Building an Empire: Pretty Little Empire marries live intensity with refined sonics
Melissa Valencia
Pretty Little Empire.

On Saturday night, to a half-full room of fans and friends of Off Broadway, Pretty Little Empire released its third, self-titled LP. The band began with a look backward, kicking off the set with "Baby Boy Killer" from its first album and then proceeded to barrel through a set of new songs that played to its strengths of pop-rock smarts and emotionally resonant songwriting. When the four-piece was called back for an encore, many audience members could be heard chanting the chorus to "You Can't Have It All." It's not every local band that can garner that kind of communal love.

The concert was a sweaty, danceable proclamation of what has become common knowledge among local showergoers: Pretty Little Empire is too good of a band to be St. Louis' secret. The new album underlines that sentiment with thoughtful studio aesthetics and a restless, tuneful core. A few weeks before the show, I had a late-morning coffee with singer/guitarist Justin Johnson and bassist Sean McElroy to talk about the process of putting the third LP together.

Christian Schaeffer: It seems like this record has been written and recorded for some time before its release date. Take me back to the genesis of these recordings — what was it like, getting the third record ready and produced?

Justin Johnson: In the beginning of things, we had a decent amount of new songs. So we did a demo with David [Beeman, producer and proprietor of Native Sound Studio], just one song to see what it would be like working with him. It felt really good, so we came in at it live, played fifteen or sixteen songs. But as we started recording with him, it turned out that the songs we thought would be really cool — once we recorded them — they didn't sound as cool. Through working with David, we really wanted him to produce and help shape the record. So I guess we recorded some songs and rerecorded songs, and new songs started popping up. It was probably a year in the studio. We must have went into the studio 40 or 50 times to record.

Sean McElroy: We really, really wanted a fifth person's opinion recording this album. Everything we had done previous to this had just been in a total vacuum — just the four of us having ideas. We needed a fresh perspective. It's a good thing that David Beeman is a really creative guy; he has a lot of good ideas.

I listened to the record, and I like the way it's sequenced. I feel that there's a lot of intentionality from one track bleeding to the next, and there's kind of an ambiance to the recording that your last two albums didn't have. What was the intent with putting these ten songs together in the way that you did? How did you sequence a record that, again, sounds very intentional?

JJ: We knew that we wanted there to be a sequence. We wanted the record to go together. We knew that we had more songs than could fit on a record — we knew that going into it. Some songs didn't feel right. Will [Godfred, guitar] worked with David really closely; Will produced the last two records. He could tell what felt right for the record. There was one song that we really liked but that Will didn't think fit the record. We kept recording it and recording it, and in the end we cut it because once you stacked the songs up, it stood out. I came from a film background — so did Sean — and it's like when you're putting sequences together in scenes, in the scheme of things when you're done, this scene feels like overkill or that you've already explained everything. You don't need to add fillers, so we cut that out. When I listen to the other records, I can hear songs that didn't fit.

SM: Will was there every single day in the studio, so he has more weight in saying what goes in. If anyone has lived in this record, it's Will. All of Justin's songs work in this solo-acoustic format. Everything else — the atmospherics — that's Will's vision. He spearheaded that side of it.

It's been five years since the band has been together. Can you talk about how the band has changed in terms of playing together or in the way that you write a song? When I heard your first record Sweet Sweet Hands, I put you more in an alt-country vein — it reminded me a lot of those Theodore records. Listening to you now, that's kind of gone away.

SM: Man oh man, did we like Theodore.

JJ: When I first came to St. Louis, it wasn't my intention to make music. I was in Texas and came back to St. Louis. Sean and I were playing in a weird garage-rocky thing. I started working in this coffee house with Andy [Lashier, ex-Theodore, current Demonlover] and he invited me to come see his band. I went to see Theodore and was worried because I worked with him and thought, "Oh, what if this band sucks?" But then they played and I thought, "Are bands in St. Louis this good?" So I had a couple songs that were already written, but at the time, Theodore was our favorite band. I went to a ridiculous amount of Theodore shows. That band was a huge influence on that record, and probably we hated that fact after. We tried to intentionally distance ourselves from that fact.

I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the last song on the record, "You Are the One." It's almost your simplest song in terms of construction, but it carries the most emotional weight on that album and in concert. What's the duality between that simple setup and a very potent result?

JJ: My wife will love this. [Laughs]There have been times where I've written songs and people have told me that it's a little close to the bone. My songwriting is pretty spontaneous — it's a result of whatever is rolling around up there. That particular song was the sort of thing where my wife said that there wasn't a song about her. Some people hear it and say it's kind of a bittersweet song, but it's not really. It more came out of, like, I really want to write a simple song and play it for you. But then when we started playing it in the practice room, and, live, it became a more emotional song. So many people talked to us afterward — live, I get more into it because I'm emotionally attached to that song. But in the studio, it wasn't captured. Even David, right off the bat, didn't see it being the big song on our record. We added more and more to it — it didn't have that emotion. When you're in the studio you have your headphones on and you're in front of a mic, and that's always been my biggest problem. That song came from a very simple place — writing a song for someone I care about.

That calls to mind the dichotomy between being a live band and being a recording band, wouldn't you say? Seeing you live, you are an emotional singer, and it's a visible experience to watch you sing, versus hearing it on record. As the frontman, with the focus on your words and your voice, is there something different about making that recording in a room versus in a club?

JJ: It's a wildly different experience. I am the least skilled musician in this band. When we play live, I get lost in it. We can play a set, and an hour feels like ten seconds. When we're onstage, over the course of four or five years, I've been able to command myself. I can let go and it can be this raw, off-the-hinges moment.

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