I saw Grooms play their album release party for their new full-length Infinity Caller at Death By Audio on August 31st. It was maybe the first time I’d been to the venue since the summer began where it didn’t feel like a sauna. The gig was full without being packed in a way that would encourage belligerence. Like a lot of their 90’s throwback peers, Grooms and their fan base nurture a kind of slacker-oriented, music nerd atmosphere at their shows, where you’re likely to overhear impassioned discussions of obscure 7 inches and defunct record labels. The performance was friendly, almost conversational; people came because they wanted to be there, and chatted with the band between songs. Guitarist and lead singer Travis Johnson broke a string early on, and the audience clapped and cheered, bantering with the band on stage in a way that didn’t seem antagonistic like it sometimes is at these things.
The bass carries the melody in this band, while alternately noodling and stabbing guitars create the counterpoint that completes the sound. On some of their songs, the guitar sounded like a harpsichord, while other tracks were buried under a layer of fuzz and distortion. After a great set, I caught up with the band to talk about their music, influences and process.
Who’s in the band and how long have you guys been doing this?
It’s me, Jay on bass, Steve Levine on drums and Emily Ambruso. Emily and I started it in 2009, out of the “ashes” of this other band that we had called the Muggabears that we were sick of and wanted to change. She and I met in college in Oklahoma and it’s progressed. We had a lot of different drummers for a bit, but we’ve now had the same drummer for a while, Steve, and Emily at this point is only able to work on writing. She’s not able to play much because of her job. We just wanted to make music that we would like if we heard it.
What was the process like of putting this album together?
We actually did it in this room. Recorded it here and mixed it here. Then I sent it to Western Vinyl, who are a label that I like a lot. And immediately it just came together. That was actually almost a year ago, but we started writing the album in late 2011.
Did you have an idea of who you were going to pitch it to?
No, we didn’t know what was going on. We actually weren’t even sure whether we had another record on our contract with our last label.
That can be troublesome!
There was a time when we weren’t sure if we were going to keep going as a band. But then we thought, “Well, we have some new songs, let’s record them.” We ended up having an album. It took about eight months to record.
Who’s the writing core in terms of lyrics, melody . . .
I think I’ve done just about all the lyrics. Melodically, I offer things up to the rest of the band and say “Which of these melodies do you think is the best?” There’s an extensive peer editing process. A lot of stuff is based on some riff that I came up with at home. With our song “Infinity Caller” Emily came up with the bass line first, and then we went from there.
So who are the characters and what’s the narrative behind the song “I Think We’re Alone Now“?
The song is about a pair of sleeping bags that are in love with each other. And they have to wait until Emily and I, who in the world of the video live in the same house, go to bed in different rooms, and then they sneak out, one out of her room and one out of a closet and meet up and have a candlelit romance while we’re asleep.
Are the sleeping bags representative of parts of your and Emily’s personalities? Are you two estranged and sleeping in different beds, but the sleeping bags are acting out your desires?
(Laughs) I’m sure that will be there for some people! I think we just thought, “What are some things that happen when you’re alone?” and that was one of the things that we thought of. Not sleeping bags per se having sex, but you know, things, people.
Your experience cold calling your current label brings up another issue, which is how bands make themselves exist online. Obviously it was easier because you had online stuff you could point to, as well as your work with your previous label. Some bands have an amazing online game and then no ground game. How do you navigate that as a band?
It’s super weird. I think we were just really lucky to be fans of a label and have him get back to us.
Did he know your stuff from before?
I don’t know that he did. I don’t think we ever talked about that. We’ve played shows with bands that are on that label. I think it comes down to the fact that we like to play shows, we like to go on tour when we can. But with web presence, all that stuff is just so up in the air. No one knows what to do about anything really.
Do you guys do pushes on social media, do you have PR people who help you push stuff out on all of your platforms?
Yeah, the label works with people and they put together a very small team that helps out.
That’s once you’ve already got the label’s attention. I’m more interested in how you do it yourself before you have the label helping you.
Well, then you have to find a publicist who will work with you and pony up the money yourself and expect to make none of it back. You can hope for the best and who knows what’ll happen, but that’s one way to go. The other is just put it out and tell your friends and hope.
What are you guys reading right now?
I’m reading White Noise by Don DeLillo. I just borrowed it from Emily. And then before that I read Going Clear, which is about Scientology, and before that was Gravity’s Rainbow. Emily is currently reading Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Jay was just reading Little Friend by Donna Tartt.
I think the idea of two sleeping bags having a romance is almost Pynchon-like.
Absolutely. It would be one of those asides from his books that’s just in there for no reason and you wouldn’t be sure if it was a hallucination or just part of his world.
Do you think some of the authors you read help you come up with the imagery or themes that you place into your songs?
Definitely for lyrics. Just the way someone will use language. Pynchon is a good example of somebody who pushes prose until it’s just about to break. It’s interesting to see him do that and see how he can go between really sublimely beautiful things that he’s depicting that are achingly beautiful and then move to almost screwball violence and goofy shit, just going off the walls. And that’s fun to play with. A lot of my favorite writers do that, and I think it’s the same for Emily.
Grooms’s new album Infinity Caller is available now from Western Vinyl Records.