Spring, Maryland, and it’s where all four band members would live for over a year.
“It’s a total retreat from the city life,” Bentley told me in the summer of 2013. “The closest neighbor is easily two football fields away.’
The aging structure provided Young Rapids with a space to host DIY shows – inspired largely by Alex Tebleff and the Paperhaus – and to provide shelter to traveling bands. But, mostly, it let them work on Pretty Ugly whenever it wanted. “We can play at any time of the day or night,” Bentley said last summer. “We can record and not have to worry about noise complaints.”
There was a darker side to that isolation according to Gleason. “We weren’t really seeing that many other people,” he admits. “Every single night, we were working in the studio. It was a successful process, but it was definitely a trying one. It got the best of us at times.”
Not helping morale was the fact that the band was recording from October through March – the year’s chilliest months. “This past winter was brutal. There was so much snow.” Gleason shares. “I think that’s where the record puts the listener.”
The band’s pastoral retreat drew to a close in September, however – it would move out of the Far Out House and scatter to the winds. Bentley is now in Petworth; Gleason and his wife in Takoma Park; Braden in Bloomingdale; and Colin Kelly in Georgetown.
“Being out in the middle of nowhere for so long, we’re stoked to move back into some real neighborhoods,” Bentley says. “But, of course, now that I live in the city, I miss being out where I could sit on my back porch, and there were woods, and we kept a garden.”
But while the recording of Pretty Ugly was an entirely homegrown operation – recorded in their basement, produced by the band, engineered by Martin – Young Rapids looked for outside help when it came time to finish it. In bringing in a third party, it would hope to bring some objectivity to the recording. And the band had one person in mind.
Young Rapids met Dave Plakon in April 2013, when it shared a bill in Tampa with Plakon’s band, Saskatchewan. Everyone got along, and so Plakon invited the band to his studio in Orange City, Florida to record a set for his web series, “Off the Avenue”. (“Off the Avenue” is most easily compared Daytrotter, except the Plakon’s series has a video component as well.)
“There were really great vibes in terms of him and our songs,” Bentley remembers. “When he mixed them live, we thought it sounded really good.”
Just over a year later, it reached out Plakon about mixing Pretty Ugly. “After the four of us were holed up in the basement for four months together, it was necessary to have another set of ears and ideas,” Gleason says.
Plakon was game, and so Young Rapids sent him one song as a test run. Bentley was pleased with the result: “He was experimental enough for us to be interested to hear what he could with the rest of the songs sonically.”
Bentley flew back down to Florida to mix the record with Plakon for three days. Pretty Ugly was then shipped off to Doug Van Sloun’s Focus Mastering for a final polish. (Van Sloun was a friend of Plakon’s, and since he mastered the most recent Man Man record, he was an easy sell to Young Rapids.)
“It’s been done since the beginning of the summer, but we’ve been sitting on it,” Bentley says. “And that’s where we came to the next change in the story, which is signing to Chimes Records.”
Pretty Ugly won’t just be Young Rapids’ first release for Chimes Records – it’ll be to first release for Chimes Records itself.
The DC area imprint was founded earlier this year by Jon Weiss, Go Cozy’s Homero Salazar Andrujovich, and Erik Strander. And like most record labels started by ambitious young adults, Chimes is a child of necessity.
“There’s an outdated outlook on DC’s music scene – the Dischord thing – and the flora of talent that’s actually here, and so something needed to be done,” Weiss explains. “There are a bunch of really talented bands, but they aren’t really going that far beyond playing well-attended shows in the area. We wanted to give more exposure to the DC music and push the bands that we like.”
Young Rapids fit squarely into the category of “bands that we like.” “I just have a profound respect for their music and as a band,” Weiss says.
Also going in Young Rapids favor was that Pretty Ugly was already in the can: “Having the album already recorded was a huge advantage, because we didn’t have to put any cost into the recording and production of it. It put us ahead of the game.”
The band signed a management, distribution, and licensing deal with Chimes. Weiss is managing the band himself.
