Bridges and Powerlines: The Crucial Cut Interview
Everyone loves a comeback story. Maybe that’s why ‘Bushwick,’ the leadoff track on Bridges and Powerlines’ new mini-LP, ‘Better,’ won Diffuser.fm’s latest Crucial Cut of the Month contest. Nearly 40 percent of voters picked the song as the best MP3 we gave away in May 2013, and those listeners curious enough to pick up ‘Better’ will discover five more positive jams — each named for a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where half the band resides — about overcoming struggles and reconnecting with the things that make life livable.
The music crackles and hums with hopeful energy, and as members Andrew Wood (guitar and vocals), Keith Sigel (bass), David Boyd (guitar) and Mason Ingram (drums) explain in the interview below, ‘Better’ represents something of a rebirth for the long-running group. Bridges and Powerlines formed back in the mid-’00s, and while it took them some time to develop their sound — the first record, they admit, was a thrown-together dance-punk outing heavily influenced by what was popular at the time — they’ve hit on something original, a mega-tuneful, electronics-laced strain of indie rock informed by ’90s alternative and ’00s chamber-pop, among other things.
Over the course of their Crucial Cut interview — the prize, if you will, for winning our monthly contest — the B&P fellas explain the ‘Better’ back-story, share their thoughts on the ever-changing NYC scene and explain how they’ve managed to stay together for nearly a decade. They also talk up material they’ve written for their next record, lending credence to the notion they’re nowhere near finished.
You’ve said that ‘Better’ is about getting over a hard year. At the risk of getting too personal, what types of struggles inspired these new songs?
Andrew Wood: For me, it’s about as personal as it gets: divorce. For some of the record, it’s more of a backdrop, maybe setting a mood or a framework for the songs, which tend to look forward instead of back for the most part, while on others it definitely influences the stories of these songs in an immediate way, especially on the last two (‘Greenpoint’ and ‘Red Hook’).
Keith Sigel: In addition to Andrew’s travails, as a band, we were recovering from an underperforming record that we had loved and put tremendous effort into (‘Eve’). Writing the songs for ‘Better’ was very organic and happened quickly and really reminded us why we love doing this so much. The theme of the record reflects the return of our enthusiasm and a renewed sense of optimism.
What prompted you to name each tune after a Brooklyn neighborhood?
David Boyd: It actually started off as a bit of a joke; we were making fun of some specific neighborhoods (I won’t mention which ones), but then as we kept going, the theme of the record started to emerge (the “better” theme), and we noticed that the real-life back story had actually taken place in some of these places, so we kept with the idea. Although not all the events of the songs took place in these places, some of them did, and we felt like it really helped to tie the record together. We were a little skeptical about the idea at first, but then we decided to disregard the unsubtle cliche of an NYC indie band naming all of their songs after Brooklyn.
What neighborhoods to you guys live in? (I’m in Park Slope, by the way.) Have you got a favorite? More importantly, what’s Bridges and Powerlines’ bar of choice?
KS: Ha, we’re actually only half of a Brooklyn band — Dave and Mason live in Williamsburg, and I live in Harlem, while Andrew lives in Astoria. Somehow we got tagged as a Brooklyn band a while back, and to avoid confusion we never really argued. I guess our credibility just went out the window. This record does reflect our love affair with Brooklyn (and the city as a whole) — you could spend your whole life exploring the various neighborhoods and never get bored. Brooklyn has some especially captivated areas — Williamsburg and Greenpoint are so exciting, while some of the more eastern neighborhoods are a little more rough and tumble (which is fun), and then you have places like Coney Island and Sunset Park that are just too unique to capture in a limited frame. We like to hang out at the Radegast in Williamsburg before shows, as well as Williamsburger. In Manhattan we like a quiet place called the Donnybrook on Stanton before shows and to conduct “business.” I think we interviewed our last four potential producers at the Donnybrook.
You guys have been at it since 2005. How has the Brooklyn scene changed in that time?
KS: I would say it has. If anything, I feel like the “indie rock” (i.e. in the strict genre sense) scene has moved from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn during that time. Back in ’06-’07 everyone was playing lots of LES shows, and now the shows have migrated east. There definitely have been an increase in the number of “semi-official” venues in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which is also nice. There are a lot of bands. That hasn’t changed. I thought the economic slowdown would dampen things but “NYC band member” appears to be a real growth industry.
How has your own sound evolved since the mid-’00s? The self-titled 2006 record shares a lot in common with the new record, but to our ears, ‘Better’ is maybe a little meatier and more anthemic. Is that fair to say? Admittedly, we’ve spent more time with the new songs than with the old ones…
AW: A friend of mine also described ‘Better’ as anthemic. We never really set out to write anthems exactly — I think if you try too hard to do that you fail — but maybe the reason that these songs sound that way is a result of our brutal editing process, which leaves so very many other song songs on the cutting room floor. (And also creates plenty of healthy inter-band tension!) We wrote probably three times as many songs as made the record, so it was kind of a survival of the fittest thing when selecting the final songs. It’s hard to compare to our first record. We’d been barely been playing together a few months when we made that one, and now we’ve been together for seven years.
