The debut release from Tucson's Lowlife is a concept album about memory and the self, essentially a one-sided, internal conversation that looks back in time.
Remembrancer is an ambitious, heady project, but one the group's singer-songwriter Jonathan Malfabon says fits the way he's approached music for quite some time. Before moving to Tucson about a year and a half ago, Malfabon played in the Phoenix band Northern Hustle, which only wrote concept albums (yes, concept albums).
"I like the idea of writing songs based on a concept or an idea," he says. "Because of that conditioning, the way everything plays out is based off how the lyrics and the guitar flow together. You can hear the relationship between the tracks lyrically and thematically and they all follow a similar rhythm."Malfabon began playing his new material in the solo-acoustic mold, but the songs were pulling him away from that stripped-down folky approach.
"It wasn't the right sound. It was kind of empty," he says. "I started to realize that I wanted that specific music to be more full and there was a lot more that could be added in that empty space."
Getting to know some musicians in his new home, Malfabon asked three potential collaborators to dinner to discuss forming a band in Tucson. ("It was very professional, like an interview," he says.) Sean Terry, a guitarist who's since switched to drums, met Malfabon at a Sofar Sounds show. Nirantha Balagopal, who switched from piano to bass, knew Malfabon from playing in her own band in Phoenix. Only guitarist Daniel Ramirez, another connection from Sofar Sounds shows, is still playing the instrument he began Lowlife with.
"He always used to tell me that his songs sounded empty and I never would have agreed," Balagopal says. "But now that we've been paying as a foursome it sounds like completely different songs."
Malfabon drew some inspiration for the Lowlife sound from bands that take folk music and instrumentation in unconventional directions, like Timber Timbre and The Dodos. It's a soundscape of shifting time signatures and contrasting elements within the tunes to create deeper, more complex songs.
"I usually say it's somewhere between indie-folk and math-rock, which don't really have a Venn overlap, but if they did, that's what we would be," Balagopal says.
Given free reign to create their own parts to flesh out the acoustic guitar, the Lowlife bandmates each slotted in creative elements that push the boundaries of the songs.
Terry: "With these songs, by playing percussion, I'm not playing what I'm used to. Not even close. But I love it for that fact. I can hear what everybody else brings to it and I can change the dynamics. With a lot of the songs, there's so much depth to them I almost want to go for a theatrical affect."
And though the lyrics center on the concept of memory, Ramirez didn't feel bound to that theme in crafting his own guitar additions.
"A lot of the feeling that comes from what I write is purely based off his guitar parts," Ramirez says. "He might be singing about something that's a little bit more melancholy, but if his guitar is upbeat, I might just roll with that. Some of the songs are a little more intense even though they may be exploring the same themes. If anything, I'm tied to his melodies, not lyrics."
When the four-piece version of Lowlife came together last fall, the songs that would become Remembrancer were already there but in a skeleton version, Malfabon says.
"When I was thinking about putting together a band, I hadn't thought of guitar tone," he says. "Daniel comes up with some real eerie, different guitar tones that I wouldn't have thought would work if I just heard them by themselves. But hearing everything together, it adds this really cool depth to it. It's all an addition, not a tremendous change or shift. Everything is driven by the acoustic guitar. You can tell it was written with just the guitar and vocals in mind. But each part that we added to it really accentuated it or brought attention to certain tones."
Malfabon began working toward the record's concept with the song "Oh, Memory," with thoughtful lyrics hunting for self-awareness.
"I'm talking to a younger version of me, realizing what I've grown into," he says. "I'm having a blast and the younger Jon is probably really idealistic and thinks he knows everything when he doesn't. It's talking to yourself 10 years ago, that's the exact concept of the album."
"Oh, Memory" and a companion song "Knots" were the first written for Lowlife, forming the conceptual core of the project. Like branches off a tree, the other songs each take the core idea of Remembrancer and veer off in slightly different directions on their own.
"Those two were written for a specific reason, with the kinds of thoughts I was dealing with myself," he says. "The other three came about recognizing this could be a concept."
"Oh, Memory" features a back-and-forth vocals, Balagopal harmonizing with Malfabon, finding her own connection to the lyrics.
"I sing a good amount of the lyrics with Jon and before he ever explained this concept, I thought it was a conversation between romantic partners," she says. "What I think is really cool about the way that Jon writes songs is even though he's writing about something very specific he has in mind, if you don't know that, it's very relatable. Now that he told me it's about remembering something, I can 100 percent relate to that too."
The Remembrancer release is just the starting point for the young band, which will prepare for a second multi-state tour later in the spring, journeying through Colorado, Utah and New Mexico after a January run to Phoenix, Northern Arizona, Las Vegas and California. Next up will be more songwriting, another record in mind. Encouraged by the Lowlife progress so far, Malfabon says he'll return to writing in the same thematic mode.
"The next album's definitely going to be a concept," Malfabon says. "It's going to be haunting."