Two Harbors: We made this record so I could tour Abbey Road
Most bands don't dare book studio time at Abbey Road before they've even written a song for their new album. But for local Anglophile indie-rock quartet Two Harbors, working in that hallowed venue was a longstanding dream. So frontman Chris Pavlich booked the studio time well in advance, figuring that the songs would come in due time. And the new material did eventually come together in a major way on their inspired new album, The Natural Order of Things, a confident, guitar-fueled collection that is the best work of the band's career.
Ahead of their celebratory record release show at Cause tonight, we were able to chat with the group -- singer/guitarist Pavlich, guitarist Kris Johnson, drummer Shawn Grider, and bassist Jeremy Bergo -- about how these new songs coalesced, what inspiration they draw from the Britpop era, how they got the striking artwork for their new album, and whether they got their picture taken in Abbey Road's famed zebra crossing.
Gimme Noise: You guys took a bit of a break from the local scene after your last record. What initially got you writing, playing, and recording the songs that would end up on the new album?
Chris Pavlich: We started writing tunes for this record the summer before last with the intention of putting it out on vinyl and having the mastering done at Abbey Road. We decided to write 20 songs, demo 12, and pick the best 10 to record at Flowers Studio with Ed Ackerson.
Kris Johnson: After putting out our EP we really wanted to focus on a cohesive full-length record. We began writing for about a year before we headed into my project studio to cut demos.
Did that step away from the stage and the studio renew your focus on music and help energize the sound of the band at all?
Pavlich: Maybe, we've always had a big sound, but I think we're playing better as a band now. The process of making really good demos was key for how the songs turned out on the record. We managed to play a few shows here and there while making it though.
Shawn Grider: For me, it was important to have that focus. It can be hard to write songs when you are also practicing for the next show. Then, you sit down and start writing again, but another show comes up, so everything goes on hold and you're practicing the old stuff again. It's a cycle that takes away from the process, when you have to try and remember where you were in a new song after a couple of weeks away from it.
Johnson: Definitely, we really needed to focus on writing instead of live performance, it took some time but we really hit a stride at a certain point. We've never been particularly fast at putting together new material, but the longer we worked the quicker and easier it came.
How quickly did the songs transition from early jams to more fully realized songs that you brought into Flowers Studio to record?
Pavlich: That's the time-consuming part. We get together once a week for a few hours, so it takes time to write the tunes, work out the arrangements, and tweak lyrics. I'll typically bring in ideas to get the ball rolling, and then everyone makes their own contributions until it's a song.
Even in the studio, we're tweaking arrangements and open to Ed's ideas.
Grider: We like to deconstruct songs/rearrange/dump parts that we don't think serve the song. I think the early jams are the fast part, it's the ripping apart of the song, and rebuilding it from the raw materials that can take a while.
Johnson: It took about six months of writing and rehearsing. We started recording demos in July 2012, and spent a better part of the next year off and on demoing and reworking the material.
What role does experience play for you in your collective songwriting? Has it gotten any easier for you over the years to have your musical ideas coalesce into a song?
Pavlich: I think songwriting has gotten easier since our first record, but it's different for each song. Some tunes, like "Fall to Pieces," just come to me right away and don't require a lot of tweaking, and then it's done in 20 minutes or so. Other songs take more time and effort. These guys always have great ideas though, and hear the songs finished the same way I do.
Johnson: I feel like we get better at our "craft" as time goes on. I think our experiences together have increased our chemistry, especially in the past few years.
Obviously, you're old friends with Ed [Ackerson], and he produced and played on this new record. How did he help you refine and realize the sound you were after?
Pavlich: Ed knows exactly what we're going for. He loves the same music we do, and he knows how to get that sound.
It's funny, I'll write a part for a tune and think to myself, I want to sing this like Tim Burgess (the Charlatans) or something, and I'll record a take and Ed will say, "I really dig that, sounds like the Charlatans!"
He listens to more music than anyone I know, and he can play anything. Any instrument, any song, he's a wizard. I'm constantly learning from him.
You know those amazing people you come across and you think to yourself, man, I'd love to hang out with that dude for a day. Ed's one of those people. He always has the coolest clothes, coolest records, coolest guitars, coolest gear. Now imagine you get to make a record with a guy like that. It's an absolute thrill.
Johnson: What Ed really brings to the table is a high ability to refine material, especially making sure that things don't interfere with each other. He's really the best guy in town at that and many other things. I really feel he is criminally underrated. He made sure that all the "T's" were crossed and the "I's" were dotted. Most "recordists" can get good sounds, but that's engineering. Ed is a real producer and there is a big, big difference.
There seem to be evocative themes of love, loss, and regret that course through the album -- ideas that are also encapsulated by the album art that graces the cover. How do those topics tie into the idea of The Natural Order of Things?
Pavlich: These themes really are the natural order of things, that's the way it goes for everyone. Strangers come up to me and tell me, man, that song really got me through a hard time. It means a lot, and we all have that in common.
Brian Cannon, of Microdot, designed the sleeve. He did all the early Oasis sleeves, and everything the Verve did. He asked me what I had in mind for the cover. I told him something cold, lonely, an old abandoned building that was once a busy place. Something northern (UK). He knew just the place, and only had to walk outside his studio in Wigan, Lancashire.