KS: There has been a bit of a circular evolution. Ironically, in 2006, we were basically just aping what was going on around us. We threw our first record together in five days and didn’t really put much thought into it, and this crunchy, dance-punky think emerged. We then developed some comfort with our process and our sound and made ‘Ghost Types’ with Chris Zane. Although the songs on that record are very B+P, the sound was very much Chris’ interpretation (which we still love.) At that point, we still didn’t know much about making records. To follow up that record we went a bit nuts and made a heavily psych-pop influenced record with lots of orchestration and tons of studio trickery (‘Eve’). That one was my baby, but it was exhausting to make, and between the recording and the subsequent tour, we kinda burned out a bit. To contrast the making of ‘Eve,’ ‘Better’ was written in a very live, spontaneous fashion, which I think contributes to the energetic and possibly “anthemic” feel. Additionally, we did much of the tracking for ‘Better’ at the Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, N.Y. (the same place the National recorded their new record ‘Trouble Will Find Me’), which contributed to the meatier-ness of the sound. The Clubhouse is a big barn that was converted into a recording studio, and for some reason, it just felt natural to make a bigger-sounding record there.
There’s definitely a sense of optimism on ‘Bushwick’ and throughout the new record. It’s a fine line between being hopeful and being cheesy, but you guys pull it off. Is there a trick to writing feelgood songs that don’t sound like bad self-help schemes set to music?
KS: Well, basing it on real-life trauma (and recovery) seems to help [smile]. I agree, it’s a tough line. We really weren’t trying to go for any sort of market or pop aesthetic, and I think that helps — we were just making the record (and the songs) that we wanted to make, so I think potentially that honesty helped as well.
You guys have been compared to a lot of ’90s bands, and as you’ve no doubt heard, there’s a bit of nostalgia for that decade going around at the moment. Why do you think people are rediscovering ’90s rock? Are things always prettier in the rearview mirror, or do you think there was something unique and worth remembering about the music of that time period?
Mason Ingram: I feel like there was a rawness in ’90s rock (especially in the lo-fi college rock), before everything got so over produced and corrected by computer. And it seems like listeners, whether consciously or subconsciously, are looking for that honest intensity again. And we’ll just assume that’s the ’90s music that we are being compared to….
KS: I have a huge place in my heart for mid/late ’90s college-radio rock. Pavement changed my life. There was something very punk rock and yet intelligent about that movement. The chamber-pop movement of the ’00s, where bands had 10 members and a million different instuments, was also sorta punk rock, too, but lost some of the grit of ’90s-era indie (and grunge). I think everything is cyclical, and every time I’ve predicted a resurgence, I’ve been wrong, but yes I hope that all bands start sounding like Sebadoh or Dinosaur Jr. again … and then thank us [grin].
The electronic elements in songs like ‘Williamsburg’ are really cool. Where does that come from? Did you guys grow up listening to electronic or experimental music?
AW: This is a direct result of the influence of [our guitarist] Dave Boyd! Dave joined the band as we were starting to write our third record, ‘Eve,’ and he brought a huge electronic element to the band that we’d really only dabbled in before. It really came to the forefront on the new record in ‘Williamsburg.’ I think we all grew up listening to a certain amount of electronic music, but Dave probably had the greatest of all of us for that genre. He is a wizard with anything with wires that requires “programming,” and he actually understands MIDI, which seems to be a disappearing skill.
The members of Bridges and Powerlines hail from all over the country — Connecticut, Texas, Kentucky and North Carolina — right? Do you think any of you brought regional flavor to the table, or is the group’s sound more about universal things you share in common?
KS: Wow, you do your research. Yes, definitely geographically diverse origins. I think largely it is more about what we share in common, more than any regional influences. I think Mason and myself came from strong music scenes though, which probably did play a small role. Mason grew up in Austin and so was always around that crazy scene as well as [Austin Citiy Limits] and [SXSW]. I was highly influenced by the Chapel Hill scene (bands like Archers of Loaf, Small 23 and Superchunk) from going to school and playing in bands there.
What’s next for you guys? You’re not terribly far from you 10-year anniversary. Do you see Bridges and Powerlines reaching that milestone and even pressing on further?
AW: We’re still working as hard as ever, so that’s a good sign that we’ll stick around! We’ve already started writing some new stuff, and we’re genuinely excited about it — considering that, I can’t see us deciding to quit any time soon.
KS: Yes, we’re already thinking about the next record. We started this band when we were in our mid-20s so we’re a little older but also (possibly) a little wiser. We are psyched because our team just keeps getting better and better, and we still feel like we have lots of great ideas to explore.
What’s the biggest challenge of keeping it going? Do the band members work day jobs and/or have wives/girlfriends/kids?
KS: Well, at the moment I’m the only married guy in the band, but yes, life commitments certainly are the biggest challenge to keeping the band going. Everyone knows that it’s financially tough to keep a band going, so that’s an additional challenge. Except for our drummer, we have day jobs, albeit fairly flexible ones. (We can often work from the road.) Over the years, we’ve come up with adjustments to our system that allow us to keep going and not go broke or ruin our personal lives; I sorta feel like if bands can make it past a certain number of years, then you can figure out how to create something sustainable.
Is there one lyric in one of your songs — new or old — that you feel best sums up the Bridges and Powerlines mindset and aesthetic?
KS: I was always partial to the sentiment of the chorus of one of our first songs, ‘Mumbles’ (from our first EP), which I felt summed up being poor and in a band in the expansive New York City scene: “You’re beautiful, from far away, but we don’t even have a place where we can be alone”
AW: “Don’t cry, we can see forever if we try” from ‘Bushwick’ on ‘Better’ captures the optimisms that has been a major theme of late.