My Body Sings Electric celebrates the strange and surreal elements of sound
My Body Sings Electric will light up the Westword Music Showcase main stage this Saturday.
The first hints that My Body Sings Electric was pissing people off came long before the brutal reviews. Shortly after getting together in 2007, the band's members went out of their way to be as self-indulgent and strident as possible. They specialized in making "musicians' music" — songs with experimental structures, extended solos and bizarre instrumentation. Their attitude came through in the title of their first EP in 2008: They Don't Want Music.
"We were pretentious," admits bassist Jason Bower. "We were like, 'These people don't want music,'" referring to the scant crowds that would show up at venues like the Marquis and offer tepid responses. "We were writing complex stuff in weird time signatures."
But the intricate music wasn't the only mark of the band's brash attitude. When My Body landed a coveted spot playing the Denver stop of the Warped Tour in 2009, lead singer and guitarist Brandon Whalen alienated audience members and fellow artists alike before the group even played a single note. "The first thing I said was, 'We're My Body Sings Electric, from Denver, and we're fucking awesome,'" Whalen recalls between chuckles. "Jon [Shockness] from Air Dubai once told me that when they first met us on that tour, they hated us. He was like, 'Who are these guys?' And that was our whole attitude at the time."
Less than five years later, the quintet has absorbed a sorely needed dose of humility. The shift was spurred by local reviews that blasted They Don't Want Music and its arrogant approach. The poor notices made the guys take stock and make a conscious effort to change. In an attempt to strip their music of its pretension and inaccessibility, they returned to basic lessons about songwriting and looked to a new set of influences in the realm of indie pop and punk.
"It was a big motivating moment for us," Whalen remembers, citing a specific review that likened the band's music to output from a high-school stoner trying to impress listeners with his knowledge of scales and modes. "We were going to go out and prove everyone wrong. It actually ended up being a good thing for us."
It was more than simply a good thing. Judging from the band's accomplishments in just the past three years, the move was key to its survival and growth. Following a slight shift in personnel in 2010 (drummer Kalen Bigg departed and was replaced by Ben Scarboro, formerly with the Skyline Surrender), the band traveled to Oregon to record the tracks that make up Changing Color, its 2011 full-length.
As hinted at in the title, the album, recorded at Portland's Interlace Audio and produced by Stephan Hawkes, reflected a new creative mission as well as a new artistic direction. Songs like "Outside" and "Step Into the Light" featured less screaming and more carefully constructed vocal melodies from Whalen, while tunes like "Make You Disappear" and "Porcelain Skin" showed a streamlined approach to composition, a knack for punchy guitar lines, and a skill for straightforward, driving rhythms.
"There was still a lot of interesting rhythm and guitar playing, but it was more structural," notes guitarist Nick Crawford. "The song structure really went back to the basics of songwriting rather than progressive."
The move was all about access. These were songs designed to appeal to listeners who knew nothing about arpeggios, 5/4 time or other fineries of music theory. "We really focused on writing things that people could really catch on to, things that you could easily follow," Whalen points out. "It came out as a cool indie-pop release, but there are still influences of heavy prog-rock and hardcore bands that we like."
Those brainy and independent elements aside, the shift in focus paid off. The outfit started gaining exposure outside of Denver on a self-booked tour that took them through California, Nevada and Montana. Locally, meanwhile, the strength of "Step Into the Light," the first single from Changing Color, earned the band a spot in the finals of KTCL's 2010 Hometown for the Holidays promotion.
It turned out to be the first gig in a three-year run for the band, which was bested the first two years — by Air Dubai in 2010 and, in 2011, by Churchill, whose now-omnipresent "Change" beat My Body's "Doctor." When the group earned a slot in last year's competition with "Oceancrest," there was fear of another runner-up placement. Additionally, the contest itself posed another serious creative risk for the band: "We were looking at a potential cycle that a lot of bands fall into," Bower explains, "[which is] to count on competitions in general. You record one song a year and focus only on that."
Luckily, the strength of "Oceancrest" broke the familiar cycle. Recorded at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins, the song reflected My Body's new creative direction. Like "Doctor," it was engineered and mixed by Jason Livermore, whose long list of credits includes recordings with the Alkaline Trio, As I Lay Dying and Rise Against, among others. And while the track represented a more concise and accessible sound, the band also moved away from the indulgent, confessional lyrics of its past. Whalen's narrative moves backward to tell the story of a grisly murder; the dumping of a body in the ocean leads to details about a derailed relationship and assisted suicide.
"The storyline seems like a murder at first; we Tarantinoed that shit," Whalen jokes. "It's just this weird, screwed-up, creepy love story."
Despite its darkness, the song is danceable and catchy, with layered lyrics floating over compelling riffs and backup vocals. It's a mix of grim content and dynamic rock and roll that captures various musical phases of the band. "It really has the vibe of what we're trying to move toward," affirms guitarist Jeff Fedel. "It's more groove-oriented; that's the sound that we're trying to achieve."
The song's successful formula didn't come immediately, either. It was a work in progress that evolved from a live staple to a studio composition. "We were playing that song live for a year," Whalen points out. "When we went back to record it at the Blasting Room, it had really changed."
That sound, those grooves and that musical evolution are all guiding the band as it prepares its next full-length album, a release slated for later this year. All of the tracks were recorded at the Blasting Room; the players will ship them off to their old contacts in Portland for final mixing and mastering. Just as Changing Colors and "Oceancrest" successfully brought the group to a new phase, its members are hoping for a like amount of growth on the new album.
Despite a fear of being pigeonholed into the pop-punk genre, My Body Sings Electric is looking forward to attracting a new audience with its new, more radio-friendly approach. That's not to say that the five members have lost their love for the odd, the surreal or the complex in music. The early influence of bands such as the Mars Volta, the Sound of Animals Fighting and Protest the Hero hasn't evaporated, nor has the group's fondness for intricate rhythms and melodies. It's all still there — the guys just aren't so heady about it these days.
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