There's an app for songwriting, and the Usual Things' Aaron Shekey built it.
A few years back, Shekey and Joseph Kuefler (formerly of the Alarmists) started developing Hum (not to be confused with Verizon's car add-on of the same name). The application stores lyrics and recordings, and allows the user to sort them by attributes like key and mood.
“I can ask for anything I’ve ever recorded that’s slightly sad in the key of F#,” Shekey explains. “When it comes to curating material for a record, or if a song needs a bridge or I want a certain mood. I can also easily demo every version of every song. It allows us to give back to a community that has given us so much.”
On their third album, Backup Plans, the Usual Things put that app to the test. Now the five members of the Minneapolis band are gathered at a table in the back of the Herkimer in Uptown, discussing how that new release came to be.
First, a little history. Until recently, the quintet had included a cast of rotating members, but their lineup seems to have solidified: Shekey, Layne Knutson, Dan Braak, Andriana Lehr, and Sam Hall. The band's two original members, Knutson and Shekey, met in high school in Middleton, Wisconsin. Shekey moved up to the Twin Cities in 2004 to attend school for graphic design, and Knutson followed a year later, but then settled in Eau Claire instead.
Things were slow going until 2008, when Shekey sent a MySpace message to Art Alexakis, asking the Everclear frontman if he ever produced albums. Surprisingly, Alexakis responded, and the next day he was on the phone inviting them to Portland, where they recorded their debut, Middle Coast, that fall.
Seven years later, however, the process was reversed: It was a producer who contacted Shekey. In late 2015, Andy Thompson sent a message asking about Hum, and after checking out Thompson’s credits, which include work with Taylor Swift, Jeremy Messersmith, and Dan Wilson, Shekey roped the producer into working with the Usual Things.
Thompson’s methods differed from those used by Alexakis and Jordan Schmidt, who produced the band’s second album, Home Sweet Alone. Previously, there had been time limits: The band had a certain number of days to finish recording and production. But with Thompson, the band was able to go to different studios and take their time with overdubs. And though they were used to recording separate tracks, he even convinced them to play live in the studio.
“Andy is the first person outside the band who has the chops to make a great record,” Shekey says. “It felt like such a relief to record someone with that improv mindset. With other producers, it’s always met with a little reticence, but with Andy, when we brought up an idea, it was always, ‘Yes, and…’”
To prove how effective Shekey’s app could be, the band used Hum to write the entire record, which changed the way they worked and allowed them to explore new ideas, both musically and lyrically.
“When it comes to writing, the biggest commodity is time, in that not everyone has the time involved in capturing the lightning when it’s ready to strike,” Shekey says. “Oftentimes it's fragmented over sessions, and most songs are a lot of work. They’re actually more work than discovery most times. The hardest thing is to finalize ideas and fully explore them. Hum can capture those tiny moments.”
The result is a collection of perfectly complementary samples snipped and assembled to form a rooted, sincere listening experience.
“The theme to this record is try not to be too good at what you’re good at, because that can be a trap,” Braak says. “In my case, [Hum has] opened a lot of doors. Aaron wrote the lyrics, and we would make suggestions on how songs should be. We were driving back from Eau Claire, and [he] played me the beginning of what was to be ‘Tumblin'."
"You kicked the door with that one, because you wrote it in a day," Shekey says to his bandmate. "I dreamt a line from that song, and we all encouraged each other.”
“When I’m at my shitty day job, I know I can get onstage, and I fucking slay -- I destroy,” Braak says. “Every now and again when I have to answer an email, I think to myself, ‘Yeah, I fuckin' destroy the guitar,’ to be able to get through the day.”
The Usual Things
With: Candid Kid and The Modern Era
Where: 7th St. Entry
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. June 29
Tickets: 18+, $10, more info here