Sometimes it's hard to tell if the members of Alan Alda are joking.
Engaging the threesome is like stepping straight into a steady barrage of inside jokes, tongue-in-cheek pop-culture references and friendly sarcasm. Levity is clearly part of this group's inner workings. But the casual tone shifts abruptly to earnestness when the conversation turns to the upcoming release of the band's first EP.
"Here we are. We've busted our ass to pour our hearts into something. It's 'Here you go. What do you think of this, honest to God?'" says Alda's lead singer and guitarist Luke Goodhue. "I put a lot of effort and all of my soul into this. I know we've all put a lot of effort into thirteen minutes."
Bassist Chris White and drummer Matt Grizzell display a similar seriousness when discussing the act's self-titled freshman recording. While all three have spent time in other local bands — Goodhue in Streamline, White in Voices Underwater and Grizzell in Tandem — this effort represents a collective watershed for the outfit.
"This is definitely the most cohesive thing I've ever done," notes White. "It's all come together."
Almost as quickly, the dialogue returns to the ridiculous and the dadaistic as the guys crack jokes about John Wayne, ferret farms, Barry Manilow, breaking wind and the actor who gave the band its name. Even so, the significance of the release to the band is far from ephemeral. It's a milestone that's helped push the musicians to play more regularly while juggling their separate day jobs as a geologist, a helium delivery-van driver, and a freelance construction worker and craftsman. It's made them write more frequently and copiously, with aims for an eventual full-length release. It's forged a more dedicated commitment to being in the band.
"Until recently," Goodhue points out, "we really haven't been able to practice more than two or three times a month, on average. All of a sudden, it kind of got serious. It stems from some of the shows that we've been playing that people were really receptive to. We all just decided that we wanted to put together a project and make a little record. And we liked it so much that I definitely think we're going to make another one.
"I know we've all talked about touring," he adds, "and we have to work that out with all our schedules and stuff. Now we make time for the band rather than we have time for it."
Alan Alda does an excellent job of capturing the act's more straight-faced musical inclinations and absurdist tendencies. A solid first outing, the disc itself has been at least four years in the making. When Goodhue and Grizzell first connected in 2005 via classified ads, their commitment to making music was casual and their live output minimal. "We played three shows in two years," Grizzell reveals.
But when the two parted ways with their former bassist in 2007 and recruited White, they developed a quick and comfortable rapport. "We had that right away," says Goodhue. "All of us have been in a lot of bands in general where people are like, 'Well, that part sucks.' And that's not really the case with us. If someone is playing something that's not going to work out, or if I write a vocal part that sounds totally ridiculous, then I hear about it...but it all works out."
While a few older songs survived the personnel change, the newly configured trio quickly started developing new material and playing more shows, including regular gigs at the hi-dive and the Meadowlark, forums that helped formalize and solidify the band's looser musical material.
"It was kind of a trial by fire," White explains, "because it gives you a deadline, even if it's not where you want. You've got to put a beginning, end and middle, and then you can move it like that."
"It was kind of experimental," he adds matter-of-factly. "Some of the songs didn't work very well."
But the process paid off in the end.
"It makes something stick once you play it live," Grizzell offers. "We know what works, I guess, at that point."
By the time the band had decided they wanted to record in April 2008, they had a definite set of songs in mind to premiere. "I don't think we thought about it," Grizzell says. "It's kind of obvious, the ones we wanted to do. I think we always wanted to do an EP instead of a record. It was pretty overly ambitious to write a ton of songs and record all that."
After trying to record on their own equipment, the band eventually tapped ace sound engineer Xandy Whitesel to record the tracks, which he managed to do in a little more than a week this past October.
"There was a lot of interaction," says Goodhue of the process. "[Whitesel] actually helped; he thought about before it happened, and when we were there, he made sure that we were ready, and there was no messing around. It was very professional, even though it was in his house, which actually made it cooler. We always really enjoyed his soundcraft, because he's really good at it. He makes us sound really good."
With Whitesel's guidance, Alan Alda was able to encapsulate a range of sounds, words and sentiments across the four tracks. The punchy, harmonics-driven intensity of "Characters Numbers" gives the song a jittery feel that invites comparisons to a streamlined, updated Fugazi. The insistent structure complements the song's lyrical vision of communication without words, of human interaction based on raw data punched by fingers on keys.
"With a broken hand I couldn't say much/Touching just the numbers," Goodhue stridently sings on top of Grizzell's flurried drums and White's layered bass thick with harmonics.
The shift to "Red Sky Morning (A Sailing Song)," is stark, both compositionally and lyrically. The sound of a harmonium warming up precedes imposing guitar lines and a loping rhythm spelled out on the drums and bass. Goodhue sings of separations made at sea, of the weight of departures and voyages — a theme taken up again in "Swimming," which offers a pastiche of images stolen from a road trip through some anonymous landscape. The music shifts from slow and expansive to driving and soaring. Goodhue and White play lines reminiscent of Jane's Addiction's early-'90s material, with Grizzell giving them scope on full cymbal lines.
Elsewhere, "The Midnight Turbo Club" is an instrumental paean to garage-band showmanship as the song's frenetic fills and exaggerated riffs hint at the exhibitionism of a newly formed band. Discussing the tune's origin, the guys practically finish each other's thoughts and sentences, speaking over one another to convey a message.
"That's the very first song we wrote," Grizzell remembers. "I think we were just rocking. Trying to one-up each other."
"It's kind of a ridiculous song," White offers.
"But it's supposed to be," Goodhue finishes.
This collaborative exchange, smooth and unencumbered, suggests an inherent chemistry between the members, which they agree finds a parallel in their dynamic. "I guess that's the beauty of having a band that's real collaborative for me," says Goodhue. "It's just to have other people...it can only sound that way with the three of us."
The new record gives the band a platform to spotlight that chemistry and to revel in the focus that went into its production. Nevertheless, it's clear that these guys have no intention of losing their sense of humor in the process.
"It's fun to tell people that your name is Alan Alda," Goodhue concludes. "You get a lot of different reactions. It's always with older people. We generally like the confusion and the lack of understanding. It's fun."