TERRY MALTS: BACK TO BASICS
illustration by jared pittack
Terry Malts’ new record sounds something like a rebirth. The band has always had an affinity for pop hooks, but Lost at the Party foregrounds that sensibility, and polishes it, while paring down the fuzz layered over much of their previous work. Now, with songs like “Gentle Eyes” and “Come Back,” the band looks toward a broader continuum that spans from the Beatles to Nick Lowe. It’s a turn toward uncomplicated guitar pop at its most refined, and in these strange, uncertain days, it’s a sound that can feel reassuring in its directness, drawing a straight line between sorrow and joy while encompassing both. We talked with Terry Malts guitarist and songwriter Corey Cunningham about the evolution of his band—which includes members in both L.A. and San Francisco—as well as his passion for discovering music and the ideas pop music can communicate in foreboding times. Terry Malts performs on Fri., Aug. 18, at the Hi-Hat. This interview by Chris Kissel.
You’ve written a lot of songs over the years. I’m curious if your approach to the simple act of writing a pop melody has changed at all.
Corey Cunningham (guitar/vocals): I don’t think that it changed from our first band together—the Cosmos—to Magic Bullets and into Terry Malts. I think it’s the one thing that’s stayed consistent with us. Also I was thinking about this recently … there’s something about pop music that I like so much as a canvas because when you do put your personal life into it and you talk about being imperfect or experiencing pain, it just blends so well with it. I love that bittersweetness. Do you know what I mean?
Yes. I think that’s part of why this record has resonated in these post-election days. There can be something that’s both hopeful and sorrowful in a perfect major key melody.
Corey Cunningham: I feel like we’re always chasing that.
It’s a really weird, uncertain time right now in this country. And I don’t think everybody needs to find a way to use their music to talk about the political situation. But I’m curious … when the stakes suddenly feel very high like they do now, what role does pop music, or your music more specifically, have, if any?
Corey Cunningham: I actually have thought about this a lot over the years, even before this God-awful year happened. I don’t think musicians have any responsibility whatsoever to make a political statement. I think if they do once in awhile, that is good. But too much of that is not for me. It’s such a fine line where you can appear to be righteous and grandstanding, and particularly for pop music in my mind, it doesn’t age well. But a little of it can go a long way. I think of someone like the Smiths, where they weren’t always political but when they were it was good and it still translates today. I like that aspect of it. But kind of like you’re saying about listening to our album and it having a comforting effect—a love song can get you through tough times like this, and can say something about the times in an abstract way you might not think about, either.
On Lost at the Party, Terry Malts make a pretty decisive switch from this crashing, lo-fi punk sound to a sound that really serves to emphasize the poppiness of the songs. Why?
Corey Cunningham: Maybe we’re a little different from our contemporaries on this, because I see a lot of bands that stick with a sound and love the consistency and will be a Burger Records band forever. But to me it’s horrifying living in that box, and not being able to try new things and refine your artistic voice. We knew that we could do something bigger and poppier because the three of us played together in a band called Magic Bullets, and in that band we always recorded in studios, and we had a songwriter’s approach to that, too. A lot of people compared us to the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, and I knew we could reconcile that past with Terry Malts. There was a certain overlap we could highlight by doing the record the way we did. [Lost at the Party] is obviously very produced, and focuses on the songwriting aspect of what we can do. I think we could always go back to being a loud noisy band, but it’s just sort of the cycle of being an artist, trying to do different stuff and find yourself in the music. A little bit of it has to do with just being mired in this world for at least two years, two and a half years, of not having an album out and playing the same local shows and punk festivals. It starts to feel a little bit like cabin fever. That sort of repetition of being in the same spaces … I think it made us a little antsy, and that might have made us want to pursue something different. Also, I found out that playing slower songs is just as fun as playing the faster songs. [laughs.]
It sounds like you spent more time writing, too.
Corey Cunningham: Yeah, absolutely. We kind of had an approach in place [before] which was a looser version of what we do now. Phil would come to the table with an idea and we’d rough it up in the practice space, or I’d have an idea, and we’d shape it into something. Once in awhile, we’d spontaneously have a lightning in a bottle moment, like with ‘I Do’ [off the band’s 2012 debut Killing Time] which felt like it came out of nowhere. With this album, we prolonged that process a little, where we’d say, ‘Hey, we have a good riff here, a good arrangement, let’s demo it, put lyrics on it, see if it works.’ Sometimes it would work and sometimes we had to break it apart and redo it again. The song that comes to mind is ‘Come Back,’ which probably had four or five different iterations before the final one. It’s kind of exciting to me to do it that way, to really focus in on the songs.
