In today’s modern digital downloading/streaming age of MySpace, iTunes, and Amazon providing listeners snippets and downloads of single songs, the concept of an "album," for many, has lost its plot. Believe it or not, there are still artists who record and present their art through the musical translation medium of an "album" in mind instead of the iPod. Philadelphia’s The Trolleyvox is one of those few, as songwriter-guitar player Andrew Chalfen describes, “For years I’ve had a cassette of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in my car stereo and I’ve always wanted to attempt to make a record that held together like that, like a photo album of a particular time and emotional state.”
The Trolleyvox’s new release is a two album set that is comprised of Your Secret Safe, a full-band electric album produced by Brian McTear (Danielson, Espers, Mazarin, A-Sides, Lilly’s, Apollo Sunshine) featuring nine new originals; and Luzerne, an acoustic album featuring Chalfen and lead singer Beth Filla.
While Your Secret Safe would appeal to most fans of The Beatles and The Who or modern indie pop masters The New Pornographers and Belle & Sebastian; the low-key Luzerne chimes in the acoustic folk of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith. Perhaps The Trollleyvox have outdone themselves and have given listeners too big a musical meal in a downloading world, but after talking to Chalfen he appears to have it no other way, but staying true to his band’s vision. After 2006’s critically lauded The Trolleyvox Present the Karaoke Meltdown, The Trolleyvox might finally be getting their “secret” out as Chalfen explains…
The Trolleyvox’s Your Secret Safe and Luzerne is a two disc set – one electric album and another acoustic – why did you decide to release two albums at once?
Well, at the end of the final recording session for Present the Karaoke Meltdowns, we also recorded tunes for an EP that we earmarked for an in-between-albums release. These songs had a more spacious, relaxed feel to them than the more supersaturated intensity of much of the Karaoke material.
Then we got to thinking, hey, we have this whole acoustic, mellow, introspective side that most folks don’t know about, so why not record some of those tunes and make the release a double ep? Without really paying attention, we found we had recorded a whole album’s worth of acoustic material, so our label guru sent us back into the studio to record a few more full-band tunes with the thinking that a two-record release would be a nice way to show off different facets of the band, as well as serve as a cool marketing hook. So it kind of metastasized into a two-album, in-between albums release. Kind of crazy, in retrospect.
In a downloading world, you obviously strive to make albums to be listened to from beginning to end – what did you hope to accomplish message wise with both Your Secret Safe and Luzerne?
Thanks for picking up on the listening all-the-way-through aspect of these discs. Yeah, not only is the music industry in flux, but the way people listen to music is in flux. I have an iPod filled with thousands of songs culled from various music blogs over the past few years and often listen to this stuff shuffled–like my own personal radio station on which I don’t know what’s coming up next. But I still find I return again and again to albums that hold up as such, that feel like more than just a collection of singles. For years I’ve had a cassette of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in my car stereo and I’ve always wanted to attempt to make a record that held together like that, like a photo album of a particular time and emotional state. Luzerne was kind of our first attempt at something like that in an acoustic setting. Our second record Leap of Folly has a bit of that going on, but in full-band format.
Your Secret Safe also has a true traditional cohesive album feel (as well as being a great headphone listen). Many of the tunes are a bit more groove-based and open, arrangement-wise. I love The Karaoke Meltdowns, but in some ways, it’s more an album of compact hit single-esque rock soundbursts.
Luzerne features five instrumentals – was this daunting and as a singer-songwriter – what challenges did you front?
I really dig instrumentals. These are just the tip of the iceberg. If given the resources, I could probably come up with five albums worth of instrumentals! Hmmm…not a bad idea, actually. I’ll get cracking on that.
The only thing daunting about recording the instrumentals for Luzerne was that there were no overdubs possible since it was just me with an acoustic guitar, so I had to play entire takes in a relaxed manner without screwing up. Very difficult for the brain! The finger-picked tunes were even harder, since I’m basically a novice fraud of a finger-picker.
Who are your influences within the indie-pop genre and were there any records that you tried to emulate?
Aside from the Pink Moon vibe, I don’t think we set ever set out to emulate a record or genre. We have songs that are very traditional verse chorus bridge affairs, and others that are more indierock in deviating from that tradition. We’re not afraid of the big riff and the piling on of hooks, or bashful about sounding melodic or pretty. There are production sounds that we gravitate
toward, such as the guitar and drum sounds on say, the Beatles’ Revolver, or XTC’s Black Sea, or Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, but those are just guides and sonic inspirations. Attempting true sonic recreations is almost always an ill-advised exercise in mimicry. As for influences, we’ve listed several hundred of them on our MySpace page, a list which is at once an homage and satirical poke at the influences game (and of our own record geek tendencies).
Critics have written all types of different descriptions and references for your sound. How would you best describe it?
A horribly inadequate description would be melodic 60’s based guitar rock with indie-pop overtones, female lead vocals, layered arpeggiated guitars, complex chordings and odd tunings. Listeners have also purchased: The Byrds, The Beatles, The Who, The Replacements, Robyn Hitchcock, Guided by Voices, Verlaines, Elliott Smith…
I quite admire what Yo La Tengo do. They have a signature sound, yet can pull it off in many different ways from feedback loud to whisper quiet, to genre experiments, etc. They make whatever they do their own. I’d like to think that I have a signature songwriting style, or that at least the band has an easily identifiable sound and can wield it in a variety of ways.
Are there two good reasons why somebody should own the physical copy of these two releases verse downloading it?
1. The artwork. We really went all out with the surreal pscyhedelia and deluxe packaging. Double gatefold digi-pack, 16-page full-color lyric and photo booklet. We’re big fans of the physical artifact and its use to enhance the listening and band/listener-bonding experience.
2. Cheaper than downloading both records separately. I think the two-album CD is only around $15.
How does The Trolleyvox fit into the whole Philadelphia music scene and what was it like starting up in the city?
Like any scene, there are various niches and styles, though I think Philly excels at nurturing inventive, slightly esoteric, indiepop groups. I guess we’re somewhere in there with them. Just to name a few, we’re currently grooving to the Photon Band, the Capitol Years, the A-Sides, the Swimmers, the Teeth, Bitter Bitter Weeks, and BC Camplight. It’s been a rather healthy scene
for awhile now. I think early on in our existence we had some difficulty figuring out our place in it. We didn’t think we fit in neatly to any particular scene, especially since we often alternated between acoustic shows and electric shows, depending on the line-up of the band. I guess we were often too pre-occupied with our own internal logistics and just doing what we do musically to dwell upon our location on the local map.
What’s next for The Trolleyvox in 2008?
You know, world domination, that sort of thing. Maybe some light snacking.