Apex Manor is a very new band fronted by a musician who has been at it for a long time. Ross Flournoy, born in Memphis, Tenn., had been playing with The Broken West since around 2005; the group released two records on Merge and broke up in 2009. What followed was months of drinking, restlessness, and rumination. Then, thanks in part to an NPR songwriting contest, Flournoy started writing again. He teamed up with Adam Vine, a long-time friend and collaborator, as well as Dan Long (Film School, Local Natives) and former band mate Brian Whelan, and, soon, they had a record: The Year of Magical Drinking, out now on Merge.
It’s an uncomplicated and pleasant debut, rife with brazen guitar and hooky choruses. It’s not groundbreaking, and it never pretends to be, but there’s purity in its humility, a refreshing unpretentiousness. The songs are straightforward and well-produced; their power chords ring with studio crispness, and their vocals ride confidently over the mix, distancing themselves with rare confidence from the instrumental crush. It was a clarity I wasn’t accustomed to, and it made me wonder: what was I accustomed to? Tape hiss? Noisy washes? Was I so wholly inured to blown-out production that anything pretty much clean sounded radical? I wanted to know: Was Apex Manor making a statement?
No. “We pretty much just wanted [The Year of Magical Drinking] to sound as good as possible,” says Flournoy. He is well-built with a wide smile and every intention of buying the second round. He’s already bought the first: three Jacks, all on the rocks. Sitting next to him is Adam Vine, a longtime friend. They met at Amherst, and they’ve been writing music together for eight years. We’re at a bar called Hi-Fi, on Avenue A in Manhattan. The walls are lined with vinyl-record sleeves.
Unsurprisingly, getting the record to sound as good as possible was at points trying. The guitar tones, especially, are the result of trial and error. “I recorded ‘Southern Decline’ [the album’s opening track] in my home studio in California,” Flournoy tells me. “I ran the guitar through this small amp, and got a sound I really liked.” Alas, "the recording was accidentally erased, and we had to record it all over again in L.A.” Eventually, with the help of band mate Brian Whelan and Dan Long (Local Natives, Film School), Flournoy reproduced, as faithfully as possible, that tone he had hit upon months ago in Pasadena. It’s a tone he uses throughout The Year of Magical Drinking: sparklingly overdriven guitar, doubled with a cleaner acoustic.
The effect is a rich, arresting sound, one that brings out the fullness of each chord. It’s a sound you hear on Broken West records, too. Flournoy agrees. “Stylistically,” he says, “this could have been the third Broken West record.” I want to know what sets it apart from his former band. “Well, that’s hard to say,” says Flournoy. “It’s peppier, definitely. More exuberant. For one, everything’s up in the mix: the vocals, the guitar and the drums. I wasn’t used to having my vocals so high.”
But despite the loft of the vocals, guitar takes precedence on most tracks. Flournoy says: “I thought of [The Year of Magical Drinking as a guitar record.” Indeed, the record begins with a guitar: a single chord, rendered in full-bodied strum. For a bar or two, it’s the only sound there is. The Year of Magical Drinking features guitar through and through, from that initial salvo all the way to the sticky riff on the album’s last track, “Coming To.”
What inspired the guitar-forward thinking? What albums do Flournoy and Vine talk about when they talk about great guitar tone? Flournoy points to one of the many sleeves adorning the bar’s walls: It’s Damn The Torpedoes, Tom Petty’s much-lauded 1979 album. “Led Zeppelin, too,” says Flournoy, and he looks around, but, surprisingly, there’s no Zeppelin record on the wall. “Jimmy Page recorded some great sounds,” he says.
“Yeah,” says Vine, feigning snobbishness. “Jimmy Page is OK.” Other influences -- both in terms of guitar tone and songwriting -- include The Kinks’ Lola vs. The Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1 and Muswell Hillbillies, Randy Newman’s entire discography, and Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love. In the midst of the recording process, and as many songwriters are wont to do, Flournoy meditated on a single song, listening to it again and again: Van Morrison’s “St. Dominic’s Preview,” the title track off the 1972 album. Which makes sense: you hear Van Morrison in Apex Manor songs, from the slight twang in Flournoy’s singing voice, to the big, easy hooks. In terms of guitar sound, though, Lola struck me as a prime contender for biggest ostensible influence. Frequently, the guitar on The Year of Magical Drinking mimics, respectfully, that album’s guitar: Raw and grainy, it buzzes with the immediacy of a live recording.
The Year of Magical Drinking is a guitar record first, but songwriting is a close second. Flournoy wrote a number of the tracks by himself, many of them catchy numbers about drinking or romance or feeling young again and, frequently, all three. I ask him about the album’s most raucous, Iggy Pop-channeling track, “Teenage Blood.” Flournoy says the song’s “written by a 31-year-old dude who for as moment felt young and stupid.” Vine wrote a couple of the songs, too, and he and Flournoy also collaborated on a handful.
How does songwriting happen for them? Is it a deliberate process? “Not really,” says Flournoy. “Any time I’m conscious of writing a song -- consciously writing a song -- it ends up sounding horrible. Usually good hooks just pop in, sneak up. It’s hard to say where they come from. You have to wade through a lot of shit to get to that place, though.”
“When you do write a really good hook,” says Vine, “it usually dictates the rest of the song.” How do the two of them go about writing songs together? Flournoy answers. “Division of labor has become a lot more permeable,” he says. “I write some songs, Adam writes some songs, we collaborate on some songs. ‘My My Mind’ is Adam’s song.” But Vine expresses uncertainty: Didn’t Flournoy have a part in that one? Flournoy is uncertain, too. “We write a song any way we can,” he concludes.
Are the different parts of a song usually written in a set order? “Sometimes melody comes first,” says Flournoy, “sometimes lyrics.” On “Coming To,” for instance, the album’s closer, lyrics came first, and particularly one line, which Vine wrote in 2002: “Don’t sweat my pet/ Kittens die/ All the time.” The line, thought Vine and Flournoy, was too cryptic and creepy and cool to just throw away. But Flournoy could never find a place for it in a Broken West song. It wasn’t until recently that he came up with a guitar line the fit the strength of the lyrics. Vine, who received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Art Institute of Chicago, is a writer -- of songs, of poetry -- and it shows in his lyrics.
Regardless of authorship, though, all 10 songs are conventionally structured: clearly, these are guys who have been writing pop rock for a while, and, for better and sometimes for worse, stick to a formula, even if it’s a nebulous one. “We could write a song right here, right now,” says Flournoy. “We could,” says Vine. “And it wouldn’t be terrible. But it wouldn’t be that great, either.”