Interview and photos by Sarahana
Blogs, online forums and fans alike were abuzz about Brooklyn’s four-piece, Suckers, long before the release of their self-titled EP on I Am Sound Records earlier this month. Much of this was based on the strength of their live shows — though these were were mostly limited to New York — and an old four-track demo that closely resembles the new EP. That even a brief exposure to their music enables you to grasp their fresh aesthetic has probably been their greatest advantage.
You will immediately recognize Quinn Walker’s voice as something special, and hear nothing that feels like the results of following conventions or fulfilling expectations. The drums aren’t afraid of spare use, and when played assertively in unison with an additional floor tom, tambourine and shakers, the effect feels like a finished thought. Even Quinn’s voice is often used as if it were another instrument, frequently coupled with Austin Fisher’s lower-range vocals, and sometimes used for rhythmic effects. None of it, however, feels experimental or inaccessible. Despite all its quirks, the music rides a natural, harmonious flow.
On the day their four-track self-titled EP came out, I visited the band at Austin Fisher’s apartment in South Williamsburg for some tea and a leisurely chat. Present were all four members: Quinn Walker, Austin Fisher, Pan and Brian Aiken.
Your band name makes me think you don’t want to take yourselves too seriously, and some of that is reflected in your song titles and lyrics as well. Is that an important aspect of the band?
P: It’s pretty important. Can’t take yourself too seriously, it could end up being really cheesy.
AF: When people take themselves really seriously, it just becomes funny and overstrained.
QW: I think we name things according to the sounds we make while we’re trying to come up with them, too. Oh, that sounded like “Shuffle!”
P: And none of us are super serious people. It comes out of our personalities, I guess.
AF: In terms of lyrics, it’s just whatever fits the mood of the song. It’s not a conscious decision to be anything.
QW: I apply a lot of my poems.
P: He’s like Jim Morrison.
QW: I’ve books of poetry I bring to the practice space and let them choose what they’d like to play as a song.
Do you ever have to pull back when it feels like it’s getting too serious?
P: Nothing ever gets too serious.
AF: It’s kind of intuitive.
P: We’ve gotten a little too silly.
QW: I think the lack of seriousness is more like blatant honesty, which I like and agree with.
Why is Cameron Hull on the cover of the EP?
P: We’ve been friends with him for a long time and we think it’s a silly picture.
AF: And he’s sitting in an apartment where all four of us have lived. Not that you can see the apartment at all.
You just like the aesthetic of the photo?
QW: Yeah. It’s supposed to be a beagle mask that I made for him but it keeps getting mistaken for a mouse or a cat.
Does the EP packaging come with lyrics?
Brian: No. We probably just didn’t want an extra page in there.
Are you comfortable with people reading your lyrics, or are they more of a rhythmic element you want them to just listen to?
QW: I feel comfortable with people reading lyrics.
AF: I kind of like it when lyrics aren’t printed on stuff ’cause then it requires your own interpretation. Like, any of the Rolling Stones lyrics, I don’t know what he’s saying half the time. It keeps it interesting.
P: You have to spoon-feed everything to everybody all the time. It’s nice for people to make their own decisions.
BA: Hm, interesting.
AF: [To Brian] Are you doing the interview now?
P: It’s like David Lynch doesn’t like to talk about any of his his movies ’cause they’re there for you to consume. That’s it. Take it. Watch it. What else do you need?
Was self-releasing ever an option or did teaming up with a label seem like a natural choice?
P: It was a natural choice because we’re not capable of doing it ourselves. Just because we’re too busy making music to focus on all the other business stuff. As soon as we got Brooke and Kenny as our managers, everything started to happen. It was like “Whoa, they’re doing a bunch of things that none of us ever wanted to do before.” So it was a big help.
Do you think self-releasing is sustainable?
P: More power to you, if you can do it. You have to be a business man to do that kind of thing, though. As musicians, it’s a lot easier when we can just focus on making music.
AF: It seems like when someone self-releases and they get popular enough, it becomes too much of a hassle and they at least get a distributor. Or, the opposite, when someone really big like Radiohead does it. It’s a lot of work. Shipping CDs and stuff like that.
