By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
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Even if seven years in the fast-moving world of indie rock is roughly equivalent to three decades of real-world time, local quartet Hello Blue prefer to let ideas for riffs morph over months, and are willing to spend years tweaking lyrics. The band's long-awaited sophomore album, the aptly titled How'd It Get This Late?, is at once richly layered yet tautly structured. Hitting the local scene nearly seven years to the day after their full-length debut, the eight-track album provides a powerful aural argument that perhaps more bands should take the scenic route to songwriting.
Now firmly ensconced in their early 30s, band mainstays Evan Fox (vocals/guitar) and Ned Moore (guitar/vocals) have largely ditched the post-punk, prog-emo trappings of 2005's stirring What It Takes to Wake Up in favor of a lighter, yet no less dynamic, melodicism. They're still in love with grandly shimmering spiral-staircase guitar riffs — the intro to "The Ranch" shows the band maintaining their musical kinship with Explosions in the Sky. But they're also newly open to the joys of hooky power-pop, and the jangly and jaded "So Good" has all the ingredients of a massive college-radio hit. Fox's voice, which once favored pinched shouting over conventional singing, has grown into a surprisingly melodious instrument in its own right on vocal-led ballads like "The Future Is the Present."
Gathered alongside bassist Ben Prohaska at a St. Paul watering hole on a recent Tuesday night (drummer Noah Paster is in Chicago gigging with Zoo Animal), Fox and Moore readily acknowledge that the Hello Blue of 2012 often bears only a passing resemblance to the band's earlier recorded incarnation.
"A lot of the changes are just a result of maturity," offers Moore of the group's more immediately melodic and economical new material. "You could argue that when someone puts out an album where every song is six minutes long they might be doing that because they feel they have something to prove [laughs]. We've realized there are other ways to grab the listener's attention that aren't necessarily getting really quiet and then slamming on the distortion. Adding two or three harmonies over a really chilled-out melody or keeping a melody for the second verse and bringing in different instrumentation can be just as effective. The idea of quality versus quantity was big for us."
"There was a specific push to shorten things up," concurs Fox. "We set out with this record to see if it was possible for us to write three-minute songs. Is that something Hello Blue even does?"
Helping the band answer that question and find firm footing in their new musical identity in the studio was producer Ryan Olcott, the veteran frontman of bands like 12Rods and Mystery Palace — both groups known for their careful attention to sonic details. Olcott turned out to be exactly the guiding hand Moore and Fox needed to coax them out of their home-recording rabbit hole and finally push their songs into the light.
"It took us a number of years but we've finally realized that we're a band that needs concrete deadlines in order to make things actually happen," admits Moore. "Linking up with Olcott was huge because we finally had that outside perspective to say, 'Here's what's speaking to me, these are the songs I'm excited about it.' Once that happened things gathered momentum pretty quickly."
Burnishing their sound without sapping its winning spikiness, the new Hello Blue are now ready to reemerge, but still driven far more by internal goals than any thoughts of a rapid ascent up the local scene ladder. Rapid just isn't their style.
"I don't really set external goals; I prefer impossible personal goals," offers Fox only half-jokingly as our conversation winds down. "For me the goal is to make my own favorite album, which I know will never ever happen. It's a completely unachievable goal, but it keeps me working. Maybe that's totally narcissistic, I don't know. But I think it's a good goal."