Ryan Sullivan invites me into the Fulton Market loft he shares with a couple roommates and an art studio and pours me a vodka tonic. Then he shows me where he recorded the first Golden Birthday album, Infinite Leagues. It's not a studio but a table—a long work table that fills most of his cluttered, warrenlike living space. It's strewn with keyboards dating from the Reagan years, effects units like an 80s Korg phaser and an entry-level Danelectro pedal, and, most significant, a Tascam eight-track cassette recorder. It's been more than a decade since this rig was the premier piece of home-recording gear for musicians on a budget, but Sullivan has only had it for a few months—he recorded Infinite Leagues, which comes out December 19 on the local Rainbow Body label, on an even more primitive Fostex four-track.
It looks like the workstation of a man whose first consideration is keeping costs down, but once you listen to the album it's clear that Sullivan's equipment choices go hand-in-hand with his aesthetic choices. Recorded with modern gear, the backing tracks of his subdued and darkly romantic pop songs might sound like a throwback to the crystalline, ethereal goth of the late-90s 4AD catalog—especially the last couple Dead Can Dance records—but scuffed up with tape hiss and analog overdrive, they have a murky basement-punk feel. Though his music shares the swooning, mopey melodic sensibility of English postpunk like Echo & the Bunnymen or even Joy Division, from a production standpoint all they really have in common is a profound love of reverb.
A typical Golden Birthday song, at least on the album, combines a metronomically repeated, often somewhat fussy percussion loop—galloping low toms, flickering drum machine—with heavily treated guitar and organlike synth tones that weave around the chord progression more than they follow it, implying the melody with negative space rather than stating it outright. Sullivan's vocals, which he tends to submerge in reverb, are more confident and competent than you'd expect from looking at him—with his cropped, lopsided haircut and awkward, gutter-fashionable thrift-store outfits, he could pass for part of the art-damaged indie-pop scene that values yelpy enthusiasm over actual talent. But his singing is more Donovan than Dan Deacon.
Sullivan moved to Chicago from Peoria in 2004, but he didn't start Golden Birthday until early 2006—he played with a few other bands first, including Milwaukee-based shoegaze group Brief Candles, with which he still performs occasionally. He began working on Infinite Leagues that summer. "I had a surplus of songs," he says. He'd also come into possession of the Fostex, which he didn't yet know how to use—you can hear him learning over the course of the album, whose tracks are arranged more or less in the order they were recorded.
The opening cut, "Something, Sometime, Someshine," starts with a droning guitar chord that sounds like it's coming out of a telephone earpiece, then unfolds into fuzzy, syrupy psych-pop that could pass for a long-lost Jesus and Mary Chain demo. It's dense and full, but there's not actually a whole lot happening: its only component parts are drum machine, that droning guitar, another guitar repeating a short lead, and Sullivan's vocals, which give way to a chirping analog synth during the instrumental bits. The simple arrangement gets its heft from his loose hand with cheap effects pedals and the particular kind of warm, overdriven compression you get when you push a cassette tape into the red. In fact it's only toward the end of the album that he tries bouncing tracks, a method of compiling takes that makes it possible to record more layers with a simple deck.
The later songs on the disc were recorded this spring, and they reflect Sullivan's increasing know-how—on "Good Guys," for instance, some of the instruments aren't entirely blown out. His performances are more sophisticated as well—the early material's garage-band looseness has been replaced by a savvy touch, evident especially on "A Kiss Away," where he peels back layers of filters to turn a programmed loop from a harsh, staccato pulse of static into a heaving melodic lead.
"Good Guys" reminds me of early Brian Eno, in both its sonics (juxtaposing trashy, pulsing synths with glassy, reverberating guitar and crooning vocals) and its perverse construction—Sullivan sets you up to expect a driving tune and then delivers something floaty and languid. Sullivan acknowledges Eno as an influence. "Specifically the way he works," he says, "and his first four records. It seems like he approached music not as a musician." Eno, as you might know, made something of a policy of ignoring his first instinct when he was assembling a song—one of the Oblique Strategies cards he wrote with artist Peter Schmidt reads, "Make an exhaustive list of all the things you might do and do the last thing on the list." Sullivan takes a similar approach. "Usually I have the idea of what the song sounds like," he says, "and then I try and make it sound different from that idea."
In the past year and a half Sullivan has acquired a complement of collaborators: Andy Berkley, Adam Griffin, Colin Oram, and Beau Wanzer. Berkley recently left the group, but the others still routinely join Sullivan onstage, handling synths, guitars, bass, and live and programmed percussion. Berkley and Griffin, who played their first show with Sullivan in 2006, made it onto one song on Infinite Leagues, and all three will be on the next album.
I happened to be at that 2006 show, and I remember thinking that Chris Sloan, the guy behind the Rainbow Body label, was a lunatic for banking on this sloppy keyboard trio. He'd already committed to releasing what would become Infinite Leagues, and even though it's the label's first project he's not exactly easing into things—he's making it available not just as a CD and an MP3 download (through Thrill Jockey's Fina store) but as an LP. Sullivan and company have come a long way in the meantime, though—these days they expand the sparse arrangements of Infinite Leagues into complex sonic landscapes onstage, and the material they've written together is even better suited to that approach.
Early this month Golden Birthday recorded in Oram's bedroom, demoing some of that new material and redoing a song from Infinite Leagues that they all feel is better in the version developed by the live band. They used the Pro Tools setup on Griffin's computer, but that's not to say they've suddenly outgrown their taste for cheap analog sounds, though—at their record release show at AV-aerie this Friday, they'll be selling the new recordings exclusively on cassette tapes.v
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