Interview with the Smittens

Hi guys and gals!  It’s the bees knees to be doing this interview with you all as we await with great anticipation the release of your new album Believe Me on July 23rd via Fika Recordings.  You’ve been quite busy bees (Sorry for all the bee references!  I know Holly dislikes bees and I feel the same way about their pointy ends!) over the past several months, putting the finishing touches on your album. From what I’ve read, Fika will be releasing Believe Me on 12” vinyl and as a digital download.  Will you also be putting out a physical CD or has that gone the way of the dinosaur, VHS tapes, and store-bought ice cream that’s really ice cream and not a ‘frozen dairy dessert’?

People just don’t want to buy them. That doesn’t mean we don’t like them. It’s just a response to market demand. There’s something classic about vinyl, and we can be more sure that it’s not going away. Everyone remembers the first record they bought, not the first download. We are not ruling out releasing another CD at some point. Or even a tape.

Your new album, which you’ve graciously allowed me to listen to before its release, is a heart-warming, spirits-raising, smile-inducing, catchy toe-tapper that is both fun and thoughtful.  I’m swooning over your sweet, 3-tier vocal harmonies and I’m over the moon about your charming and disarming lyrics and understated sonics.  You self-describe your sound as being “twee-pop” and “bubblegum pop”, but those terms capture only part of your style.  Are you at ease describing your band as being twee-pop?  There was a time when that terminology was derided by bands themselves because it implied that their music was too precious and cute.

I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive and we have a big umbrella. In some ways we have more in common with 60s sensibilities than 90s twee. It’s particularly frustrating in reviews in that it seems to be the thing people cling to, and sometimes that does a disservice to the irony and the depth of the lyrics. That said, we love the twee genre and it has certainly been influential to us in all its permutations. Classic twee was never as vapidly “la-la-la” as people say and better than the pigeonhole it’s put in. It’s about the proper mix of irony and sincerity. We especially like the DIY accessibility of twee and its focus on detail rather than grand gesture.

Since early June you’ve had a 3-song single out digitally on Fika, featuring the infectious dance-pop number “Burning Streets of Rome”.  Can you go into the creation of this superb song and if it is in any way an extension of or reply to Pet Shop Boys’s “King of Rome” or Morrissey’s infatuation with Rome?

Max: I didn’t know about either of those things! It’s actually based on the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns”. But then after I wrote the song I actually visited Rome and fell in love with it. It’s certainly one of the most thrillingly romantic places I’ve been (despite the fact I was there with my dad). In terms of the song itself, it’s just a melody line that popped into my head and a series of cool lyrics I’d kind of been collecting for a few years. And partially about a new romantic situation that arose a few years ago…

I probably should have started out with this question, but who is currently in the band and what do you play?  I ask this because I read that you’ve just added on a 6th member for your live performances.

Colin Clary: guitar, vocals

David Zacharis: bass

Holly Chagnon: drums

Max Andrucki: vocals & keys

Dana Kaplan: guitar, keys, vocals

and we’re currently playing live with backup singer Missy Bly.

What is happening on the live front?  I think you have some movin’ and shakin’ going on soon.

We are touring the UK and Scandinavia which started on Thursday, July 5th! We may do a US tour this fall. With 4 vocalists now we’ve been able to amp up the live show and bring out more of our stacked harmonies.

You’re on a good run with 3, and soon to be 4, albums to your name and a DIY aesthetic to your recordings and artwork.  Does the process ever get overwhelming, or maybe confusing, with 5 to 6 members in the band? How do you sort it all out for the lyrics and music composition?  Does everyone have a democratic hand in each song or is there one person in charge who has final say? 

Yes, it does get overwhelming and confusing. Consensus is hard work. The music composition and arrangements aren’t the most draining, though. For music, there is a default that the person who wrote the song has a weighted vote. The fact that we have chosen to be basically DIY for so many years means it’s a lot of work making records and booking tours. It’s the trade off you make in order to not have to wait for other people’s approval to go somewhere and it really wouldn’t work for us to do it any other way. It’s a ton of time but it’s how we do it and we all believe in it. That said, now we are working with Tom at FIKA Recordings and his promotional assistance with this new record has been fantastic.

My apologies for the political insinuations in the previous question, but you’re known for not shying away from real world issues in your songs.  Are any of the songs on Believe Me overtly, or covertly, politically-oriented?

Yes. Politics can mean more than just what you want the government to do. The personal is political and vice versa, whether you choose to recognize it or not. Thinking about our bodies and relationships to our communities is political. When you say something like “Everybody knows that you gotta play tough, if you don’t wanna get beaten up”, it’s kinda like a conventional notion about toughness and masculinity that we’re trying to debunk. 

What are your viewpoints on the current U.S. and global economic crisis?  Do you think the world leaders and world powers can somehow resolve the mess we’re in?  What can the average person do to help out in this era of fiscal instability? 

The most important thing people can do is read widely and learn about what is going on. Then of course you can vote, and you can make change that starts at the small scale, with your consumption choices. Are we really able to actually do anything about it? Who knows. We just write pop songs.