BA: Making flyers.
P: Well I make flyers, but…
BA: Oh yeah. I was just thinking, when I was in high school bands and spending all this time making flyers and posting them on telephone poles. It was just like beating a dead horse.
Do you spend much time on MySpace?
P: I do the MySpace. I don’t spend a lot of time surfing around and networking, I just answer all the messages and things like that.
AF: I never look on it.
QW: I just check two or three days’ worth of emails on Austin’s computer when I have a chance while I’m here.
BA: I’ll tag a couple of groupies now and then.
QW: That’s a sexual reference, Brian. It’s true. That’s the highlight of this interview so far.
What kind of a role do you think a record label should play?
QW: I just want freedom to do what we want to do artistically, no matter what. Nothing else about it really bothers me that much. Doesn’t matter who it is, as long as they’re gonna work hard, show their support, and make good things happen.
AF: Yeah I guess the business model isn’t too important. I don’t think it’s gotten any worse for bands or the listeners now that the music industry is changing. It’s just kind of the same. Or even better, maybe.
QW: Probably better. The record label doesn’t really play a totalitarian role anymore. They’re so worried about making it themselves that they have to give artists more leeway in order to get them on their side and have them work with them. We’re not yet familiar with the whole thing though.
P: I’m still getting used to what the label does and what the publicists do.
You had Anand Wilder from Yeasayer produce the EP, but you had the foundation of it already down in the four-song demo that’s been floating around. How do you feel about self-producing or co-producing in the future?
QW: We definitely always like to co-produce.
P: Yeah, I’d say we co-produced the EP as well.
QW: The demo was all just us, and I recorded it on this crappy little machine I used to use for all of my solo albums. Anand used that as a guideline because he really liked it. He wanted to incorporate some of that and just make everything sound a lot better for these recordings.
P: I think we’re kind of producers in our own respects, but I’m looking forward to working with different producers in the future. It’s nice to have an outside perspective and somebody to oversee a whole project. If it’s all four of us trying to produce an EP, things might get messy.
QW: But if Anand ever sends me “Which Wire character are you?” quiz request on Facebook again, I’m never working with him. I hate those quizzes, they just pile up.
BA: It’s such a hassle for you. Life’s tough.
QW: I have to check all my email within a span of 30 minutes. It clogs up the airwaves. I already know who my Celebrity Boyfriend would be. Tom Arnold.
AF: John Goodman.
QW: John Goodman and Tom Arnold vie for my attention.
Apart from “Horn Song”, the tracklist of the EP is the same as the demo. What was it about these four songs on the EP?
QW: ‘Cause that’s what our manager Brooke Baxter told us.
P: They’re probably the catchiest.
AF: They’re also our set staples and it’s good to get them recorded, produced well, put them out there, so that we can be happy with how they sound and move on.
BA: Also, it takes a long time to develop songwriting as four people, and at the time of the recording we were still developing our collective songwriting process. I feel like those four were the most finished songs at the time. These guys wrote them before I came in.
P: Except for “Beach Queen.” We almost didn’t do “Easy Chairs.” That was a last minute decision.
QW: What were we thinking of doing instead?
P: We were thinking of doing a new one but nothing was up to par.
Those four make a good introduction.
P: Yeah and they’re all different enough from one another. They cover our sound pretty well at this point.
AF: We did all the basic tracks in one day. Then we did overdubs in two additional days. We really did it fast.
QW: We squeezed everything together.
Do you like that fast process?
AF: No. It’d be nice to have some time when we record the next thing. We basically did it live. I don’t think it’s necessarily how we did it when we were doing our own recordings. We’d rather use the studio more.
QW: Yeah, I really like the sound design aspect of the studio, which we didn’t have time for. You don’t want to hear the same live band on the album. I feel like the CD should be a lot different from the live performance. More over the top. Just make it as interesting as possible, do things the way you wanted to, things you can do in the studio but not on the stage.
P: We’d definitely like to use the studio as another instrument.
Brian, you’ve said that when you first joined the band, you were responding with regular rock beats, but you soon learned to think differently. Do you feel well-versed in the Suckers vocabulary of music now?
