Frankie Cosmos’ Best Love Song Is Her Life
Frankie Cosmos and Porches. have breakthrough albums behind them and big follow-ups coming soon. That’s a weird thing for a young couple to go through.
The story begins with girl meets boy.
Greta Kline was born in Manhattan in 1994 into an auspicious family of artists: her parents are actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. But she found herself resistant to her family’s more traditional performance route. "My brother is really outgoing, but I've mostly been the withdrawn person," she says. "I got into music, I think, because it started as a thing where I didn't have to be outgoing. I got to explore without being scared." She tinkered around on piano as a kid during parent-mandated music lessons before moving on to guitar and drums. Through her brother, she became involved in New York City's DIY scene, volunteering for the concert listing publication Showpaper and booking shows at local DIY spaces at just 15.
That’s how she came across Aaron Maine—or at least his music. A native of Westchester, New York, Maine was then crafting sonorous, ramshackle indie rock tunes up at SUNY Purchase, where he was a student. Their introduction came by way of mutual friends in a Bronx-based band called No One and the Somebodies. "We were having a sleepover and just hanging out," she remembers. "They were like, ‘Oh my god, you haven't heard Aaron Maine?' I just listened to [his first three releases]—every single one in a row—in a night."
Their first meeting in real life was a chance encounter outside Kline’s childhood home in the fall of 2010. Steve Yankow—the eldest Somebody and later Kline’s collaborator in a band called Period Blood—was hanging out when he mentioned that he had to give Maine a ride. "I came out to walk my dog and I was in my pajamas. So we met on the street."
For a while they continued to just sort of see each other around. Kline would take trips up to SUNY Purchase to see other friends play shows. Maine was busy writing with his band Space Ghost Cowboys and crafting early solo work under the moniker Porches., the musical project he’s still tinkering away at to this day. Then one day Kline made a move—the sort of off-the-cuff, poignant gesture typical to her growing career as one the savviest, most instinctive songwriters in indie rock today. On Maine’s Facebook wall, she posted a song she’d just written, a goofy ode to promiscuous men called "Slutty Boys."
"The only lyrics are, like, I love slutty boys/ I just need a slutty boy to settle down with" he remembers, laughing. "I think it was a diss to me." But he called her up and booked her first show, at a coffee shop in Westchester.
By the time 2012 rolled around, the two had started dating, he was playing drums for her, and she’d started recording reams and reams of music as Frankie Cosmos. Kline has a curious songwriting persona, taking equal parts from the wide-eyed melodicism of Rose Melberg's twee-punk miniatures and Lindsay Lohan’s aw shucks misfortune and redemption narrative in Just My Luck. Recorded almost entirely in single takes on Garageband, her songs are of varying length and quality, and they contain intertextual references to Maine’s songs and her own, sniffles, sounds of passing city buses. One track might be a slopped-together 40-second verse and chorus, and the next could be a perfect three-minute pop song as cutting and personal as anything in indie-pop’s ramshackle history. To date, her Bandcamp page is home to more than 40 releases, which have emanated out in reblogs on pastel-hued Tumblr pages and other DIY-minded corners of the internet.
And then came Zentropy. "It just got really popular really fast," Maine says. "It was like, how the fuck did this happen?" Released in early 2014 via Double Double Whammy, Frankie Cosmos’ first studio album fleshed out the uniquely diaristic recordings Kline had been making at home since she was an early teen into bountifully rosy studio tracks, aided by Maine’s drumming and backing vocals and arrangements by their producer friend Hunter Davidsohn. Kids on Tumblr who were already onboard turned their praise virulent, and then the critics picked up. For the first time, Kline was featured in publications like Interview, Pitchfork, Vice, and FADER. New York Magazine called Zentropy the best pop album of the year. Kline’s lyrics were still practically whispered, but people were listening. Now, a year and a half later, people outside of the familial subset of the New York underground are eagerly awaiting new material.
