Published Jan 01, 2006In the unwritten rules of rock, a minor breakthrough should be followed up quick as possible to prevent newfound fans from wandering off in search of the next cool band. But Seattle's Pretty Girls Make Graves have been missing from record store shelves since their despairingly anthemic 2003 album, The New Romance, put most of their post-punk brethren to shame.
Of course, this too-long delay sure as hell wasn't planned and they've kept their chops honed on the road, but after considerable consternation involving line-up changes and a canned album the band have finally returned with their thrilling follow-up Élan Vital.
"We lost our guitar player," begins bassist Derek Fudesco. "Nate [Thelen] had a baby and quit a few months after The New Romance came out. We decided to get another full-time member but we'd always been guitar-heavy and wanted to move away from that to open up the band and give it more space."
In 2004, they found a willing partner in multi-instrumentalist Leona Marrs keyboardist in Hint Hint, on Fudesco's own indie Cold Crush Records, as well as lead singer Andrea Zollo's, um, acupuncturist but unfortunately they'd already written most of the new record as a four-piece.
Deciding to tour their way to the New York studio, they handed Marrs their demos and told her to write some keyboard lines and meet them later that summer. This would turn out to be a mistake.
"To put that kind of pressure on anybody is a little ridiculous," admits Fudesco.
But it wasn't just that they weren't prepared; everything else seemed to go wrong as well. Though back together with Romance producer Phil Elks, they no longer seemed on the same page and being in New York proved a distraction for the West coasters. Even the recording location was a disaster.
"The studio was fucking shit. The guy that ran it lived in the studio and he was an asshole and always around. I'm not going to blame anybody but us, because we obviously went in there unprepared, but it was bad vibes all around," Fudesco says.
"A couple weeks into that recording process we were like, This is not coming out right, we need to stop. Let's start over. If Leona is going to be in the band let's write with Leona.' We decided to scrap everything get rid of the studio, get rid of the producer and approach it in a whole new way."
Unlike many bands with singular songwriters, Pretty Girls were grafted together in 2001 from several other area bands (including Murder City Devils, Kill Sadie and Bee Hive Vaults) and consequently their first two records were written jam-band style. Everyone worked on every song and everyone had veto power.
"We are all pretty strong minded and tended to not really agree with each other musically," explains Zollo. "We threw away more songs than any band I've ever known in my life. It got into a weird dynamic for awhile so we wanted to break the patterns we'd gotten into."
Fudesco called their label to tell them that not only was New York a bust, but their entire recording budget was blown. Rather than dropping the band or releasing the album anyway to recoup costs as a meaner label might have done Matador said it was cool, just get back to work.
Returning home to Seattle, Zollo says they came up with a new game plan. "Nobody could shoot down any idea. We had to give everything a try."
But first they needed a studio and a producer. Fans of Van City psychedelic rockers Black Mountain, they invited their producer Colin Stewart over the border for a get-to-know-you barbeque last summer. Soon they were holed up in a Seattle-area studio built into the side of a mountain.
"It's like a cave," Fudesco says. "Colin was actually sleeping right next to the sound board. We'd wake up and go downstairs and he'd roll off the couch, have some coffee and we'd start recording."
This time they split, rather than shared, the songwriting duties and nothing was out of bounds. Fudesco took a turn on the microphone. They gave a drum machine a go while drummer Nick DeWitt tried bass and sang back up. Guitarist Jay Clark picked up a saxophone and Marrs based an entire song around a child-size accordion she'd bought in Japan.
Élan Vital not surprisingly boasts a much wider palette, though Zollo's distinctively dark vocals continue to ground their indie rock sound. It's a little less epic perhaps, but also less beholden to current trends and just as mesmerising as ever.
"I think it sounds like a natural progression," Zollo says proudly. "It's not so different that it seems like a new band. For our third full-length album, it's the right amount of change."