BA: Yeah, I do. When I joined, these guys already had a pretty established and developed sound. I was coming in from Connecticut and I wasn’t really familiar with all the music they were, so I would instinctively feel really regular rock beats. These guys were like, “No, play this whacky beat only on the floor tom.” It just seemed like trying to be quirky and innovative, but now that I’ve spent more time, I find this style not only artistic and innovative, but also something I can really emote with. Now I relate to it and intuitively make my parts sound like Suckers.
P: We’ve definitely gelled a lot better over the past year and a half.
QW: It’s natural, we don’t really have to direct each other.
Suckers has a distinctly strong foundation in vocals and percussion. How do you feel about bands where the singer is just okay or the drummer is just okay?
QW: Good drumming is really essential.
AF: I say get the drums right. When you start playing that regular rock beat, it makes all the bands sound the same.
P: If you have an interesting drummer, it definitely changes the way you sound. A really amazing singer is key, too. I guess it depends on how you use it.
BA: But you can’t have a bad drummer. Otherwise your band just has no spine. I know so many really good drummers, but they’ve been trained like black labradors to just play what they’re told, which makes the band sound generic. Whenever you have that call-guy musician, he’s just filling a part, whereas you really need to blend in and contribute something original to the sound.
QW: But Captain Beefheart songs are a good example of what good singing can do. There’s a lot of straightforward drumming in the later Captain Beefheart songs, but the way he sings them makes them sound totally unique.
AF: TV on the Radio’s first EP sounds amazing to me. That’s my favorite one, and there’s barely any drums.
QW: They’ve kind of gone back to that now.
You have some songs where there’s no clear lead singer, but there are some, like “Horn Song,” where one of you definitely takes the lead. In this case, Austin does. I’m just curious how some of these songs develop.
AF: I wrote that separately and brought it in, before Brian even came in. I think that was the first song we ever played with him, that he clicked with us on.
QW: Then we just formed around Austin’s stripped-down version.
AF: Now we just work more together. Improvising, and writing bits that we come up with, but sometimes one of us will bring in something with a rough structure and we’ll fill it in. For a lot of the songs we do now, the leader singer depends on who comes up with a melody. We switch a lot, too. The verse will be sung by someone and the chorus by the other.
Has there been an instance where one of you came up with a melody but thought the other would be a better fit?
QW: There’s certain stuff that I come up with that I think I’d rather have somebody else sing.
AF: It depends on whose vocal range it works on, too.
Quinn has a wealth of recorded material lying around, about 15 CDs. Sometimes you guys play “Save Your Love for Me,” which is an old Quinn Walker song. Has it been adopted by the band?
QW: Now it’s more of a band song, but it was a single of mine as a solo artist on Voodoo Eros. I’m trying to get away from re-doing anything I’d done prior to the band. New songs I write by myself can just become band songs now, but I’m not interested in re-doing songs written and recorded before the band. I just want to leave that as is.
BA: That song’s changed a lot of character, though, from him to us. The form’s changed, and the beginning’s all soft now. It’s not quite a different song, but it almost is.
QW: We used to rework my old songs when we first started out. There are a lot of those renewed songs.
AF: It’s harder to do that sometimes because it means you have to rearrange something that’s already been arranged, whereas when you start fresh, everyone can just bring in their own thing, and it’s more natural and more fun.
QW: We come up with like three new songs during practice anyway, so there’s not really any time to include the older stuff anymore.
BA: The thing is, when you write a song by yourself, you have the whole song there, whereas when you have four people, there are four opinions every step of the way. It’s slower, but it’s more interesting.
Usually bands start out by booking themselves and touring heavily, but for Suckers it’s been the opposite. You’ve barely toured but you’re already playing huge sold out shows. Is that something that can only happen in a place like Brooklyn?
QW: I hate booking shows.
AF: It’s definitely easier for that to happen in Brooklyn. I mean, we used to book our own shows around New York but we never toured because we never had any money, and nobody knew who we were, so it didn’t make much sense. Definitely, the advantage of living in New York is that everything is concentrated here. If you get a little bit of attention here, it gets magnified really quickly.
