There's something irresistible about how difficult it is to label City on the Make's music, and it's part of what makes their latest album, Keep This on Fire, so intoxicating. Their music pulls from a variety of genres—strains of blues mix with hip hop and punk, while the band members feed off one another like a jazz combo gone mental—and the addition of more experimental sounds on the new record shows that City on the Make is evolving into one of most interesting and forward-thinking bands around.
Songs like "Combat Zone" and "Ships Across the Ocean" explore a softer side of lead singer/growler Mike Massey's vocal range, while more up-tempo songs like "New Shoes" and "No Love City" will sound familiar to fans of their live shows. Lyrically, Massey spends the album yo-yoing between a few personas as well: He's part comedian ("I hang out with artists/But I am not a vegan"), part swagger and scoff ("It's gonna be a hot summer/I soaked the city in the sweat from my balls"), and part hopeless romantic ("My heart is too big/It gets me into all kinds of jams"). Regardless of the shifting moods and genres, however, Keep This on Fire sounds like City on the Make the whole way through, and it's another promising step forward for the group.
In preparation for their CD-release show this Friday, we sat down with Massey, drummer Colin Stumbras, bass player Stephen Rowe, and guitarist Mischa Kegan to talk about the production of their third and best record yet.
City Pages: The new record combines a lot of new sounds and techniques. What was the recording process this time around?
Colin Stumbras: We wanted to do a more cohesive project than the EP [last year's $1,000,000]. We wanted to do something bigger, and something a little more focused. So we went up to a cabin in the wintertime.
Mike Massey: We decided the best and most rewarding thing we could do was find a place that was isolated and far away and fun to go to. We went to a friend's family's cabin; we've been going there since high school. It's a really small little fishing and hunting cabin toward Mille Lacs.
Stumbras: I think it lent itself to the kind of record we wanted to make. The first record we made, we had like four different recording sessions over the course of six months or eight months, which caused a sort of choppy feel.
CP: How would you describe the sound of the new record?
Massey: There's this odd mix of organic and inorganic sounds on the record that I like. There's a fair amount of treatment on the vocals, but at the same time there's always one raw track somewhere in there. That was fun, too, recording vocals in different rooms. We did some down in our basement, some in my room.
CP: All four of you have worked together at the Dakota Jazz Club, and three of you still work there. Has that affected your outlook on music?
Stephen Rowe: It teaches you how to appreciate a good show.
Massey: And working there has taught us about long sets. I really, really feel strongly about playing more than 45 minutes.
Stumbras: I love it when somebody comes in and plays their first set for 75 minutes, and then comes out and plays a completely different set for another 80, 90 minutes.
Massey: That's so much more interesting than seeing five bands on a bill. Even if they are five bands you like.
Mischa Kegan: A longer set—at least for a band like us, where we don't have a singular sound—it lets us flex a little more. If we can do a really varied set where we do some of our slower stuff, and then do our really up, loud, Mike-screaming-at-you stuff—the varied qualities of the music are going to pique different people's interests. Honestly, I'm really bored with music where your whole set sounds exactly the same.
CP: How would you describe your band's sound?
Massey: I don't want to say we're making anything remarkably new, but it's hard—we fit weirdly on bills. Indie-rock people think we're hip hop; hip-hop people think we're indie rock. People call us blues, and we're not a blues band. We're not a punk band. I don't know what the fuck post-punk means, but people say that. But for very real purposes, there has to be a genre. That's why we call ourselves rock 'n' roll.
Kegan: It's always been an issue. We always say rock 'n' roll because it's the easiest.
Massey: I like not playing to a regimental kind of music.... There's people that very much enjoy what we do because they can't put their finger on it. And they have fun trying. We get weird things, like, "Man, that was like Boz Scaggs!" [laughs] What?
CITY ON THE MAKE play a CD-release show with Crunkmonster on FRIDAY, JULY 3, at the 400 BAR; 612.332.2903