“The record is fantastic, but it isn’t what’s going to sell them alone – I think it’s the live show too,” he tells me. “It’s my responsibility to get more people to see it, and to take Young Rapids to the next place.”
Young Rapids hopes to put out Pretty Ugly in February. The specific date will depend on some less than riveting considerations – when the record can be pressed to vinyl; when a Chimes showcase can be scheduled – but the band is determined to get it out in next year’s initial months.
“We initially wanted to release later in 2015, but Dan was insistent that it’s a winter record. It’s a record made to be heard in the cold,” Weiss shares. “And on my fifth or sixth listen, I really started to feel that.”
“The winter is when this record was created,” Gleason explains. “That’s when everything came together – in that awful time where the cold has gone on for so long and everybody hates everybody. Hopefully, it comes through that these guys are down.”
Still, the feeling of “seasonal depression” that pervades most of the album thaws over its course. “It ends with the feeling that summer is coming,” Gleason says. “We leave the listener with some hope.”
The arc of the record was obsessed over like the songs themselves. The band was set on making an album and not just a collection of song. “Pretty Ugly is something that has to be heard all the way through,” Weiss says. “It’s an album that you put on and hear in one session. Every song is connected seamlessly.”
Last month, as the weather started to turn, the band shared Pretty Ugly’s first single, “Melt”.
It’s the oldest song on the record – one that the band began performing live in the spring of last year, when it was touring behind Day Light Savings.
But if you heard it then, you aren’t likely to recognize all of it.
“I make up a lot of lyrics on stage,” Gleason says. “We always do the music first, and over the time, the lyrics find themselves.”
“Dan has a strangely particular way of going about his vocals,” Bentley observes. “We’ll work on ideas musically for a really long time, and he has vocal melodies, but not necessarily lyrics.”
In the case of “Melt”, Gleason had an affinity for its opening line – “I don’t belong here” – but night to night, it would vary from there. “I sang tons of different stuff on tour,” he recalls.
Bentley laughs thinking about it: “I honestly couldn’t even tell you what he was singing about on that April tour.”
Appropriately enough, it was “Off the Avenue” that would force Gleason to commit.
When presented with the opportunity to record a session with Plakon, the band didn’t want to trot out the same Day Light Savings material that it had been living with for over a year. “We were like, ‘Fuck it – we don’t want to play this old stuff. Let’s play the stuff that we’re working on now,’” Bentley recalls. “But there was one problem: Dan had to come up with lyrics.”
It was out in a sandy Florida parking lot that Gleason found inspiration. “I saw this litter of feral kittens, and a snake that was trying to eat them. The mother cat was fighting it off,” Gleason explains. “That inspired me to write [‘Melt’] from the perspective of a caged animal.”
“Melt” took shape and was later recorded in Far Out House basement, but its form continues to bend and twist.
“Playing it with Alex, the song’s a little different, because there’s such a heavy lead guitar line in the song,” Bentley explains. “It crescendos with this sort of crazy guitar solo, and Alex obviously has a different take on it.”
This sort of ongoing transformation is the next chapter for Young Rapids, and it is very much a work in progress.
“There’s a transition going on in our sound,” Gleason observes. “We’re just starting to demonstrate the vastness of our different styles.”
He’s speaking to me a few weeks after the band’s first show with Braden – an electric Saturday night set at the Black Cat.
“I felt like we pulled off the more moody songs in a way that I’m not sure we would have before,” he reflects. “It’s just different.”
Unsurprisingly, the band is already playing new songs too. One included in that Black Cat performance found Gleason running his vocals through a harmonizer, which adds lower harmonies, and has an effect not too dissimilar from autotune. It’s a magnetic wrinkle in the band’s overall sound.
“Alex joining the band has definitely made things feel fresh again,” Bentley says. “We’re working on new angles of performance.”
Gleason agrees. “He’s created a whole new dynamic. He’s playing guitar parts that were already written, but he’s a totally different guitarist. He has his own style. Not only is changing those guitar lines, but we’re changing around him
After a bumpy year, Gleason sounds at peace.
“I like where we came from, but I like where we’re going.”