Sometimes, change is a good thing. Seattle's Pretty Girls Make Graves learned this lesson all too well while recording their most recent album, Élan Vital (Matador).
One of their guitarists, Nathan Thelen, had left the band to focus on raising his new daughter, and the band decided to try and wing it as a four-piece. They wrote some songs like they always had, as a band, and then decided a fifth member might be good after all. They enlisted multi-instrumentalist and friend Leona Marrs. The band gave Marrs some tapes, told her to write some parts and then went on tour in Europe.
But the songs they'd worked on didn't turn out the way they wanted, and suddenly, Pretty Girls Make Graves found themselves with an album's worth of material they hated. Rather than just let the situation take control of them, the band instigated a paradigm shift: They completely revamped the way they wrote songs, and in turn, restructured the way they function as a band.
"The format that we had gotten used to stopped working," explained bassist Derek Fudesco.
Rather than work together on bits and pieces, individual members brought in fleshed-out songs. Before, "someone would bring something in, and we'd turn it into something different," said Fudesco. Now, "the biggest thing is just working on other people's songs, rather than just parts, and seeing people's visions through their songs. That's something we'd never done before."
With the new formula comes a different product: Élan Vital sounds only vaguely similar to previous Pretty Girls Make Graves records.
"It's kind of different in every way," said Fudesco. "The way I hear it is, I'm sure, different than the way most people hear it, but on this record, I can hear people's personalities and songwriting so much more clearly than on past records. I also think it's way more interesting, because it's so different because of that; each song is a whole different vibe and mood, whereas before, I guess it kind of in a way sounded the same--the whole record was the same sort of feeling, whereas this one is completely different."
From the first few moments of Élan Vital, it's clear things have definitely changed. "The Nocturnal House" has a guitar echoing through a delay pedal, but then there's whistling, and vocalist Andrea Zollo's voice comes in muted. "Pearls on a Plate" is quiet and calm, with fireworks exploding toward the end. "Things are going to change," sings Zollo on "Pyrite Pedestal," and rather than exploding into loud guitars right away, the song pauses; keyboards play a catchy riff, and then the guitars kick in. "Parade" happily sings of working-class revolt ("We're throwing down our push brooms, we're hanging up our apron ties") with just drums and keyboards.
"There are things about each (song) that I'm really excited that we did and tried," said Fudesco. "There's one song with two drums and no guitar, and I think that's really awesome that we were able to pull that off, because we used to be such a guitar-heavy band. And there's a song that I wrote where I sing, and that was kind of big step for me, because all I've really done is scream backups on previous records."
An accordion introduces "Selling the Wind," and then Zollo snottily sings, "We have so far sailed maelstroms through the tempest light"; even on a song with accordion, Pretty Girls Make Graves doesn't deny their goth and punk-rock roots.
"Punk now is such an ugly word; it conjures up My Chemical Romance images and Hot Topic. It wasn't like that," said Fudesco. "And there still is a whole world of people doing rad shit and booking their own shows and having shows in their houses--that's where we came from. Obviously we're not a part of it anymore."
But the band's ability to revamp their entire approach to songwriting shows that they still have that punk-rock attitude that allows them to question the status quo, even if their music doesn't sound anything like what most would call "punk."
"Each one of us has so many different influences, I think it shows in everything we do, and that's why you can't really pinpoint us down--you can't reference a band to our band," said Fudesco.
Pretty Girls Make Graves is, in many regards, a different band. And many of their previous fans aren't so sure about that.
"We definitely alienated most of our fans with our new record," said Fudesco, "but the people that are into this record never really paid us mind before, so that's kind of cool."