“You’re constantly striving to make a record that your parents don’t like,” says Modern Skirts bassist Phillip Brantley. His statement suggests that’s an always operant ambition. Unfortunately, the Athens, Ga.-based indie popster’s first two albums didn’t come very close.
Formed around the skills of singer/songwriters Jay Gully and JoJo Glidewell in 2004, their debut Catalogue of Generous Men featured the kind of bright, jangly, piano-driven adult contemporary/alternative pop that passes listlessly through the backgrounds of many television dramas. Brantley quickly acknowledges the album’s failing. “It came out more polished than we would’ve liked,” he says.
The foursome’s follow-up, 2008’s All of Us In Our Night, was an improvement, but ultimately no one in the band was very happy with it. They’d entered the studio without much of a plan. The production was stronger, but the songs, though tuneful, weren’t particularly exciting. There’s more drama both lyrically and arrangement-wise, but the collection didn’t really seem to go anywhere, often straddling the fence between fey indie-pop and mellow AC.
It sounds harsh, but consider the band’s perspective. Glidewell has described the album as a wall that made him feel as if he couldn’t go on making music like this. Brantley’s not much more complimentary. “We didn’t feel strongly about all of the songs,” he says. “They got old before we even started hitting the road.”
If it weren’t for 2010’s Gramahawk, the Skirts probably wouldn’t be a band right now. Gramahawk was an odd accumulation of stuttering off-kilter beats backing punchy guitar-driven New Wave/power-pop. The spunky samples brought vibrancy to the lilting melodies, creating a propulsive tension between the sing-song hooks and the herky-jerky undercurrent.
“Jay has a huge collection of analog keyboards that he’d become obsessed with programming — and the Japanese pop of it all. That’s where the drum sounds were based,” Brantley explains. Far from a band takeover, Gulley was the last one to recognize the brilliance of the samples he’d conjured alone in his bedroom. “For three or four songs on the record that I consider my favorites, we had to hog tie him and convince him to put them on the record,” Brantley adds. “That’s crazy to me, and they still haven’t gotten old yet.”
Currently, the Modern Skirts still have no major plans for the next record, although they’ve written four or five new songs utilizing a similar sample-driven aesthetic that they’re working into the set. Collectively, there is an optimistic feeling in the band. While Glidewell’s on tour as an Of Montreal guitar tech, Gulley’s in London discussing the current situation with their manager. “I think he’s over there to have the ‘Come to Jesus talk,'” Brantley reports. “Like, ‘What are you going to do for us?'”
Meanwhile, Brantley is excited to get back to work soon on this material, mining the new approach. “We love this more than anything we’ve done before. We don’t even like to play the old songs anymore,” he says. “I feel like we’ve finally found our voice.”