Aaron Maine is facing similar expectations for his latest record from Porches., which has casually transformed from a modest home-recording project into a five-piece rock band worthy of cultish devotion. Their album Slow Dance in the Cosmos, released last year by Exploding in Sound, drew more attention than ever before, thanks to low-key anthems like “Headsgiving,” which are basically treated like hymns at their packed Brooklyn shows. Each release under the Porches. banner (and under Maine’s synth pop solo project, Ronald Paris) has drawn just a bit more acclaim than the last—a write-up here, a bump from a Merge-signed indie rock act there—and then all of a sudden he’s headlining a sold-out show at Bowery Ballroom, a deal with Domino, and a new album tentatively called Pool due next year.
Still, he says he was "jealous" at first of Kline’s rapid rise, a reaction that seems understandable, if only because at our first meeting Kline expressed similar sentiments about the fact that Porches. garnered more new Facebook likes while they were on a recent co-headlining tour. "It's not a competition," she says, dripping in sarcasm. "No, it really isn't. We really don't care." But more than anything Maine felt pride and joy about Frankie Cosmos’ success, because it was something great that Kline had made—that they'd made together—and because it was the start of the whirlwind year they've had, with countless show offers, record labels calling, and sold-out shows. "It's interesting thing to have happen in a relationship,” he says. “Just a weird event to go through together."
“It just got really popular really fast. It was like, how the fuck did this happen?” —Aaron Maine
Maine always drummed in Frankie Cosmos, and Kline played bass in Porches., which made working on their own bands’ respective follow-up albums, if not messy, then at least pretty damn busy. With one band or another, they spent most of the spring playing a couple of times a week around New York, and at least as much in cities within easy driving distance. Fortunately, the couple share a booking agent who has been able to juggle their schedules so they could tour together then go home to their shared Greenwich Village apartment at the same time.
For much of 2015, after deciding that he want to self-produce the new Porches. album, Maine was working to give the record a "weird, obsessed-over" quality, tinkering endlessly with his modest collection of microphones and newly amassed array of analog synthesizers. He's not as fanatic as Brian Wilson, but he does have that quiet, distracted aura about him when we’re talking, as he shuffles, for no particular reason, through a stack of business cards in his wallet while explaining his production process. "I've worked on the record every day for six months," he says, obviously conscious of the massive amount of effort that indicates. "But you can tell someone made it alone, as opposed to in a big studio performing into a nice microphone.” He says the album is "loved, but not too much."
Progress on Kline’s new Frankie Cosmos album, which she says she's given the winking title Next Thing, has been slower, or at least less constant. The band—cemented earlier this year as four-piece with Eskimeaux's Gabby Smith on vocals and keys, and Aaron’s brother David on bass—has had to find the time to trek all the way to Binghamton, New York, where a friend runs a studio, to continue work on the record. That’s no insignificant task given Aaron’s Porches. preoccupations, Smith's commitments to her own band and a pair of others, and David's day job as a masseuse-in-training at a nearby health club. "Our record is going to feel like we whipped it out," Kline says. "We've been up three times in six months, and we're doing it all there. So it feels like the exact opposite [of Porches.]"
She talks excitedly about her signing to Bayonet Records, the new imprint started by ex-Captured Tracks employee Katie Garcia and her husband Dustin Payseur (who plays in Beach Fossils and Laced), with a characteristically undercutting sense of humor. "Yeah we signed," she says, the scare quotes almost audible. "Got a deal." Being signed is strange territory for both of them, who after years of issuing material straight to their Bandcamp pages had only just adjusted to the idea of working with their close friends in Double Double Whammy. The Bayonet arrangement works because, as Kline explains, they're "people you can hang out with and trust," but there are still growing pains associated with becoming a more professional band: picking publicists, meeting label staff, talking to me. "It's been nice to meet the people that are involved, slowly but surely," Kline explains. "But it's hard enough to pick three people to be in your band."
