The boys in Free Energy are musicians who know what they want. And if they don't know what they want, the Philadelphia via Minneapolis power pop quintet has a knack for finding the production talent who does.
Their meticulously crafted debut, Stuck on Nothing, came out of left field back in 2010. The Red Wing natives and one-time Hockey Night members nabbed not only a home on the dance-leaning DFA Records but also label honcho and LCD Soundsystem retiree James Murphy playing producer. Their sophomore effort, January's Love Sign, was overseen by John Agnello's seasoned mixing hand. Agnello's comparably lush philosophy shows itself all over Love Sign, replete with more spacious percussion and synthetic flourishes.
City Pages: I remember seeing you guys three times in a calendar year around the time Stuck on Nothing came out. Were you guys touring that relentlessly or did you guys just work yourselves into plenty of Twin Cities bills?
Paul Sprangers: I'd say a combination of both. We definitely have a following in Minneapolis more than other cities, because we're from there. There's a foothold there. Naturally, we try to schedule shows there for that reason. But like any band promoting their first album, it was all pretty non-stop for a while.
CP: So do you guys see yourselves trimming down the dates this time around then?
PS: I think we're gonna still hit it pretty hard. We've been off the road now for close to two years, so we're itching to get back.
CP: This new record was produced by John Agnello. It sounded like you guys sought out James Murphy pretty deliberately for that first album. Was it the same situation with Agnello?
Yeah, definitely. John is somebody who kind of straddles both worlds that we're working in. He did all these '90s records that we're into like Dinosaur Jr. and Chavez and the Breeders, but he also worked with people like the Outfield and Cyndi Lauper, which we're super into production wise. It felt right. It was like the perfect combo.
CP: That all sounds like a very good fit for you guys. I remember when I heard that James Murphy was producing the first record and that it would be put out on DFA. I know Murphy is an extremely eclectic fan of music, but it still did not seem like a predictable pairing.
PS: Yeah, that was the first time we worked with a producer. And I don't even know if it would have mattered what kind of music we made. It was like the start of an education for us. It was kind of weird that it came out on that label. I think we learned a lot from James about what we wanted and how to articulate that. It all came from watching him work. And with someone like John, I think it seemed a bit easier. We slowed James down, because we'd never done it before. I see a lot of similarities between both John and James. They're both geniuses and technical wizards. And it really took us going through that process once to figure out what was expected of us.
CP: I remember you being quoted in a Spin article about James Murphy's plans after LCD Soundsystem a few years back. You talked about his ability to help the band pick an idea and stick with it through the entire record. Is that something you guys were trying to still keep in mind while recording Love Sign?
PS: It is. And it was even more important. What John does is he will help you realize your vision by helping you make whatever you want to make. So you almost have to be careful what you wish for. We were able to apply that idea about being clear and decisive. James would never let us do too many overdubs and be as flowery or dense. But John is open to all ideas. He would mix these hundreds of tracks and not even blink. What we learned with John this time is that every song needs to be clear if you want to hear all these tracks. It's kind of an extension of what we learned from James.
CP: Both of these Free Energy records sound pretty precise and calculated. Coming from your Hockey Night days that have more of a freewheeling Pavement attitude, did you always see yourselves crafting more polished products?
PS: No, we never saw it coming. We used to worship Pavement and '90s indie-rock. That's what we grew up on and that's what we wanted to reference. It kind of took us reaching the end of that to realize that maybe we aren't geniuses on are own. We started wanting to collaborate and learn from other people. And DFA is very much that. They want to work with people willing to collaborate and be open. There whole philosophy has always been that less is more. And as someone who is always throwing fucking everything into what he does, those experiences were pretty powerful.
CP: Love Sign still isn't without its flourishes. Synths and drum machines show up on a handful of tracks. After building an audience from a very meat-and-potatoes power pop debut, was it tricky to introduce these more contemporary tropes?
PS: I don't know if that's something you can think about too much. I don't feel necessarily intelligent enough to always be worried about properly straddling those two differences. We've been doing this long enough where we're in a groove. And I've never felt like we're trying to make music that sounds old. We're not trying to be like The Strokes or Jet. We try to make our stuff play at the highest fidelity possible. Our goal is to push the technical limitations of recording in the same way Fleetwood Mac was trying. We may emulate some older styles of songwriting, and I think that's what people latch onto when they say our music plays out as retro. But we are trying to make it sound contemporary as possible.
CP: Love Sign is also the first release on the band's imprint, Free People. You've said that DFA was a bit of an inspiration to self-release this record. Were there any other factors at play?
PS: I think we realized that the people around us-our publicist and our manager-everybody was really cool, so we sort of ended up with this team built around us. And we got dropped from EMI, an experience I really have no bad things to say about. We came out of it with this team in tact, and it was really nice to see that everybody stuck around. So it didn't make total sense to go back to a label again when we already had this infrastructure there given all the hyperbole about the death of the music industry. We kind of put our chips down saying this is the time to try it. Even indie labels are trying to get bands to do 360 deals when it comes to things like publishing. It just doesn't make sense for us right now. There's five of us, and people gotta eat.
CP: Do you guys have plans for the Free People imprint past a means to release Free Energy records?
PS: Scott and I originally said that this would be purely a means to put out our records. But it's already looking like that may change. Like we have friends in this band in Philly called Sweatheart, and they're great. I've been playing Scott their demos and thinking things like, "We should do a cassette release for this." Now that we have this thing, we are looking at our friends' bands and thinking about how they need to find a home, because they're weirdos like us. If this is a way to get other people's music out there, I feel like I can help. It's not like we have a huge following, but if I can help my friends that's cool. So I'm starting to see that reason of why record labels exist.
Free Energy. With Baby Boys and Strange Relations. $10. 9 p.m. Saturday, January 26 at Turf Club. Click here.