California Wives, 'Art History': Exclusive First Listen
Band Talks Debut Album (Out Sept. 4): "I hope it's going to change and grow with you as you get older"
California Wives have a total red herring for a moniker. "Our name is like a symbol," vocalist, keyboardist and guitarist Jayson Kramer tells Billboard. "When you say TV on the Radio, you're not thinking of a TV on the radio. It's just a symbol. What I want people to focus on is what our music sounds like. We could've called ourselves Sidewalk and it would've been the same thing."
The "thing" is tricky to pin down but terrific to hear. The Chicago four-piece's debut album, "Art History" -- dropping Sept. 4 through Vagrant Records and premiering right here on Billboard.com -- is mesmerizing. True to that arbitrarily chosen name, California Waves' debut sounds beachy in that it's a giant, soothing wave that rolls over you for eleven straight songs. A lead guitar appears at the 40-second mark and seems to wind its way -- sometimes trading with keyboard -- until the record's last note. "Art History" boasts the playful, innocent vibe of a non-overwrought debut.
"I think it's a record that really begs people to listen to it more than once," says Kramer, a Radiohead fan who lives for the intricacies of a good headphone record. "There's a lot of stuff that's kind of buried that we want people to discover on a third or fourth listen."
Despite that depth, the album is quickly accessible. It pulses with relaxation and quiet joy, the material at times resembling montage music -- the kind that would make you want to pause the scene and only explore the soundscape behind it.
"I just hope it connects with people on the same level that it connected with us when we wrote it," Kramer says of the album, recorded in the early months of 2012 in New York City with Claudius Mittendorfer, who's worked with Muse, Interpol and Neon Indian. "I really would like to make personal connections with people. I hope it's going to change and grow with you as you get older."
Kramer says his biggest influences are artists -- creators of any stripe, be it painting, writing, music -- who "stick to their guns and keep doing what they believe in. Those are my heroes." Here he invokes Radiohead and frontman Thom Yorke. "He was a person who just did his thing despite what others were saying when 'Pablo Honey' came out. Anyone who can stick to what they're doing, that's someone I want to associate myself with or at least try to be more like."
The emulation is strictly in the ethos department, in the quest for originality. "We're not trying to sound like another band, we're not trying to invoke a certain decade. We are doing what we're doing because it feels right to us," Kramer says. He will add, however, that he loves the keyboard's versatile ability to zap listeners to the '70s, '80s or '90s with equal ease. "It automatically takes you somewhere. It's such a dated sound, and it really transports you. That's why we love using it so much."
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That electronic ambience maintains its presence throughout stylistic shifts. "Marianne," an upbeat, borderline motivational jam segues into "The Fisher King," a deliberate, echoing almost-dirge. "Tokyo" is a hard-edged lullaby that builds steadily toward a voluminous climax, while "Blood Red Youth" and "Purple" are rockers possessing anthemic qualities despite their understated tones.
The band -- three 26-year-olds and a 30-year-old -- came from electro, hard rock, jazz and blues backgrounds, and are now making their first serious run as professionals. Kramer began piano at age five, dipped into drums and guitar in high school, and then decided to make a left turn by parlaying an interest in science into a pre-med direction. After taking the MCAT exam, he realized it wasn't what he wanted to do at all. He met Dan Zima and Joe O'Connor and things started rolling in 2009, with Graham Masell joining this year.
Now, along with the rush of a first album hitting the marketplace, California Wives have a Sharpie partnership in the works. The brand's first spot blurring the line between music video and advertisement will premiere during MTV's Video Music Awards on Sept. 6. Immediately afterward, anyone can log onto Sharpie's site and create a customized version of the video.
"In the '90s, if you were to be in a commercial like this, people would automatically peg you as a certain type of band that would do that - you know, sell out. I think now it's a different climate," Kramer says. "You're not making money on record sales anymore, and musicians are just like anybody else. There's this idea that we're wandering bumpkins or something, but we have bills to pay, we have loved ones we want to help out. If this is a way to get our music out and build a fanbase and keep doing what we want to do, then that's okay."
» Pre-order "Art History" on Amazon