There are bands whose origins span years of false starts, tangled backstories, multiple breakups, and various other obstacles. Most worthwhile groups have tales of the hardships and moments of doubt they experienced before all the pieces of the puzzle finally came together. And then there’s the story of how the Nashville, Tenn.-by-way-of-Bloomington, Ind. group Harpooner came to be. It wasn’t exactly a Behind the Music episode in the making.
“We’d been living in Bloomington for several years, playing in separate bands, but we were actually living together at the time,” says Harpooner’s singer, songwriter, and keyboard player Scott Schmadeke of himself and singer/guitarist Max Mullen. “So we kind of just decided to start playing together. It was really that simple.”
Fair enough, but the music on Harpooner’s 2014 seven-inch release, Speed, is anything but simple. The leadoff track, “Printed Boxes,” is a dreamy, blissfully melodic song that layers airy vocal harmonies over a dazzling polyrhythmic drum pattern that dances around the beat but never seems to quite settle down. There’s a gritty layer of guitars that tethers the song to the ground, but otherwise, it’s a fragile, deceptively melodic tune that heads skyward like a wayward balloon.
That’s exactly the way Schmadeke intended it. “There are delicate parts of the song, because it’s delicate subject matter,” he says. “The song is about the idea of a dreamworld giving you more truth in life than maybe the real, waking world does.”
The second song, “Jump to the Moon,” is heavier, with more emphasis on guitar crunch and a crash-cymbal-heavy backbeat, but as the title suggests, the theme is just as celestial. There’s also a bonus track on Speed, a somewhat unexpected cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ soft-rock staple, “Let ’em In.”
That classic-rock song betrays a bit of a traditionalist streak in Harpooner’s musical DNA, which is one of the reasons that the band opted to go for a seven-inch vinyl release rather than an EP. “We like the idea of putting out actual vinyl releases, but I’ve never been a fan of 10-inch records,” Schmadeke says. “With this format, you’ve only got four minutes to work with on each side. We just liked the idea of being able to have a seven-inch.”
Both Schmadeke and Mullen are songwriters and veterans of various bands, but they both say that one of the attractions of playing in Harpooner is the unique talent of their drummer, Josh Morrow. “Josh is pretty inspiring,” Schmadeke says. “He’s a very talented drummer, but he’s not traditional in any way. His approach to the drums takes a lot of the weight off. He has such interesting rhythms that it really allows Max and me to worry about the dreamier aspects of the songs: the vocal harmonies, the chords, the melodies. We don’t really feel a lot of pressure during the songwriting process because of him.”
For a group that sounds so comfortable in a recording-studio setting, Harpooner’s approach to songwriting relies heavily on live performance to develop the songs before they’re recorded. “We like to road-test our songs,” Mullen says. “We’re a very high-energy band when we play live, so we usually like to experiment with that energy to see how the songs evolve. And then once we’ve molded the songs onstage, we can take them into the studio from there.”
“It’s interesting the way the group works, because all of us have different taste in music,” Schmadeke adds. “Each one of us brings a different approach to writing songs.”
The Speed release combines elements of more modern bands like the cathedral-like production of My Morning Jacket and the icy harmonies of Fleet Foxes, and Schmadeke, who produced the songs, says that he tried to temper his fondness for vintage rock ‘n’ roll with more modern influences. “I’ve always been into classic-sounding bands, but I wanted Speed to have a more modern-sounding style. I wanted to experiment with putting delay on the drums, or using auto-tune — stuff that worked for the particular song, but isn’t necessarily the complete scope of what we can do,” he says. “I don’t think that that’s the direction we’re going to take with the full-length, though.”
Harpooner has just completed the basic recordings for their upcoming full-length debut, and the band is about to take some of the new songs on the road for their live-testing process. “This tour is about getting ready for the record release,” Schmadeke says.