Secret Cities Band Interview

“… Brian Wilson became the central figure in my writing — sort of an easy place to start in sorting through the intense emotions of that breakup and the process of making music.” — Charlie Gokey

Don’t look now, but Secret Cities, a trio (now quartet!) of music makers hailing from the Midwest, might have made the most enjoyable album of the year. Their debut, Pink Graffiti, is a laid-back, charismatic indie-pop album in the best sense, joyously constructed without being overly dramatic. This band is all about layers: layers of vocals harmonizing in and out, layers of acoustic, analog, digital sounds, and layers of lyrics that stick in your mind with the utmost poignancy.

We got a chance to talk to the trio just as they finished touring the US about their album, about songwriting via snail mail, about the fact/fiction behind the movie Fargo and about how Brian Wilson is kind of a jerk!

What’s the story behind Secret Cities? How long have you been playing together?
Charlie Gokey: MJ (Marie Parker) and I have been making music together since we were kids. We met at band camp around 2001, kept in touch through the internet, then eventually started exchanging tapes through the mail. Alex [Abnos] joined around 2005 when we toured for the first time. I met him on the internet, and fortunately, it turned out he’s not a murderer or a 50-year-old pedophile. Right from the start, we’ve never really lived in the same place. I only see Al and MJ when we’re going to tour or record.

Can you explain the concept behind the album I’ve been hearing about?
Gokey: I kind of forced this on everyone like a jerk. It’s not like the whole album is about any one thing. There are just a bunch of songs about the relationship between people and music, the relationship between people and other people, and those relationships getting kind of mixed up. That sounds like an absurd, pretentious thing, but that theme just sort of developed naturally. When we were just starting to record the album, my girlfriend and I split up. Shortly thereafter, I saw that Brian Wilson was signing his new record at a nearby Borders. I felt compelled to go see him because I had written a little about him in college, plus certain songs he wrote were pretty intimately tied up with this relationship I had just gotten out of. When I actually saw him and tried to talk to him, I was shocked by how old he looked, how little he cared that I was trying to say something to him, by the reality of his personhood. After that weirdness, Brian Wilson became the central figure in my writing — sort of an easy place to start in sorting through the intense emotions of that breakup and the process of making music.

Listen to “Pink Graffiti, Pt. 1” – DOWNLOAD MP3

Any other influences that were prevalent writing these songs?
Gokey: I spent lots of time listening to The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, and the spectacular girl group compilation, One Kiss Can Lead To Another, as we were figuring out the album. That stuff strikes a certain balance between jubilation and melodramatic sadness that really appeals to me; I wanted to try to make music that captured that in spirit, if not necessarily in sound. I think that’s what people are hearing when they compare us to groups like The Arcade Fire or The Antlers. No offense to either group, but that’s just not the music I listen to.
Alex Abnos: Not sure how much of a faux-pas it is to reference something as recent and popular as this, but The Dodos’ Visiter was a pretty big inspiration for me. The energy on that album is amazing, and I think a lot of that comes from the drums. I love how the percussion strikes a balance between being rhythmically complex while remaining catchy, accessible, and appropriate for the songs themselves.
Marie Parker: I’d consider anything I was listening to obsessively in college as influences, as well as the orchestral music I studied in college. So, lots of Elephant 6 stuff, Patrick Wolf, and Joanna Newsom, but also Dvorák, Beethoven, Glass, and Puccini…

A lot of bands getting recognition these days are doing so with a summery, west coast vibe (Wavves, Best Coast, Toro Y Moi, and such). Pink Graffiti feels like it’s coming from the opposite hemisphere, with its sleigh bells and luminous, almost chilly production. Is this a conscious choice, or just a happy coincidence?
Gokey: I guess I don’t necessarily think of the production on the record as chilly — just kind of dreamy. The sound of our record is more or less a failed attempt to rip off the sound of the first Circulatory System record. That album is insanely deep, absolutely perfect to my ears.

