Listening to indie rock band Wolf Parade's latest album from a distance, you might notice an odd wall of sound in the works. And it might be hard to tell whether it's purely accidental or happening naturally as part of a grand scheme.
"It's something we sort of worked on along the way," says Arlen Thompson, the Montreal-based quartet's drummer. "We used to call it the wave. Instead of Phil Spector's 'wall of sound,' maybe it's the 'wall of shit' — a barrage of guitars and keyboards coming at you."
Thompson's description of his band's atmospheric sound might be a bit harsh. There's an element of noisiness, but there's nothing shitty about it.
He and his bandmates — Dan Boeckner, Spencer Krug, and Dante DeCaro — swing through Charleston this week in support of a new EP titled Expo 86 (Sub Pop). Named for a World's Fair that exposed the public at large to the monorail and a floating McDonald's, the new collection is a keyboard-driven blend of indie rock, weirdo pop, and art-punk, replete with more than a few dark, mysterious, and nervous moments. It follows 2008's full-length release, At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop).
Working at Montreal's Hotel2Tango with award-winning producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor), the band recorded straight to analog tape last November before finishing things up via more modern digital methods.
"He was totally on the same page with us," the drummer says of Bilerman. "He really loved the idea of making a classic rock record. When we came in, we wanted to do everything live off the floor. He was game and understood what we were trying to do from the get-go. There's no facade."
Thompson says they avoided using click tracks, metronomes, and excessive overdubs to aim for a very honest on-stage quality. The whole session took only 10 days to track.
"We kept it organic and fresh and made it sound like real," Thompson says. "We concentrated on making things sound live. Everyone's playing keyboards in the band except for me, so we wanted to create something that we could handle as a whole.
"What we do on stage is really our thing," he adds. "We wanted to get that onto tape, so we didn't get too far into the production side of things, and we played the tunes like a rock band."
Thompson, 31, first started playing drums at the age of 10, swapping guitar lessons for snare drum rudiments. A solid pounder with a knack for sparseness and concise fills, he cites British rock giants like Cream's Ginger Baker and Zep' John Bonham, and minimalist drummer Klaus Dinger of krautrock band Neu! as his first influences, adding John Stanier of Helmet and Battles as a more recent inspiration.
As a drummer, Thompson finds himself in a similar role as some of the timekeepers on the post-punk/New Wave underground of the late '70s and early '80s. Drummers like Alan Myers of Devo, Ced Sharpley of the Tubeway Army, and Joe Nanni of Wall of Voodoo drummed in synth-based bands, but they produced the majority of their beats on acoustic drum kits and percussion instruments.
On stage, Thompson plays a traditional trap kit behind the keys and effects-laden guitars. The heavy, dense kick/snare patterns of Wolf Parade's latest material throbs with hypnotic, repetitive beats that could easily have been sampled from Zep or the Fall.
The reverb-heavy electric guitar and fuzz-wah bass guitar tangles tastefully with the distorted keys on the sinister-but-dancey "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)," one of Expo 86's lead-off singles.
Synthesizers play an even more dominant role in "Ghost Pressure," an upbeat tune that recalls the darkly themed pop stylings of early Human League and Joy Division.
"These days, I feel more comfortable on stage than ever. We've all become better musicians and more confident over the years," Thompson says. "We don't second-guess ourselves like we used to. We're a little less self-conscious and more aware of how things sound and how to finesse things a little bit."
Wolf Parade has been touring North America almost non-stop since last winter. With a tight set, ideal musical chemistry, and a solidified rhythmic style, their wall of sound will surely stand strong for a long while to come.