Sometimes it's hard to look back on your past. With a mixture of shame, sadness and nostalgia, you leaf through your baby pictures, grade-school love letters, high-school yearbook, wedding album and resumé, trying to find the signposts and forks in the road that brought you to your current situation.
For a young band like Laylights, this process can be even more daunting: There were just so many witnesses to each of those naked baby photos. Everyone who bought that first EP knows what the band sounded like and noted the obvious influences. The act may have winced at its own perceived musical missteps and lyrical cliches. Perhaps that's why the members, on the verge of releasing their second EP, are reluctant to talk about the past.
"We're in a much different space than we were," explains guitarist Ian McCumber. "That first EP is a young band, still learning how to play together. We just think we're in a much better place."
Lead singer and guitarist Tyler Hayden agrees. "We are so excited about our future."
Still, it's where you've been that makes you who you are, and in that respect, Laylights is no different. The act began with drummer Martin Baker and two other musicians. At the time, Hayden was playing his original songs on an acoustic guitar at open-mike nights around town. A rabid and omnivorous music lover and home-recording enthusiast, the young songwriter knew he wanted to play with others and eventually found Baker, whose original bassist soon left to focus on his guitar. Chris Martucci auditioned and was quickly welcomed as his replacement. Then, as Baker, Hayden and Martucci began to develop the sound that would become Laylights, the original guitarist decided to move on as well, and the group began the long, painful process of auditioning guitarists.
"They were trying out tons of guys," recalls McCumber, who felt a bit intimidated at first.
"Martin was like, 'This is the one! I love his name! It sounds so British!'" Hayden recounts. "And then he came in and we couldn't hear him at all."
"I was mostly just listening, but they kept asking me back," McCumber notes with a laugh. "Every time I'd show up, I'd bring all my stuff, and then after rehearsal, I'd pack it all up again — until one day, Tyler told me I could leave it."
Hayden likens the situation to the beginning of a romantic relationship. "It's like when you're dating a girl and you're on your fifth date, and you're really into her, and she says, 'So what is this? What are we?'" Once the quartet committed to each other, Laylights was out of the gate. "We played our first show a month after we had that little talk," says Hayden.
Just a few months later, the band began recording its 2006 debut EP with Bryan Feuchtinger at Uneven Studios. The self-titled, five-song collection was filled with lush atmospherics, dense guitar layers, angelic vocals and memorable melodies. Though the outfit understandably feels a little disconnected from it after so much time has passed, the release turned heads and pricked up ears, both at home and around the country. By the middle of 2007, Laylights had created a national buzz. An appearance at Summerfest in Milwaukee was an important turning point.
"That was our first experience with really feeling our effect," explains Hayden. "We got out of the van, and there were people saying our names. Here were people who just heard our music, connected to it and were interested in what we're doing."
"I went outside to this loading dock to smoke a cigarette," Martucci recalls. "I kept hearing someone yelling, 'Chris! Chris!' I looked down, and it's some random kid from Kentucky, holding our CD. He asked, 'Where's Ian?' And I was like, 'How do you know Ian?'" His bandmates laugh. "I'm still surprised when someone in town that I don't personally know knows about Laylights," the bassist continues, "but when someone in Milwaukee knows me and probably knows what I like to eat for dinner, it's a little creepy."
"It definitely opened up our eyes," Hayden admits. "When we got back, we decided to focus on our new release."
The forthcoming EP, Auricle, builds on the group's richly textured, Brit-pop-influenced sound, but the growth, development and relationships Laylights has experienced while touring, writing and recording together shine through the gauzy atmosphere. With just six songs lasting less than thirty minutes, the record surveys surprising emotional and musical depth and breadth.
The opener, "Tigers," is carried by McCumber and Hayden's familiar ringing guitar lines, grounded and driven by Baker's busily beautiful drumming and Martucci's austere bass work. "Get Me" swaggers with garage-rock cockiness that is offset by vulnerable, a cappella vocal breaks. And the EP's closer, "Between the Lines," is a poignant, piano-driven ballad that crescendos with crushing walls of guitar and an emotional catharsis that brings the record to a satisfying end.
From the sounds of it, the recording process itself was just as fulfilling.
"I had moments in the studio when I just felt very satisfied with what we're doing and the choices we're making," muses McCumber. "We were impressing each other, and it just felt right and good."
"We go through this really fluid process of figuring out how a song moves," adds Martucci. "Instead of just figuring out what note I can play that goes with your note, we're figuring out what spaces to fill and what not to fill."
Hayden feels that the connection among the four members is integral to the creative process. "If someone in the band is going through some hard shit, we're frustrated because they're going through some hard shit, and there's this deflected energy," he explains. "That's partly where our songs come from — that place where people are going through shit and having to interact with other humans and having needs and wants and having to put up with other people and love other people. Sometimes there are energies within us that dictate what the music is going to be like, but sometimes the music dictates what it's gonna do to us."
In that interactive process between the band and its creative output, Laylights has generated a staggering number of songs. In fact, the act could have filled a full-length release with completed songs but chose instead to release an EP to showcase the tracks it felt were strongest.
"We're kind of approaching it as a constant rollout of new material," McCumber points out. "If we spend a lot of time and money on a full-length, one song gets attention while the other eleven go unnoticed."
"We want to do six songs now and another six by the end of the year," adds Hayden. "It'll be a sort of brother-and-sister album."
Clearly, Hayden and company are just as serious about gaining exposure for their music as they are about creating it. "If you put enough into what it is you're doing artistically and creatively, you deserve something from that," Hayden asserts. "Unfortunately, you also have to put the same amount of effort into the other side of things and demand that attention for yourself. Too many artists are nice or selfish in that they think they don't have to work to get their stuff out in the world. That's even more pompous than demanding attention. It's basically sitting back and boasting that you're the shit.
"There are a lot of mediocre bands out there that work hard or get lucky and connect with the right people," he goes on, "and there are so many good bands or artists here that deserve that attention, but it's hard to throw it all out there and say, 'This is what I am. I want this show. I want this press. I want to be on the radio.'"
To that end, Laylights has reached out to the tastemakers at KEXP in Seattle and WOXY in Cincinnati, who are excited about the tracks they've previewed. This has inspired the band to send Auricle to more stations and to possibly appear at CMJ in the fall. And then, based upon the response in each city, Laylights will head out on efficient, targeted tours to support the record. After all, nothing matches the live experience.
"Your recording should be representative of your abilities," McCumber declares, "but your live show should always be better."
"I want our music to be effective," Hayden concludes. "I want our fans to be more affected by the music than the propaganda."
That's forward thinking.