QW: Especially since we’re probably competing with more bands here than in any other place in the world. So if you’re getting some attention, you really stand out.
And there’s no traveling costs involved if you’re just playing in New York.
QW: Except, we have to use car services. It’s nice when there’s a friend in town with a truck or a van.
All of the reviews I’ve read of you have been favorable so far. Are you almost disappointed that you don’t have any negative reviews to read yet?
AF: We just watched a negative review. It was Brooklyn Paper’s “Smash or Trash”, and the older gentleman trashed us, and the younger gentleman was a fan.
QW: It was hilarious. I don’t consider them gentlemen.
BA: I want to see that.
That doesn’t sound like a real negative review though. Not like if you were trashed by Pitchfork.
P: Yeah, one guy was just like, “Arghh I don’t like this!” And one guy was just like, “Hey this is great!” And one guy was like, “I don’t have an opinion!”
QW: I got jaded by the whole thing with my solo album. At first you’re like, wow, this is so exciting, people are reviewing my album and talking about stuff. Then after a couple of weeks I decided I don’t need to read that stuff anymore. I was definitely more fond of the negative press because it was funnier. There was this one amazing write-up for my solo album on the Baltimore City Paper that had this whole spiel about how I’m an unconventional motivational speaker through my music, and that that’s what my aim really was. Like Tom Cruise in Magnolia.
Is everyone still working at their day jobs?
P: Those of us that have day jobs are still working.
QW: I’m still a male prostitute. At night.
Austin, what do you do at the Met?
AF: I work in the media department, on this project called the Timeline of Art History. I’ve been working in museums and the arts since I graduated from college. I don’t know how I did it.
And Pan, how did you become a clothing designer?
P: When I moved here, I went to film school. Right after that I needed a job ’cause I was broke. I found a screen-printing place that was hiring. I used to work as a screen-printer in Connecticut. He hired me and I worked there for a year and a half, and through that company I met a ton of street wear brands. I started doing design on my own. I quit my job there and now I’m a designer at Mishka. I design t-shirt graphics, and I cut and sew things like jackets, bags, pants.
So who doesn’t have a job?
BA: That’s me right now. I used to do data entry. It may have been a blessing that I got fired.
What about Quinn?
QW: I bartend at some places, and I do carpentry and painting when I can. Sell things. Prostitute myself. Actually I just got a request online for all of my early CDs, so that’ll make me some money. I just played solo in Montreal and got paid well for it. I live off things like that. Or pay people back with it.
BA: Yeah, that’s right.
P: The two people without a job have to pay each other back every week.
BA: Yeah we lend money to each other.
QW: I make enough to get by usually. The only thing I spend money on is booze, cigarettes and food. And rent. We’re gonna go into the cougar masseuse biz. We’re gonna call ourselves Predators of the Predators.
How did the tradition of face make up come about?
BA: Quinn peer-pressured me into it.
QW: I’ve actually been into make up since I was a baby. I’ve been dressing up since then. My parents thought I was really strange. I’d dress up in costumes and put underwear on my head, put my mom’s lipstick around my eyes. I want to take on a different personality on stage. I get into character. When you’re performing in front of people, you get into character no matter what, whether you’re wearing make up or not. The make up just speeds the process up.
BA: I do it ’cause Andrew from MGMT does it.
QW: I don’t even think Andrew does that. Brian’s just saying that because he idolizes Andrew.
P: We just keep getting MGMT comparisons. Especially with our clothes and our artwork.
AF: That’s why I’m trying to push us into the farmer style.
Arcade Fire comparison seems kind of far-fetched.
P: Yeah, it’s just that people first hear “It Gets Your Body Movin’” and they hear the build-up. And they think, Oh they have a build-up in their song, they must sound like Arcade Fire.
I guess it’s also that none of these bands you’re being compared to have the regular indie-rock sound, so you’re all being lumped together.
QW: Yeah. We all get pigeon-holed with friends too. We get compared to Chairlift just because we’re friends with them. Amazing Baby gets pigeon-holed with MGMT just because they’re friends with them. It’s bound to happen no matter what.
AF: I guess it doesn’t help that we’re playing with MGMT pretty soon. But we are friends with them, so.