Just about any rock band would kill for the chance to put out an album on Sub Pop, one of the nation's most highly regarded indie labels. But Grand Archives frontman Mat Brooke turned them down--well, one and a half times.
His previous band, Carissa's Wierd, a (for lack of a better term) sad-core outfit which began in the mid-'90s--while he was living in Tucson, though it bloomed after he and his bandmates moved to Seattle--was offered a deal with the label, but turned it down. The band had been releasing albums on Brown Records, started by a close friend (who later became a band member) specifically to release Carissa's Wierd's music, and Brooke cites "this weird Brown Records pride" as the reason for turning down Sub Pop.
"That was when we were young and still had these punk ethics," Brooke recounts. "We were of the idea that we were putting out our own records, and it was fine, and we don't need The Man stepping into our business. Which was very naive."
By the time of Carissa's Wierd's breakup, in 2004, the band included Brooke; future Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell, the aforementioned Brown Records founder; Jenn Ghetto, who records under the name S; and Sera Cahoone, whose excellent alt-country solo Sub Pop debut, Only as the Day Is Long, was released in March. (She'll open Grand Archives' show this week in Tucson.)
After Carissa's Wierd, Brooke and Bridwell formed a short-lived band with Bridwell at the helm that released only one song, on a compilation.
"We did that," Brooke says, "and we got a bass player and a drummer, and we were practicing, and it wasn't really my cup of tea; I wasn't too into it, so I was like, 'I don't really want to do this,' but Ben still wanted to, so he and the drummer and the bassist kept going to form what eventually was Band of Horses.
"So they ended up getting a show opening up for Iron and Wine in Seattle, and Ben asked if I would just come up and do a couple songs, just 'cause we're friends. So ... I did that. It was fun, and then a couple of Iron and Wine tours came up. Same kind of story--just asked me if I'd come along. And it was fun. And then next thing I knew, we were in the studio making a record for Sub Pop.
"I'd never really given the commitment to be a formal member. It was just a spur of the moment (thing). ... And (Band of Horses' first album) Everything All the Time took off really fast, and I still didn't feel quite committed. It was still 100 percent Ben's project, and I kinda wanted to see what else I could do."
Brooke took time off to open a successful bar, The Redwood, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, but soon started a new band. Archives included--and, under the new name Grand Archives, includes--bassist and former Tucsonan Jeff Montano, guitarist and keyboardist Ron Lewis, guitarist Thomas Wright and drummer Curtis Hall.
Eschewing the mopiness of Carissa's Wierd and the country-esque Southern sound of Band of Horses, Archives was envisioned as a more uplifting band, heavy on lush vocal harmonies--four of the five members sing--and a peaceful, easy vibe that recalled the Laurel Canyon scene of Los Angeles in the early-to-mid-'70s.
A friend gave them some free studio time, and the band recorded four songs to, in Mat's words, "see if anybody would want to listen to it or be interested." They were pleased enough with the results to start a Web site that offered the songs for free, and soon, one of the foremost music blogs, Pitchfork, "grabbed onto it and gave it some thumbs-up. And that helped out a lot."
Shortly after that, Cahoone asked the band to open one of her shows in Seattle. Representatives from Sub Pop came out to check things out, and, says Brooke, "literally, the next couple days, they were giving us calls and asking us to come down, and see if we wanted to work with them."
Again, Brooke was hesitant.
"It was way too soon. You record four songs, and the next thing you know, bigwigs like Sub Pop want to sign you and, of course, our second show ended up being at a giant venue opening up for Modest Mouse, and then going on a short Midwest tour with them.
"And, yeah, it's a lot to take in as a brand-new band. And as much as we're all slightly older, seasoned musicians ... we still needed to learn how to be a band. So in that sense, we're still very young. It was definitely diving in the deep end, but also, at a point, you can't say, 'No, I don't want to open for Modest Mouse; no, I don't want to be on Sub Pop.' Everything came quick, and we realized we had to move quick and start learning our songs a lot quicker."
The newly renamed Grand Archives' debut album, The Grand Archives, was released in mid-February on Sub Pop, to near universal acclaim.
While some of the songs are wistful in their reconciliation of the past, another handful are slightly obtuse character studies of such figures as Crazy Horse and George Kaminski, a Pennsylvania prison inmate who holds the world record for collecting the most four-leaf clovers. "Sleepdriving" sounds exactly as its title would suggest, languid but propelled by counterpoint melodies. The lovely "Torn Blue Foam Couch" is so quiet at its beginning that it's barely there, but ramps up in volume and vigor as it progresses.
Whatever the subject matter, the songs on The Grand Archives are almost universally hopeful and uplifting.
"When we got this group together," says Brooke, "we were kinda trying to decide what kind of music we were gonna do, and it just seemed like, anymore, Seattle bands writing songs, wallowing in their self-pity, it's just overkill; it's too much. ... (We decided to) try to write something a little more upbeat."