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Last year, author James Greer debuted Detective, his first major musical project since his departure from Guided By Voices, a trio formed with Guylaine Vivarat and Chris Dunn. Those expecting to hear something similar to his previous band might have been disappointed; instead of crunchy lo-fi rock and roll, one found a lovely, sunny, literate indie-pop/power-pop hybrid, not unlike Saturday Looks Good To Me. However Strange was a modest debut, one that highlighted a band with promise. Jump ahead a year, and a few things have changed: the band is now known as DTCV, and their sound has blossomed from slightly restrained indie-pop to a full-out musical assault of diverse sounds, excellent songwriting, and flutes. Though the band’s most recent US tour was cut short by a run-in with a deer, it hasn’t stopped the band, or hampered Mr. Greer’s wittiness. I spoke to Mr. Greer electronically about his new record, and highly recommend it. (You can stream the album following the end of this interview.)
BIG TAKEOVER: From my years of talking to musicians, I know that name changes are often instigated by stylistic changes, and Hilarious Heaven is a major shift from However Strange. When you started to make the record, were you intending to make something so radically different and less restrained from what you’d done before?
JAMES GREER: We’d been playing a lot live and had gotten progressively louder and more raw, and we wanted this record to reflect that. And we’d been listening to Hawkwind‘s Space Ritual album a lot. Guylaine wanted to work with Steve Kille from Dead Meadow, who has a recording studio in downtown LA where he does all the Dead Meadow stuff, too, because he’s a bass player and she was really intent on getting a bigger bass sound for this record. Steve turned out to be a great choice not just for that reason but also because he’s fussy about sound but not as much about performance. Which is exactly the way we are.
BT: When I heard However Strange, I gotta be honest: it had a peculiar sense of restraint. The songs were great, but it almost felt like there was a subconscious avoidance of trying to sound too much like your previous band. Considering GBV’s uniqueness and the rabid fan base, you had to have been aware of the natural comparisons that would arise. Was it something that concerned you, and do you think it affected the first Detective recordings?
JG: The only thing I was trying to avoid when recording However Strange was making a shitty record. With that and our earlier stuff the restraint you sense was the result I think of two things: 1) having to work very quickly because we didn’t have any money; 2) we were just starting to figure out our sonic identity. I think we’re almost there.
BT: Hilarious Heaven, however, is a totally different beast. For one thing, it feels very immediate. What was the recording like? Were they spontaneous, quick, one-take recordings done in the basement?
JG: Yes and no. Steve’s studio is in a loft, and it’s not very studio-like. It’s really comfortable to work there and he’s very easy-going. Also he really likes to take his time getting the sounds right. But once we dialed in the sounds, the actual tracking was done mostly in one or two takes and unless there were major fuck-ups (and sometimes even if there were) we stuck with those. Then we took a lot of time with overdubs, or at least more time than we have been able to take in the past. The whole process actually took months but it wasn’t months in the studio it was just sort of little bursts here and there, because we were touring and Steve was touring and also recording the new Dead Meadow album so we had to work around both our schedules. It took a lot longer than we would have liked (we started in December 2012 and finished mixing at the end of August 2013) but I think in the end that was a good thing, because we were able to sit with the songs and figure out what they did or didn’t need.
BT: Another element I enjoy about the album are the segues, and while some might find such a technique to be padding, you guys pulled it off with great aplomb. Some of them are hilarious, especially about the car theft. Where did you find that wonderful sound clip?
JG: That was from a series of voicemails over the course of one day that I received from a wrong number while we were on tour in March.
BT: “Gone 1 Quickly,” “Contre Jour,” “Alpha Waves In A Gelatinous Conductor,”—are you and Guylaine fulfilling a lifelong dream and being the Jeff Lynne to her Olivia Newton-John?
JG: We write our songs separately with I think two exceptions: “I Was Where Were You,” which was a riff I had welded to a chorus Guylaine had, and “Electrostatic Inc.” where we essentially wrote a new song over a drum part for a different song that didn’t work for that song, if that makes sense. But otherwise everything’s usually written by the person who wrote the song. For instance the Black Sabbath section of “Alpha Waves” — the second part — I just played the riff that Guylaine told me to play. On “Sundial” I’m not playing anything I don’t think. Guylaine plays everything except drums. Same on “Gone 1 Quickly,” she did everything including the drum programming (I added a little bit of guitar at the end but she wrote the guitar part) and “Contre Jour,” which was mostly done live, but Guylaine overdubbed the guitar part. I added just some guitar noise to that.
My point being, I guess that she’s more like Jeff Lynne than I am. While we’re very much a collaborative project, the way it breaks down is more or less whoever wrote the song decides exactly how the song should sound. For example on “Hotspurs of Nicely Light,” I did everything except the crazy drum fills, which Chris our drummer did, since he’s a crazy drummer. Actually he’s not crazy at all. He’s just really good. But for the most part for my songs I’ll keep things simple, although since I had more time on this record I ended up putting a lot more guitar overdubs on things than I would usually do. But in terms of layering harmonies or using keyboards as textures and things, that’s something Guylaine likes to do, and something — especially the harmonies — that I really can’t do. Even something like “How Not To Be” was worked out beforehand, even though we only practiced it as a band maybe once.
BT: I know your recent tour abruptly ended, but what’s next for James Greer and DTCV? Any more records coming quickly? Any new writing projects we should be looking out for?
JG: We’ll start touring again in January 2014 and we’ll more or less keep touring all of next year. Mock Records here in LA is also reissuing everything we did in 2012 (two EPs and an LP) on one CD with maybe a special ltd. edition 7”. It’s going to be called “The Early Year.” We have a ton of new songs written but I don’t know when we’re going to be able to record them. As for writing, I wrote a book of short fiction called Everything Flows that just came out in September.
BT: Thanks, James!
You can listen to Hilarious Heaven here, in all its glory:
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