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Thrift Store Troubadours, a song-by-song, guided tour through the new It's Karma It's Cool album with Jim Styring

19 May 2023

With the new album from It’s Karma It’s Cool, Thrift Stone Troubadours out on 2nd June, I sat down with the always affable Jim Styring to delve deeper into the songs, their inspiration, song-writing in a broader sense and how It’s Karma It’s Cool get their songs from first thought to finished article.

Before we dive into the specifics of the tracks on the new album, can you tell me about some of the highs and lows of the process, who’s involved, and what is in store for the listener?

To be honest, there haven’t really been any lows with this album. It’s been an enjoyable experience from start to finish. The songs came together, and everything fell into place without any real struggle. We’ve loved being in the studio working on these new songs, and we’re looking forward to people hearing the album.

Martyn, Mikey and Danny have played their hearts out on this record. I know it’s a cliche, but genuine blood, sweat, and tears. They’ve presented me with some of the best music I’ve had to write to, and I hope, I think, I’ve risen to the challenge. We also have the legendary Peter Holsapple (REM, The dB’s) playing on three of the new songs, “Winter Coats,” “A Gentle Reminder,” and “City Kids,” so that’s very exciting for the band. We think it’s our strongest work to date and hope people will enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it. You can decide for yourself when it’s released on Friday 2nd June.

So, kicking off with “How Be You Be Blue?” this is a signature IKIC sound, warm, 60s-infused harmonies, a slight touch of psychedelia, plenty of power, and lots of pop vibes. How important is opening with the right song, and how long do you spend trying to get the correct running order for the albums?

I think an album’s opening song is always important; it needs to make a statement and grab people. We wanted a big pop song to open this record; it’s certainly a deliberate nod to The Beatles and the whole 60’s psychedelic sound. It’s just an uplifting, feel-good kind of thing; don’t wait till tomorrow. The time is now!

We always spend time working on the tracklist. If you do it wrong, an album can lose its energy, regardless of how good the songs are. It’s a similar process to putting a setlist together for a show; you want to take your listeners on a journey, so you have to pace it right if you want them all to still be there at the end.

“Warmer Climes” is a more hazy, sunshine sound. Do you ever set out to capture a mood or sensation in the music, or are they more like happy accidents that are more than the sum of their parts?

It can be both, really. Martyn had this guitar idea and asked if I could write something to it. I knew straight away it was a powerful piece of music, so I had to find words that reflected the mood and do it justice. It’s a little different, and that’s why I think it works so well. It’s actually about the famous Bigfoot Patterson and Gimlin sighting/film from the 1960s at Bluff Creek. I’d been watching a documentary about it, and the words just kind of came to me.

There are some great drums from Danny in there, almost tribal. I think the whole song paints a picture. We liked the idea of catching people off guard by putting it second on the album; you may be in for a few surprises this time round.

“Old Bones” features some excellent guitar work. It feels as if the band understands that solos only work if they are an integral part of the song rather than a bolted-on ego trip, which is how most people approach them. Is that a fair assessment?

That’s exactly it, Dave; everything should be working for the song. It’s not a solo project or a vehicle to promote a single musician. We’re four equal parts of a band, with the song being the most important thing. That’s not to say that Martyn, Mikey, and Danny aren’t gifted musicians, they are, but the song will always come first with IKIC.

“Winter Coats.” It’s a busy song, very layered and textured. How do you know when enough is going on in a song, and how do you avoid the risk of overloading a song with too many ideas?

We wanted a layered, almost folk-rock feel to this song and were lucky enough to have Peter Holsapple (REM, The dB’s) play mandolin on the track. It’s very easy to overload a song, especially when you’re producing it yourself. We normally start with a lot of stuff on there and take it away as we need. If you start to lose the main melody under the weight of all the instruments, it might be time to lose a few.

I love the lightness and buoyancy of “Jenni, We’re All Fighting Wars.” The lyrics have a bit of a back story; would you like to enlighten me?

It’s really about anyone who’s ever felt stuck or trapped in life and the situation they’re in; sometimes, you can’t see a way out. It’s saying as long as you keep dreaming and believing in yourself, you’ll get there. A lot of this album is about self-belief and trusting your heart. I didn’t realize it as I was writing the lyrics, but it’s definitely there in several of the songs. Jenni was a real person, but I changed her name. She did eventually get to where she wanted to be.

_“Broken Heart Foundations” sounds like an obvious single as soon as it starts. Do you always know which songs are singles and which are better left for the album buyer to discover?

