Suckers — the creation of Austin Fisher, Quinn Walker, Brian Aiken, and Pan — make skewed pop music in the vein of fellow Brooklynites (and friends) Yeasayer and Chairlift. Austin and Quinn are cousins who grew up in the same small coastal Connecticut town and who have been sharing their songs since they were kids. Pan joined them in Brooklyn a few years ago (as bassist and multi-instrumentalists) to create a three-piece band named Feelings. Brian, the youngest, followed not long after, as the drummer. Somewhere on the way, they ditched Feelings and became Suckers (mercifully).
A live fixture in Brooklyn for a few years now, particularly at the avant-fun venue Glasslands, the band will release their eponymous debut EP on April 14 (with production by Anand Wilder from Yeasayer). Their music, a combination of smile-inducing sing-along melodies and a wide world of instrumentation that only starts with the electric guitar, has already grabbed the ears of more than a few taste-makers, not to mention the melody-hungry Brooklyn masses. I sat down at Greenpoint restaurant Lokal with Fisher, Aiken and Pan to talk about music and influences, the idea behind the band name, and what it takes to get your act together.
Well, what took you guys so long?
Pan: We were playing as a three-piece for like a year and a half.
Austin Fisher: We were sort of disorganized. We got Brian and it just got more interesting. We all just realized it was something we wanted to do seriously. If we couldn’t take it there, it wasn’t worth it to do it.
Brian Aiken: Plus we got a lot of support from other people. I’ve been in the band for two years. In the past six months, it’s been much more serious. We’ve been playing better places.
P: We just needed a kick in the ass.
AF: Basically our friend Erich [Emm, of the band Don Caballero and numerous other projects, producer along with his brother of Brothers Studios], told us we needed a manager.
P: He was fixing these demos we made a while ago.
AF: And that made a huge difference. We wanted to take things ore seriously, but it feels like to be ambitious in that way taints what you’re doing. We just want to focus on making music and being creative. The business aspect is so unappealing to us. As soon we got Brooke and Kenny [Brooke Baxter and Kenny Herzog, the band’s managers] to do all the business stuff, things just started to happen.
What was it like working with Anand from Yeasayer? How did the recording the process go?
P: We’ve been friends with Anand for a long time. He was a friend of ours and it just felt natural for us to ask him to help us.
BA: After all our shows, he’s always like, "You should do this, you should do this."
AF: He’s full of constructive criticism.
P: He’s never afraid to tell you what to change. He was just a natural person to ask to help us.
AF: He knows our songs. We had to do it quickly since we didn’t have that much money. We had to a bunch of marathon sessions in the studios. He would stay with us for like 14 hours a day. He was really dedicated to us. He did it for free.
BA: He really knows all the equipment, all the technical stuff.
AF: He’s definitely a nerd about that stuff.
BA: And musically, he really tightened us up too. He made sure everything was really on point. Sometimes we’re really remiss about that, but he was like, “No, that guitar needs to be really tight.” And we did it.
Was it a difficult recording process? Your songs are fairly complex, structurally and texturally.
AF: Everyone was really happy with it. We did all the music in, like, one day. Then we did overdubs on the singing the two other days. It was pretty quick.
BA: It was very condensed.
Is that a reflection of playing live together so long?
P: Yeah we’ve been playing the songs awhile.
AF: At least three we’ve recorded twice before.
P: There’s like three or four versions of “Afterthoughts and TV” out there.
BA: When I joined the band, I feel like it really reached its present songwriting state. It was just a matter of finding the right production.
You’re all individual songwriters. How does that work in the song-writing process?
P: We’re all very critical. We all give each other shit about what we write.
AF: But we write in different ways. Sometimes it just comes together.
BA: Quinn’s put out like 15 albums since he was a kid. We’re evolving toward writing as a group fairly well. We’re also open to individual songs. Anything that’s good we can just take and run with.
Are there any stories of individual conflicts with the songs?
AF: That’s what makes a group to me — everybody compromising and finding whatever the best idea is.
P: We wouldn’t have everybody in the same band together if we didn’t respect each other’s opinion.
As you mentioned, Brian, Quinn has put out a lot of music individually. Is there a separation between what he does alone and what you guys do together do as a band?
BA: He’s kind of a hotshot. [Laughs.]
AF: People get the impression that it’s his band.
P: But the press he’s gotten before and gives to all of us is kind of handy.
AF: He’s way more interested in playing in a group. I mean, it’s nice that everyone does their own thing on the side, and Quinn put out the record and all. I think it’s important. If everyone has that kind of outlet, then it makes it easier for four people with creative ideas to compromise because you feel like it’s not your only outlet, it makes everyone more of a team player.
