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The Vulnerable Boys of The Mommyheads

13 January 2013

One of 2012’s biggest surprises was the new album by the long-running band The Mommyheads. They made a name for themselves by releasing sweet yet raw power-pop, yet their newest album was an amazing departure; gone was the rawness, and instead of being in the league of Tsunami and Superchunk and the East Coast 1990s indie-rock scene, the record blended pop and prog in a way that was entirely different for them. Think Travis, think ELO, think Coldplay. No, really. That they pulled off such a distinctive and radical departure would be news enough; that they succeeded in making the best record of their career is what makes this story so great.

BIG TAKEOVER: Vulnerable Boy is different! I was shocked by it when I first heard it. My first thought was, “Is this the SAME Mommyheads that I’ve known all these years?”

ADAM ELK: The reaction to this record has been pretty intense. Some of our friends have said that it’s a major departure from the stuff we’ve been doing over the years, and some are saying that it reminds them of the Mommyheads material from our first album Acorn from 1989, and that we’ve come full circle. One thing I made sure of early on was to push the production side of things on this record. Ultimately we’re still the same band, just in a different mood.

BT: Was there a point that you decided, “Let’s all do something so radically different,” or did the music simply develop that way?

AE: I was having a bunch of personal problems during the writing and recording of Vulnerable Boy, and literally had to write a lot of these songs to help me cope with my situation. These songs helped keep me out of slipping into a deep depression. I was also very open with the band about the experiences I was going through.

Listening to the recordings now, I can hear the guys channeling similar intense experiences of their own, through their playing. What I’ve always loved about the concept of a “band” is that you gather a bunch of talented people, focus their collective energy into one direction, and in some ways, create a new person. Without sounding too pretentious, that new person literally became the Vulnerable Boy in the room with us. It’s not an intentional concept record, but if I had to pigeonhole it into a concept, it would be a quick peek into the life of someone with a sense of humor who is going through some very painful shit.

BT: How was the experience of making Vulnerable Boy? Was it, like your music, a completely different thing for you?

AE: The biggest departure for this record was embracing our love of what we always considered good “prog rock.” Drummer Dan Fisherman was always a huge fan of early Genesis, and I had no idea how powerful that early stuff was. Our Swedish fans are all heavy prog fans, and they’ve been telling us that we were always a prog band dressed in pop clothing. So I finally strapped on a pair of headphones last summer and listened to the live version of “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” for two months straight, literally, until my reality started to shift. I swear I came out of that listening experience another person. We also embraced the fact that keyboardist Michael Holt is a classical musician in the purest sense of the word. For example, the music for On A Clear Night came from one of his preludes, note for note.

BT: Was making such a radically different record frustrating or easier?

AE: It’s frustrating to only get limited time with the guys for recording, because everyone is so busy. On the other hand, because of those time constraints, almost all the final tracks were first or second takes, which are always the best. The mind is a musician, listener, or critic’s worst enemy. As soon as we start thinking about or discussing the music, the music suffers. The fun part was watching the band take the songs and twist and turn them into final Mommyheads songs. It’s such a pleasure to play with these guys.

BT: Were there any songs that were harder to complete than others? How difficult was it to find your vision for the songs, and did it come to you quickly, or was there a lot of trial and error?

AE: Most of the songs just kinda flowed out. “Force Of Will” took a while; it’s one of those songs that starts as a puzzle that’s been tossed on the floor. I was still putting the pieces together on that one while we were mastering. “Medicine Show” was a long mix to say the least; many moving parts to that one. The most labor-intensive part of Vulnerable Boy was the mixing process. In fact, the mixing took 20 times longer than the writing. In some ways, the mixing is a major part of the writing.

BT: As a band were you concerned about doing something that might shock and confound your longtime followers? Was it easy to get past those concerns while you were making it?

AE: The Mommyheads never had fans and never will, in my opinion. We’re just not that type of band. What we do have is about a hundred people around the world who have always been fascinated by what we do and will always seem to be. In return, we’ve become fascinated by them. I guess you can call them friends at this point. We’re basically making our records for those hundred friends.

BT: How has the reaction been? Positive? Have you heard any disappointment from your faithful fanbase?

AE: One cool thing about us is that we’ve never had a “sound.” So we can kinda just do whatever we want musically, without any fallout. I hope we shock anyone who listens to the album. Shocking people is a good thing. If our friends are loving this one, that’s all that matters.

BT: What’s next for Mommyheads? Another foray into this grand style of production? Live shows? Return to your roots?

AE: We’ve all grown up and are pillars of our communities now. Families, kids, jobs, responsibilities and so forth. So getting together and playing might become a rare occurrence in the future. We do play shows once in a while, and I would love to tour Northern Europe at least once every year or two. I’d also love to make another record by 2014. Playing music in a band is a weird addiction. If you take a step back from it, you realize that its this obsessive, all-consuming, life-altering thing you want to put yourself through, to reconnect with your true self. I’ve seen people lose their jobs, families, and even their minds over their insatiable desire to tour and make records. Yet in small doses, it might also be a good thing. Once in a while you have to kick your reality habit and fall off your day-to-day life wagon, to put it all back into perspective, I guess.