There's not a lot of overlap between the crowds you'll find at the Phoenix clubs Modified Arts and the Rhythm Room.
Modified Arts is a hip, underground space that welcomes avant-garde performances, while Rhythm Room is an old-school, urban-blues mecca.
It's telling that the Tempe-based band What Laura Says has played at both of those clubs. From the beginning, they've straddled genres and audiences, and they're happy knowing that they can't be easily defined.
"That's us in a nutshell," says Mitch Freedom, bassist for the promising quintet, when pondering the band's booking schedule. "Our tastes are very wide-reaching, but I guess the genres that have been put into the music we've made so far have been kind of 'indie' and 'pop,' and kind of the underground stuff. But there's also a very strong influence of blues, funk and soul."
What Laura Says is currently touring and plugging last year's release of a remastered version of their 2007 debut album. The disc showcases their delightfully strange relationship with the song form, as the album-opening "Couldn't Lose Myself If I Tried" loses itself in a most inspired way: careening through five radically different sections in slightly more than three minutes. It also displays the band's knack for baroque-pop harmonies and rustic instrumentation (banjos, ukuleles, coffee cans).
If the band's Brian-Wilson-goes-bluegrass sensibility feels a bit schizophrenic, there's a good reason for that. What Laura Says is really the product of two different bands—an offbeat pop duo called What Laura Says Thinks and Feels, and a dirty blues trio called the Expatriates. Their union is similar to the old Fleetwood Mac tale of Mick Fleetwood visiting Keith Olsen's SoCal recording studio in 1974. While Olsen showed off the studio's excellent sound by playing him a track from a duo called Buckingham Nicks, Fleetwood focused all his attention on how much he liked the guitar player, and it wasn't long before he asked him to join his band.
What Laura Says Thinks and Feels was created by singer-songwriters Danny Godbold and James Mulhern, who both played guitar and piano and shared vocals. The aptly named Expatriates featured three Grand Rapids, Mich., transplants: Freedom, his high-school pal Brad Muller on guitar and vocals, and Muller's brother Greg on drums. When Brad got a job as a regional sales rep for Blue Bell Ice Cream, he no longer had time for music, and the remaining Expatriates realized they'd hit a plateau.
"Blues-rock wasn't really happening in Phoenix," Freedom says. "It was totally awesome for us and our core audience, but as far as getting into the music scene in Phoenix, we weren't a jam band, and we weren't scream, and we weren't underground enough for some of the younger kids to grab onto."
More than three years ago, a mutual friend put the members of Laura Says Thinks and Feels in the same room with the remaining Expatriates.
"She was recording us, and she was also roommates with Danny and James ... ," Freedom recalls. "She saw their need for a rhythm section and saw Greg and I not really getting into what we were doing."
By that point, Godbold and Mulhern had already pieced together most of the tracks for their debut album, but Freedom and Muller encouraged them to supplement that material with some choice unrecorded songs. The resulting album never stops throwing aural surprises at you, and its most consistent delight comes from the intricate, layered harmonies of Godbold, Mulhern and Freedom. You can hear it in the spacy, XTC-ish pop of "July 23," and the spare, near-a cappella "Wish I Could Fly."
"It comes straight from our influences," Freedom says. "I grew up listening to a lot of David Crosby, and he was always right there, not afraid to sing that high note. A lot of times, that's what's missing. You've got the two guys, but (you need) somebody who's not afraid to grab that weird note, to make that weird triad.
"It's not about emulating the music that we listen to as much as trying to make the music as fun as possible for ourselves. A lot of people write three chords and the truth, and they often get sick of it, and I see why."
Freedom says that at one show, the members of What Laura Says were talking to a new fan, and the fan asked if they'd grown sick of playing songs from a record that came out back in 2007. Mulhern and Freedom looked at each other and simply said, "No."
The band has tired, however, of having to explain their cryptic name, and after taking on outside management, they found that the moniker was seriously slowing their music-biz progress. After a showcase at SXSW in 2008, Freedom says industry reps uniformly responded by telling the band's management something along these lines: "Great band, excellent songs; what was their name?"
Freedom says he firmly believes that "good music is good music, and it sells itself, no matter what it's called," but he and his bandmates agreed to drop the "Thinks and Feels" part of the name. What Laura Says isn't quite the mouthful that the original name was, but it's just as confusing, given that there are no female members of the group, let alone one named Laura.
"(Godbold and Mulhern) aren't too psyched to talk about the name, which leads me to think it was something not too good, maybe a seedy part of their past," Freedom says. "People have come to identify with it, and it's become kind of a metaphorical thing."
What Laura Says performs at midnight on the Hotel Congress Outdoor Stage. A version of this story originally appeared in the San Antonio Current.