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It's been almost four years since local art-pop group Brontosaurus put out their first record, but they can hardly say they've been on hiatus. The band never stopped—instead, Nicholas Kelley and Nicholas Papaleo spent that time tightening their grip on the jagged, math-rocky chamber pop they've crafted together since 2010. After the release of their debut, 2011's minialbum Cold Comes to Claim, the pair pushed themselves to new levels of perfectionism, running over their songs until each and every piece locked into place. Last week, they released four new tracks from an album due out in 2015, the second batch of recorded songs they've ever made public. EP2014, the simply titled release that's now available as a pay-what-you-can download on Bandcamp, comprises the first four tracks from the still unreleased full-length Foundations Shake. It's an ambitious record, full of sharp turns and grand sweeps that the duo only started to trace on that early recording.
I meet Brontosaurus at their studio in Humboldt Park, where they laid a good portion of the new album to tape. They're a three-piece now, joined by bassist Josh Miller, who used to play with both Nicks in a band called Picture Books that broke up back in 2009. He stepped in this year to round out the band's live set and take some of the pressure off of Kelley and Papaleo's multitasking.
"We haven't been dormant," says Papaleo of the lapse between records. "Our songs take a while to write. We say this all the time: 'Let's just write pop songs! Verse, chorus, out.' Even songs on this record started out with that intent. And as soon as we dig into it and think about it, it completely changes and becomes something else."
Brontosaurus have been a two-piece for the majority of the past four years, but after Cold Comes to Claim, they stopped writing like one. "The music I hear in my head is not Nick and I playing my instruments live," says Papaleo. "It probably would take five or six people to pull off exactly what I was hearing. I think adding Josh to the live show made all of the difference as far as performance goes, too. It was feeling a little empty as the two of us. As soon as we brought in that low end, it transformed and became much closer to what I hear."
Moving into their own studio also gave the duo space to get more specific. Initially, Brontosaurus wanted a third party to record and mix their second album so the band could focus solely on writing and performing. After a few sessions in someone else's studio, they realized they couldn't afford all the time they needed to actualize the songs they heard in their heads. "We experimented a lot more when we moved in here," says Papaleo. "The first record, we recorded it basically how we played it live," adds Kelley. "I did kick and hi-hat patterns because I had a guitar on my lap. When I was going to add extra percussion, we grabbed one floor tom and my stick. We weren't like, 'Let's try a bigger drum, let's try a different head.'" While Kelley was branching out on drums, Papaleo—who works as a recording engineer during the day—tested the limits of the new space with unorthodox techniques, like recording his bandmate's drums from the kitchen at the other end of the studio with all the doors open. "I put a speaker up by the air vent and sang through that once," he says. "That's things I wouldn't have done if we were on the clock paying somebody."
Pretty and nervous, Foundations Shake slides both musicians' vocals from the top of the mix down to its center, letting guitar patterns occupy space at the upper strata. Its figures are intricate: as composers, Kelley and Papaleo rarely take the easy way out of a measure, and they prefer to build to crescendos on surprising chord progressions.
It helps that each member gets bored easily in different ways. For Kelley, looping patterns on his drums and guitar feels stifling: "I get bored at shows. I don't want to see a repeating bar of the same thing 12 times in a row," he says. "I want to keep the audience guessing. I want to be spurred on myself." He doesn't even like to stick to one instrument at a time. At one point, Brontosaurus tried bringing on a different drummer for a more reasonable division of labor. With only his guitar to play, Kelley felt trapped. "To be able to swing my guitar around and unleash a fury on my drums—all of my tension is gone. I don't think about anything. It's just a complete release," he says. "But to just play guitar, I didn't know how to . . ."
"He looked so tense," interjects Palelo.
"How could I not? I've just got this thing. How do I emote?" says Kelley. "I had fun, but I definitely wasn't who I am when I play drums. I'm at home on drums. That changed the momentum, to think of things as a four-piece. I was like, okay, I get to focus on guitar parts and vocals. And then I just decided it wasn't as fun. It rounded off the edges of our music. I want the dynamics, I want the ebb and flow."
Papaleo's boredom tends to be more macrocosmic. He doesn't mind repeating a riff on his keys—he likes hinting at Krautrock, he says—but he doesn't want to spend any more time writing a song or an album than necessary. "I am very restless. I feel stagnant much sooner than I think most people do. I'm like, okay, next thing, let's do that," he says. "And he's the exact opposite and is probably still rewriting songs from the first record."
They both have distinctive affects: Kelley is taller and talks less, while Papaleo is quick, intense, and articulate. They're there to catch each other as songwriters. Papaleo recalls how the song "Safe to Surface" was born: "I remember us having a practice one day. Usually while Nick is setting up his drums, I'm making a lot of noise in the corner somewhere. And he'll be like, 'No, that right there, stop! What you just did right there!' That little guitar riff was built off of that."
They'll butt heads sometimes, and it's usually about the small stuff, the final inch before a song clicks all the way into place. "We agree on 99.9 percent of everything," says Papaleo. "The process really takes us there. But it's that .1 percent where we both don't budge. I'm like, 'No, I'm right,' and he's the same way. We'll sit there in silence for a little while. And then one of us will be like, 'What if we maybe tried this?' And then I'm like, 'Oh yeah, and then if we did this little thing, that's better!' Immediately it becomes something that I like better, and I don't know if it's because it really is better, or the idea of compromise makes me happy."
During his time in the band so far, Miller has acted as something of a mediator between the two writers when disagreements pop up. "Josh has had a few opinions in a good way," says Kelley. "He's less invested in the creation of the moments of these songs, so it's like, what sounds better?"
"In a lot of ways, that was the role I played in our old band," Miller says. "That's actually the role I play in most all bands I've ever been in. The traffic cop, the arbitrator. I just stand in the middle between them so they can't see each other, like two fighting fish."
Papaleo laughs. "There were days in the past where we were a lot more volatile. I like to think we're not those people anymore," he says. "We're a little older and a little wiser."