Don't call Cincinnati's Bad Veins a duo.
Though singer-songwriter-keyboardist-guitarist Benjamin Davis and drummer Jake Bonta make up the living, breathing part of the indie-pop band, Bad Veins wouldn't be complete without Irene, the vintage reel-to-reel tape player that supplies backing tracks.
"She's very huge in Bad Veins," says Bonta. "She brings an aesthetic that I feel no other band has done before."
Bad Veins could have elected to play pre-recorded backing tracks on an iPod, but chose to embrace the reel-to-reel, making it a visual part of the show. In essence, Bad Veins has anthropomorphized the tape machine as a do-it-all female multi-instrumentalist, even giving her a Twitter account (@thereelirene).
"She's the third member of the band. She pumps the tracks out and makes us sound bolder and gives us more character," says Bonta during a phone interview on a tour stop in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Bad Veins are in the midst of another long stretch of dates touring behind 2012's The Mess We've Made, the band's second album of polished and expansive indie pop. The synth-guitar-drums backbone is embellished with banjo, ukulele, strings and horns, layered together during a patient three-month recording period at Audiogrotto, a church turned recording studio in Newport, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
The band followed its whims in making a more orchestral sound and not trying to limit the album's sonic elements. Those extras make Irene indispensable live, but it's also part of what makes songs like "Dancing on TV," "Child" and "Nursery Rhyme" so irresistible.
The Mess We've Made — like records by The Format, The Shins and The Killers — is up-tempo, with plenty of attention given to sweeping hooks and dramatic edges. It's also a record that tackles the familiar themes of self-doubt, growth and hopes of shedding old skin.
Davis' lyrics are direct, introspective statements that reflect harsh assessments: "I could run all day just chasing my failures away," "I'd never argue that I'm anything if not a mess," and "For better or worse I am still a child" all stand out as ego laid bare.
Bonta was working as a live and session drummer-for-hire around Cincinnati before he joined the band in February.
"I was doing a lot of drumming work around town at the time, and I started doing cover videos and putting them online to shop myself around to anyone who needs a drummer," he says. "Ben's friend found the video and sent it along, and he didn't look at it at first. His friend had been sending him overweight metal drummers as a joke. But then he called me up.
"He calls me on a Tuesday — I learned three songs at first and then he called me up and asked if I could learn seven more songs in three days," Bonta says. "I wouldn't describe myself as an indie-pop drummer before this band. I'd been in a pop band before Bad Veins but the session work I was getting was real weird alternative rock stuff."
The new Bad Veins lineup had no more time than that to ramp up, playing two sold-out shows with fellow Cincinnati power-poppers Walk the Moon as their first gigs. And Bonta readily took to his new band's style.
"It was a huge game changer. I had to shift gears and re-learn how to play live in a sense. I have to know where Ben is at all times and interact with this tape machine, too," Bonta says. "It's helped me grow musically and given me more discipline."
Davis and Bonta have been working out new songs in between shows, with a few loose demos in the works and plans on releasing a new Bad Veins record as early as next spring.
"What we're trying to do is simplify," Bonta says. "Every album from Bad Veins is going to be different. Every band musically has to in some way grow with every album, so we're trying to go a bit more simplified in terms of instrumentation, but we want to be very catchy."