Mother Mother's Debut Turns 15: "'Touch Up' Is Our Zenith"

"Indie rock in the late aughts was dominated by Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend ... Our small, quirky and angular sound just didn't fit in," says Ryan Guldemond

BY Alex HudsonPublished Feb 24, 2022

Mother Mother's career arc has been impossible to predict. When they first emerged as a mid-'00s freak folk trio named Mother, it was unimaginable that they would soon evolve into a well-oiled radio rock machine. And nobody could have guessed that, more than a decade later, their peculiar early material would be rediscovered by a new generation of teens on TikTok, propelling the band to even greater success.

Now, 15 years on from their debut album, Touch Up, these formative songs are more popular than they've ever been. Originally released in 2005 as the self-titled Mother, the band gave the album, ahem, a touch up two years later: they took away four tracks ("Fat Kids," "Babies," "Mama Told Me" and the "Intro"), added two more ("Legs Away" and "Touch Up"), and released it through Last Gang Records on February 27, 2007.

Revisiting these songs offers some insight into the band's surprising success. Touch Up is a wild mash of genres, befitting the chaotic listening habits of a younger generation raised on streaming services: opener "Dirty Town" careens between fuzzy stomp and hillbilly hoedown, "Polynesia" brings math-y complexity to moody indie rock hooks, and "Touch Up" dabbles in the Pixies-esque chug Mother Mother explored on subsequent albums. Most notably, Touch Up includes two viral TikTok hits: "Verbatim" (a "No Scrubs"-cribbing acoustic hip-hop song about gender roles) and "Oh Ana" (a surreal folk-prog freakout that approximates the coffee shop version of hyperpop).

These anything-goes arrangements are tied together by the tight vocal interplay of guitarist Ryan Guldemond, his sister Molly Guldemond, and their former bandmate Debra-Jean Creelman — who originally founded the group as an acoustic trio, and whose live vocals were every bit as laser-focused as they are on record.

With Touch Up turning 15, Exclaim! caught up with Ryan Guldemond about being indie rock outsiders, the song he wished they included on the LP, and why this remains his favourite album he's ever made.

What do you remember about making this album and its evolution from Mother to Touch Up?

We had no idea what we were doing and there were so many limitations, but for those reasons, it was a very creative, curious and innovative project. And it was hot. Blazing summer in Vancouver, and we had turned the attic floor of the house where Molly and I lived into a de facto studio with blankets over the windows and no AC. Our "bed tracks" were live takes of the three of us singing with me on guitar, playing the songs dozens of times before getting the keeper take, all in that heat. When it came time to refurbish this album — self-titled as Mother — into Touch Up, we were signed to Last Gang Records, had a little more money to use a proper studio, and didn't feel quite as green in album-making.

When you listen back to Touch Up now, what do you hear?

I hear a certain kind of magic that can only be derived from naïveté, inexperience and discovering something for the very first time. It sounds playful, bold and slightly insolent. Most of all, it sounds free. Free of the parameters set by having tried and failed, or succeeded, at something before. It's a cruel irony: we are most authentic, most ourselves, in our undeveloped selves. This idea extends to the vocals as well. I hear someone who has no idea how to sing, and for that reason, the song is being sung most truthfully.

Is there anything you wish you'd done differently? Conversely, is there anything about Touch Up you wish you had carried forward to subsequent albums?

When we refurbished the album for the label re-release, we removed three songs and added two new ones. One of the songs we left behind was called "Mamma Told Me," a great song. I wish we had kept it on there. The thing I wish we had carried on to subsequent albums is the thing you don't get to take with you, and that's the childlike genius of ignorance.

What place does this record occupy in your overall catalogue, in terms of the artistic journey you've taken in the 15 years since?

To me, Touch Up is our zenith. It's by far my favourite and the work I'm most proud of, but that's entirely subjective of my experience writing and recording it. I think most songwriters will favour the work that came most freely, whether or not it's seen as their best, objectively.

How did you feel about the reception that album earned at the time, and how do you feel about the second life it's gotten in recent years?

I was entirely let down that Touch Up was not more celebrated upon its release in 2007, but my reaction was born from a lack of wisdom that could only be gained through retrospect. Looking back, it just wasn't the right time. Indie rock in the late aughts was dominated by Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, and alternative radio was homogenized. Our small, quirky and angular sound just didn't fit in. And our band image was estranged from the music. As people, we didn't present as "cool," nor did we present as weird, like our music, so there was a disconnect. All in all, I think it was a difficult project to market at that time. We couldn't be more excited and grateful Touch Up has found a new lease on life, and the timing makes for a healthy separation from its success. We can watch from afar without having to promote and solicit the music. It's purer that way.

"Touch Up" seemed like it was poised to be the album's big single, but "Verbatim" and "Oh Ana" have emerged as the hits. What is it about those particular songs that is catching on with listeners?

"Touch Up" was our best option at radio, but still not a great option. The band was rooting for "Dirty Town" at that time, but we were alone there. To see now that "Verbatim" and "Oh Ana" are the songs connecting all these years later is a shocker. We would not have predicted that, but having gotten to know this new generation more deeply, it's starting to make a little more sense. These songs don't sit tidily in a genre. They question the norms and possess a rebellious spirit of fiery authenticity. The same could be said for Gen Z, by and large.

On your most recent album, Inside, you reunited with Howard Redekopp, who produced Touch Up. How does your debut album continue to inspire your band today?

Touch Up reminds us that songs are allowed to veer off the formulaic track and that the singing voice is most charming and authentic in its idiosyncrasies: limitation breeds innovation. Most of all, it reminds us that music is supposed to be fun.

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