Great band names are hard to come by. Plenty will inspire a nod or a wry smile, but few really punchy ones actually nod to the sound of the band. Smokey Brights is one-in-a-thousand, an evocative phrase that perfectly fits the band that bears it. The five-piece has bright (as in, “intelligent”) lyrics that shift among daylit optimism and fuming noir, always complemented by a full, mature sound that bursts across all registers. It’s hard to not love it, and their first LP, A Taste for Blood, released in late 2014 has been featured by many local critics as a favorite from last year.
The band has been at it for several years, crafting their sound collaboratively from a number of genres. I reached out to get some insight about the inspirations behind the album, its mysterious arc, their own process and their plans for the coming year.
Vanguard Seattle: You’ve been a band for three years, and you have released a few EPs, but this is your first full-length release. Is A Taste for Blood a further development of older ideas that didn’t fit on those earlier releases, or did you come to it fresh?
Smokey Brights: Most of it was very fresh, written over the months immediately before recording. After years of playing together, listening to each other, geeking out over records and gear, and allowing ourselves a good amount of experimentation, we arrived at a sound we all really liked. So we just went for it. All in. Nothing held back. We began writing and rehearsing furiously; almost like we didn’t want whatever we had found to escape us. The hope is that this contradiction of patience and immediacy comes through on the record.
VS: For you as songwriters, what is the process of generating and pairing lyrics and melody as a group?
Smokey Brights: Our process is always changing. It was already in flux by the time we tracked Taste for Blood and it has probably changed some since. Originally, it was all me (Ryan). I would write something alone, with my acoustic guitar, and bring it to the band to be fleshed out. You know, like songwriter guys do. Then, we might change the key, cut some stuff, add a bridge, but it was usually a pretty fully formed idea. I built the house and then the band made it look good.
Now, I don’t even walk into the practice space with a blueprint, maybe just a piece of something and then we build the house together. When you have really talented and creative people working with you, it’s almost a waste to do it any other way, in my opinion. Of course, this takes longer and sometimes you go down a road that leads to nowhere, but you do it together and, generally, you learn a lot along the way.
VS: There’s a darkness and world-weariness to a lot of the content, though it seems to arrive at a point of maturity, perhaps resignation if not of hope. What events personally or nationally were influencing you as the record was being made?
Smokey Brights: We were personally touched by tragedy when we suddenly lost dear friends, three of whom were musicians we loved and admired, in May of 2012 at Cafe Racer. It was beyond tragic. It turned our worlds upside down. It was an experience we’ll still be processing for the rest of our lives. It was the precise day we knew our youth was ending and adulthood was beginning; an adulthood full of knowledge of the awfulness of the world that can’t and shouldn’t be imparted to children. If it feels like this record is world-weary, those events definitely played a part in that.
However, I don’t think someone needs to have gone through a terrible, personal tragedy to feel like the world is in a strange place these days. Just look at our own town, for example. The income gap is widening. The cost of living is skyrocketing. More people are living on the street. And somehow, there is still supposed to be a place for art and music in all of this.
World-weary is an apt way to describe not only this record but our approach to both music and life as a band. When you listen to this record, you hear the dark tones. You hopefully connect with the dry, sometimes bitingly cynical lyrics. But when you see our live show, we bring nothing but energy and positivity. To perform for people is absolute joy for us. We attempt to toe the line between recognizing the darkness in life but not dwelling in it.
VS: What in film and fiction and philosophy would you count as influences in regard to how you interpret and react to these events artistically?
Smokey Brights: A lot of our influences can be attributed to some seemingly contradictory sources: the television series Twin Peaks and 80s DC punk.
Twin Peaks in the way it mixes the bright and idyllic perception of America, the familiar archetypes of teenage drama and daytime television, with the truly dark and strange. The way it allows you to get cozy and take your guard down before completely weirding you out.
DC punk in that true sense of DIY and community. Doing it yourself because you have belief in the merit of your uncompromised work. We didn’t have any outside funding on this record: no record deal, no Kickstarter, and no trust fund. It almost became our mantra. We truly believed we had something to say and that people wanted to hear it. They did, apparently, because they came out to shows that we played. From the money we made from these shows, we were able to put out this record. It truly feels collaborative, earned, and rebellious, all at the same time.
VS: This album has a strong arc. Did you have a structure in mind going into it, or was it something that emerged in the process of composing, or perhaps even during the sequencing? As a listener, it feels like a little of both because of the inclusion of the short instrumental interludes near the beginning and end of the album. It creates a sense that these are acts of a film or play.
