When Justin Sconza and Colin Yarck started Walter Meego about five years ago, they were playing decent but unspectacular electro-tinged indie rock. Since then, though, they've made a series of quantum leaps that have ratcheted up the attention level both inside and outside Chicago. Their biggest breakthrough up till now was probably the EP Romantic, released last year on the local Brilliante label, but this week they dropped Voyager, their full-length debut, and it's poised to ride that mounting wave of interest to heights they've only fantasized about—it's so buzzy it almost vibrates out of your hands. They're in the middle of a North American tour with the Presets that will bring them back to town on Friday, and Reader contributor Jessica Hopper, who's been staying in LA, tells me that tracks from the new album are all over the radio out there, especially the tastemaking KCRW.
The duo in fact relocated to LA in January, but when I ask whether this was a career move they mostly seem to want to talk about the pool parties they can have at their new place. "It was totally a life decision that was incorporated into the band," Sconza says. "We don't want to become movie stars or something. We just wanted to check out California." If they'd been thinking strictly about positioning themselves for a big break, they probably would've done better to go east: their new label, Almost Gold, also home to hot indie acts like Peter Bjorn and John and the Black Kids, is based in New York.
Whatever their reasons, LA is a good match for them. Most music from these parts seems to reflect the harshness of the long midwestern winters—it's at least touched with angst and occasionally a real bummer—but Voyager is downright breezy. Something about its chrome-dipped disco makes me picture parties where people pluck hors d'oeuvres off circulating trays and men in linen suits wear sunglasses indoors.
"I feel like the older stuff was like a way for us to figure out where we got to with Voyager," Sconza says. "We were trying to figure out how to combine the electronics with pop songs that could be played on an acoustic. We didn't want to be a singer-songwriter band. That combination took us a long time to figure out."
Voyager was quite a project. Recording at home like always, Sconza and Yarck worked on it from November 2006, around the time Almost Gold approached them, till July 2007, a month after they finally signed to the label. Sconza says he and Yarck didn't have a grand vision when they started—he credits the record's jump in quality over their previous EPs largely to a yearlong shopping spree that started shortly before they began tracking. "We bought a lot of new gear," he says. "We got a bunch of cool old synths on eBay and, like, a lot of fun pedals. We got on eBay and Craigslist and went to town."
Walter Meego's live show requires too many synths and guitars for two guys to handle (they've never used anything but programmed percussion, except on a handful of recordings), so since 2006 Andrew Bernhardt has joined them onstage. Sconza says the new gear has given them "a fuller pro sound, like real stuff." And Voyager does sound pro: it's mixed like a hit, polished and punchy, with the vocals front and center. But that isn't what I really dig about it. The vintage analog synths give the album a convincing retro-electro feel, more played and less sequenced, slick but not sterile, with tones that are brighter, warmer, and hazier—it's plenty decadent, but unlike the jack-your-body digital whomping of the Ed Banger set, it also feels modest and handmade, like a landscape rendered with an airbrush instead of CGI.
Yarck and Sconza's love for analog synths, filtered guitars, and big disco beats—not to mention their pop hooks, which are way stickier than anything most clubby acts ever manage—will probably inspire tons more of the Daft Punk comparisons they've already attracted. And Voyager definitely does bear more than a passing resemblance to Discovery and Human After All—though while many other bands fusing indie rock and dance music don't seem to be familiar with any dance music besides Daft Punk, Walter Meego seem just as happy to raid old Italo-disco records for inspiration.
"We knew we wanted to have songs that were kinda pop," says Sconza, "like verses, choruses, verses, and solos." The sweetly psychedelic "In My Dreams," the caffeinated rave-up "Girls," and the darkly funky "Keyhole" would probably sound just as good played on traditional rock instruments, without the neon-streaked layers of electronics—though I'm sure the Gary Numan-esque plastic-sex-creep vibe of "Keyhole" would be tragically lost in translation.
"We just want to make music, and we have an interest in old synthesizers, and we just combine them," says Sconza. "One idea that I especially wanted to make happen is planting the seeds for the opportunity to not always be a dance-club act."
It's surprising to hear a band whose songs get played so often in dance clubs talk about abandoning that demographic, but Yarck and Sconza seem to have a deep aversion to staying put. Voyager "wasn't going to be all of a sudden a bluegrass album," says Sconza, but "after this we have to continue to change in order to be interested in our own music, so it's not boring to us. Eventually we'll turn into something else."
I'm not holding my breath for the Walter Meego version of "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Their current electro-pop sound is dripping with potential, especially now that the genre seems to have caught a second wind, and they'd have to be nuts not to push themselves along that path. On the chorus to "Wanna Be a Star," a rerecorded tune from Romantic, Sconza sings about burning high in the sky or glowing in the dark—not exactly the most practical career strategy. But now that Voyager is out, I figure it won't be long before we learn whether he's got a more concrete plan up his sleeve.v
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