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Interview: Getting Signed, Serious and Sober: Queen Moo Talk ‘Mean Well’

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Queen Moo Photo by Eric Casey
By Dylan Healy and Dan Osto

Mean Well, the new record by Hartford, CT indie rock quartet Queen Moo, has been a long time coming. The band’s principal songwriters Jason Rule and Kevin O’Donnell have been playing music together for countless years, both in Queen Moo and its beloved predecessor Two Humans (among other projects).

Since the release of the band’s much loved self-titled debut, the group has signed to Topshelf Records and has expanded to a four-piece. Backed by the newfound support from both a popular indie label and joined by guitarist Oscar Godoy and drummer Nick Charlton, the group has crafted a record that both feels like an refined extension of the band’s earlier jazz-inflected rock and also a completely new chapter in the story of Queen Moo.

Earlier this summer, CT Scramble stopped by Queen Moo’s headquarters, “Capetown”, to discuss the band’s development. Over an hour, the band (minus the absent Charlton) spoke to us about the creation of Mean Well, taking themselves more seriously as artists, dream artists to tour with, and the future of Queen Moo.

DO: That’s a hell of an album artwork you’ve got there. How did it come about?

OY: My sister Angie is an artist, so we asked her to do it. For this album we decided we wanted artwork as opposed to a photo.

DH: I saw it walking in. It’s massive, I didn’t think it would be that large.

OY: Yeah, she specializes in oil paintings and she likes to paint huge portraits.

KO: We knew we wanted a portrait and wanted our faces on the record cover. And we knew we wanted Angie to do it. We brainstormed with her about what we kind of wanted to do and decided on doing costumes, like weird characters to break it up and make it a little interesting, so we went to her place and took photos a bunch of photos and left it all in her court after that.

DO: Kevin is a Cowboy… like… so you actually wore the cowboy suit for the photo shoot?

KO: Yeah.

JR: We have photos of it sitting around somewhere, they are pretty funny.

DO: It’s kind of interesting, because sometimes bands like to separate themselves from the music and hide behind the curtain a little bit. This time it looks like in wanting to be part of the cover artwork you kind of create a band connection and characterize the music.

JR: Oh yeah, that is partially the intent too. We feel strongly, personally connected to the music and thought why would we shy away from that? Why put up a curtain if that’s the case? If we put our faces on it, you can’t think about the music without somehow thinking of us too.

DH: I noticed with the new press photos… motor bikes are prominent in your new press photos. How did that come about?

ALL: (Laughs) Absolutely last minute. Totally off the cuff.

KO: We invited our friend Eric over, who also took the photo of the album cover painting. He came over one night because we needed press photos. Topshelf said they needed them as soon as possible. Our third roommate has like 10 mopeds in the garage… he buys them, fixes them, sells them. Usually only one of them works at a time.

JR: We rode one over, walked over the other three.

KO: We also took a bunch of photos at a nearby elementary school that’s about to get torn down, so it’s all partially destroyed. We wanted to do something weird, but not too weird.

DH: It seems like you all really took your time making this record. Everything is so promptly laid out, fitting together a little more snug than the previous record. What was the writing process like?

KO: A lot of the songs were in their infant stages at the end of the recording process of the last record, like a lot of records seem to work. Not the bulk of it, but just a lot of beginning ideas. In January of 2016 we had five songs ready to go and were ready to start recording, so we went to UHart and got together with Matt Baltrucki, who has previously done work with us and a lot of people around here. We recorded the five tracks and listened to them for a few weeks and we really didn’t like how they sounded and threw them away.

JR: (Laughs) I listened to them the other day and they were still bad.

DO: So these songs didn’t make the record?

KO: No, we just scrapped one of them and the four others are on it. We just didn’t like how the recording was going so we just practiced and worked on them for another three or four months until we sat down and I started recording them.

OY: We slowly got to see them evolve from there.

JR: We just wanted to start fresh with it. It was clearly at a point where it was not underdeveloped but if you listen to those recordings from January 2016 and listen to those same songs on the record there is a very clear change, we found our way with those songs.

KO: Part of it was with the sound. That first session, originally walking into it, our intention was to do the whole record as live sounding as possible. But it we just didn’t like how it came out (laughs). The recording actually sounds great, we just didn’t like the energy. So that’s when we decided to just do everything here.

OY: It also gave me more time to come up with parts, originally, I was mostly playing the same thing that Jason’s playing on guitar. I didn’t have a clear idea yet.

DO: You guys have been operating as a four piece since the start of this record. How has that affected the creation of this album?

JR: In so many ways. That first record was really just me and Kevin. The four of us got together right before the self-titled album came out and we relearned the entire record, which was also a learning process because obviously we couldn’t recreate the same sound with two different members. They just bring different things to the table. We learned a lot about how we were going to function as a group during that time. I feel like we’re starting to get a handle on how exactly we write together, but it’s still constantly a learning process.

