Solid Gold's fantastic voyage: From Twin Cities band to national treasure
DESPITE THE PLUMMETING TEMPERATURE AND PERSISTENT DRIZZLE, the bouncer guarding the door of the Brooklyn Bowl in New York isn't budging. There's a line down the block that's been forming for over an hour, and an ornery man with a clipboard is half-heartedly scanning the guest list for names, barely turning to the second page before declaring that each shivering patron isn't on the list. A neon-green logo is cast on the sidewalk with a spotlight, emblazoning the words "Green Label Sound" at the feet of the masses, and inside the club a smattering of the corporate label's hippest up-and-coming musical talent is being courted by industry types and preparing to put on a show.
After several name-drops and a nudge from a label rep, the ambivalent bouncer caves, and I'm in. The Brooklyn Bowl is a sprawling space, a massive warehouse in Williamsburg that's been converted into an interconnected bowling alley, concert venue, restaurant, and bar. In the reception area, the five members of Solid Gold are mingling with a sea of chitchatting musicians, managers, and PR moguls. I spot band members Matt Locher and Adam Hurlburt and pull them aside, and a wave of relief washes over their faces.
"We haven't eaten all day," Hurlburt says. "I'm starving."
Locher nods his head. "We're supposed to be schmoozing."
While in New York for the CMJ marathon, the members of Solid Gold have been keeping a tight schedule—their time is split between conducting press interviews, meeting with label reps for their new partnership with the Mountain Dew-curated Green Label Sound, and playing shows. Tonight's show at the Brooklyn Bowl is by far the largest of the week, and the 600-capacity performance space is already filling up.
When the ordained "meet and greet" period has ended, Solid Gold's manager, a sassy young Brooklyn woman with a no-nonsense attitude, rounds up the boys and brings them backstage to get ready for the show. Unlike their hometown shows in the Twin Cities—which are almost always headlining gigs—Solid Gold are opening tonight's showcase, which also features fellow Green Label Sound artists Chromeo, Amazing Baby, and Theophilus London. And unlike Twin Cities shows, it seems like a good portion of the sold-out audience is here to see the opening band.
As soon as Solid Gold take the stage, a swarm of photographers and videographers take over the front row of the crowd, fixing their lenses on lead singer Zachary Coulter as he starts to sing. His voice falters at first and sounds strained over the punchy synth and guitar parts of "Bible Thumper," but it doesn't take him long to sync up with his own prerecorded harmonies and fall into a groove with the rest of the band. The five members—Coulter alternating between guitar and keys, Locher on synth and bass, Hurlburt on guitar and bass, Shon Troth on slide guitar, and Adam Peterson on drums—are precise in their execution, blending live parts and computerized samples to create a uniform, pulsating pop sound.
If their Brooklyn Bowl set is any indication, Solid Gold have already fostered a devoted set of fans in the Big Apple—a daunting feat for any band, especially one that doesn't regularly conduct full tours of the U.S. and has only recently started creating national blog-fueled buzz. Which isn't to say that Solid Gold's ascent has been a speedy one, since the band has been together in one form or another for eight years. But now, with a music video in rotation on MTVu, a new manager, a push by Green Label Sound, and an increasingly busy schedule of high-profile out-of-town gigs, Solid Gold are adding their name to the roster of local groups who are finding success at a national level.
Their slow and steady climb doesn't seem to surprise any of the members of the group, though. For Solid Gold, this latest leap onto the national radar is just part of their master plan that started at the beginning of the decade by a couple of party boys in Madison, Wisconsin.
THE FIRST TIME I MET THE BAND, Zachary Coulter was shirtless in the bar of an upscale French restaurant, wearing a wolf mask and wielding a fireplace poker. Bandmates Adam Hurlburt and Matt Locher—also shirtless—were splayed across overstuffed couches, a bevy of tea-light candles casting a glow on their pale, unsculpted torsos. As a photographer adjusted settings and switched angles, the three of them looked over at me and simultaneously burst into uncontrollable, belly-shaking laughter. Of all the gin joints in all of Minneapolis, I just happened to walk into the one with the popular Minneapolis band derailing their photo shoot with ridiculous antics, and I couldn't imagine a better way to be formally introduced to the three core members of Solid Gold.