BA: I don’t really feel like it had any impact on our music that much. It didn’t compromise his artistic output.
AF: He doesn’t have a huge head or anything like that.
There’s a list of bands that people talk about when they talk about you, and some that you’ve talked about yourselves: Tears for Fears, Neil Young, David Bowie, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Phil Collins. What does this list not tell us? What other influences would you guys talk about?
P: Those are some of my favorite musicians. I also used to play in a death-metal band and in hardcore bands. And I make music for all kinds of projects. I take inspiration from all kinds of music.
AF: Yeah, those ’70s and ’80s art-rock people. A lot of those people are tied to Brian Eno. But I used to be obsessed with the oldies radio stations. We’re really into vocal melodies, pop songs from the ’60s; that’s all Quinn and I used to listen to. I really like doo-wop music.
BA: I’m a couple years younger and I’m amazed by the music these guys know. They’re constantly giving me music. I’m just getting into all that stuff they just talked about now.
AF: I think I just like classic music. Not really newer indie bands. More pop classics.
That brings up a question. Do you think there’s a divide between people that really stay up on what’s happening now (i.e. the “next new thing”) and those that create it? Do you think there has to be a kind of willful ignorance of all the stuff that’s available out there in order to stop, settle down and create something? Do you think it’s necessary to remove yourself from following the latest music, the latest trends, in order to make a space for yourself to create?
P: I’m kind of the opposite of that. There are certain things that pop out that may be timeless or that I definitely like. And those things become influences, or not even influences maybe, but…
AF: It’s so much harder these days. Music is ubiquitous. It used to be something you had to go home and put on. People now have such a different understanding of music. Sometimes it kind of makes me want to turn it off.
P: I don’t think it’s necessary to stay up on the “latest.”
AF: You have your iPod. It’s hard to try to keep up with the Top 40 or whatever that is these days, and I feel like a lot of people aren’t really interested in the Top 40-type music.
BA: We’re more interested in stuff on the blogs, the new sounds coming out. We follow those currents. If a band has a certain spark to it, new innovation, you can follow it and incorporate it in your sound.
P: It’s also about community. We have friends, like Yeasayer and Chairlift, who are doing things. I like to follow their press and see what they’re doing and hear what people are saying about them.
Why do you think there is resurgence of this early-’80s, late-’70s art-rock thing?
AF: I think it has to do with technology. Samplers are getting cheaper again. People are bored with indie rock; guitar rock is getting boring.
BA: That stuff wasn’t mainstream in the ’70s, but now you can hear more abstract shit because people have access to it.
AF: Ten years ago there were the Strokes and all these punk-y bands. But now in our group of bands, nobody wants to make punk music like the Strokes. All trends come in waves, right? But then again, there’s still Deerhunter and the Muslims making good guitar music. I think it’s going to keep splaying out, spreading out. People can do whatever they want to do.
P: Our predecessors — like David Byrne, Bowie, etc. — there wasn’t that much art-pop like that in the ’90s. I guess Radiohead’s been around.
AF: I also think that we’re a generation of people who grew up listening to hip-hop as just part of the culture, too. It’s an influence not in terms of aping or trying to make hip-hop music but in the way you use the same kind of tools that hip-hop musicians use and then do your own thing. Not in a cheesy Kid Rock kind of way, but in that’s like, “Oh I can use samplers and make this cool texture pattern, or I can use these keyboards to do this.” People in the ’70s used drum machines, drums. People in hip-hop then did that. You can figure out how to use those technologies and it doesn’t have to sound lame, doesn’t have to sound like Everlast or something. You can use those things but use them in a different context.
But thinking of your music, in relation to technology and even in relation to Yeasayer and Chairlift, I hear something warmer, different about your sound.
BA: Maybe it’s the oldies influence, the harmonies. There’s something special about a good song. Yeasayer and Chairlift, too, use vocal harmonies…
P: Maybe it’s just the harmonies, the melodies…
AF: I don’t know. It’s also that we’re a looser, sloppier band than those two.
P: Purposely so. [Laughs.]
BA: The feel is different too. It’s kind of like a shuffle. Whereas electronic music has a straight beat to it, it seems, we’ve got this rhythmic jangle. I feel like that comes from Austin and Quinn, too. They’re all about the non-standard beat.
AF: Before we even got Brian, if anything sounded like a standard rock anything; we were really not excited about it. We were really into avoiding straight rock beats. We made a conscious effort to play down the drums in that way, play down the guitar in that way, so that it doesn’t get too generic. I think a lot of it has to do with drums in songs. It’s so important.
P: The songs would sound so much different without them.
BA: Not like a “drummer” but kind of like a member of an orchestra. The drummer isn’t glued behind the kit. You think differently about how you orchestrate everything together. The drummer doesn’t have to play the whole song.
