"There have been lots of little things, but we never beat the crap out of each other," says Story of the Sea drummer Ian Prince. "It's usually pretty healthy because we can be pretty honest."
He's talking about his relationship with his older brother, singer/guitarist Adam Prince, with whom he's played in bands for nearly two decades. Adam and the rest of Story of the Sea (bassist John McEwen and guitarist Damon Kalar) are arrayed around the younger Prince's Northeast home on a grimly cold winter night. His ori pei ("Half Shar-Pei, half pug," he explains) is socked out in the corner. The camaraderie is clear, the conversation casual.
"There's also that sort of instinctual musical understanding, too," he continues, and the rest of the band is quick to jump in.
"When I started playing with them, you could tell that that's how they communicated," says McEwen from behind a magnificent winter beard. "They know where each other are going musically, which is weird."
"With the new stuff," says Kalar, who joined the band about a year and a half ago, "Adam will say, 'Well, I was thinking about this' and he'll take a half a second to explain and Ian will just lock in. Me and John have none of that with these guys; it all has to be spelled out very, very carefully. All of the bonuses that the brothers have—the honesty and the telepathic communication—me and John have none of that."
But it's not hard to see how a blend of telepathy and careful explanation might be one of the band's strengths. Their sound strikes a balance between catharsis and careful construction, and the maturation process between their debut record, 2006's Enjoying Fire, and the soon-to-be-released Lunar Co. is unmistakable. Although their rock still finds its footing in the late-'90s heyday of fiery, melodic post-punk and power-pop, their sophomore record is as taut and lean as their first was fleshy and epic.
"I'd Like to Meet You" crashes the gates with start/stop guitars strung out along suspension bridges built from Ian Prince's drums, a pattern that recurs throughout the album. The drums are constantly working in counterpoint with the melodies and the rest of the instruments; on "Smoking" (a kind of wry public-service announcement with a hook that goes, "If I didn't start smoking/I might have been a millionaire"), the sunny, wistful chords fall against the verses in odd ways, but Ian's playing guides them deftly along, knocking you off balance before pulling you back.
Throughout, the starkness of the record is leavened by the light touch of a vocal harmony here, a glockenspiel there, the occasional breakdown (as on the smartly swaying "Own Devices") that shifts a song gently into a space of serious pop perfection. This seems to be where the hand of semi-legendary producer J. Robbins (the man behind the boards for albums by the Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil, Hey Mercedes, the Dismemberment Plan, and his own band, Burning Airlines) can be most keenly felt.
"Well," begins Ian, explaining how they ended up working with one of the godfathers of post-punk, "we had a song on For Callum [a benefit compilation for Robbins's son, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy], so he knew of us through that already, and Zach [Barocas, former drummer for Robbins's band Jawbox and recent Twin Cities resident] talked about it to J. and he was up for it. We'd get mixes from him and have this ongoing dialogue and I kept thinking, 'Wow, that's J. Robbins.' He obviously gets where we're coming from because we kind of grew up listening to him."
The other secret weapon on Lunar Co. is Kalar, who adds a wealth of talent to the band—what you might call the intangibles—since he joined. "He's a great musician," says McEwen, "and he brought a lot to the table because he can play keyboards and guitar and had all these effects and all these things that we wanted to do with a fourth member."
Ian puts it more succinctly: "He's our Jonny Greenwood," name-checking Radiohead's guitar and sound genius.
Kalar brought a much-needed breath of new life to the recording of Lunar Co., which the band has been working on virtually since they finished Enjoying Fire. But he also had to step into an established band as a new member.
"I can tell you how I felt about the record when I heard it," Kalar says, speaking of the rough mixes he got when he auditioned. "I thought they would be a lot more serious than they are. I was actually surprised that they were as nice as they were—"
"Because it's so genius?" suggests Ian helpfully, and the whole group breaks into laughter.
STORY OF THE SEA play a CD-release show with These Modern Socks, the Life and Times, and Ice Palace on FRIDAY, JANUARY 30, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486