It becomes obvious as they come together which ones will make good singles and work well on the radio. Same kind of thing as picking an album’s opener; it’s got to grab you and hold you for three and a half minutes. There are a lot of potential singles on this album, but that was the idea; we wanted every song to be strong enough to stand on its own. I’d asked Mikey to write a pop-punk kind of thing; he came back with what would become “Broken Heart Foundations” the same day, and by that evening, I had the finished lyrics.

Do Ghosts really Wear Jeans?

Yes, some do, for sure! It’s an all-out tribute to Bowie and that glam rock era, T. Rex, Mott The Hoople, etc. It’s asking where all the magic and mystery in rock and roll has gone. Where are all the new rock stars? The larger-than-life characters? The untouchables? Things have changed. Music’s changed. We know everything about everyone now, thanks to the internet. There is no mystery, no intrigue in rock and roll anymore; it’s all so easy come and easy go. The song’s asking Ziggy to reconsider and return to show us all how it’s done; one last encore.

“Vacations In A Taxi Cab” echoes a perky, early Beatles vibe; it’s time to talk about influences and how much the artists you admire guide the band when writing your own songs.

I guess any band will always be the sum of its influences, but we never set out to sound like anyone or deliberately fit a label; we just do what we do. When we get in the rehearsal studio, it really is like an IKIC creative bubble; we just get lost in writing for ourselves. If we write something that moves us or makes us feel a certain way, we figure it might resonate with someone else, too. Again, it’s about trusting and believing in what you’re doing. I couldn’t look an audience in the face and sing my lyrics if I didn’t believe every word I was singing.

I guess some of our influences will be obvious, we’ve already mentioned a few, but some won’t be as obvious; we throw everything into the Karma pot. And all ideas are welcome, regardless of who has them; we’ll try things; if they work, that’s great; if not, at least we gave them a go. We prefer people to tell us who they hear in our music rather than us spelling it out and making it all too easy.

“A Gentle Reminder” is also a great display of the jauntiness and the jangle that is inherent in your sound, a song written around the riffs and guitar rhythms. Let’s talk about the writing process. Do the riffs, the melodies, or the lyrics come first, or is there no set pattern?

Our songs normally start with a guitar idea that either Martyn or Mikey will send me. I’ll listen through and write to the ones that grab me, adding melodies and lyrics. We’ve released around 40 songs now, so it normally comes together pretty quickly; we’re all on the same page. We’ll take the ideas into the studio with our drummer, Danny, and work on the arrangements.

I have notebooks full of lyric ideas, so sometimes it’s a case of reworking existing ideas to fit guitar parts, but other times what they send over will inspire a brand new set of words. Peter Holsapple joins us again, adding some great keyboards and a 70s punk rock vibe.

“The Terms of Letting Go” and “Roll The Credits” are gentler numbers. Do you find it easier to write faster, more apparent groovers, or do the understated and restrained ones come easier? And what do you like about each form?

We enjoy writing both. I think an album needs a good mix; if it were all fast rock songs, by the 12th track, you’d be a little bored. We like to show that there’s more to us than just turning the guitars to 11, though Martyn and Mikey do that very well, too. It’s getting a balance across an album. Like I said earlier, you’re taking people on a journey; you want to make the trip as interesting and varied as possible. Sometimes it’s right to rock out, and sometimes it pays to calm it down a little and take a breath.

“City Kids” takes us out on a high; it is also a great example of dynamic ebbs and flows. Let’s discuss the power of building lulls and lows songs so that when it kicks back in, you can come back with plenty of punch.

“City Kids” was always going to be the album’s closer; there’s nowhere left to go after that song! We wanted it to build and explode and ebb and flow; it’s kind of a celebration, ‘you made it this far, but don’t ever forget where you came from.’ It’s almost like a movie within a song. There are some twists and turns in there, and you’re never quite sure where it’s taking you. The original demo was less than three minutes, Martyn worked his magic, and it became this thing much bigger than we’d initially imagined. Peter Holsapple adds his keyboards to this one again, and the whole thing comes in at just over seven and a half minutes!

Lastly, do you have any final thoughts on the new album? Obviously, it is your best to date, and obviously, you are right to be proud of it, but any insights and private thoughts you want to share about it and its birth?

Thank you, Dave. Yes, we believe it’s our strongest album to date, but I guess most bands will say their latest work is their best. I genuinely believe these are some of the strongest songs we’ve written and recorded. We’ve pushed our songwriting and taken a few chances with this one.

Our previous album, Homesick For Our Future Destinations did well for us, so we knew we had to up our game this time round, but I think we’ve succeeded with Thrift Store Troubadours.

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