KO: Also, all of us, but especially Oscar and Nick are very into improvised music. That’s like a majority of what we listen to, but especially those guys. We can practice like four times a week, and every time it’s going to be slightly different every time.

DO: Following the first release, Noisey did a feature on you called Quitting Emo To Get Drunk: The Queen Moo Story. Listening to this record, it seems to me that it doesn’t sound quite as drunk as the first time around. Is your music sobering up at all?

JR: We had started working on probably one or two new songs for the record when things started to change for me… I stopped getting drunk all the time. If you have seen Two Humans, if you have seen anything I have done for a long time, it was just part of my thing… this record is actually the first thing I have ever worked on where I was sober and clear headed through and through. (Laughs) So yeah, that’s why it sounds less drunk, because it quite literally was.

KO: We also started taking ourselves way more seriously. Not that we hadn’t previously, but it was a conscious decision.

DH: It sounds like you’ve been working with some different arrangements on this album. Trumpets are a prominent feature on a couple tracks. Who plays them?

KO: That’s our buddy Scott. We went to high school with him. He’s been a good friend of ours for years. He lives in Montreal, but is usually home around the winter holidays. Around Christmas time this year, we were talking about the record, music, musicians–that’s all we talk about (laughs). One day he hit us up to hang out before he was heading back to Montreal and and we were like hey yeah, we’re just starting to record the record, bring your horn. We had like one idea for one track. We showed up a couple songs and asked him if he had any ideas and he just said “hit record”, hit record again, give me another track” (laughs). There’s like five layers of trumpets on some songs.

DH: I think it’s on the song “Fixture”… there’s a big pad sound.

KO: Yeah, we used to have guitars and other sounds built in there but after he came in and layed down all of these horn tracks we just took it all out.

DH: One thing that stood out to me, I think on “Fixture”, there’s this crazy high note Jason sings a high C# sharp or something… it sounds like you’re really testing your voice in a way you didn’t before.

JR: I definitely did… the original intent that we were going to go with was that we wanted to get away from every song has the same number of quadruple track vocals or whatever we were doing for the past few records. We ended up going back to that on certain songs, but you can hear on a lot of tracks that it’s definitely less than before. We tried getting away from it mainly because I’m shouting throughout the whole record… if you keep layering that up it’s a nightmare to listen to. But yeah, many of these vocal tracks were probably some of the harder ones that I’ve done… I guess I have been actively trying to be a better singer too. You can burn yourself out pretty fast if you’re not really thinking about it.

DO: You guys tend to make sophisticated, multi-part songs that dance between catchy and complex. Is this just the natural state of QM? Or have you guys ever written something that was just too “pop” and couldn’t make the cut? There are plenty of catchy, major chord sounding moments, but they never outstay their welcome before you shift to a different part.

OY: I think that’s kind of a new transition for us… I remember talking about it the other day and we thought something like “think simple.”

KO: Yeah, it’s something that we grapple with… it is very conscious. There is a lot of like, alright, we’ve been doing this for too long, let’s throw a wrench in this and mess it up. More often than that, there are times where we have really cool stuff that we’re all into and then we take a step back and we think that it’s just too much (laughs) it’s just not listenable.

OY: The new stuff we’re working on is so pop. Kevin’s been on the piano writing some really beautiful stuff.

JR: Things are looking like they’re going to take… I don’t want to be presumptuous because we haven’t gotten too far into the writing process yet but it is looking like it’s going to take a turn where we are trying to be less complex for the sake of it, but it is also our M.O. so I’m sure we’ll find a balance.

OY: I’m still going to do that either way (All laugh). You give me a pop song I’m not just going to play the chords, I’m going to try and find a make to make it more interesting.

KO: And that’s something that all of us are very conscious of when we work on songs… we know, well, we think we know how to write a pop song. Sometimes we sit and study song forms, like okay what is this artist doing here, what are they doing in this measure and how does it relate back to something else in the song, what is that cool key change… We’re starting to think of it more in a grand scheme, but also playing pop music can be really boring (laughs). It doesn’t quite interest us, but we’re still somewhat interested in playing a pop song that still fun to play.

DH: Listening to this album, based off what I’ve been interpreting from the lyrics, I noticed a lot of songs kind of have to do with self-improvement. One has to ask, is a lot of the music more autobiographical? How much of “you” is in the music?

JR: I’m weary to say yes to that because I’ve been trying to be very conscious of it, moreso now… A lot of the times when you, the listener, formulate a relationship with a song, it’s usually because of what you were going through at the time, and because of your life experiences, and not because of my life experiences. I can definitely say Mean Well doesn’t read like a diary, but a lot of can be super personal and can be about stuff that happened to me… but I wouldn’t want to sit down with the tracklist and say this one’s about that and this other one is about that because that’s not something that’s really very productive for the listener. If you think this song is about playing basketball in the park, then that’s what it’s about for you. That’s fine. It’s about me, but we want it to be relatable.

KO: And also, it’s maybe about him as a character or author at times, stuff that’s happened to him, but it’s not necessarily always from his point of view.