Did you feel differently about the final product? Compared to the band’s previous records?
Corey Cunningham: I wouldn’t say that I felt and more or less confident or happy with it than any other stuff we’ve done. But I’ll say that the response has been from a broader type of audience, a broader demographic, than the other music was. We had a split audience between people who either really loved punk or really loved indie pop. At our shows, you’d have a guy with a Discharge patch standing next to a dude in a cardigan, or a lady in a cardigan. And so with this—I feel like all sorts of people are coming to our shows now. I think more people respond to it, as opposed to it being a niche genre thing.
Were you intentionally trying to reach more people?
Corey Cunningham: I think it was purely a byproduct of it. I would hesitate to say that we wanted to make an album that would make us bigger, but we did want to make an album that sounded bigger.
Was there a moment you felt represented a breakthrough for you? That took you to a place you hadn’t been, or that represented a new phase for the band?
Corey Cunningham: There are a few moments like that that come to mind. One of my favorite songs on the album is ‘Waiting For The Bomb,’ which is completely different than anything we would have put on our other albums. I feel a really strong sense of satisfaction on how that came out. It’s so simple. It’s one that Phil had almost written completely, and he played me a really simple demo, and instantly I heard in my head the twelve-string guitar and the reverb on the vocals and the sample at the end kind of fading in. I really liked being able to add a song like that to the Terry Malts sound. There are other songs like that, too. ‘When The Nighttime Comes’ was a song that sounded like the Wipers when we started working with it, but then I added the little riff that’s in the verses, the main riff, and it turned into a Chills-y slower kind of poppy song. I like songs that show the potential of what we can do.
You’ve had different bands and side projects in the past. Even Terry Malts started out as a side project. It’s like you were channeling all your different impulses into different projects, and now you’re channeling these expansive impulses into this band.
Corey Cunningham: Yes, exactly. One of the things that kind of—I don’t want to say ‘bummed me out’ about the other two albums, because I think they’re fantastic records, but they didn’t reflect all the other music that we like, all the other records that we buy. We are hardcore collectors and love listening to music. It’s a really intense part of our lives, buying and collecting records, as you’d think [it is with] most bands, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I think are sometimes just bands who are good at making music but that don’t listen to much besides what’s contemporary. But yeah, we wanted that to shine through.
I was just listening to the mix you made recently for dublab. It’s such a good mix. There was so much music on it I hadn’t heard. But I did feel like I could hear a lot of those sounds in your new record.
Corey Cunningham: I’m glad you mentioned that. There was a song I played by a band called Weeping Messerschmitts, called ‘Nothing Yet,’ and it was an integral part of the inspiration for [the Terry Malts song] ‘Gentle Eyes.’ It’s really the offspring of that song.
I know you used to run a reissue label called Body Double, Ltd. Are you still doing that?
Corey Cunningham: We mothballed it recently. It was me and a former member of Magic Bullets named Matt Kallman, who is in Wild Nothing and Real Estate now. We had to mothball it because Captured Tracks restructured their whole business, and became Omnian Music Group, and labels started getting merged … and anyway there wasn’t room for us and budget for us to keep putting out stuff. Which is a bummer, because I had two totally awesome reissues waiting to come out that are just going to sit on the shelf forever.
Is it something you want to keep doing?
Corey Cunningham: Yeah. [Terry Malts] started a tape label called Parked in Hell, and the first two things we did were Magic Bullets and Cosmos reissues. I’m going to do a solo project tape on there, but I’m also going to reissue an L.A. band called the Tartans, some of their stuff and just other bands like that. I feel like it’s easy with tape to just ask somebody to put it out, since it’s only 100 or so bucks to put it out.
How does running a label relate back to your main objectives as a musician?
Corey Cunningham: I have this horrible habit of starting labels [laughs], and they just kind of come and go. We did it before—we had a label called Honest Abe, which reissued old punk bands, and we tried to put out new bands on vinyl, too, and it ended up being a money pit, as it always is for any label. But it’s something I love doing and I keep coming back to. It’s never affected any of my other projects, but there are great side effects from doing it and being in a band. For instance, I did a [record by] this German guy named Tom Diabo, on Body Double. He passed away in the 80s. It’s an incredible record. It took me years to find anyone in Germany who had the rights to his music, or knew him. I found his ex-girlfriend who was with him until he died, and she gave us a lot of stuff that helped flesh out the reissue. And when we toured Europe a few months ago, I got to meet her in person. And I hate to sound so corny but it was a really beautiful, life-affirming moment to meet this women who was so happy the old love of her life had been remembered and given another lease on people’s ears. It was a cool, awesome crossover of doing the reissue stuff and being in a band that gets to tour.
