Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps were at their breaking point. Deep into the recording of their sophomore album, the band were deeply frustrated with the process—and with each other.
"We stopped liking each other," recalls bassist Jesse Schuster, one year on. You'd hardly be able to tell that now, with Schuster lounging in a booth with his bandmates at Snuffy's Malt Shop, his elbow propped up on the wall and a baseball hat angled on his head. One song in particular, though, the six-minute-long "Scholarships," had driven a wedge between them. "I hated it," Schuster admits, jabbing his finger forcefully. "It came to the point where it was like, 'I don't want to work on this anymore. I'm sick of hearing people's ideas. I thought it was fine how it was and now it sucks.'"
"We felt more pressure and stress to do something great, almost like too much pressure and stress. It got a little ridiculous," says Caroline Smith, sheepishly. Then the freckled singer, her curly hair hanging over a white summer dress, brightens up. "This record really made us realize how to communicate with each other. Like, either accept that we don't know how to communicate with each other on an artistic level, or just push our way through it and figure it out." She grins. "Almost like marriage counseling."
It's a good thing for the rest of us that the quartet stuck things out, because Little Wind is a satisfying album, one that shows marked growth since its predecessor without losing touch with any of the band's precocious energy or youthful joie de vivre. Seeking out a cleaner, more professional sound for this record, Smith and Co. recorded at the Terrarium in the hopes of coming away with something more polished than debut Backyard Tent Set. "That was an intentional goal with this record, that we wanted it to sound more mature," says drummer Arlen Peiffer, peering out from below a strawberry-patterned visor.
Nonetheless, there were times that the band members seemed to be pulling in different directions. Once again, Schuster points to "Scholarships" in elaboration. "Caroline and I get loud, really start rocking, and Arlen's like, 'No! We're a folk band. I'm going to write this dainty bell part on my little glockenspiel,'" he says. It's that very give-and-take that helps make "Scholarships" the centerpiece of the album, though, its weaving arrangement giving the song a complex, shifting character. The song is rooted in the transition from childhood to adulthood, and those subtleties help bring to life the narrator's coming-of-age story.
For Smith, the songs on Little Wind provided a new challenge as a lyricist. "When I was 16, 17, 18—the age when I was writing those songs [on Backyard Tent Set]—all I was thinking about was boys. Now I'm running out of boy material because I'm just not as concerned with it," she says, without a trace of embarrassment. "Now I'm trying to figure out, 'Okay, I'm not writing about boys, so what am I writing about?' I still don't know the answer, so stay tuned, I guess."
Even when the recording sessions were over, there were still some issues to sort out, as Peiffer explains. "In some ways, the last record was more capturing a moment. You could hear a real ambience; there's less of an ambience and more clarity [on Little Wind], which we later decided we didn't like as much, that we'd gone too far that way." So they decided to take the record to Tom Herbers, who manipulated the songs and stretched out some of the guitar parts, primarily with a space echo. Then, as if to underline the theme of change, guitarist Colin Hacklander left the group after work was finished on the album. It's up to his replacement, Dave Earl, to figure out how to translate Herbers's changes in a live setting—but it's a challenge the Good Night Sleeps are already excited about tackling.
Ultimately, Schuster is careful not to let the negatives outweigh the positives. With good reason, he's happy to soak up the events of the past year before moving on to the next phase. "This is the most fulfilling record we've made," he insists with a toss of the hand. "I'm really proud of it when I listen to it. I think it's one of those records where it should be easier to write after it because you struggled so much and learned a lot of lessons."
CAROLINE SMITH AND THE GOOD NIGHT SLEEPS play a joint CD-release show with Dead Man Winter and openers Dark Dark Dark on FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775