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Putting Away the Whiteboard

The 1900s make their best album yet by dropping the map and following where the music leads.

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Something's different this time: when I sit down in a booth at the Rainbo with five-sixths of the 1900s, they're all smiling and laughing and joking with one another, and nobody seems to be itching to pick a fight with anybody else.

Before our previous interview, around the time they released their 2007 album Cold & Kind, they warned me that at least one argument would almost certainly break out, and several did—the conversation was fraught with the kind of low-level squabbling that happens when a bunch of people have been cooped up in a van together for too long, and they weren't even on tour. Back then the 1900s were like a local version of Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac or one of those other notoriously dysfunctional classic-rock outfits, where no one seems to want to be around anyone else but the music is so good that they can't bring themselves to break up. This group at the Rainbo, jovially bullshitting about the soundtrack to Clueless, seems like a completely different band.

Technically, they are a different band—two members who were aboard in 2007 are missing now. Drummer Tim Minnick and guitarist-keyboardist Mike Jasinksi left in August 2008. Matt Roan, better known as a DJ with residencies in several downtown clubs, is the current drummer; when he auditioned he hadn't played in about a year and didn't own any drums, so he did all his practicing on a Rock Band kit. Two other members—vocalist Caroline Donovan and violinist Andra Kulans—took over for Jasinki, with Donovan picking up the keys and Kulans switching to guitar on about half the songs. Bassist Charlie Ransford, vocalist Jeanine O'Toole, and front man Edward Anderson are still in their old roles, more or less. "Life as a six-piece is super awesome," Anderson says. "It makes things more than one-seventh easier. It makes it like 47 percent easier."

Over the past two years—much of which they spent recording their new album, Return of the Century (Parasol)—the 1900s have also overhauled the process they use to make their intricate, airy folk-pop. "This is the first time that Ed's been interested in everyone's personalities being involved," says O'Toole. "There was this elimination of strife that had always been there."

Before Return of the Century Anderson was incontrovertibly the center of the group—guitar-playing lead singer, primary songwriter and arranger, possessor of the vision that everyone else followed. When the 1900s went into the studio to make Cold & Kind, they brought a blueprint hammered out over months of planning sessions—using a whiteboard to chart out all the parts they wanted to include—and Anderson was largely responsible for it. "We learned a lot about recording on the last record," he says.

This time their approach was less formal and less centralized. They worked slowly and fitfully. In November 2008 they kicked off the project with two days of drum tracking at Clava with Graeme Gibson, and then over the next year spent a few days at a time recording more drums and a few instrumental parts at a handful of other studios, including Mahjongg's Minbal (where engineer Benjamin Balcom helped with the album's arrangements) and John McEntire's Soma (where they did some piano tracks on the in-house baby grand). But the band laid down the bulk of the parts on the new album—guitars, vocals, keys, percussion, strings—in Anderson and Donovan's apartment in Logan Square. (Roan isn't on the record at all; Gibson drums on five songs, O'Toole's boyfriend, Josh Johannpeter of Mahjongg and Lazer Crystal, on three, and Pierce Doerr from Sonoi on one.)

This allowed the group to work at its own pace. They recorded a few people at a time, in varying combinations. Rather than trying to get the songs to match a premapped schematic, they started with a handful of possibilities all open at once, then set about deciding which bits and pieces they liked best where. They wrote and rewrote freely, letting the material evolve as different members put their fingerprints on it. They finally finished mixing in June. "It was a lot more relaxed," Anderson says. "Everyone's personality was able to come through a lot more."

"I feel like this record was more of a group collaboration, but everyone did it individually," says Donovan.

"That's kind of how songs are being written in the band now," adds O'Toole. "Ed will begin with something, then give it to the next person, then the next person gets it and the next person gets it and everybody's kind of contributing as it goes on."

Because the material grew so organically, the finished songs on Return of the Century are often very distant from their original conceptions. "We were brutal editors," Anderson says. No element of a song—lyrics, instrumental parts, structure—was off-limits during these revisions. Most of the tracks, even the drums, were recorded multiple times in different versions or different styles. The band held onto detritus that usually gets discarded during this kind of drawn-out process—first-take guitar improvisations, drunken late-night vocals—and every tune was mixed from scratch at least twice, sometimes as many as four times. "There was a lot of cutting and pasting in a few of the songs," says O'Toole.

Anderson says he began "Jean Demon" by trying to rip off Canadian retro-pop band Sloan, and though the tune did end up simple, direct, and hooky, it's tilted at a strangely menacing angle that's underscored by sparse patches in the arrangement, with little holding up the song but piano and vocals. The epic psych-pop closer, "Sanzimat," changed even more between conception and completion—it was supposed to be a country song, but it's shot through with electronics and wildly fuzzed-out electric guitars.

"Bmore," the closest thing on the album to an actual country song, began its life in a radically different form back in 2005, when Anderson was contemplating a major stylistic shift for the 1900s. "It was an African dance song," he says. "I was super geeked on Afropop stuff and I was like, 'I want to make some music like this. No one else is doing it.' So I prepared some songs in that style and had everyone over and was like, 'Check this out, it's going to be so hot!' Two months later, Vampire Weekend comes out."

Cold & Kind and its predecessor, the EP Plume Delivery, had great songs and a lot of ambition. Return of the Century fulfills that ambition. Anderson and the band always seemed to be straining to make an album as perfect in its own way as the classic pop LPs of the 60s—and by loosening their grip on the wheel, they've finally done it. They plan to tour behind Return more heavily than they have behind previous releases, starting with a short east-coast trip next week and then heading to the west coast and Europe in the winter and spring. It looks like they might survive all that time in the van too—as I leave the bar after our interview, they're still huddled around the table, talking and laughing.    v

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