Running a reissue label is its own kind of beast. But did your experiences on the other side of the ‘music industry’ inform how you’ve put out your own music?
Corey Cunningham: Not necessarily. But especially with Body Double, it was really enlightening to see everything that an indie label has to go through now to get something into mass distribution—dealing with record plants and all the stuff that people are facing now. That definitely gave me new appreciation for someone like Mike [Schulman], at Slumberland, who is doing it all on his own with no help. Just knowing that the process is for bands getting their music out there is so crazy and absurd. And that extends to the bigger scope of things where now bands have to market themselves, too. Even if you were just on a big indie in the 90s, there would have been 4 or 5 people to handle that for you. It’s not a good time to be in a band, really. [Laughs.] You really have to love it.
You guys live in two different cities separated by 600 miles or so. That seems like it would be really tough, but you guys seem to dig it.
Corey Cunningham: It works really well because of a few factors. Not many people would be able to do it, because we don’t ever practice. We hate practicing anyway. We hate sound checks, too. We hate a lot of the formalities that come with being a live rock band, or whatever. But we’ve played for so long, particularly Phil and me—and you hear people talk about this—but we’ve developed a kind of mind reading. If we’re jamming or playing a cover, we know when to change and how a song should be tempo-wise. It’s very intuitive for us, we’ve been playing together for so long. Also I’m used to being on long bus rides at this point. I’m on Megabus once or twice a month at least. It’s been pretty crazy. I can tell you where any gas station is on the 5.
How has moving to L.A. influenced your music, if at all?
Corey Cunningham: I don’t think L.A. in particular influenced the style we ended up drifting toward, but I think it shaped the process of making the album. We weren’t particularly inspired by L.A. singularly, but the place itself ended up affecting the way we wrote, because Phil moved down for about nine months, and we lived near each other, and we came back and forth to each other’s houses and worked on music that way. Which we didn’t do in San Francisco—in San Francisco, we’d get together with Nathan [Sweatt, drummer] and work on it as a three piece and it was a little more haphazard. This [process of] just working together, me and him in the city, kind of refined our approach and changed it.
I read an interview with you where you said you felt L.A. lacks a cohesive scene. Do you still feel that way?
Corey Cunningham: Just because of the sheer size of the city, and the way everything is laid out, it would be impossible to have the same kind of scene we had in San Francisco. In San Francisco, there were maybe two or three venues, because it’s a small city, so you’re locked into just a few places to play. The population [within the city] is smaller. Because the rents are so outrageous, bandmates have to live together. It’s a different vibe compared to L.A., where I think it’s a bit more individualistic—which is one of the reasons I moved here, because you can dip into your scene and see your friends and then you can go back to anonymity. Whereas San Francisco starts to feel like a high school after eight or nine years.
How did you end up here?
Corey Cunningham: The real reason I came down here, and the primary reason, was because I met my girlfriend—now fiancée—and I was tired of going back and forth between L.A. every weekend. But also I was ready at that time in my life for a change. I had been in the Bay Area for 13 years, and it certainly was and is the closest thing to a hometown I’ve ever had. Neil Young actually said recently that he moved away from the Bay Area to L.A. because he didn’t want to be tied down to living the same way forever. I think that was the mentality I was thinking of, too.
What else do you have going on right now?
Corey Cunningham: My solo album under the name Business of Dreams coming out in January. So people in L.A. will get to see me play live solo when that comes out [laughs]. I’ll be focusing on that a lot, as well as touring with Terry Malts, and hopefully we’ll have another album out next year, if everything goes OK.
So you’re working on Terry Malts music now?
Corey Cunningham: We just started the very initial writing stages. And we have a lot of things laying around, and I think we have plenty to work with. It just comes down to finding the time to get together and do it. It took three years last time. [laughs.] Hopefully we can streamline it.
Do you think you’ll follow the sound of the last album, or are you going to make another left turn?
Corey Cunningham: I think we’re going to follow the sonic template of the last album. We’re going to keep working with this open-playbook mentality and see if we can do a couple more records like that. I can’t predict what our mood will be in a few years, but maybe we’ll go back to being a really gnarly, feedback laden band. [laughs.] Back to basics.
TERRY MALTS WITH REAL NUMBERS, BUSINESS OF DREAMS AND WELLNESS ON FRI., AUG 18, AT THE HI HAT, 5043 YORK BLVD., HIGHLAND PARK. 8 PM / $7 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! TERRY MALTS’ LOST AT THE PARTY OUT NOW ON SLUMBERLAND RECORDS. VISIT TERRY MALTS AT TERRYMALTS.BANDCAMP.COM.