World Leader Pretend to release Punches
Far from the buzz and clink of Brooklyn-bound trains, half a world away from the NME, and out of reach from the bicoastal arbiters of style and taste, lays the city of New Orleans.
Artist: World Leader Pretend
Release date: 06/28/05
Label: Warner Music
World Leader Pretend
Buy at: Amazon
If the American South is considered far-removed from the pulse of the nation, then this fair city is doubly so. It is the square peg to the Deep South’s round hole, a city with blinders that keeps its focus from most anything but itself. Its unique culture and self-conscious insularity evoke many reactions: some call it quaint, historic, and timeless; others think it's dreary, dangerous, and completely out of touch with the contemporary culture that surrounds it. But the young men of World Leader Pretend simply call it home.
Perhaps there was no better place for a young band at the intersection of art and pop to take shape. Here in New Orleans, this gang of gentlemen became what they are today: generally charming, sometimes scrappy and always spirited. Isolation from the pressures that often surround young bands afforded World Leader Pretend the luxury to find themselves and take a stab at making something as unique and self-contained as the city they called home.
“Our competition was washboard zydeco bands and men in suits with trombones. There wasn’t a scene, let alone a race to make it to the top,” said Arthur Mintz, drummer and former puppeteer. “We had time and freedom-- freedom to take things at our own pace and do whatever we wanted, which in our case was to make something beautiful and artful.”
“When we started making music, it was like a guessing game. What was relevant, what was going on in other places?” said singer Keith Ferguson, who confesses to initially mimicking the sounds of ‘90s European groups that the band loved. “I grew up in the middle of a sugar cane field. Our sound came from our overactive imaginations, a sort of crude approximation of the glamour we imagined existing somewhere else in the world, but certainly not here.”
Amidst the rum and ramshackle structures of mid-city New Orleans stands an old hotel, a broken down relic of the busy Southern streets of the 1960s and a place whose former exuberance and glamour seem unfathomable against its present landscape. Overhead the interstate casts noise and shadow, and down below sit forsaken Cadillacs, probably unmoved for decades. And though each of its eight stories reeks of stale beer and bathroom, its walls seep a certain indescribable charm.
It was in this space that the boys began recording their album Punches. With empty pocketbooks, and in a city that turned a deaf ear to anything other than jazz, funk, and jam bands, the ambitious trio moiled for weeks on an 8-track recorder. Despite their tireless efforts and a cache of brilliant Ferguson-penned songs, nothing was turning out as they’d desired. The Fates delivered the final, telling blow when the group walked in one morning to discover an unfortunate scene involving a fallen window unit and a harrowing amount of pigeons. The sessions were clearly over.
Disheveled and disheartened, World Leader Pretend took pause. Keith dropped out of school to rethink the record, and moved in with his parents, Arthur went back to puppetry, and Parker slept late and drank early. Prospects seemed dim for a pop band in an instrumentalist’s town, but the group concocted a scheme to stay afloat. Tired of being overlooked by local media, the threesome resorted to trickery, writing a letter to the city paper purporting to be a Chicago promoter and requesting the group be banished from the New Orleans club circuit. The longshot worked; they landed an interview, and the result was a four-page article that arrived in nearly a million homes, hailing the band as the “next big thing” and boosting their concert attendance exponentially. With their newfound high profile, they knew what they had to do: chancing a life of shoulder-crushing debt, the boys marched into a local bank and signed away nearly everything they had in exchange for the funds to make an album and communicate a world that, at the time, existed solely in their heads.
And so with big dreams and a crisp cashier’s check, the trio boarded a plane to New York City, a place whose metropolitan allure and bustling connectivity had for so long been the object of their envy and speculation. As soon as recording commenced in Harlem’s Marcata Studios and the songs flowed from their heads and onto tape, the threesome knew they had their hands on something strikingly different. Punches is essentially a pop record, but its aesthetics were unexpectedly shaped by the soul music they had come to adore over the previous year at home. It had surrounded them, blasting from front porches on the racially integrated uptown streets, crackling from Keith’s busted FM radio on his long commutes to rehearsal, speaking through the walls of their slipshod ‘60s hotel.
They had become obsessed with all of it -- black, white, ‘60s, ‘70s, from Memphis, Macon, Muscle Shoals, Detroit and even London. Punches espoused the over-the-top orchestrations of Petula Clark’s blue-eyed soul and the raw intimacy of Stax records. It was informed by the commanding and compelling vocal presence and narrative styles of so many soul greats along with the unsettlingly seductive touch of crooners like Scott Walker and Neil Diamond who followed their leads.
“The thing we admire most, soul music, is its ability to communicate a world of its own, even if its far from true,” said Parker Hutchinson, pianist. “In soul, singers can imagine a life that’s better, joyous and hopeful, and live it through song. No matter how bad things are in reality, in song there’s glamour and big dreaming, full bellies and sex and maybe even love. It’s all in the framing, you know. It’s a sly and wonderful sort of invention that’s full of fantasy, but it also invites the listener to look through the cracks and see the truth.”
The studio itself couldn’t have been more conducive to the magic that was happening those weeks in Harlem. It was a converted industrial loft with all analog equipment, filled with vintage instruments, and lacking a proper engineer. As their Stax heroes had done decades before, the musicians fumbled with old microphones, placing them in every position imaginable in order to get the perfect sound. To them there was no right or wrong way to do things, just an aesthetic goal and many hours of pure experimentation. In the process, World Leader Pretend learned to appreciate flaws, accidents, and mistakes and embrace the unexpected. By foregoing conventional wisdom, they gave it heart and, in their eyes, made it more memorable and ultimately more human.
It’s the combination of those honest moments and haughty glamour, both musically and lyrically, that make Punches what it is: an album that, in true soul fashion, walks the line between blatant invention and heartbreaking sincerity. Despite the lies they tell themselves, they’re willing to let you through the cracks and see them for who they really are: well-behaved rascals with heavy hearts and big dreams. And in support of their soon-to-be-released record, they’re taking their own little world on the road for all to see, enlisting the aid of U.K. bassist Alexander Smith and fellow New Orleanian guitarist Matt Martin.
None of them are quite sure yet what the rest of the world will make of a Louisiana pop band with a penchant for soul music, but one thing is certain: their instincts and cunning have gotten them this far, and they’re not about to back down. As Arthur said, “That ever-elusive sense of difference, the thing you hope sets you apart, isn't something you can strive for-- it simply happens. It's about recognizing who you are and where you've been and never apologizing for it. You learn to embrace it.”
Back at their old hotel, the five youths struggle to get a piano into an elevator that most of us would think twice before setting foot in.
“Try it this way,” requests Arthur. “OW!” Parker yelps, pressed against the wall. The pair galumphs across the threshold as two others struggle to hold the doors open. A few missteps and one loud thud later, the mighty instrument is on the ground, minus one leg, and a stinging dissonance resonates off peeling wallpaper.
“Oh,” Keith calmly reacts, unfazed and with his trademark smirk, “...character.”
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"Punches" by World Leader Pretend - release date: 06/28/05..