Formed by Brothers Ian and Ben Graham with roommate Adam Aymor during a lull in 2007, Cheap Girls have slowly burned their way up from DIY tours of the home state of Michigan to high profile opening slots for Against Me! and Gaslight Anthem. With Ian Graham's sincere, hear-tugging melodies and Aymor's heroic Mascis by way of Mould guitar, Cheap Girls also won over critics and Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. The Minneapolis-bred frontman lent his vocal talents on their new single "Knock Me Over" from their recently released Famous Graves LP. The album is a perfect shot of catchy, summer-bummer pop-punk reminiscent of Sugar or a cleaned-up Jawbreaker.
Ahead of Saturday's gig opening for the Hold Steady at the Zoo, Gimme Noise caught up with Ian Graham to discuss their time with Finn and their decision to self-produce their recording this time out.
Gimme Noise: I'm familiar with you guys from what I'd like to call the "midwestern melodic punk" circuit, but would you mind giving me a brief history of the group? You guys started around 2007 in Lansing, right?
Ian Graham-Vocals and Bass: We'd all been in bands, you know, the kind of bands that everyone is when they're teenagers. Then that kind of ended, and everyone was in some form of community college...or not in a band for the moment and kind of wondering what they were doing. It was kind of like "oh fuck...I've never not been in a band, you know? So I felt like rather than put a sign on a wall somewhere telling people to join this band, I should write as many songs that I'm happy with as possible, and the kind of have a bit of a foundation. We're not really three guys that got together and jammed and something happened. That being said, one of them is my brother and one of them has been my roommate for the past eight years, so we're pretty close anyway, and that speaks to why we've been able to stick together for a while. I think this is more than we ever set out for, I don't think we necessarily ever felt like touring all the time. My brother had just gotten married literally during the formation of the band, so there was a lot of contradictory things but somehow it has just continued to work. Not much has changed in the core dynamic of how things work since day one.
I've been a fan of you guys for a little while now, and the thing that struck me most about your songwriting is that you have a really unique and consistent sense of melody since those early days. Has your songwriting process changed much as a group?
Yes and no. It's stayed consistent in the sense that...it feels like a stupid thing to say out loud but I'm the "key songwriter." So I write songs on solo acoustic guitar and then Adam is a way way better at guitar than me or most of the people that I know, so I he takes them from there. Obviously with time, I think if anything's changed it's that everbody's gotten a little bit more intentional. So not much has changed, but at the same time everyone has grown really focused on doing what they want to do, and making something that has staying power with themselves, or is reflective of the records that they were listening to heavily. I think it's just making records that we'd want to hear.
Being a songwriting bass player can sometimes be a tricky position to fill in a group. I'm just curious, has it ever crossed your mind to bring on another bass player, or is Cheap Girls firmly just the three of you fellas?
Well, in all honesty, I would rather be a guitar player in this band than the bass player. But the three of of us are very close, and no one has really presented themselves at this point that would be an obvious choice for that, so it would clearly shift the dynamic. Maybe that would be a good thing, but there's a whole lot of maybes with that. It would be my dream for us to be a five-piece, of course I'd love to hear these songs with a sweet organ track, or an extra guitar, but a lot of it is just the fact that the 3 of us are very close people. It would definitely be a weird shift to just add some fourth guy. But if you've heard the new record, on the song "Shortcut Days," the acoustic guitar rhythm thing is as important as the lead line, they both need to be there, we couldn't play it live without both of them. So we've actually never heard that song in a room with all the parts played at the same time, except for in our studio. Plus, playing pretty straightforward rock songs as three people, it was a different story when we played 25 minute sets in basements, but now that we get to play 45 minutes in theaters, I would definitely be up for another guitar to be there.
You guys partnered with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me for the last record, but for the most part you've been self-produced. What approach did you take on Famous Graves?
We did produce this one ourselves. Even as music fans, we didn't really know how to define what a producer really was or wasn't, way bay. Working with one like Laura who has so much experience with Butch Vig, who is a an A-List, very involved, full on producer. But a lot of people in the industry will throw the word "producer" on there when the guy who recorded the record didn't give any advice, he just set up some microphones and they liked his name so they put him as the producer. I felt like with this record, we really did produce it, where as with the previous records it was like "well, we've got this week to go in and play them the way we did in practice." That's what the record has to be, and is going to be.
Working with Laura was the first time where someone asked "should that chorus be there twice, should be there at all? Should the intro be twice as long? Half as long?" So we got a grasp on, not necessarily a formula, but a mindset of analyzing songs, and then learned the beyond that, you eventually have to go and play these songs live. So it really came down to considering the fluency of songs, and even the fluency of a record, while still being able to connect it to simply the way it feels best to be played. Moreso than anything else, it feels like our record, like we did every last thing we could to kind of please ourselves, and we were lucky to have that luxury.
To me, this record shows you guys embracing a cleaner, brighter sound that really works for you. There's a lot of acoustic guitar jangle, compared to Orange's electric-driven vibe.
To be honest, the secretive side of it was that I definitely did try to inch it into a category where the idea of adding that second guitar player was not as out of the question [laughs]. There's a lot more acoustic tracks, things that one guy with an electric guitar can't do, but then again, back to Adam being a really good guitar player, he found a way to get around that.
