This past January, local indie group Carroll recorded their debut full-length album over a period of two and a half weeks in the Philadelphia studio of acclaimed producer Jonathan Low, who has worked with the likes of Sharon Van Etten, Local Natives and the National. Carroll are in the midst of a very busy summer with Saturday's 10 Thousand Sounds Festival just around the corner, followed by more local fest appearances and a First Avenue mainroom show with Strange Names, Tickle Torture, and Two Harbors this August. Plans for a fall tour are underway as the band continues to seek label backing, and the still-unreleased album hangs delicately in the balance.
Gimme Noise recently joined front man Brian Hurlow and guitarist Max Kulicke for coffee at Urban Bean, to talk about the much-anticipated new album and to learn more about the band who, with just one EP under their belt (last year's Needs) have left such an indelible mark on the Minneapolis music scene.
Gimme Noise: Are you satisfied with your new album, despite the pressure to record within a definite period of time?
Max: The limitations make you work faster and smarter. When I go back and listen to it, there are little things that I would change again if I had more time and more money to do it, but there are also things that I couldn't re-create again in that moment. You kind of just have to learn that you're never going to get a perfect picture. It's a really wonderful snapshot of those eighteen days.
Brian: I don't think you ever leave a recording experience being like, all right, everything is in the bag! It's part of like, having a baby.
Can you talk about recording the first single, "Bad Water?"
Brian: That was an insane experience.
Max: It came out so well. It's like a little pop gem. We just knew it had to be a single.
Brian: For nine of the songs, we had a really clear plan of what we wanted to do in the studio. Our time was so limited that we needed that. We had this one outlined, and we thought it would be a different song that we would record. A week before we were going in we were like, let's try this one, because we liked this shred of a thing. The day we started recording drums for it we all got up in the morning, started doing the drums, and just started playing the song. John ran in from the control room and was just like, "No, cut that right there! Try it like this!" We tried it together as a group and we probably did three takes on the drums. Charlie [Rudoy] was just going, and then he hit it, and we were like, all right, that's it! If that's the drum part, we'll figure out what the song is like.
Max: I didn't know what any of my guitar parts would be. It's the only song we went in with without an intention and it's all there.
Brian: We learned a lesson there too, in that as much as you want to think about your music so much, sometimes you need to take the plunge and just jump in and record something in the moment.
How would you describe the album's sound?
Brian: The sound is pretty layered. We use a lot of keyboards and guitar. We do a ton of overdubbing and then mix it just in a certain way. I would describe our music as ornate, and intricate in certain ways. A lot of hidden traps and contours to each song. Some of my favorite music, or what I strive for, is trying to make pop songs that read like pop songs but have like, all of this extra added complexity and detail in the span of like, a 3 minute, 2 minute, 55 second song. That's what gets me really excited -- the union between simple tried and true pop songs and really interesting arrangements.
Max: Expansive instrumentation. I think what I would like is, if you heard our song being played on a laptop across the room you could hear the melody and you could hum the melody back to yourself, like, the hook of the song. If you were to listen to the same song again by yourself with headphones, there would be a whole extra world that you hadn't heard before. I think our music at its best tries to hit on those two levels of like, it's a pop song, it's supposed to be catchy like a pop song, you're supposed to get it right away like a pop song, but we also worked so hard on harmonies, layers, guitar counterpoints... who's playing what register on what instrument, stuff like that where when you really listen to it there's so much intention to every single layer that's there. I think we always try to focus on those two things.
Where did the name Carroll come from?
Brian: It was the street that we all met on. We all lived on Carroll Avenue in St. Paul. It's a lot less cool of a story than some. I wish it was like, my Grandma gave us an idea for a song, and her name was Carroll. It's not that.
Max: A thousand butterflies landed in front of us and they spelled Carroll.
Brian: Carroll represented a place where we felt like we could experiment with music and that felt good, so we named the band after that.
Do you have a steady fan base that has stuck with you since you began?
Brian: Dude, absolutely. That's been really amazing. I see people on the street sometimes, too. Yesterday some guy was like, "Yo, I've got my ticket for the 8th!" I was like, "What's on the 8th? What is it?" And he was like, "You're playing that show!" I was like, "Oh, yeah, I can't wait, that's gonna be awesome." That happens to me pretty frequently, actually. We don't take that for granted. That's a really amazing thing. I don't know what it would be like in other cities. Obviously people in Minnesota and Minneapolis for that matter put an emphasis on live music. I think we've definitely been the beneficiaries of that. People dig it in principal. They're like, yo, I like seeing shows. We definitely have bands that we hang out with, and that's really fun. We have a small, insular group I suppose.
