By Mark Guarino
For Mat Brooke, forming the Seattle band the Grand Archives presented a second chance not allowed for many musicians: To grow up.
“There’s probably a natural progression of things that come with age. When you’re younger, you’re drinking and going through a ton of relationships, you’re a depressed person. Once you get older, you don’t live that lifestyle any longer,” he said. “You find more to be happier about.”
Uplift is the primary thread running through the Grand Archives’ self-titled Sub Pop debut. Plucked harp strings, a tambourine and mellow vocal harmonies together slowly open the album, making it sound like a peephole to a Disney-fied dream until drums enter, giving the song flight: Like the E Street Band transporting Brian Wilson to the stars. The Grand Archives never hesitates from there. Using rootsy touchstones, from harmonica to horns, and a playful pop flavoring, whistling and skipping beats, the music looms large without the self-importance. Case in point: “George Kaminsky,” pretty and lush, tells the true story of a convict holding the world record for collecting the most four-leaf clovers, all found in the stalled confines of a single prison yard.
“There seemed something so optimistic about it,” said Brooke. The song, with a sparkling slide guitar and sparks of harmonica, could well represent what this new band is about: Lighting up intimate moments in the shadows of steep walls of sound.
Considering Brooke, 31, and co-songwriter Ron Lewis, 32, have each logged thousands of van miles in credible indie rock bands (Carissa’s Wierd and the Fruit Bats, respectively), it says something that now, in their early 30’s, they see the benefit of embracing America — the band, not the brand. “A little sunnier than listening to a Metallica record,” Brooke explained.
After a childhood in Tucson, Brooke found himself in the Pacific Northwest 11 years ago when his van had the good fortune to break down outside Olympia, Wash. where there happened to be a fertile music scene underway thanks to indie rock stalwart K Records. In just a few months, Brooke was firmly embedded: Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill was his upstairs neighbor and Modest Mouse growler Isaac Brock first made his acquaintance by crawling through Brooke’s front window during a party and asking to use the phone.
Brooke and girlfriend Jenn Ghetto lasted there a year until moving to Seattle where they formed Carissa’s Wierd, a whispery coffeehouse duo that quickly became an ensemble, igniting excitement among that city’s indie rock legion that continues to this day. Looking back, Brooke said he has since “learned a lot more about composition and crafting a song. I also learned a lot more about how to survive on lousy tours.”
Spending three months in a band occupied by seven people is the type of reality that killed Carissa’s Wierd but once bandmate Ben Bridwell announced he would form an epic rock alternative called Band of Horses, Brooke signed on to help. “It wasn’t what my ultimate plan was,” he says now. After playing guitar on BOH’s smash 2006 debut and joining them on tour, he walked away to spend time launching The Redwood, a cozy bar he co-owns in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The year’s investment paid off: Today, he’s a silent owner, allowing him to embark on musical projects at his leisure.
The Grand Archives arrived with so little prepwork, just a demo and a single club show that so impressed Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman he immediately signed the band and two weeks later, they started opening dates for Modest Mouse.
“We were definitely diving in the deep end. I was surprised,” Brooke said. “I’d have to have a pretty big ego to not be surprised.”
The Grand Archives wasn’t designed as a solo act. Drummer Curtis Hall and bassist Jeff Montano invited multi-instrumentalist Ron Lewis who soon discovered he and Brooke had complimentary songwriting instincts. Brooke encouraged Lewis to bring in ideas and the band hit its stride once everyone locked into music that, according to Lewis, “sounded corduroy”: CSN, America, The Eagles.
That triumvirate would have made his former self shudder and roll dead. Lewis came to Seattle following a childhood immersed in the D.C. hardcore scene that today, exists only in a gauzy past. “When I revisit that stuff, it has this urgency I don’t really feel anymore,” he said.
The lesson learned might be that that old punks and indie experimentalists must one day grow up and embrace the melody buried within. The Grand Archives is certainly proof: Each song hangs on a bright hook, polished by complex harmonies and other romantic flourishes. The transition from pessimism to honest revelry is rooted in the recording: When vocal or instrumental parts “stopped being fun,” according to Brooke, they would be rewritten completely. The band also rotated sessions within four studios to keep stagnancy at arm’s length. Since bands live or die depending on the right dynamic, either on the road or dusk-to-dawn sessions in the studio, he was certain to keep one ingredient in the room at all times:
“Fun is the right word,” he said.