Built by Association
Lake Trout Finally Settles On A Label It’s Comfortable With
It’s easy to put a label on a band. Just playing a show with a particular band can easily make an outfit suddenly marketable—or guilty by association. Old labels stick to Lake Trout’s reputation like faintly embarrassing bumper stickers slowly peeling off an old car. This is old news for the group’s fans, but casual listeners might still think loose Vermont groove instead of spare Baltimore intensity. If any more proof was needed, the quintet’s fourth record, Not Them, You, ducks out of the hippy festival for good.
“The last record and this new one don’t get the jam-band label,” guitarist/vocalist Woody Ranere says, as four members of the band (keyboardist/flutist Matt Pierce is absent) gather at a Mount Vernon lunch spot.
“It’s also the name that does it,” drummer Mike Lowry adds sheepishly.
The name, just like the lion’s share of their constituency, doesn’t quite fit the music the band is making. The rhythms are almost preternaturally precise. Lowry’s finely tuned cyborg-drumming and bassist James Griffiths’ warm lines create a solid backbone for guitarists Ed Harris and Ranere to give a frenetic nervous system. Pierce’s flute and keyboards, along with Ranere’s vocals, give the music its face.
“We don’t jam,” Harris says firmly.
“Live, we do these extended instrumental segues,” Ranere adds. “But it’s not really improv or jamming.”
“Rather than just going out and playing the records,” Griffiths says, “the shows are more about these epic instrumentals to switch it up.”
The music on Not Them is brooding but melodic, its anxiety punctuated by brief respites—those instrumental segues the band is so comfortable with onstage. It’s a big sound, as much because of restraint as bombast.
The opening track, “Shiny Wrapper,” is all driving bass overlaid with nervous flute passages and steely guitars: Mogwai fused with a Factory Records rhythm section. “Riddle” showcases Ranere’s lithe voice surrounded by tense John Carpenter piano runs. “So many locks on my doors, now which one is war?/ The captain’s gone crazy,” Ranere croons on “Forward March,” in a rather obvious indictment of the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, and the media. The songs express discontent, fear of losing one’s way, and general disappointment, all without necessarily being despondent. The band covers “Street Fighting Man,” and their faithful run-through suits the mood of the rest of the record.
“We had a short list of producers we wanted to work with on this project,” Ranere says. “Initially, we had hoped to work with Dave Fridmann up in Buffalo, but there was a scheduling conflict, so he recommended Tony Doogan. It worked out really well, and Dave was involved with the production on ‘Street Fighting Man.’”
Doogan and Fridmann’s influence—the pair have worked with the likes of Mogwai, Super Furry Animals, and the Flaming Lips—is apparent. Lake Trout’s rich-yet-spare sound meshes well with the spacey atmospherics of the production. The beefed-up recording budget and studio time has more than a little something to do with increased interest, not least from its new label, Palm Pictures.
“We didn’t have much label support until recently,” Harris says when asked about troubles the band had with its previous label, SNS.
“We got sued by our old label and spent tons of money on legal fees,” Ranere says. “In fact, this is the first time we have all had day jobs in quite a while. We supported ourselves with touring for five years. It’s different when you’re being paid a lot of money to play these festivals in front of 10,000 people, but we’ve really tried to back away from that.”
“Playing shows you don’t want to is working,” Lowry says. “We’d rather play more shows with bands that we feel a kinship with. It’s a balancing act. Do you [keep] play[ing] shows just to make money? Or do you stop?”
So Ranere writes songs for a music publishing house in Baltimore called Clean Cuts Music. Harris waits tables and teaches guitar. Griffiths and Lowry both wait tables. Pierce supports himself DJing around town. The band credits Baltimore itself for providing enough opportunities to focus on being creative rather than worrying about paying the rent.
“It’s hard to be sure what it means to be a Baltimore band,” Harris says. “It’s like all these articles say, ‘Baltimore’s sound is not having a sound.’ But we definitely feel like we are a Baltimore band.”
“All these other major cities and scenes—like Brooklyn or Seattle—become cliquish,” Harris says. “But Baltimore isn’t [cliquish]. It’s flexible. The cheapness [of living here] makes it easier to make being creative the focus of your life.”
Clearly being part of that Baltimore nonsound isn’t the worst fate a band could accept. Whatever elusive trait makes a band truly Baltimorean, Not Them, You finds Lake Trout not just shucking an old label but helping to define a new one.