In May, I tag along to see Frankie Cosmos rehearse in a tiny room on an unusually brisk night at the Sweatshop, East Williamsburg's preeminent practice space complex. Elsewhere in the converted 19th century brewery’s vast facilities there are industrial acts banging out noise music and scraggly scene vets howling hardcore songs. From my perch on the floor of a cramped room barely big enough for the four of them already, Kline and her band seem just as frantic.
"I haaate it," Kline exclaims after singing a series of ever-so-slightly flat notes in the midst of a fluttering new song called "Sinister." The track's built around a tree trunk-steady bassline and elastic guitars that twirl and reflect like handmade tinsel strewn around the whole thing. It's a great song, maybe one of her best, made so by the chorus' plainly self-deprecating assertion that sometimes I get sinister, in contrast with someone she only identifies as "Arthur."
That's a nod to Arthur Russell, who she sees as a model of how to write "peppy, happy songs," and another one of her many nicknames for Maine, in this case bestowed because early on in their relationship they used to listen to the legendary East Village musician together. Winking in-jokes, bare self-awareness, and creaking instrumentals have been the hallmarks of her work so far, but working with her new band has helped her give a little bit of heft to these new songs. Think of it, in K Records terms, as if Beat Happening jumped straight from their childlike debut to the deft drive of You Turn Me On. The song remains the same, it just hits harder.
And yet, Kline is unhappy, both because those notes keep coming out flat, and because run-throughs of older songs keep falling apart due to the Maine brothers’ inability to keep straight faces. Aaron stutters and stops the drums at pivotal moments, giggling. David is summarily banned from using a microphone for spouting playful nonsense in the midst of the a song. It's the result of something like cabin fever no doubt, but it's indicative of where the band's headspace is at for the moment. On the one hand they're pushing themselves to fix tiny details in the actual performance, but on the other they're still the merry pranksters that chunk out 45-second missives about butts. "We're professionally unprofessional," Smith explains, once they've run through their set in a manner that's finally satisfactory.
It's an obtuse philosophy that both Kline and Maine have knowingly or unknowingly held from the very beginning. She spent years recording her brittle indie-pop tunes on a laptop and launching the half-finished results straight to her Bandcamp page, part of a legion of similarly minded acoustic-guitar toting singer-songwriters. She treated releasing slews of demos like it was her job, but now that it actually is, the mindset has changed a little bit. "I used to record when I was sick and had a stuffy nose and sounded horrible and would just put it out immediately," she says. "Now I'm at a point where I'm more critical of my songs and what's being put out and how good my performance is."
“If my crazy critical brain takes over, there would just be no songs on the record. But I kinda feel like now that it’s in the public eye I need to be a little more critical.” —Greta Kline
That's underscored later when she and Maine invite me to her apartment to listen to a few standalone songs from Fit Me In, a Frankie Cosmos 7-inch EP that's due for release November 13. She calls it a "pop" release, a lower-stakes collection of songs produced by Maine with just the synths that line a corner of the room. Though it’s electronic in nature, it strangely results in an even more bare version of the Frankie Cosmos than heard on Zentropy’s sparse clatter— though this stew of gear may reflect Maine’s current headspace, it probably won’t ever be her own.
In their apartment, haphazard but charming decorations adorn the walls (mostly art made by the couple and their close friends), and the unmistakable scent of banana bread wafts in from the adjacent kitchen, a sort of charming and disheveled environment to match the couple's collaborative works to date. And then the EP's new, fleshed-out version of her 2013 track "Korean Food" slinks out of a pair of desktop monitors with an extraterrestrial energy that represents a total shift in direction.