The photos from that fateful summer evening—or at least the ones taken when they still had all their clothes on—ended up being used as promotional images for Solid Gold's new partnership with Green Label Sound. From the time those pics were taken until the present day, Solid Gold have traveled to New York and back a few times, including their most recent jaunt to CMJ, and have released a new single, "Matter of Time," on the GLS imprint. Along with another self-released single, "Fat Lip," it's the first new material since their 2008 breakout, Bodies of Water, and both hint at a forward motion for the band. On "Matter of Time," Coulter's voice echoes and loops over itself before fading into what sounds like an electronic musette, and the track is propelled by a steady, jangling dance beat, while "Fat Lip" is a more pared-down style of drum-machine-driven rock 'n' roll, Coulter's throaty wail demanding most of the listener's attention.
While the new songs leave two different impressions on the listener, they still fall under the general canopy of Solid Gold's aesthetic: crystalline synth parts, danceable yet chilled-out electro beats, and tight pop hooks with memorable melodies. According to members of the band, it's an aesthetic they've been honing for the better part of the last decade, and one they had in mind from the very beginning—but it's taken them several years, a few lineup changes, and a couple of scrapped records to arrive at the distinct sound they now so masterfully employ.
"We started in the fall of 2001," Locher begins.
"Matt and I met in Madison through a mutual friend [Jesse Cohen, who now drums with Tanlines], and we started as a three-piece," Coulter says. "It was kind of our mutual friend's idea. He wanted to start a band. He came up with the name. I wasn't much of a singer at all—I still don't think I'm much of a singer. We were playing disco-punk, grunge. We made a little EP; it was kind of just dirty. We were all learning to do new stuff."
Hurlburt recalls seeing the first incarnation of the band around the same time. "The first time I saw Solid Gold, I thought it was the worst band I had ever seen in my life," he recalls. "To me, it sounded like really bad early-'90s Seattle grunge rock. The drummer was terrible and kept dropping his sticks. I didn't like them, and I didn't want to be friends with them. But I think Matt and I started off on the wrong foot." He laughs, brushing a lock of unkempt, shaggy hair out of eyes. "I don't even remember—they were vague times, because everyone was partying so much."
The band's original drummer left town shortly after recording their first EP in 2002, and Coulter and Locher carried on as a two-piece, incorporating multiple organs and acoustic guitars into an evolving, trance-influenced sound (their previous recordings are kept under lock and key, so we'll have to take their word for it). They tracked a full-length album in the summer of 2003, which was never released, and recorded another EP, Out of Your Mind, in 2004 with guitarist Paulie Heenan.
"We had a good recording process with Paul," says Coulter. "He worked at this studio, and we were all learning together. And that's when I think we fell in love with recording. There's something about experimenting and finding something new, or something you had no idea could happen. I could do it for 20 hours a day."
Heenan moved to New York, and Coulter and Locher were left alone again. Around the same time, Hurlburt showed a renewed interest in the band, whose sound had changed drastically since the first time he had seen them play live. "I liked the record, and I had ideas—I could tell where they were going, and that we would definitely be on the same wavelength," he says. "I was living with Matt, and Zach was always over, and I knew that we clicked on a level, and I could feel that click even before trying to play with them. Even the first time I heard their EP, I was like, 'I need to be in this band.'"
The three musicians formed a tight bond—forged over successful gigs in Madison, late-night parties, and a series of failed romantic relationships—that carried them through a relocation to Minneapolis and a second full-length recording project that was ultimately doomed. It's that bond that kept them together until they could finally make a full-length record they were happy with, and that bond that kept them pushing forward despite the fact that it took them over six years to arrive at their official debut, Bodies of Water.
THE DAY AFTER THEIR SHOW AT the Brooklyn Bowl, Solid Gold finally have a little free time to wander around New York. They have another show that night back in Brooklyn, but for the afternoon the only item on the itinerary is a game of ping-pong, two large pizzas, and a case of Budweiser on the 17th floor of a friend's swanky office building.
In between rounds, Coulter and Locher are telling me about their not-so-smooth transition from Madison to Minneapolis.
"We were all in really volatile situations in our personal lives," Locher says. "Our lives were just falling apart. We had all kinds of relationships and baggage from Madison, and finally shit hit the wall and we were just at a breaking point in our lives.... It was three people's lives in a total state of flux."
"We got an offer to go record at a really nice studio for free," Coulter says. "And that ended up being a pretty painful process."
"These other two clowns at IPR [the Institute of Production and Recording] were just ruining our lives," Locher adds. "There was one bad night in the studio where we all just told everyone, 'Fuck you.'"