I think it's more layered, we definitely wanted it to be "studio" record, like "let's hear all of these different sounds" and waste all this fucking time by putting a microphone eight inches further away and stuff [laughs]. Adam of I had a lot of time. Ben was expecting his first child, so he basically did his drum track, some vocal backups and kind of got the fuck out to go hang out with his wife. But at the same time, Ben's a very hardworking dude, he's just not the type that could sit around in a studio for three months and really give a shit what gauge of strings were on the acoustic. So Adam and I really got to have our fun, making sounds, adding parts, adding layers. I think in the way that we learned a lot having Laura as our producer, I think, in our own ways, we learned the same thing this time through for ourselves. Where to save time and where to waste time, next time around, so we still learned something with it. That was kind of our goal with self-producing, to take something key away from it, and I think we got that.
That's also something that I've always really admired about your group, you've been commited to this long-term sort of DIY hustle that seems to be paying off for you more and more every year. Did you sets your sights a little higher for this release?
To be honest, we were going to scale it back. Well, not scale it back in the sense that we'd be a less active band, but we were going to kind of divvy up years, rather. Like "let's not go out for six weeks." I have a body issue where I cannot go out for a long period of time, and Ben has a baby, so the idea was "let's go out for 10, 12 days and make it very focused, and then take three weeks off." The idea was to do an ample amount of touring, but also take these brakes where we could more consistently write and put out music, and evolve kind of on a musical level as much as we're evolving on a performance level.
That being said, we've been lucky enough to tour with our best friends this year, between Against Me!, The Hold Steady and Andrew Jackson Jihad, so there's been a lot of things that would be foolish and not very much fun to say no to. We would just be kicking ourselves to be sitting at home and knowing that there was all this going on that we could've been a part of. So everyone's just been kind of making it work.
Why partner with Xtra Mile this time around? How's that been?
I mean, we've been on a billion fucking labels. They were the label that was most interested in letting us go into the studio...it's not so much a surprise, but when you work with a producer who's not normally a producer, someone like Laura, there's a an expectation like "well, who are they gonna work with next?" So a few labels were very hesistant, like "what, you're not going to use a producer again that we can slap a fuckin' sticker on the cover for?" And Xtra Mile was the most down with that. They heard these demos that we did, and were kind of ready to go with it.
I mean, we know we're not gonna sell a million records, so we just want it to be available and we'll do the other work. They were the best fit for that, and they're very fucking blue collar, which is admirable. Cool people with cool histories, a and a lot of our friends worked for them and vouched for them, so it made a whole lot of sense.
While Laura Jane seems to be have been something of a muse or mentor for Giant Orange, it seems like Craig Finn has served a similar role for you guys on Graves. What's the story there? How did y'all meet?
I think that Boys and Girls in America record came out maybe 6 months before I started writing the songs for our first record, and definitely played a key role in it. So to be doing shows with them is really kind of...like they're our Replacements for our generation or something. So it means the world that we get to do even one show with them, let alone a number of shows.
We met because we were playing in Brooklyn, and I knew that he was aware of the band, I had heard that he was a fan of the band, so I reached out to him on Twitter. So we said something like "hey, we're playing the Knitting Factory tonight," and he responds like "Sorry, I gotta be up early, I'm running a marathon in the morning. But are you gonna be in New York anymore?" We happened to have a press day, so a couple of days later we went out at one on a Monday afternoon and sat and had beers until like seven pm, and just kind of became friends. We've got a billion friends that we share in Minneapolis, so of course we exchanged Paddy [Costello, of Dillinger Four] stories, and talked about bars we liked and bands we liked, and just kind of hit it off.
So when it came time to do the record, I had a vocal part in mind. His voice has such a unique texture to it, it's not gritty, but it has texture. So we kinda just wanted him to do some vocal stuff, and we kind of thought, being as busy as he is, that he'd just want to mail it in. But he was like "You know, I've done stuff before from different locations and I've never been really happy with how it turned out, so just let me know if I can come to the studio." So we flew him to where we were finishing the record, and we just hungout and fuckin' partied...I mean, we worked, but we worked leisurely and had a good time for 3 or 4 days, and really hit it off. Hold Steady was getting ready to release their record, and we ended up finding ourselves in a similar cycle of things, and things just fell into place. [Chuckles] I think it's just so wild to be on tour with a band that is so incredible, they definitely have a special place for me. I think that's why they were so inspiring when I was writing our first record. There was this band that was doing everything I wanted to hear, and I thought "damn, I would like to do that too. These guys are doing it and they're not any better looking than me." [laughs]
But can I ask you a question? What do you think we've got in store for us at this venue?
I was actually just about to ask you that. Doing the Zoo is going to be a pretty big jump from the Triple Rock where I saw you guys last. You've been known for having funny stories from playing a lot of strange DIY spaces, but that' gotta be one to add to the list.
Yeah, we had a sort of double take when we saw that. This isn't just some venue called "The Music Zoo." We're playing the fuckin' zoo. We honestly didn't know for a while because we just saw the name, which is the Weesner Ampitheater. I just kinda figured, you know, we're playing with the Hold Steady in Minneapolis, they probably do well for themselves, it's probably just a nice, small amphitheater that was some cool new step, kind of a congratulatory thing for a long-standing band with a new record. It wasn't until we saw Subway tweet at us that we realized it was a summer concert series. But if we gotta play a zoo, I think the odds of us playing a zoo ampitheater with a band that we like as much as The Hold Steady has got to be pretty rare.
Cheap Girls. Opening for the Hold Steady. $45/$57.50, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 5 at the Minnesota Zoo. Tickets.
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