She says its seedy synth lines sound nothing like the full-band instrumentation of the songs that are in-progress for the forthcoming Frankie Cosmos LP, but the seamless construction represents a newfound editing ethic that she'd not demonstrated before. Even Zentropy's relatively shipshape recordings featured their share of barnacles, but now she's buckling down. The once-prolific songwriter has limited herself to only two short demo collections between Zentropy and Fit Me In, a relative drought compared to her past productivity. But that's by design. "I'm learning how to edit myself," she says. "If my crazy critical brain takes over, there would just be no songs on the record. But I kinda feel like now that it's in the public eye I need to be a little more critical."
The making of this new album has been a growing process, both artistically and literally. She recorded Zentropy at 19, and two years later she no longer suffers the relative indignity of Xs on her hands at her own shows. Next Thing will just be the next release, like the title says, but based on the glimmering polish of even this latest round of tossed-off tracks recorded in her living room, it's poised to be something more.
Maine seems to think that what's coming is just an extension of a preternatural songwriting ability she's demonstrated from the very beginning. "She's not been afraid to, initially, put it all out there and pare it down," he says. "Now that's she's releasing less music, she has to be a little more selective about what she puts out there. She seems to just squeeze out these amazing, pop, magical things. They pour out of her. There's something really raw about the way it comes out of her."
He then cues up a few of his own new tracks: the aqueous funk of "Mood" and the extraterrestrial synth-pop torch song "Forgive," a pair of songs that have existed in live sets for years but appear for the first time on record as dizzy pop songs. They’re the sort of whispered, intimate tracks that Maine’s hero Dev Hynes would be proud to call his own. If, as he casually mentioned to me, he's attempting to jettison the more "rock band" aspects of Porches., this seems to be the way to do it—with head-spinning Moog work sputtering out of studio speakers. Kline nods along in a chair nearby, drawing her band's name in Sharpie in a notebook that sits next to one of the room's many empty iced-coffee cups. She smiles at song's end and they usher me out to return to their efforts on her EP. There's work to be done.
Then, months later, something finally gives way, just a bit. Frankie Cosmos takes the stage and plays an early opening set for their friends and fellow indie-pop leading lights in Girlpool and Alex G. The set is heavy on songs from the new record, one of which—"On the Lips"—already seems to be garnering a pretty substantial crowd reaction, which makes sense since it’s been a staple of the band's live sets since she released a demo in 2013. Even though they're only the second of four bands playing, it’s distinctly possible that Frankie Cosmos—the locals—have more people watching their set than anyone else on the stacked bill.
Suddenly, Kline cracks. She says before her last song that she's going to "indulge" herself and turns her microphone stand around to face directly toward Maine. The band launches into the gentle lurch of "Ronnie Ronaldo," Kline’s most explicitly lovey song about her drummer. After a shaky few opening lines, her voice cracks. Choruses come out croaked. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on because she's facing the other way, and afterward they head offstage, it seems like nothing is really amiss—just an outward display of emotion from one of indie rock's most visible and open couples.
But the truth comes out days later. Kline announces on the Frankie Cosmos Facebook page that because of "missing opportunities because of scheduling conflicts" she and Maine won't be playing in each other’s bands any longer. She was emotional that night because, from now on, playing in and touring Frankie Cosmos will mean something different than hanging out with the guy she calls "her best friend.” Her fanbase immediately takes to speculating whether the pair has broken up, but a week later, sitting in the shadow of Washington Square Park's crowded fountain, they make it clear that's not the case.
"I think it'll be hard," Kline tells me, then. "But we live together, we do a lot of stuff together, so it's not like we're suddenly going to never see each other. It's going to be hard touring without Aaron, but I'm ready to test it out. I think I've become the kind of adult that can do something like that."
It's a breaking point, but it's hard to imagine it meaning anything but bigger opportunities, more brilliant records, more frantic energy. For her part, Kline is unwilling to suggest that it represents the closing of even a chapter of the duo's shared history. "I don't like the word 'end.' It's not over," she says, leaning further back into Maine’s shoulder and looking up at him. "The story's not over, right?" On to the Next Thing.