Sprechen Sie Synth Pop?

Surrounded by such stylish indie rockers, the fifth member of the band (shown here in the portrait hanging above his fellow musicians' heads) feels a little invisible: Friends Like These
photo by Warwick Green, Monty Pera

"Tell me again what we're doing tonight?" asks Matt O'Laughlin, 22-year-old drummer for the garage pop quartet Friends Like These. He's heard the plan twice already, but it's the sort of thing that requires a lot of explaining.

We're lounging in Secret Studio, the group's downtown St. Paul practice space, and there's a case of High Life in the fridge, copies of The Complete Bartender, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, and Lyric Philosophy in the book shelf, and a laptop on the desk, running Pro Tools. John Solomon, Friends' singer and guitarist, is at the computer, listening to a 15-minute version of "Good Vibrations." Bassist Steve Murray is running late, as is guitarist Adam Switlick, who alleges to have found a happy hour down the road that provides free drinks. He called 15 minutes earlier, claiming to be only a block away.

"We're going to record a song," Solomon answers without looking up.

"What song?"

"We're going to write it right now."

"What kind of song?"

Solomon, a lumbering 6'3" blond wearing a tight polo shirt with the collar up (brat-pack style), eases back his head, gives a huge, closed-lip grin, and glares down the length of his nose, as if hatching a plan to contaminate Gotham's water supply with cryptosporidium. He pauses for effect, and declares steadily: "German synth pop."

Friends Like These is not a German synth pop band. They don't use synthesizers, (though they've got a nifty one), and they sure as hell aren't German, at least not directly (Solomon's from Missouri). They've got the pop down, all right, but theirs is a warmer, late-'90s variety that would be more comfortable in the UK or New York than in the guttural landscapes of, say, Munich. At a routine rehearsal last month, a vocal monitor began distorting in the middle of a song, and Solomon shouted, "We're the Strokes!" You get the idea. They really don't have any business writing German synth pop, a genre that none of us knows an awful lot about, and a language that none of us can speak.

Solomon cuts the Beach Boys and throws on Stereo Total for inspiration. "Do you speak German?" he asks me, "'cuz you're singing."

I laugh and shake my head, slow to realize that he's not joking. "I can count to ten," I say. They smile.

This is absurd.

Two weeks earlier, Solomon had e-mailed me with some possible activities to occupy us while I got to know the band, a list of what makes these Friends tick: "1. Drinking. I tend to do that Wednesday-Sunday; 2. Garage sale shopping; or 3. Writing and recording a song at our studio, probably while drinking."

My choice was a no-brainer. In hindsight, garage sale shopping might have proved a better use of our time, since chatting over racks of used sweaters and 8-tracks is easier than shouting over blaring guitar tracks in the studio, especially when you have a bottle of High Life stuck to your mouth. Besides, Friends Like These kind of exude a garage sale aesthetic. Not just in their wardrobes, which are tight and thrifty, but in their practice space, which is littered with throwaways--broken accordions, keyboards from the '70s, old carpet, an even older piano. Even the band's pop sound is the sort of thing that people usually modify with a word like "garage," a term that itself feels used. But a day on the garage sale circuit would have yielded a lot of useless metaphors like "FLT's songcraft is a little like this macramé owl--simple yet intricate, sturdy yet delightfully imperfect," which is kind of true. Or "Murray's bass playing is as artfully deliberate as this broken exercise bike," which sounds nice, but doesn't actually mean anything. "Solomon wields his guitar like a rock 'n' roll Godzilla swinging a Tokyo skyscraper" is a truer way of describing the band, or maybe "O'Laughlin plays his drums the way sharks attack chum"--and you're not going to find that kind of action in a garage. You find it somewhere daring, somewhere sexy, somewhere that embodies the very marrow of rock 'n' roll. Say, downtown St. Paul. On a Wednesday night.

That's where Secret Studio--the narrow, two-room space where Solomon records high school metal bands in order to make rent--is hidden. It's a modest studio, which is why the group will travel to Wisconsin to record their second album this fall. But it's adequate for smaller projects, like German synth pop, or like the bulk of their debut full-length I Love You. The self-released album is a laboriously produced and impressive exercise in FLT's musical philosophy, which goes something like this: When in doubt, turn the distortion on, put your head down, hit those chords on every beat, and always, always keep the cymbals moving. Every verse is a buildup, every chorus a finale. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it keeps the heads nodding. Solomon and Switlick are aware of the pitfalls of the form--repetition, predictability, a general, tonal flatness--but they never stop keeping things interesting, employing endless creative and dynamic tricks, smart lyrics, and even the occasional orchestral swell. The result is a familiar sort of rock that invites you home, holds you tight, and says (as Solomon does on "Whiskey Pie"), "Hope you had a fucking great time."

But tonight, our fucking great time isn't about all of that. Tonight it's about German synth pop. Solomon turns off the Stereo Total. It isn't putting us in the mood. Alcohol might be of greater assistance. Murray and Switlick finally show up, beer in hand, and learn about our plans for the evening.

"This is stupid," Switlick grumbles.

Solomon, unwavering, lays down a decent verse-chorus-verse guitar line to give the song some structure. O'Laughlin's excited, running to his drums to pound out an enthusiastic beat. Murray takes care of the bass line, but he's having trouble following Solomon's chords.

"I fucked up right there," he says during the playback.

"Yeah," says Solomon, "but I kind of like it."

"It still doesn't sound like German synth pop," Switlick points out.

"That's because we haven't done the synth line yet."

Solomon hauls out an old synthesizer, and Switlick cheers up, plunking out a little melody that Solomon records immediately. Now we've only got the vocals left, and we're left at the mercy of our limited German vocabularies to find a chorus. Switlick insists on "I want to feel your love," and Solomon adds his favorite phrase from German class, "Die Butter, bitte." ("The butter, please.") We decide to call it "Last Tango in Paris." Movie buffs, insert your own punch lines.

With the chorus out of the way, the band looks at me. "You're up," says Switlick. There's no use arguing. I pull Switlick out with me for support, step up to the mic, and wait for my cue. As the synth lines bubble through the monitors, we close our eyes, feel the beat, and let it all pour out.

"Eins! Zwei! Drei...."

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