Carroll's Brian Hurlow: We focus on the architecture of songs

Carroll's Brian Hurlow: We focus on the architecture of songs
Photo by Allison Zeal

It's been a hot week for local indie-rock quartet Carroll, composed of Brian Hurlow (keys/guitar/vocals), Max Kulicke (guitar), Charlie Rudoy (drums), and Charles McClung (bass/vocals). After self-releasing their debut EP Needs on Monday, the band released their very first music video and were announced as one of three finalists in Vita.MN's Are You Local? contest. Not bad for the first time around the block for the young Macalester grads.

Needs is a perfectly crafted indie-pop gem. Lead singer Hurlow's light voice is wired to the dreamy five tracks on the EP, a deliberate mash-up of noise and art. It's the kind of thing the indie music blogosphere and world at large will eat up -- songs that recognize their own irony and shrug it off. There's no denying the delicious and irresistible pop hook that Hurlow weaves in on the debut single "Lead Balloon" and on their recently released "Billionaire," but perhaps what's more interesting are the little things the band works in between -- layered atmospherics, a dissonant chord that shouldn't work but does. 

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For someone who spent a chunk of his middle school years touring the world on a sailboat with his family, Hurlow seems remarkably well-adjusted. In an interview with Gimme Noise, the young singer-songwriter spoke about the start of Carroll and where the band is going next.

Gimme Noise: Tell me about the album. How did the album happen? How long have you guys been playing together?

Brian Hurlow: Carroll as a band has been about a year project. Members of the band have been playing together in various forms for many years... as I look back on it, longer than is readily apparent. Carroll's been alive for a year.

We met at Macalaster College, but we all met each other in different settings. I showed Charlie [Rudoy] a song before he went to study abroad in Senegal, and we were thinking about it for six months, he kept emailing me about it, we were trying to pan it out in sort of a grand imagination and sort of slowly build what we are now. Our band has been kind of a meticulous process, with what started as us playing in our basement trying to figure ourselves out to us playing a ton of shows. Now we have a better self-understanding of what we're about, what's we're trying to do.

The songs that are on Needs I wrote on my own, about three years ago. Charlie had been helping me put them together on demos, and we slowly added people. Even though we're a short project, we've been at music for a while, and it's cool to see it paying off.

Tell me about the evolution of your sound. I read on your bio that you started out avoiding pop, and now you're finally at a place where you're giving into it.

I think the story about our sound is like a yin-yang or a careful balance between noise and agitation and pop music. I'm a pop singer-songwriter, and there was a period of time where we were trying to stray away from that, but it's strong, conventional songwriting that really makes our songs happen, with just a tinge of something more. So we're trying to color it in a little more, trying to push those arrangements and make them more interesting, giving them textural qualities in their complexity. So it's like pop-plus. Pop++.

What were your routes at Macalester? You're working as a coder-slash-graphic designer at the Star Tribune now... How have your paths split off since graduation?

We all live some pretty turbulent lives with different strands going different places. I think we're all pretty passionate people, and music is a focus for that, and it's slowly becoming a bigger one. We all studied different stuff in college. I have a degree in political science, and I have worked as a graphic designer before... To me, it's about engineering and craft. The work that I get to do with code is kind of this healthy balance between putting pieces together in a rational way and leaving room for some spontaneous creativity.

Sounds like you're describing music.

Exactly. So those principals, I think, are really crossover. And our songs are really painstakingly constructed. We focus on the architecture of it, while leaving a little bit of room for something to happen or an accident. To me, that's the essence of the type of music that we play.

Tell me about the lyrics and how you write creatively. What does that process look like?

Writing for me is a struggle. It doesn't come naturally. Melody and expression is super easy for me, it comes right off the tongue, whereas with writing I have to really work at it. Most of my favorite writing is music that sort of embodies and evokes instead of something that necessarily tells a narrative. I hope my writing achieves the mood in the song or matches it appropriately. I think a lot of the things I write only make sense in the context of the song. What does the process look like? Usually I kind of blurt out words. They do take form into meaningful things, something that's important to me.

So, you just got into Vita.MN's Are You Local? showcase. What does the band life of Carroll look like right now? What is the current state of things and emotions?

We're pretty psyched. Our trajectory upwards has been really fast, and it's starting to teach us things about what we want to see for the future of the band. We spent so much time trying to figure out ourselves and play a lot of shows, and we played a lot of shows where we would finish the show and kind of sit down and be like, "Okay, what exactly was that? What part of that did we like?" So we've ditched songs, we've changed members, but all with the goal of trying to find what makes us satisfied with music.

So you guys have five songs on the EP. What's next? Are you thinking about a full-length?

We have our eyes on a really great full-length, which we're about halfway done writing and putting together and we're super excited about.

Carroll will be performing at Vita.MN's Are You Local? 2013 on Friday, March 1 at Mill City Nights. Doors at 7 p.m. $13-$15. Event details here.

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