"The relationship didn't work out," Coulter says politely. "Certain relationships in our life were falling apart at the time, we had moved, things weren't working out, we were broke. It was a hard point, and we made a record that we scrapped. We didn't use any of it. It was so frustrating, because we put so many hours into recording, writing, and we're not using any of it. So after that we just had to regroup. In that time, I'd started writing songs. All this crazy shit was going on in my life, and I just continued writing. We'd get together and write. So we had this whole other batch of songs that just seemed better. So we scrapped the record, and we were just like, let's record these. Let's do it completely different. Let's do it with friends, let's do it in our basement, let's do it in our bathroom, let's do it in my mom's living room, let's do it at Adam's cabin."
With one recording project down the tubes, Solid Gold recruited their friend Ryan Olcott (Mystery Palace) to helm the new project, and the resulting album, Bodies of Water, is a masterpiece of songwriting and recording. There's a pent-up frustration that finds its release amid throbbing bass lines, tremolos of synth effects, and lyrics about resentment and rebirth. Even the titles of the tracks ("Get Over It," "Calm Down," "Who You Gonna Run To?") speak to the band's collective experience, both personal and professional, with Coulter sighing and singing lines like "I don't think its wrong/Getting a little revenge in a song" and "It wasn't like you loved me anyhow."
Bodies of Water isn't an angry record—it's a far cry from the angst of dirty grunge or the agony of hyperemotive emo—but between the dance beats and dreamscape sequences there is a sincerity that is rare in their style of electro-pop music. At a show where the crowd is singing along to Solid Gold's songs, there's a palpable feeling of camaraderie among even the strangers in the audience. Everyone feels the same pain, and everyone just wants to forget about it and dance their cares away to a pop song.
Since the record came out at the end of last year, Solid Gold's lives have been something of a whirlwind. They've been to Europe and back, networking their way through London and Reykjavik, which led them to a manager in London and then one in New York. They've become the most-played local band on the Current, and were handpicked to open this year's Rock the Garden with the Decemberists, Calexico, and Yeasayer. Their two latest headlining hometown gigs, at First Avenue (where they'll return this weekend) and the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater, sold out or came close to selling out. And if their most recent venture to New York is any indication, their upcoming plans to tour the U.S. will be met with similar success.
The night after their Brooklyn Bowl show, the band is scheduled to play Littlefield, a small community-arts space in Park Slope. The club is a step down from the expansive Brooklyn Bowl—the performance room is cramped and boomy, with concrete walls and a small stage—but it's still a big gig. New music site Noisevox.org, spearheaded by former MTV News anchor John Norris, is filming the evening as part of a lengthy profile of the band, and Norris himself is conducting an in-depth interview with the three core members of the group before they play.
While Coulter, Locher, and Hurlburt are whisked to a side room for their interview, I sit down with drummer Adam Peterson (who the band calls "Sticks") and slide guitarist Shon Troth.
"The first time I played with them, it was a sold-out show at the Varsity," says Troth. "We played at midnight. So right away I was thinking, 'This is going to be a wild ride.'"
Both Peterson and Troth have been playing with Solid Gold for over a year now, and each adds a unique element to the live show. Troth sits in the back, hunched over a slide guitar in his lap, his long black hair and beard covering most of his face, while Peterson adds a visual aspect with his live drumming, accompanying the prerecorded, computerized drumbeats with snare hits and arm flails.
"It's like they turn on the Adam and Shon machines and say, 'more' or 'less,'" Peterson jokes.
"It's really neat. There's a lot of trust," says Troth. He grins, shaking his head. "I'm looking forward to what happens next."
BACK IN MINNEAPOLIS, THE group's three core members are chatting over coffee at the restaurant where Coulter works as a line cook. Despite the frills of their new Green Label Sound partnership and the fact that they just played a high-profile gig at one of the biggest music-industry feeding frenzies of the year, the three seem remarkably down-to-earth, honest, and realistic about their place in the music circus.
"I think all of our unreasonable expectations were beaten out of our heads by the machinations of the music industry," Locher says. "We've been shit on, lied to, taken advantage of...."
"So much smoke in our ass," Coulter adds.
"We've scrapped two whole records," Locher says. "That's enough to make a lot of bands throw in the towel. We've had fights where we've said we'd never talk to each other again. On the other side of the token, we've spent a week in Reykjavik, and gone to London three times, and Sweden and Denmark, and New York four times a year for the past three years."
"You start to realize the music industry has no fucking idea—blogs or no blogs. It's just a crapshoot. It's like, you start to find major flaws in certain things. The way things move through this weird maze, it doesn't seem like there's any logic behind it. So we just try to step aside and keep going."
"None of us ever set out to be this month's buzz band," adds Hurlburt.
"Who knows?" Coulter laughs. "We might scrap everything in three years and just be a three-piece harp trio or something."
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