“We know what feels good and we know what feels bad” is the guiding principle of New York-based Parlour Tricks, the group The Village Voice named the Best Pop Band of last year. “Pop” is a slightly misleading term for the group of six who met in 2006 while studying at the New School for Jazz. That formative background is still very much present in the vocals of lead singer/songwriter Lily Cato and her fellow vocalists Darah Golub and Morgane Hollowell, who seamlessly move between Andrews Sisters-like sliding harmonies and sultry indignations à la Chrissie Hynde, in an inventive hybrid rarely heard in this social media-geared, cookie cutter moment most “pop music” is undergoing.
Backed by similarly out-of-the box arrangements by guitarist Angelo Spagnolo, bassist/synth player Brian Kesley and drummer Terry Moore, Parlour Tricks has continued to evolve at full speed through 2015, releasing their first full album Broken Hearts/Bones this summer and touring all over the world, from London to Bonnaroo. One can easily imagine many of their new songs finding their place on an indie film soundtrack but, refreshingly, they don’t sound like they were written for that purpose. The hip emotion, like their agility, is effortless but deeply registered.
Billboard sat down with the band before their appearance at the Billboard Lounge of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center earlier this month for a discussion that ranged from life post-record release to bizarre gigs, the “sad reality” of streaming services, the documentary that’s being filmed from within the band, and what it was like, as children of the ‘90s, to get a last minute invitation to open for Third Eye Blind.
How would you summarize this lightning year the band has had?
Kesley: At the beginning of the year we signed to a record label, Bar/None, and then the first half of the year was just preparing to release the record, which came out in June. Did some touring, played Bonnaroo. Played some really awesome shows — played some really weird shows, too. A nice spectrum of touring.
What makes a show particularly weird?
Kesley: Many, many things. We played an art space in downtown Atlanta. I was on a street corner a block away from the venue and I was about to light a cigarette and an SUV pulls up on the sidewalk and a dude hops out with face tattoos and he doesn’t even look at me, doesn’t even say anything to me, takes my lighter out of my hand, lights his cigarette and then throws it on the ground, and then gets back in the car and they drive off.
What was it like performing in the U.K. where no one knew your work yet?
Cato: It was a very fresh feeling. There’s a certain monotony, without even realizing it, here. That’s the nature of what we do. But it was really nice to actually be in a totally fresh environment.
Did releasing the album have the outcome you had hoped or expected it would?
Kesley: I think it’s done great things for us. A lot of opportunities have come up that we couldn’t have had without releasing a record. [At the same time] I think we’re all ready to move on. We’re actually going back into the studio tomorrow to record some new music, get ready for record number two.
Every artist seems to have a pretty strong opinion about music streaming these days. Your new album is available on Spotify. How do you feel about that?
Cato: I think the outreach can’t be beat. That’s the sad reality, and also the wonderful part about it. No one actually wants to buy [a new record]. That mentality is really pervasive right now. It’s like, “Oh man, do I want to spend $1.29 if I’m not sure I like the whole thing? I can listen to a minute and a half anyway.” And then of course we have thousands and thousands of streams and we’re not seeing anything [monetarily]. And that feels funny. It’s double-edged.
I’ve had people come up to me after a show and say, “Oh man, my friend said to listen to you and check out the album on Spotify” and that’s why they’re at the show — I can’t complain about that.
Your sound has evolved so much from where you first started through this last album. Will it take another turn when you go back into the studio?
Cato: I can safely say I don’t know. We know what feels good and we know what feels bad. There’s this sense of rough-around-the-edges-ness that we used to have when we were a sloppy mess and we didn’t rehearse and we didn’t know how to sound check, and that kind of had its own special charm to it that we have lost since we actually started working really hard, but I think that this next turn is going to bring back some of those elements.
Darah, tell us about this documentary, The New York Love Songs, that you’ve been shooting for almost a decade?!
Golub: It’s been about eight years, ever since I started at school and met each of these guys. The idea has been to follow my journey as a musician and then, through that lens, everyone else, for ten years. It’s not my insights, it’s just like, follow me and I’ll try to glean as much as I can from other people. We’ll bring it back to the New School in 2017 with all of the teachers and old students, talking with them and hearing their stories. I feel very lucky that these guys let me follow them around and harass them with the camera!
How does it feel to the band to have a camera always lurking around?
Kesley: I honestly couldn’t imagine it any different. I think I met you [Darah] with a camera.
Hollowell: This is also what’s crazy – I remember a moment that I thought was my first meeting with Darah. But it was not. She has it on camera, and it was another moment that I don’t remember at all. That’s kind of wild.
Parlour Tricks just got a last-minute request to open for Third Eye Blind this week. What does that mean to you as former ’90s teenagers?
Cato: We all screamed “f–k yeah!” when we got the offer, does that sum it up? Those songs are pretty inextricably linked to our youth. The opening chords of “Never Let You Go” and “Semi-Charmed Life” are soundtracks to a turning point in our lives. That awkward, unsure time when hearing something familiar on the radio was as comforting as it got. I guess you had to be there.
Does your band have any favorite albums of 2015?
Cato: I have been listening to Ryan Adams’ Taylor Swift album a lot. It’s really good. I haven’t enjoyed a Ryan Adams, or a Taylor Swift, album as much as I am enjoying that album. It’s really special.
Does the band have a New Years resolution?
Kesley: Less fried chicken. More TRX.