After listening again to your album more closely, I’m picking up on a hopeful theme running through the tracks, where even in the face of adversity or relationship issues, you are looking at life from a humanistic viewpoint; that we should all just live our lives and enjoy what we have, especially in reference to our connections with one another. Is that your take on life these days, or maybe always?

I don’t know if we have one unified theme or message, since we’re all in different kinds of places in our lives. I think that sure, there’s a theme of radical acceptance, that’s true. To radically accept things about ourselves and our truths and circumstances, that’s a hard thing to do. Having hope is important, and sometimes you need to remind yourself to have some. Life is hard in your mid-30s and beyond… Integrating this with the “twee pop sound” makes for interesting juxtapositions.

You’re mainly based in Burlington, Vermont.  When I was a kid I went on vacation to Vermont with my family and I had a wonderful time.  My memories are hazy at best, but I do recall sampling maple sugar candy for the 1st time and wanting to live in Vermont so I could eat that all the time!  I also remember buying cool colored glitter in a box and stickers (Yes, this was the 1980s…) and viewing some spectacular forest scenery.  What are your experiences living in this state?  As a band what is it like?

The other night we had to chase chickens for half an hour to put them back in a coop. True story. It’s great to be a part of such a supportive community for the arts. The fact that we started here helped us to know that we could do what we wanted to do through an independent, DIY scene. Many people our ages are in bands, or if not, they grow things or make art or soap or are activists. Everyone’s rocking on their own thing and people aren’t cutthroat. It’s close to Montreal, Boston, and New York so it was easy to start playing shows in those big cities. Vermont rules, yo. Max doesn’t live here anymore.  He’s in New York City now, and that’s pretty cool too.

Speaking of locations, you’ve played in venues in various parts of the world and have specialized in indie pop festivals.  What are the festivals like and do you prefer being part of a big festival line-up or being the sole attraction?

We love festivals. They pay more. The indiepop community is very spread out and festivals provide a space where a lot of people who like this music can come together and you get the chance to play in front of bigger crowds than you normally would, and we get to see our peers. It’s like a conference. Being on the road has its attractions as well, but you never know what any show or town is gonna be like. That can lead to amazing serendipitous experiences in gorgeous places, and the occasional disaster.

Okay, I now want to posit a question to each of you based on the member Bios you have at your official site at http://smittens.com/

Max (otherwise known as the “Dashing Smitten”) – You list cats among your Likes, but, *sniff*, dogs are placed under your Dislikes.  Why is that?  Did you have a traumatic experience as a tyke?

Dogs are needy and obnoxious and not cute. Cats are living works of art. I was bitten by a dog when I was a kid but I’ve been scratched by cats many times, so I’m not sure if that explains anything…

Colin (AKA the “Charming Smitten”) – You’re also a prolific solo (and other bands) artist.  How does that fit with being in The Smittens and do you have anything new out at the moment?

Doing solo songs and other projects is a good outlet and takes some pressure off having the Smittens have to be everything. In the Smittens I like to be a team player, but not everything I write is necessarily a Smittens song or could fit. The last thing I put out was a solo album on WeePOP called Every Little Thing Counts and the Let’s Whisper album The Shortest Days with Dana Kaplan.

Dana (i.e., “Lady Smitten”) – Under Likes you say you like to “dissect other people’s conflicts”.  Did you ever want to be a psychologist?

No, but I am a trained social worker and have a degree in conflict resolution. It’s much better to focus on other people’s problems than my own. Also, here’s the inside scoop: I am trans-identified and no longer call myself a “lady”–so I’m now known as “The Smitten Formerly Known as Lady”. But that’s a whole other interview.

Holly (also known as the “Littlest Smitten”) – You list ‘candy’ in your Likes, so I must ask you, since I’m a sugar fanatic, what candy do you crave?  I’m currently a sucker for marshmallow Fluff, Amish Opera Fudge, Cadbury Crème Eggs, and maple sugar candy, of course!

I love all candy, legal or not. What I crave is chocolate-covered peanuts.

David (or the “Greek Smitten”) – I don’t mean to rile, but after reading your Bio with the lovely hand-stitched puppet pic, I have to ask, are you really real?  LOL

I am in fact a real live person. When cut I do bleed.

Missy (the “New Smitten”) – You don’t have a Bio up (yet), but I read that you’re a soapmaker.  What kind of soaps do you make and what scents to do you infuse your soaps with? 

Hi! yes, I make vegetable oil based (saponified!) soaps with mostly herbal scents and blends. I love to add natural pigments and get design-y with soaps lately. Check them out at http://cleancitysoaps.com/

Going back to your new album Believe Me, I know it’s difficult to pick favorites, and they change depending on your mood, but currently, what song stands out for each of you?

Max: “Turn The Music Up”. A brilliant pop song. Catchy as fuck.

Colin: “Dream World”. It makes me smile and laugh. I like to be indulging while singing along to the line “All the weight i just put on.”

Holly: “First Bus”. I love the way all the voices come together and how the song feels really optimistic.

Dana: Right now I’m super into “These Days” which is a b-side on the “Burning Streets of Rome” single. I’m really proud of the instrumental arrangement on it and it’s a cheeky love song.

David: “360” is a song that I hold dear. I recorded Colin doing a version of this song about 10 years ago and it’s fun to see a song you know so well get transformed.