It's been two years since the members of Halloween, Alaska played together on stage. In that time priorities have been rearranged—children born, houses bought, side projects conceived of and finished. Yet the band remained the band, working steadily, if sporadically, on the new album. At once melodious, disharmonious, soothing, and jarring, Champagne Downtown explores the notions and noises of American luxury, and what that phrase, "American luxury," means—if it means anything at all.
In anticipation of the band's CD-release show this weekend at First Avenue, City Pages caught up with Halloween, Alaska drummer David King and guitarist/vocalist James Diers to talk about the new album, lineup changes, and staying apolitical in a divisive age.
City Pages: It's been a couple of years since you guys have performed together. Was this an actual sabbatical, or just a circumstantial break?
James Diers: The whole lifespan of the band thus far coincided with some pretty major changes in everyone's lives: the birth of several children, a couple of cross-country moves on my part, the gradual "retirement" of one of our original members. These are typical reasons for a band to go on some kind of hiatus. Maybe ours was a little more drawn out than most. But our collective desire—which bordered on a kind of loving desperation—to make another record together kept us invested.
David King: I think it would be wrong to say we took a sabbatical. It's been two years since we played live, but we were working on the record the entire time. We took it seriously. The experience could be compared to making an animated film; we were looking closely at each frame. Which meant we may have taken too much time on, like, a tambourine segment. Two years went by. And when I say that I hope it doesn't sound like some Brian Wilson shit where we're in the studio 17 hours a day—it was pecked away at.
CP: Has the band undergone any changes that can't be reversed or mitigated?
Diers: Well, the personnel shift was the most tangible change. Ev [Olcott], our keyboardist, decided a couple of years ago that he was no longer interested in touring. He was still involved with writing and recording, but his collective experience in touring bands, mainly 12 Rods, killed his appetite for that kind of travel. That's when Jake Hanson came on board. We initially tried to draft him with the idea that he would pick up Ev's parts and then maybe add some other guitar or vocal stuff here and there. But in the process of getting Jake incorporated into live shows, it became pretty obvious that he was too capable on guitar to keep him plunked down in front of a laptop. So the way it worked out, I wound up taking over more keyboard duties while Jake worked himself into stuff on guitar. That difference has definitely been borne out in some of the writing we've done over the last year or so.
CP: Did that change affect your live show?
King: We lost a real key member when we lost Ev, so we had to figure out a way to do it without him. We pride ourselves on being able to pull this stuff off live, without sequences and things. We've really been working on—and feeling pretty good about—getting it down. Now we really like the idea of just the four of us pulling off this music live. So that's why we're excited to come back out now, and play this new record, which is the largest in scope we've done, and probably the most complex.
CP: Your music has a tendency to be at once ambient and poppy, which seem to be acoustic opposites: one style fading into the background and one demanding attention. Is it difficult to reach this balance?
Diers: Since the beginning of the band, we've definitely been interested in ambient textures, for lack of a better word. That said, anytime you use "ambient" in a genre tag it can imply a spare, meditative quality that doesn't always necessarily apply. But in the sense that we're interested in creating some kind of sonic setting, I guess it's an apt descriptor. I don't find it too daunting balancing that kind of approach with a pop sensibility. It's less a balancing act than a blending process, trying to combine elements that are inviting—a lyric, a melody, a refrain—with elements that are maybe a bit more singular, more specific to a particular place or sound or experience that might not be for everyone.
King: The sound of the band comes naturally. Ultimately it's not, like, avant-garde chamber music. Hopefully we're not pretentious. We want to make intelligent, kind of literary, progressive ideas in the music. And we're trying to strike that balance by not having the standard bass-guitar-drums setup. So we're incorporating live electronics and keyboards and ambient sounds with this pop element. Ultimately, though, all the songs start with a raw element—just a piano or a guitar. From the bones of the tune, we can see what we want it to be when it gets all those colors. But they start out pretty simply.
CP: Does this blending ever result in a sort of ironic quality, where one style might seem to be imitating or even making fun of the other?
Diers: Irony is something we're all pretty dubious about, actually. I like to think we actually err on the side of sincerity, even if it's not always totally direct.
King: In a way we're an open challenge to the idea of ironic music. "Paradoxical" may be a better term for us. "Irony" feels like we're smart-assy white kids. Ultimately we're not winking or thinking we're really clever. We really are arriving at the sound and the lyrical tone in a less calculated way, trying to paint this picture that's actually quite hopeful.
CP: "Hopeful." The album was written at a time before the word "hope" entered the national lexicon. And some of the lyrics—"America, fresh out of surprises," for example—seem a little disaffected, if not ironic.
Diers: I've made a concerted effort to not be preoccupied with politics in my writing over the past few years. Instead, I tried to isolate and refine my idea of what being an American means, completely separate from political concerns. I've been preoccupied with an idea I refer to as "the end of luxury." Things that used to be symbols of status or wealth have become widely accessible, or cheapened somehow, or both. A 16-year-old might have gems in his teeth. Ordinary chumps drink champagne and craft beer. The idea of what is actually a luxury is morphing into something that seems separate from how refined your taste is. Somewhere in there I started wondering what it would be like to have America as a girlfriend, and how that might be cool or might be kind of a drag. That song, "Hot Pink," imagines a significant other who has only the worst kinds of proto-American traits. The "fresh out of surprises" bit mostly just refers to the idea that it's increasingly hard to feel genuinely shocked or surprised by anything, whether you blame that on cultural saturation or higher tolerance for bullshit or what-have-you.
HALLOWEEN, ALASKA will play a CD-release show with Chris Koza and Aby Wolf on FRIDAY, APRIL 10, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775