That photo was shot on August 30, 2013, the 19th anniversary of the release of Definitely Maybe, just up the road from the Honeysuckle Pub, where the Verve played their first gig. He said it's the best photo he's ever taken, and that it would be a perfect Verve sleeve. I said, "I agree, but it's a Two Harbors sleeve!"
Speaking of the album cover, how did you cross paths with Brian Cannon, and get his striking image for the record? It's one of the best looking and laid out covers that I've seen recently.
Pavlich: Thank you. I love it too!
I got a text message from Ed Ackerson last summer, and it was a photo of his Be Here Now box set by Oasis. He asked if I had that version (which I don't), but I went home and grabbed my non-deluxe version off the shelf and popped it on. I started flipping through the liner notes, and saw Brian's name. I went to his Microdot website to see what he'd been up to lately, and I came across his email address.
I sent him a very complimentary email and explained how he'd done the sleeves for many of my favorite records, and asked if he would consider doing the sleeve for our new record (thinking I would likely never hear back from him). He replied back within minutes and asked if he could hear some demos. I sent him three songs, and he really like them and asked what I had in mind.
It was that simple. I couldn't believe it. Still can't. He sends me Facebook messages of links to Ruttles videos in the middle of the night sometimes. We've become pretty good friends even though we've never met in person. The internet is an amazing thing.
The songs on the new record really carry on the confident, guitar-fueled spirit of Britpop. What is it about that era and those bands that resonated with you, and how does that material inspire you?
Pavlich: Just how great the tunes were, and how it makes me feel when I hear them. They're the songs you want to hear when you go into battle. A lot of it is really a nod to the '60s, and I just like it. The music, the clothes, the hair. I love all of it.
Johnson: For me all of my favorite guitarists and bands are British. It's no big secret that I'm a big Johnny Marr/Smiths fan. But I do actually have a lot of U.S. indie-rock influences like Pavement that seep through. I think it's not as conscious as you might suspect, it's really just what happens when we play together. We don't worry about how it's perceived.
How did you originally hook up with Frank Arkwright, and how cool was it to work with him? What final touches did he add to the finished album?
Pavlich: Well, from day one, this entire record was really a means to an end. I have wanted to see the inside of Abbey Road for as long as I can remember, and the only way that's possible is if you're a paying customer. So we made this record so I could have my own tour of Abbey Road.
Going through the liner notes of the Smiths and Blur remasters, and the last Johnny Marr record, I came across Frank's name. He mastered all of those records (as well as stuff for Arcade Fire, Oasis, and Joy Division).
Last summer, Abbey Road tweeted that they had hired him as a full-time mastering engineer, and I got in touch with them and requested him for the session. We had the mastering session booked and the artwork complete before we even recorded the first note of the record! It was not the traditional way of doing things, but it all worked out.
When we walked out the door of Abbey Road, that was it. It was done. What a way to cross the finish line.
Pavlich and Johnson with Frank Arkwright in Abbey Road Studios
Was going to Abbey Road Studios an absolute thrill for you? My pilgrimage there in my college days was akin to visiting a truly holy place. Did you take a requisite photo of you all on the zebra crossing?
Pavlich: It was the most amazing thing I've ever done in my life. I'll never forget it.
I have been there before, and have a photo of crossing the street (running for my life!), but never inside. We were able to get our picture taken with Frank in Studio 2.
You can't describe the feeling you get when you walk through the front door. Your mind can't process what your eyes are seeing. Everything you've seen in pictures, videos, books. It's all there. The canteen where the Beatles sat between sessions, the garden where they relaxed. Studio 2, we saw it all. There is magic in that building, and you can feel the weight of it. It's incredible, and it has a very transformational effect on you.
Everyone was so kind to us. They really made us feel at home there. We ate lunch and dinner in the canteen, had breaks in the garden, and after dinner, the canteen becomes a fully licensed bar. I've never consumed so much Guinness!
Frank told us that very little has been done in Studio 2 since the Beatles recorded there. It's pretty much the same as it was back in the '60s. They haven't even painted the walls.
We also got to see a lot of the old legendary mic pre's and compressors that the Beatles used. Stuff you only read about. A lot of it is still right there. I'm still buzzin'!
Johnson: It was amazing. Pav summed it up for the most part. But one important thing I would relay is the fact that we were treated like kings the entire day. That whole organization from top to bottom is complete class. The first thing Frank asked us after introducing himself was, "Can I get you a cup of coffee?" and I thought "Can I get YOU a cup?"
It was surreal to be able to walk around Studio Two, and go up those famous stairs into the control room. I never imagined it would be real. And yes, since we were there, I had to walk across the street and get "The Photo" taken.
You guys have already played some great sets with your new material at BNLXFest and opening for Temples. How psyched are you to have a night to truly celebrate all the hard work and effort that went in to making the new record?
Pavlich: We're very excited. It's such a long process making records, but I'm proud of how it turned out and the story behind it.
We made this record to be heard on vinyl, and spared no expense. The songs, the artwork, recording with Ed, mastering at Abbey Road, and the packaging. What a journey. I can't wait for Friday night.
Johnson: I cant wait. We have great bands involved. Especially Ed's band BNLX who we do play with a bunch normally. But this makes it even more enjoyable since he is such an integral part of the whole thing.
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