“We worked it out the other day, that it’s like…what year are we on now? 2013? That makes it about five years.” Louis Jones is waiting on food in the Deaf Institute’s main bar. These are hardly unfamiliar surroundings for him; he’s played more support slots here, under his Spectrals moniker, than he’d care to mention. Tonight, he’s opening for Frankie and the Heartstrings, but he’s made the short journey from Leeds to share the stage here with the likes of Woods, Mazes and Bear in Heaven, too; in fact, an older incarnation of Spectrals, opening for Girls back in March of 2010, was the first band I saw play here.
A little over a year later, he’d share the bill with long-time tourmates Best Coast down the road at Club Academy, and the live band’s swift progression into such a tight, poppy unit was genuinely remarkable; debut full-length Bad Penny, released later that same year via the perennially excellent Wichita Recordings, cemented Jones’ position as one of the country’s premier purveyors of nostalgic pop.
“I’d always made music with friends when I was younger, but I knew I could do it easily enough on my own, and I liked the idea of not having to compromise. It just took off in a way that nothing I’d done before had.” Jones’ rapidly-developing live profile soon caught the eye at Wichita: “It was just one of those things, where they came to a show and said hello, and bought a seven-inch; before we knew it, we started seeing them around a lot more, and they were always really positive. I would’ve been happy to sign with them from the get go, so I was obviously pretty chuffed with how eager they seemed when it came to be a reality.”
This month saw the release of the sophomore Spectrals LP, Sob Story, which was produced by former Girls bassist Chet ‘JR’ White, who chose to move behind the desk after Christopher Owens’ departure precipitated his band’s abrupt dissolution last year. “We played with Girls quite a bit and got to be friends with them,” says Jones. “We did an American tour, and when we got to San Francisco, we met up with Chet and he mentioned that he wanted to start doing production work. I said I’d love it if he could do something for us, and he seemed into the idea in a way that maybe I didn’t think he would be. I think we were both a bit surprised at how well it worked.”
Whilst the writing process for Sob Story remained largely true to the band’s roots, Jones was able to do things differently once he reached the studio. “It’s still me writing all the songs, and I record the majority of it myself, minus the drums. I think we were a lot more thorough than we were on Bad Penny. I still like how that record sounds, but we spent a lot more time on this one, just working on each song independently and not trying to rely on one amp or drum kit, or one specific guitar tone. We worked pretty hard on it. We lived out there in San Francisco so there wasn’t much travelling, and we could just work into the early hours – we’d be up til five in the morning, a lot of the time. The whole thing was just a lot more in depth.”
One of the most obvious signifiers of the progression on Sob Story is the sheer variety evident across its twelve tracks; Bad Penny was almost uniform in its short, snappy pop songs, but Jones has sought to include slower efforts, such as the title track, as well as experiment, as the borderline psychedelic ‘Milky Way’ can attest to. “The thing I was really obsessed with was just the idea of the songs being different. I wanted to have more contrast on this record. Not like a light and a shade type of thing, but just the dynamics on it; having some quiet songs and then a few that were louder and rockier, and some longer tracks as well – I wanted to build it all towards something more nuanced. When I listen back to Bad Penny now, I feel like it just passes you by a little bit and maybe seems a little bit like background music; I wanted this one to be more about the songs.”
That’s not to say, though, that critical reception was something Jones was especially mindful of. “My mind’s made up about it now. I’m really pleased with it. I got it right for me, and anything else is gonna be a bonus at this point; it’s always going to be pretty condescending if you try and make something that you think people will like. There’s no point believing there’s any one formula.”
Such has been their popularity in support slots – Wavves, Real Estate and The Cribs are other outfits they’ve opened for – it does seem as if Spectrals don’t manage too many headline dates of their own, with an appearance at The Castle way back in January of 2011 being their only such show in Manchester so far. “I think we’re kind of limited in that we’re maybe not enough of a draw on our own. We played a headline show in London the other day to launch the record, and that went great. We’re definitely trying to build our own following with this record, but it’s hard, man. I’m not sure how many people would come, and we might not be able to fill this sort of room, but if we can get into a position where we’re playing our own shows, it’d be another step in the right direction.”
Sob Story is out now on Wichita Recordings