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Constant Smiles – Kenneth Anger (Sacred Bones)

24 April 2023

Roughly five years in, New York’s Constant Smiles has just released its fifth album ”Kenneth Anger” on the Sacred Bones label. Led by Ben Jones, the band has always featured somewhat stark guitar and synth-based music oriented toward indie folk, post-punk, and Goth. Throughout the catalog a pervading spookiness connects these dots, playing perfectly to Ben’s lyrical themes of intimacy, fear, isolation, addiction, and the underworld.

As the band has evolved, Ben’s songwriting and arrangements have become fuller and songs are more accessible. (Even still, I recommend starting at the beginning of the Constant Smiles catalog to hear the progression.) Beginning with the release of ”Paragons” (Sacred Bones, 2021), production has also improved dramatically. Songs like “Run To Stay” are lushly arranged and true standouts in the band’s repertoire.

While not overtly sounding anything like soundtrack music, Constant Smiles’ music is often inspired by film. This is immediately evident when scanning the band’s discography. John Waters graces the cover of the album of the same name released in 2019 on Cold Moon Records. The new record is a bit less obvious, named after the underground experimental film-maker Kenneth Anger. Now 96 years old, Anger’s ground-breaking films go back to the late 1930’s and are cited as major influences for John Waters, David Lynch, and others.

The new album is paced very well, with lead track “Finding Ways” immediately making waves. The song reminds me very much of Sweden’s Mary Onettes, another excellent indie pop band. Track two, “In My Heart” manically surges and plays up Constant Smiles’ musical range. “Here and Gone” is another absolute winner. It’s a perfect single, as is “I’m On Your Side”. Tracks like “I Hope You Are Well” and “Loaded Anger” showcase Ben’s darker side. Musically, these arrangements are beautiful and powerful, especially when paradoxically paired alongside Ben’s hushed vocals.

The interview:

David: I really enjoyed my recent first listen to “Lost” (Cold Moon, 2018), which is more guitar-based. “Paragons” is obviously closer to the new LP in style/sound/production, but this one is even more synth-oriented. Has that progression or variation been conscious, as far as instrumentation, or did it happen more organically?

Ben: “So glad you like “Lost”! That was one record where I really felt a breakthrough of sound and song writing. I had written a different record that was really bad, so I scrapped it. And out of that I wrote a whole new record which was “Lost”. And the synth really came in there with my friend Jai (Berger) that wrote the b-side of the record. I modeled the record after David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy (”Low”, ”Heroes”, and “Lodger”, 1977-79), specifically the album, ”Low”.

I basically get into modes of writing where I get really into a certain sound and I try to only listen to music in that sound. With ”Kenneth Anger” I just got super into synth-pop again and was listening to The Weeknd, Doja Cat, Taylor Swift, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Cut Copy, Prince. Stuff like that.”

David: I had to look up Kenneth Anger and read a bit more about him and also read that you use some of his visuals as backgrounds when performing. How does his filmmaking and sensibility overlap with your music? Also, Kenneth is now like 96 or something. Does he know about your LP? Just curious.”

Ben: “I think Kenneth’s movies are pretty dreamy, but I was really inspired with his color pallet. I always heard a heavy synth soundtrack to his films. Like Vangelis and the “Blade Runner” soundtrack. Films like “Inauguration of Pleasure Dome” really give me that sense of colorful synth.

In general, I just love watching movies and playing guitar or synth while watching them. It really creates a mood and allows my brain not to focus too much on playing and just let the emotion come through and not worry whether it is good or bad. But I also think of my records as full albums, telling a story or creating a world or a mood for one movie and then having the next record tell a different story. That is why I work in trilogies as well, to group the stories in themes to create a larger world of an overarching way.

I actually heard that Kenneth Anger has been abducted by his manager and is keeping his whereabouts secret! Hopefully they find him!”

Take a listen. Some of these influences are identifiable on the single, “Gold Like Water.” Note the visuals, inspired by Kenneth Anger’s work.

David: Can you tell me more about the writing/recording process for the new album? You (or maybe Sacred Bones, the label) refer to the band as a “collective.” For this LP, 16 musicians are listed on bandcamp! Wow! How and when did these musicians come into the picture when you made this record? Were demos pretty ‘done’ by that point? Do you write music on keyboards? Guitars?

Ben: “I will write and record a song on my own, then I send it to my partner Mike (Mackey) or if I think it’s better than usual, I will send it around to other people in the band to get a read on whether it is good or not. If the song needs something like Nora (Roy)’s drums/ vocals, Spike (Currier)’s bass, Jai’s synth, whatever it may be, I see what they think. Then when there are enough songs, usually 50 or something, we as a band pick the best songs to really home in and make them the best we can by getting everyone’s input and musicianship on there. This is the part of the process that gets everyone involved to really see what is working and what isn’t. For this record I tried to only write on synth but a couple of guitar tracks made it on there.”

David: Thanks for your time today, Ben. Anything else you’d like to mention about the band, the LP, gigs, what’s next for you? Happy to share with The Big Takeover community.

Ben: “We have a tour coming in the fall so get ready. And hopefully a European Tour as well!”