Unlocked: Break It Up on bank vaults, studio songwriting and bridging sonic worlds
Philadelphia indie-punk power trio Break It Up came together by chance. Singer-guitarist Jen Sperling and drummer Casey Bell connected online – a rare example of a Craigslist musical partnership that lasts more than a few months – and wound up recording some of their earliest songs with guitarist / engineer Dan Morse. He, eventually, made his way into the band, and the trio popped up publicly on the Philly scene a couple summers ago with the lively, infectious rocker “Excavate” (a Bandcamp single). They barnstormed a slew of shows and traveled to South By Southwest in 2012, then went into seclusion mode to flesh out their live setlist into a full album. Working with Jeff Zeigler at Uniform Recording, the album was completed over the fall and winter, and just released digitally last week. We’ve been spotlighting the self-titled set all week, digging into its blend of anthemic, poppy punk and more searing, dissonant moments tapping into the players late 90s indie rock roots. How did they come to bridge these two worlds? I grabbed beers and nachos with them at MilkBoy the night of the album’s release to talk through their journey.
The Key: The album was over a year in the making; some songs you had in place since you recorded your Key Session, others came later. Tell me about the progression of that.
Casey Bell: It’s funny. Some songs are really old, like before Dan even joined the band, and then through the process of writing, some of them proved to be better than early stuff, and we sort of just cut earlier stuff to make room for the newer songs. Overall, I guess maybe it’s been a year? Right? Which is one of the cool things about the record, I feel like it represents this great area of growth of the band. Like how we wrote songs when we were first very new at it, and how we wrote songs at the end, when we had this way of communicating down. So it’s sort of a span of a period of growth that the album represents, which I think is really gratifying to be able of hear all in one place.
Jen Sperling: The last song on the album was mostly written in the studio, actually. Which was something new for me, and an exciting, more spontaneous way to have a song come together.
TK: Tell me about that. I’m curious. I always tend to assume bands have songs, for the most part, ready to go when they go into studios, or maybe there are parts like “oh, this transition needs some work” or “this bridge isn’t working” and it gets kind of tweaked a bit. But I feel like it’s less common, unless you’re John Mayer and you rent out to Electric Ladyland for a month, to write a song in the studio. So how did that work for you guys?
Dan Morse: We had most of the arrangements done ahead of time. We even knew the tempos. I think we tried to stay open to trying different things – more sonically, rather than in terms of arrangement. We tried weird vocal stuff, where Jen was in this like bank vault.
TK: Bank vault? Jeff Zeigler has a bank vault?
DM: [Laughs] Yeah. He lives there [NOTE: not in the bank vault. –ed.], but also he has a whole floor dedicated to the studio with different rooms. And part of it is this big safe where you get this weird echo affect. So we had plenty of time to fiddle with that, which was great. And Jen and I had the luxury of having a lot of time to experiment with guitar sounds. Almost any time we’re playing, it’s at least two different amps, at the same time, which was awesome. We we’re able to do that because Casey finished all of her drums in one day, which was ridiculous.
TK: I remember seeing an Instagram where she was knitting in the studio after finishing drums.
DM: I think that, for most bands, the assumption is, that drums will take a few days, and then you do what you can with the rest of time you have. But we had a massive head start when she finished them all in one day. That gave Jen and I a lot of time to mess with guitars and vocals, and keyboards, and who knows what else.
JS: And it also gave Casey a lot of time to work on her Christmas knitting [laughs], which I then benefited from on the back end.
CB: I think a lot of that, though, was because Jeff made us all so comfortable, and I felt like I had everything I needed. I felt like I could just get in there and do it, and feel at ease. I wasn’t stressed, I felt really comfortable.
TK: With songs like “Excavate”, or “Architect”, since you wrote them long before you went into the studio, did it feel at all strange or different revisiting them?
JS: As the person who gets to sing, and speak the lyrics, and connect to the words when I play, it’s been fun for me to channel whatever’s happening at the time into the songs at the time. They’re always reinventing themselves in some way, and I’m thinking about different things when I’m singing them now, than I did when we first wrote them. For me, that allows me to reinvent the song, and continue to put energy into it, even though it’s something old. It’s hard to do that, but I think drawing upon the present, when I’m in the moment and performing the songs, helps to keep it fresh and relevant to us as a band. That’s how I continue to play the same songs, a year plus after we wrote them. Maybe you guys use different tactics, but that’s what I do.
CB: I think there’s also something about having a song that’s so old, that you could just play it in your sleep. You’re not counting measures, you’re not counting “how many times do I do this before I switch”, which allows you to just be in the present. But I do feel like, those earlier songs have a poppier feel, and the later the songs come, the more we got to show our teeth as a band, there’s a little more aggression.
TK: There’s definitely that divide in the album.
JS: I like pop, and maybe more than Casey and Dan combined, and some of that it is probably my influence. I think my tendency in writing melodies is, you know, if I’m going to have to sing it over and over again, I want it to be catchy; I want it to have a hook. I enjoy music that you can sing along to. So it’s probably my fault.
CB: I feel like as a drummer, that’s an interesting place to be, because Jen is very pop-oriented and Dan tends to lean more towards dissonant, sort of, not pop, so to find the place in between that works.
TK: You’re bridging worlds.
CB: I’m bridging worlds. [laughs] No, I’m not bridging worlds, it’s just interesting because there’s friction between those places and it keeps things interesting. That’s always interesting to me, where those two places come together, because I don’t think I’d be happy in either extreme.
Break It Up is the featured album in this edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted single “Amplify Me” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, watch the band in the studio in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow as we explore the interactive art of the album cover.