P: When we started to play, we weren’t like, “Oh I want to be in a rock band.” We just wanted to make cool music.
BA: When I came into the band, I was just amazed by what they were doing. It revolutionized how I perceived music. The guys pissed me off at times. They were always trying to do everything different, and were always like “that’s too normal, that’s too cliché.” And I was always like, “But that’s what I feel.” I’ve come around to seeing the artfulness, to thinking consciously and purposely different for the sake of innovation. Not so much what you feel immediately.
Sometimes what you feel can be the most cliché.
BA: Yeah, but you have to recognize that everything comes from something else, you can’t just arbitrarily make things. It has to come from somewhere.
So, thinking of “art” rock. How would you describe your music in visual art terms?
AF: It would be a collage with lots of different textures.
BA: It depends on the song.
P: Still, Pop Art in some way. Andy Warhol mixed with something.
AF: I could get really nerdy, but I’ll hold back. Instead of art, we think about it as cinematic music.
P: Somebody told us that all of our songs could be like the last song of a movie. I thought that was pretty awesome.
BA: It’s all about making melodies that stick, that you’ll remember. It’s about making musical imagery that’s powerful, forceful, that says something.
AF: We’re actually in a movie — we’re faking playing our song. Our friends made a movie: Yeasayer, Norah Jones, us, and others are in it. The film might be in Tribeca [Film Festival]. We had to play “Afterthoughts and TV” in front of a group of people over and over again, lip-syncing it.
What does the future hold? Tour? Videos? Stuff like that?
AF: We’ve got two videos in the works. One we filmed already against a backing screen.
P: And my brother and his friend are doing a 3D animation video. It won’t be done for a while but will be really great when it’s finished.
AF: We’re going to Texas for SXSW; we’re going to play on the way there. And then that’s it as far as official things being planned. The EP comes out in April, right before taxes are due.
BA: I’m looking forward to the tour. We’ve been stuck to this area so far. This will be our first experience on the road. We have like five shows at SXSW.
I saw on your MySpace page that you guys are playing in New Orleans. Where else you looking forward to playing?
AF: Yeah, we’re playing at The Hi-Ho Lounge in New Orleans. On the way, D.C. will be fun. Athens will be fun. It’s the perfect distance between New Orleans and D.C.
What has been your favorite live show so far?
AF: Our best one was at Webster Hall in January.
BA: I don’t know what it was. We just clicked.
AF: The sound was good. You could hear everything on stage perfectly.
P: One of our friends said “whenever I see a band there, it’s really muddy and sounds horrible, but you guys sounded awesome.” I don’t know what happened, but it really worked. We’ve had a bunch of good shows at Glasslands too.
AF: We love playing there. It’s best when we play with friends. We don’t get to do that as much anymore.
BA: We had a big show at Williamsburg Music Hall with Yeasayer and many friends. I had to get used to that a little bit. You get used to slightly smaller rooms, so you have to get used to different things.
What would be the perfect show?
AF: We were asked this before and everyone else wanted to play on a mountain or something.
BA: Where would you want to play?
AF: I said in the back of a limo in a swimming pool. We played in this crazy room at Detroit at the Detroit Museum of Art, the main art museum there. And we played in this room that was composed of different architectural elements from buildings in Europe, so it was this huge room, four or five stories high, with glass ceilings. We had to play really quietly. They flew us out there and put us up in this amazing place. And we kind or realized when we got there, “We’re a band no one knows, it’s Halloween night, we’re playing at 7 o’clock. Who is going to show up?” And who did show up was 15 old people who were so excited to see us. We got requests for the Beatles. And old guys mentioned obscure prog-rock records to us. That was a pretty sweet show.
BA: We got so many requests for Elvis, not even the Beatles.
The word "suckers" can mean (at least) three things: a lollipop, a fool you can take advantage of, and those cup-shaped things on tentacles that allow them to stick to things. So when you say your name to people, what meaning are you thinking of?
P: At this point I don’t even think about what it means anymore. Definitely when we came up with it, we were like, “fools.” When we came up with it, I thought it was some ’70s punk band or something. I thought it had to exist already.
AF: I always thought of it as something Bugs Bunny would say, like forgotten lingo, old-fashioned.
BA: Or “boss” or something like that. … So many bands try to take their name so seriously.
P: We’re not trying to take ourselves too seriously.
Better than Feelings?
BA: You get a lot of weird responses with Suckers. You say it to baby boomers, it’s like “that’s a weird name.” Maybe "suck" is a swear, but Suckers is cool. I think maybe it’s the sexual reference that weirds people out, like cocksuckers or something like that.