Max: I don't think there are really a lot of bands that are making music of the sort that we're making here, but that's almost beside the point. I wouldn't want to hang out with like, the four other bands that are all making the exact same music. It's nice to have a group of musicians that are your friends that are all doing their own thing because that's what they're in to. You sort of meet more on, like, the priorities and goals and aspirations of being a musician, rather than, like, getting together so you can all talk about how much you like Tame Impala.
Brian: Although we do do that.
Max: We do that as a band, but if that was the only thing we had to talk about with other bands it would be kind of shitty. It's nice that there's a diversity of acts around. We've found some really like-minded people in other bands that we play with regularly.
Brian: We met Strange Names at one of our first shows, and they invited us to go get popcorn somewhere afterward. We went to some bar, and it was hilarious. It was one of those bars that has popcorn. I can't remember if it was Manny's, or something, in Como. They're like, yo, we're gonna go out afterward. We hung with them and we were like, oh, these guys are pretty friendly.
Max: Two years later we're still playing shows together.
Brian: We're really tight with Frankie Teardrop, from Gloss. We knew those guys back when they were in previous bands, and they form new bands and we keep track of them and hang with them. I've been doing this forever. I probably never will do anything else. I've never been in another band. [page]
What is the greatest thing you've learned since you started?
Brian: I've learned that the sum of our parts as musicians is stronger than any one person's creative vision. Bands are cool because they sound like bands. They're not cool when it sounds like some guy wrote a bunch of songs then was like, "Yo, dude, play the guitar part that I can play and already did on our record." Having an actual organic creativity happen between people is the essence of being a collaborative ensemble. There's also times where I think we have to balance those trade-offs a little bit. There's times where I need to be like, "Okay, we can't do this," or times where I don't exert that kind of control. It's cool when I come to practice and I have an idea for a song and play a demo, and Charles is like, "No, this is the bass line." It kind of throws me for a loop, learning those things and learning to do a collaborative band sustainably over time. Some bands end up fighting, but we're just pretty into it.
Max: We're all good friends, which most of the time helps. One of the things I had to come to grips with is that you're not going to make everybody happy all the time. Some people aren't going to like your music and that's part of the deal. If you're going to be a creative person who is putting stuff out and sharing something with the world, you have to be prepared for people who are going to not like what you're doing, not understand what you're doing, talk shit about you, generally just insult or demean whatever endeavor that you're working on. That's okay. That's part of the deal. But it's hard, because you work so hard on something and you put everything you've got into it, and someone is like... The one that just came to mind was that somebody tweeted at one of our shows, "Sounded like the '80s took a dump on Carroll," which apart from just being funny content, it sure sounds like an insult even though I'm not really sure I get it. You have to take that in stride.
Brian: Perhaps she meant it really positively.
Max: Like, "Yeah, this is that '80s dump sound I've been waiting for!"
Brian: That shit doesn't phase me at all, but it is funny.
Max: They cared enough to say something negative.
Brian: I've learned that you don't always have to be funny onstage. You don't always have to have banter. We still miserably fail, and will continue to do that. I think when every band gets started, they're tuning, and they're like, "Hey everyone, thanks for coming to the Cause bar," and it's just like painfully awkward. I've seen some bands recently that just opt not to do it or only do it when they feel compelled and I think we're shooting for that.
You could just do what Frankie Teardrop does and say weird shit that makes people feel uncomfortable...
Max: It's nice because without having explicitly talked to Frankie about it, it's almost a shield he gets to hide behind, which is a beautiful thing. I'm actually the only person in the band when we're playing who doesn't have a microphone and I feel really lucky for that most of the time. Sometimes when somebody else in the band is making some stupid joke I'm like, "God damn it, why aren't I telling the joke?" Most of the time it's just nice to not have to necessarily like feel like in between songs you need to make a joke or you need to say something super sincere or like, be ingratiating or something. It's easier to mess up than it is to get it right every time.
Set Times: 4:10 p.m. Tree Blood 4:55 p.m. Frankie Teardrop 5:40 p.m. Carroll 6:30 p.m. Allan Kingdom 7:20 p.m. Sylvan Esso 8:35 p.m. Poliça
Carroll. With Sylvan Esso, Poliça, Allan Kingdom, Frankie Teardrop, and Tree Blood. The 2014 10 Thousand Sounds Festival, presented by Coldwell Banker Burnet, will be held between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 26, at the parking lot on Hawthorne Avenue between North 10th and 11th Streets in downtown Minneapolis.
Tickets are $25 (general admission) / $45 (VIP). Available here. Note, VIP tickets will not be sold at the door, and GA tickets will be $30 at the door.
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