By Jack Spencer
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Fans may think they have Twin Cities talents Halloween, Alaska all figured out, now that the band is already three albums and nearly a decade into their existence. They were dulcet, hypnotizing, and cerebral, a sort of thinking man's abstract-lyricism-loving answer to the Postal Service, a band more intent on getting heads nodding than butts moving, more at home in the studio than on stage. But with their soon-to-be-released fourth album, All Night Long the Calls Came In, all preconceived notions are being smashed to smithereens.
A polar-opposite set of adjectives—prickly, skittish, instinctual—is better suited to describe Halloween, Alaska circa 2011. Their new album is not so much an extension of their sound as a total reinvention. Clocking in at a fighting-trim 40 minutes, it's the first album by the quartet to make a virtue of aggressive guitar distortion in addition to seductive synthesizers. Stirring detours into post-punk paranoia ("Analogue"), melancholic jangly guitar rock ("The Jealous Ones"), and Sade-styled sleekness ("3:1") now make up as much of the Halloween, Alaska sound as the icy, highly automated pop on which they made their name (lead single "Dance By Accident").
"The differences between this record and the others is quite intentional," claims frontman James Diers, surrounded by his bandmates Dave King (drums), Jake Hanson (guitar), and William Shaw (bass) at a St. Paul watering hole. "As much as we love the other records, we wanted to do something more immediate. Some of it was circumstantial, too. I don't think any of us had the stomach to spend another year or two working on a record. We wanted something more spontaneous."
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"To be honest, we took too much time on our other records," chimes in the frank and fiery King, who mans the sticks for internationally renowned jazz outfit the Bad Plus when not rocking with Halloween, Alaska. "Now we're using all the same tools, synthesizers, live electronic drums, but we have a closer-knit unit. Jake's been in the group a few years. Bill's been in the band for two years now, but is coming from 12Rods (in which I was a member). It's kind of like having the family back together, of the bands we grew out of. We didn't have a studio to sit in and play chromatic-tuned tambourines for a month, which is the sort of thing we did before [laughs]. It was all very natural; we didn't have to be self-conscious paring it down. If there's anything I regret it's that we weren't making records this way all along. We spent a lot of time agonizing over things on our other records that we really shouldn't have in hindsight. The clarity of this statement feels so good."
Tracked almost entirely live ("I could count the total number of overdubs on one hand," claims King) and the result of just a week's time in the studio, the records shows that blood and sweat now permeate the band's once-pristine sound. At times, the resulting cathartic racket recalls Diers's and King's prior band, the much-beloved and indefinitely on-hiatus indie-rockers Love-Cars. That's not a coincidence.
"The first record in particular came about as an alternative to the other stuff that we were doing," reflects Diers, of Halloween, Alaska's side-project-turned-primary-band origins. "It was the songs and sounds that weren't quite right for Love-Cars or 12Rods. Now we're at a point where it's not really reacting to other bands."
"We're letting all the sounds in now," agrees King, the group's other founding member and an equal stakeholder in the writing of its compelling, elliptical yet evocative lyrics.
At an age when many groups begin to stagnate—or give up the ghost entirely if they haven't achieved mass commercial success—Halloween, Alaska are doing far more than nobly soldiering on. As invigorated and bright-eyed in person as they are on their new album, the group may be made up mostly of thirtysomething musical veterans, but they've got youthful fire in their belly to spare.
"James and I have been writing music together for 15 years now, and that's an important thing to me," explains King. "These are my favorite musicians to play this kind of music with. We're still kind of waiting for the call. We feel like we're refining our sound and getting better at what we do. We do other things to pay the bills but when we come together I think all of us would—and have—turned down other gigs so we can play together. We're still sort of a cult band and we'd really like it to go further. We feel confident we have something to offer, so that's why we hold on to it. Ultimately we all really believe that it's a powerful thing when we play together, and part of what has proven that to us is the support we've gotten here at home. Being able to accomplish things in the past with this band, like selling out First Avenue's Mainroom, makes me feel like that level of success can happen elsewhere if enough people just hear us."
HALLOWEEN, ALASKA play their CD-release show with Communist Daughter and We Are the Willows on SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, at First Avenue; 612.332.1775