Smokey Brights: There was no structure in mind going in… or rather, the loose ideas about how we would structure this were thrown out the window once we got moving. It’s pretty common practice when making a record to record way more songs than will actually make it on the final product. For this session, we did close to sixteen songs. The ones that stuck were held together by tone more than anything. They were the darker, spookier, more world-weary songs that made the cut. A lot of the more hook-laden, major key, pop songs were pushed aside. It was a choice that was really scary at the moment. To forgo songs that were seemingly more “radio friendly” or “hit material” for the weirder ones is not the norm these days. But, once we started to follow that tonal thread, constructing the record became easier.
We like records that take you on an emotional journey. That have a narrative arc but not an actual narrative. That lay out the paths but let you choose the way. In order for that to happen, the record has to have a mix of peaks and valleys, some salt with the sweet. We tried to keep it open enough so the listener could add their own interpretations and narrative to the experience.
VS: On a few tracks, “West Texas Vampyre” in particular, the folk, acoustic sounds are most apparent, but in the context of the rest of the album, it isn’t so much a throwback to past repertoire. Rather, it sounds like a distinct character among many represented in the album. Do you have characters in mind and will these appear in associated works, such as music videos?
Smokey Brights: There are certainly characters in mind, but their physicality isn’t literal and we certainly didn’t want to make them literal. Songs have the power of standing in as archetypes for people, of somehow being “about them.” For instance, I lived in West Texas when I was a kid and I remember a scary man coming to the door once. We don’t want someone to see that man, however. We want them to see their own monster. We want things to be open enough that you can walk in, take a look around, and make your own associations.
VS: I’ve listened to the album a few times now, and I get a distinct feeling like the first half is pervaded by this explicitly retrospective, nostalgic energy. The central tracks become the point of reflection where the focus switches. “Monster House” becoming this fast-paced, grand confrontation with past demons, the emptying out of the past where “everybody’s died or moved away,” and “Baby Marmalade” is the melancholy retrieval of something precious, what’s left of it, what’s still slipping away, and recognizing it for what it is. In the tracks after that, there is an awareness of the past, but it feels like the focus has moved from past to present and future. This is obviously going to affect how I view your decision to make “Baby Marmalade” the first video for the album, so I am really curious to know what made that the winner for you all.
Smokey Brights: In terms of making “Baby Marmalade” the first video, there were a few considerations going into that decision. The first was that we thought Baby might be one of the more approachable tracks since has such strong melodies and incorporates that great call and response between male and female vocal harmonies.
The second was that we knew we wanted a video that was a piece of art in and of itself, and that there were only a few people who could deliver that sort of product for us. We approached a few people about doing videos for us, and, interestingly enough, each one of them had their own favorite track which was different from the others. Our friend Ethan Folk, an incredibly talented videographer who had just finished shooting his experimental dance film Vernae, was stoked at the idea of doing a video. Before we even told him which song we wanted him to do, he asked if he could do the video for Baby. Which was perfect because that was what we had in mind.
We’ve actually just wrapped up Baby and it should be premiering in the next few weeks. Like the record, it is this contradictory mix of dark and light. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be funny. It’s going to make some people really uncomfortable.
VS: Are there plans for other videos in the works?
Smokey Brights: There are definitely plans for other videos. We have approached a few talented videographers about working together. Local playwright and filmmaker Neil Ferron wants to do something for “Monster House,” which we expect will be sprawling, cinematic, and delightfully weird. We’ll work together on that once he has finished his short film, “This Brute Land Virginia.”
Another friend in LA, Trevor Campbell, made a video for Ryan’s other band Hounds of the Wild Hunt last year. He’s an independent filmmaker who recently made a feature length called “Spray Paint Atlas.” We are chatting about doing a video for “Taste for Blood” and have some cool idea in the works.
VS: The sprawling sounds and influences I love in this album make it feel like it doesn’t just belong in this region. It’s just very American. So if you could play anywhere in the states, some place wild, where would it be?
Smokey Brights: We’d love to play this record from some great mesa in the southwest, atop the dry, cracked red rocks. Unfortunately, Ryan is pretty much allergic to all the other wild places, so our choices are limited to where there is little pollen and an ample supply of Benadryl.
Check out and purchase Smokey Brights’ A Taste for Blood on Bandcamp.
Friday, January 23, at The Cannery (Everett, WA)
with Each & All and Lonely Mountain Lovers. 8 PM. $10 adv tickets. Buy online.
Saturday, February 21, at Neumos (Seattle, WA)
with The Gizzled Mighty (album release) and Cabana. 8 PM. $12 adv tickets. Buy online.