After the flood: World Leader Pretend makes sleeper album of the year

By Mark Guarino

World Leader Pretend had the dream scenario this year. After making an album on their own dime, getting scouted in Atlanta by a Warner Bros. rep who fell in love their sound, they signed to the label which released “Punches,” their impressive major label debut, in the thick of the summer.
Then Katrina hit. World Leader Pretend happens to be a band from New Orleans. The hurricane and flooding disaster caused the band to get off tour and return home to assess damage. Their van and trailer disappeared under 12 feet of water. A tree fell through guitarist Matt Martin’s house roof in nearby Slidell and then a spider bit his leg and he had to have major surgery. Otherwise, everything is fine.

“It seems like everything is piecing itself back together,” said singer-songwriter Keith Ferguson. “We’re definitely coming back.

The band is unique for many reasons, the first and foremost being they are a pop band from New Orleans, a town that, in recent memory, has only imported the frat party band Cowboy Mouth and the once favored radio band Better Than Ezra. Despite the rich musical threads that have run through that town since the beginning and its current feast of first-rate jazz and funk players, New Orleans routinely comes up short in producing viable pop bands outside its border.

“Punches” is an exciting album for all the right reasons. The most immediate being it has both the majestic reach and homespun warmth that is most associated with U2 and Coldplay. This is richly orchestrated pop fit inside songs motored by gorgeous melodies. Ferguson steps into the emotional range of Bono and Chris Martin, but he knows how to deliver the chest thumping soul of Otis Redding. He whoops, growls and croons in songs built on many tiers. The exotica of a New Orleans backdrop is only referenced by how the band mixes many sounds. Fingersnaps, sleigh bells, strings, a thumping piano and clashing percussion drive these songs hard inside what sounds like a chamber Phil Spector might have built. The meeting of mystery and romance swirls through from start to finish on what is an album that continues to peel back revelations.
Ferguson grew up in the sugarcane town of Matthews, La., just outside New Orleans. In his freshman year at Loyola University in the city, he started writing songs. They were unlike the typical college fare he heard around him — no brass bands, no thick basslines, no jamming. “We had a hard time getting anyone in New Orleans to pay attention to us. We had pop songs and a lead singer opposed to a trumpet player and a washboard. We had to pull some trickery … because people in New Orleans do not take pop music seriously,” he said.
Essential to the trickery was convincing a Chicago club owner (Ferguson claims to not remember who) to let them send Keith Spera, the Times-Picayune music critic, a letter in his name saying World Leader Pretend destroyed his club, broke his equipment and were a disgrace to the city of which they came. A week later Spera called. Soon, they were a cover story in the newspaper. “That was how the ball started rolling,” Ferguson said.
In an email, Spera wrote he was a fan already: “(The fake email) wasn’t why I wrote about the band — I wrote about them because I dug their indie record and they were playing a show. The detail about the letter ran deep in the story, as a minor aside.”
To prepare for their second album, the band reconvened run-down hotel in town. Pigeons interrupted the proceedings. Without label support or a booking agent, the band took out a bank loan for $4,000 and, in December 2003, relocated to Marcata Recording, a studio in Harlem built in an old industrial car factory. “It was perfect for what we were trying to do,” Ferguson explains.
The heaviness and warmth on “Punches” is a direct result of the setting. The band’s references did not come from the pop world, then or now. Instead, they were obsessed with Southern soul classics from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, everything on the pioneering Memphis label Stax Records.
“The funny thing about those soul records were they were made on no budget, no engineer or producer know what they were doing, but the sound was so huge and lush and romantic and over the top,” Ferguson said. “We were trying to capture the approximation of glamour. Sort of that idea that a bunch of punk kids with no money … were trying to make this lush, over-the-top gorgeous soul record.”
The band — including keyboardist-songwriter Parker Hutchinson and drummer Arthur Mintz — placed microphones randomly through the room and “hoped for the best,” he said. The vocals were placed front and center so they sounded isolated, with the band creeping up through the shadows. Back in New Orleans, they enlisted the help of local backup singers plus members of the Louisiana Philharmonic to round out the sound.
Even with their intricate arrangements, the songs are mostly exactly what Ferguson heard in his head. “I have to deconstruct them and figure out what they are composed of,” he said.
“Punches” seems destined to become the sleeper album of this year considering that Warner Bros. has not given it a significant amount of promotion and the band is relegated to creating the slow build through continual touring. “We definitely don’t fit into anyone’s box. You can’t label us. (The label) knows we’re not one of those bands. They knew that when they signed us,” he said. “They’ve promoted it on the download.”
Their name — also an R.E.M. song on their 1988 album “Green” (Warner Bros.) — is a guarantee they will be forever asked about the connection between both bands. Ferguson, 23, insists there isn’t one and that the choice was made on the fly when they were flipping through their album collection trying to figure out a band name before showing up for a cable access taping the next day.
The choice did win a fan: R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe. This summer both bands shared a bill in Magdeburg, Germany. Stipe showed up to offer the band a bottle of wine and conversation. Afterwards, when R.E.M. played the song in their set, they dedicated it to the band.
“I think it’s great,” Ferguson said. “I had never met him. But he knew us.”

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