By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Oxford Collapse could be your life. In an age where every band that's played two shows is looking to become the next online hype sensation, this Brooklyn three-piece has recorded four albums and tirelessly crisscrossed the country in the old-fashioned spirit of the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü. The band seems to prefer used LP bins to MP3 blogs, because its sound contains some unusual and inspired influences: the Feelies' caffeine-fueled intricacies, Volcano Suns' sarcastic sing-alongs and the Embarrassments' speedy, jittery pop. Bits is its second release for Sub Pop, and while there's plenty of shouty, slightly shambling indie rock on the album, the addition of piano and cello makes for a sprawling, satisfying set. Mike Pace, Oxford Collapse's singer/guitarist, discussed Bits and the band's current approach to songwriting while driving to a show in North Carolina.
Mike Appelstein: You've played St. Louis a few times, haven't you?
Mike Pace: The first time was three years ago at the Lemp Arts Center. Is that place still around? We played there a couple times, and had a blast there. That's where we hooked up with So Many Dynamos. Then we played the Creepy Crawl, and we actually played a house show the very first time we were in St. Louis back in 2004.
In Bits I hear the overdriven sound of the earlier recordings, but here you seem to be stretching out more.
I think that just comes from the three of us playing together for years now and getting comfortable with the way we put the songs together, the way we interact. We don't really like to rest on our laurels; there's no harm to be found in playing songs that aren't fast, shouty, sing-along-type things. Part of the fun of doing the Bits sessions was the challenge of trying different things within certain boundaries, not just for the sake of it. But I think it just comes from playing in a band with the same people, and figuring out what you do well, what areas to work on, and what are interesting, fun things to try. So that was definitely on the brain when we were writing and recording.
You had 29 or 30 songs to choose from by the time you were done.
The goal was to release a double album. Cooler heads prevailed, to the extent that we ended up releasing a 13-song, 38-minute record instead of a 30-song, hour-and-a-half one. Along with that came the fact that we had to get all this other material flying around. We were able to translate it into a five-song EP [and] a two-song seven-inch single. And that, I think, was more interesting in itself as pieces of a puzzle that added up to the story of the Bits sessions. You can collect them all.
So rather than release your own Zen Arcade, you did your own album and sprinkled the works in progress elsewhere?
Exactly. That's always been something I've liked about getting into bands in high school. This was when bands readily put out seven-inch singles or compilation tracks, but everything was exclusive. It's not like you put out a single and the b-side is the radio edit. We've tried to blend this exclusivity into peppering separate releases that have their own exclusive stuff. A band like Rocket from the Crypt, their seven-inches were as good, if not better, than their albums.
Do you generally write more than you need?
This is actually the first time we've had an overabundance of material. Previous CDs have had maybe one or two songs left over. But what was different about this record was that, in the past, we would pretty much have two days to record and mix an album, so we knew exactly what we wanted. We wanted to take the opposite approach this time around. A lot of the material was not finished when we went into the studio. We had a lot of advice from the people we were working with. We outsourced songs for friends to write lyrics. There's a certain song that we wrote the day we were recording. It was definitely cool to take a couple of months, work with friends, come back later...it is a different way for us to work.
"John Blood" was probably my favorite the first time around. I loved the chorus. How did that come together?
The idea was to get a pretty voice to sing that part as a juxtaposition to the way I sing. A lot of these songs we initially recorded on a MiniDisc recorder. "John Blood" came out of one of those jams. Ultimately I ended up writing the majority of the lyrics. They were about pro wrestling in the 1970s. Before Hulkamania-sanitized wrestling, these guys would travel the country and wrestle for $50 a night on a filthy mat, basically rip themselves open for the 100 people in the crowd.
A lot of your lyrics come off as sort of half-remembered snippets of conversation. On one hand they're sort of non sequiturs, but they also seem like cut-out snippets.
I've never thought of it that way. In the past the lyrics have been obtuse or clever or just words that sound good together. After our last record, a friend of ours made that point that we should try writing about themes that are more universal. We took that advice to heart. We're very proud of the lyrics; we all contribute to them, but they're definitely more universal-themed. We're not necessarily afraid to bare our souls a little bit, hopefully without sounding trite or clichéd. That's the challenge right there: to do it in a way that hasn't been done. I don't think we're writing straight narratives, but we're definitely trying to push it: Not everyone is a pro wrestler. But hopefully listeners can find something to relate to.