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Small Sins: Surviving Such Great Heights

28 November 2010

Did you notice that earlier in the decade, Sub Pop quietly started a second “grunge explosion?” This time, they did it with gentle, genteel soft synth-pop, in the guise of The Postal Service, who, in 2003, quietly released Give Up. Although its creators intended the Postal Service to only be a one-off project, the album became a surprise hit, and industry speculators decided that this was the new trend, to be hyped and exploited. True, this new trend didn’t get as much attention, but it was real; “Postal Service” quickly became a new adjective in comparison of similar-minded acts, and artists started to align themselves with this seemingly new style. Furthermore, bedroom bands were suddenly being courted by major labels, and young musicians who had never even had a full band were having tons of money thrust their way.

One such beneficiary was Canadian Thomas D’arcy, the mastermind behind Small Sins. Signed quickly to EMI affiliate Astralwerks, his brand of quiet synth-pop was definitely in line with the zeitgeist. Did he ever feel a part of this trend? “Oh man, did I ever,” D’arcy says now. “It seemed like everything I ever read about myself in that period referenced the Postal Service. It happened over and over—and much like the Nirvana thing, people really wanted to find other bands to fit into that movement. I had synths, drum machines and a whispery voice, so I was inserted. Just like all those bands that sounded like Nirvana but weren’t really like Nirvana. Everyone hops on the boat and takes their cheque. It helped, but was sort of a double edged sword. We would never have been signed in the first place if the trend wasn’t to find the next Postal Service, yet at the same time, anyone looking for more of that was probably looking in the wrong place when they found us.”

Yet after releasing the critically acclaimed Small Sins in 2005, and Mood Swings in 2007, Small Sins quietly disappeared; like so many bands signed in the midst of a signing boom, it seemed that Small Sins’ small blip would be added to the list of the forgotten. “I never stopped working,” D’arcy says. “I kept churning out music, and by the time I had sort of an album together, and I had some time to live with it, I realized that it just didn’t sound inspired. I dumped that record and then didn’t really know what to do. You have to consider also that Mood Swings was completed far before its release date, so when you think about it, it took me almost four years to become emotionally ready to write this record. Call it writers block, or exhaustion, or whatever you want. I just wasn’t producing material that I felt was up to my own standard. It was last fall when I wrote a couple of songs that I really impressed myself with. It’s that old feeling of listening back and almost not believing that you made what you just made. I would listen to these songs over and over again, and that was when I felt comfortable booking the session that would become Pot Calls Kettle Black.”

It’s easy to understand why. Pot Calls Kettle Black may resemble its predecessors, but it definitely feels different from previous releases. After his debut, D’arcy put together a live band, taking his music into another dimension not found from his solo recordings, but it wasn’t until now that the band realized its full potential in the studio. “Steve Krecklo and I made very detailed demos of the songs we recorded together as a band later. We had every part for every song done, and you could argue that the quality of those demos was good enough for release. When we went to the studio, it was all about the other guys learning all of those parts and then performing them. The session was not about creativity in that we were developing material. It was more about developing sounds and finding good performances. So the whole band is performing the record, but working from a very strict blueprint that was supplied in advance.”

These new sessions found D’arcy and company working with noted Chicago musician John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake). “I haven’t really used engineers for Small Sins in the past. Even my previous work with John existed purely in the mixing stage. I never really liked waiting for engineers to do things in front of me that I felt I could do better or more quickly. So if anyone was going to engineer me, it had to be someone I felt was really amazing at it, and John is the best I know. It was fun to let go of the reins, and have somebody to find sounds that I don’t even know where to look for. Also, going in to a real studio meant that we were recording real drums. My home studio isn’t really set up for that; so many of the recordings in the past relied heavily on drum machines and other methods of drum programming. Going to SOMA gave us the power to do real drum kits, with the freedom to make each song have its own drum sound. That’s probably the biggest difference sonically that would contribute to that rawness.”

But in listening to Pot Calls Kettle Black, one may pick up on a theme of betrayal and disappointment. Are some of these songs, such as “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” “Never Again,” and “You Will Lie” songs about the experience in the music industry machine covertly posing as love songs? D’arcy laughs. “When that was all happening, I did write a couple of songs about it. None of them ended up on this record, though. That was a long time ago now, and I don’t feel anyone there betrayed me. It just wasn’t the promised land I thought it would be. Just because you sign a big deal, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular the next day. The band still has to work their asses off, which we did. When I left them, I thought it would be easy to find someone else to put out my records. It turns out it took a bit of time to figure that one out. It’s funny, though, to write songs about things like that, but making them sound as if they’re about girls or whatever. Kind of like Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which is really about quitting smoking. A song could be about being unhappy with my manager or something, but comes across like I’m questioning an actual relationship. I love that gag.”