How much effect did coming from the Midwest have on the sound of Pink Graffiti?
Gokey: It’s important in terms of musical isolation. It’s kind of freeing not to be part of a scene. There’s nobody to answer to. This isn’t to say that there’s nothing going on in Fargo, because there is and it’s awesome; there’s just less of it going on than in other places.
Abnos: I’d say it’s also important in a more tangible, physical sense as well. As a band, we’ve never lived in the same city. In fact, I think I saw Charlie maybe twice between the last day of our 2005 tour and the first day of rehearsals for our 2010 tour. I don’t think I saw Marie at all in that time. We put together each of our contributions to each song on the album separately, then just kinda jigsaw puzzled them together, which I think goes a long way towards making the record sound as scattered as it does. So, it’s not just isolation from other forms of music, it’s isolation from ourselves, too.
Parker: I think Charlie and Alex already said pretty much everything… although, I will add that we’re so used to doing everything separately that when we did get a chance to record together — a cover of The Microphones’ “Antlers” earlier this summer — we still took turns sitting at the computer and figuring out parts by ourselves. Isolation works well for us, I guess.

Where do you all live normally? If this project takes off, are you all going to find each other? Like a long distance relationship gone serious?
Gokey: We all move pretty often, which is mostly a function of school and work. At this point, I’m in Fargo and getting ready to move in with Alex in Kansas City. Marie just left Fargo for Minneapolis for a few months. Actually, we just added a fourth member in the last few days, Ryan Donegan, who played guitar on tour with us. He’s living in Athens, GA right now. However, we’re going to be (more or less) living together after December, although where exactly is still a little up in the air. We’re going to take our long distance relationship to that next level.

You play with live with two drummers, to a bombastic effect. Is that how the drums were recorded, or is this something new you might be trying out for the next album?
Abnos: All of our individual parts for the album were recorded separate from each other, which means I did all the drum recording myself. Since it was just me, my drums, and my laptop, I figured I might as well experiment with layering the percussion, trying different things with interlocking patterns and varying timbres. As it turned out, most of those experiments worked pretty well with what we were trying to do with the record, so they stayed on. Then it came time to translate that to a live performance. We knew that having a second percussionist would be pretty necessary in order to cover all those parts, and Charlie’s friend Trevor was a total ninja at learning and playing it all. You say that it was bombastic, but it’s funny because that’s not exactly what we were going for when we started; we were just hoping to impersonate what’s on the album. The end result was a lot louder and, in my opinion, a lot better for the live versions of those songs. As for the next record… I honestly haven’t thought about it yet. I’m still kind of amazed that the current one is seeing the light of day. There might be some intense percussion; there might not. Totally depends on the songs.

What songs/albums/bands are stuck in your heads right now?
Gokey: I’ve been rediscovering Rhys Chatham’s A Crimson Grail over the last few days. Definitely one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. I really hope I get a chance to do something even half that amazing someday.
Abnos: The Trotternauts, which is a project of our touring guitarist and my close friend Ryan. He and his girlfriend sing a bunch of really cute songs about space horses from the future. I played some percussion with them recently at a show and, shockingly, practicing the songs over and over again did nothing to get ’em out of my head.
Parker: When we were on tour, we kept hearing “New Slang” by The Shins everywhere we went. Weird! And so I’ve woken up with it in my head almost every morning for the last three weeks. I’ve also gotten into a lot of piano music by Rachmaninov (Just listening. I’ll never be able to play it). Delicious.

Do the residents of Fargo love/hate the movie Fargo?
Gokey: We’ve sort of embraced it as a cultural phenomenon because it made us notable. I’ve found that it helps to bypass the usual geographical and cultural questions that pop up when you meet somebody from one of the coasts and they ask where you’re from. Now I can just say, “from Fargo, like the movie.”
Parker: I think people feel a little misrepresented, but are also kind of amused. When we were touring, we thought it might be funny to get on stage and put on that accent, but none of us could actually do it convincingly. Although, any Fargoan who says nobody speaks that way… well, he or she’s lying.

What are your plans for the next six months or so? Touring? Recording? Neither?
Gokey: Both, actually. We have a single coming out in about a month, and we’re getting ready to put together a new record that we’re hoping to complete by late November or early December. I’m pretty excited about it; I really like what we’ve got so far. After that, we’re hoping to spend most of the time between January and July on the road in the US and the EU.


Written by
Allen Huang

Allen is a writer/organizer/manager based in Taipei, Taiwan. You can read his work on Redefine and Asian Junkie. You can follow him on twitter at @therealhojo.

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