JR: A lot of dynamic changes in the song actually line up with changes in speaker too… I did a lot of of that when writing those lyrics. It makes it incredibly hard to follow (laughs).

DH: Another theme I seemed to pick up throughout the lyrics is friendship… I guess, considering the past few years of the band getting more serious, touring more, signing with a label, meeting all these new people, how has it been maintaining your old friendships and making new ones?

JR: I think we are all going to answer this the same way. Music has always been the prerogative. If I am not getting enough time for the creative outlet then I can’t just come hang out. I’d have to make the time for it. It’s hard to keep up with people. I feel like a lot of the relationships you form with people at shows, it can be an intense emotional connection because you’re all sharing the music together, but a lot of the time that’s really your only common ground, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I’ve started to realize over time is that you don’t have to be everybody’s best friend. It’s not important and, in fact, it takes a lot out of you to try and be everybody’s best friend. So if you’re not putting enough time and energy into the stuff that really matters to you that I don’t think a friendship is super important comparatively. It’s definitely a key point of the whole thing.

DH: Another thing I noticed, on the track “Gone”, you repeat a line “I roll over in my defense / my goals could’ve been reached without you.” How much does that connect to the previous song with similar lyrics?

JR: Almost all of the songs, with the exception of maybe one or two came in pairs. They would often time reflect a flipping viewpoint on whatever things.

KO: It’s something that we’ve been doing, writing songs in pairs… even ever since we did the last Two Humans record together. I would even venture to say it’s vital to the way that we write music… At one point online some person posted something like “I feel like a conspiracy theorist with all of the Queen Moo lyrics written out” –they had lines drawn through them and were showing all the connections. And we were like, you’re the first one to be on to all this stuff (All laugh).

KO: There’s actually a lot of Two Humans references on both Queen Moo records. If you think that there might be a connection there almost definitely is. There’s little musical motifs that we use too… repeated parts or key changes.

DO: The one that always stood out to me on the first record was “Amends” and “Leech.” There’s a melody right before “Amends” ends that recalls a part on “Leech.” Oh yeah, and the 10,000 Blades reference in “Cactus Romantic”… that’s 10,000 Blades right?

JR: (Laughs), yeah that’s probably the most Connecticut reference there ever will be.

DO: On this trajectory that you guys have been following was a band, from the earliest Two Humans records to Mean Well, where do you see yourselves as Queen Moo in relation to your former band?

JR: In the early days of Two Humans, we were doing a lot of shows with The Helveticas. We were both new bands and bonded. But I think we’d be lying if we said we had any idea of that trajectory. I don’t think Queen Moo has a similar thing going for it. I know we will be making music under the name Queen Moo for as long as we possibly can in whatever capacity that is. Two Humans flamed out in a weird way.

KO: Yeah, I listened back to the Two Humans record and it sounds like proto-Queen Moo. That was us getting our feet wet… Jason and I have been messing around musically and writing songs together since we were 15 years old, but that was the first time we wrote a record as young adults and we worked our asses off for it.

OG: Kevin shared his own songwriting with me while we were at school together, so I approached him and said, “I like your songs and I want to band with you.”

JR: That was how it started.

DO: So you guys are now officially signed to a label. What was that like?

OG: It was nerve-racking. There were times when I felt like people weren’t going to accept the new album.

JR: I definitely went through that same thing.

OG: Personally, I thought no one was going to pick it up.

DH: And suddenly, you’re seeing your records be released on splatter vinyl.

JR: When I have them in my hand, I’m going to weep.

DO: You’re going on tour. Is this more extensive than anything you’ve done in the past?

JR: With this band, yes. We’ve barely broken out of the Northeast with Queen Moo. We’ve reached the point where we feel we’re playing Connecticut all the time, so we started hitting Boston and making a slow build. We’re heading to the Midwest for this tour. Even beyond that we want to stake our claim on the east coast comfortably and make our name known here before we dive out to the west coast. Unless, of course, an irresponsibly good offer comes our way.

OG: I wonder if Connecticut is tired of us.

DH: Honestly, not one bit. Are there states you’re hitting on this upcoming tour for the first time as Queen Moo?

OG: Hell yeah, Chicago!

JR: Almost exclusively places we haven’t been.

KO: Queen Moo’s never been out of New England and the Tri-State Area.

JR: We’ve done Philly, Boston, and New York, but not much beyond that. The first five days we’re playing with Cheem, but afterwards we’re on a stretch of places we’ve never been before. It’s very exciting to play new places.

DH: I imagine a two week tour takes a ton of preparation. How are you traveling to the shows? An obligatory tour van?

JR: Oh yeah, that Town & Country in the driveway. That’s the whip.

DO: Any non musical plans on tour?

JR: We’ll probably have to do all the dumb touristy shit.

KO: I like doing that stuff.

JR: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I do too. I just say that, you know. (Laughs)

OG: Chicago Music Exchange…I’m probably going to buy a guitar while I’m there.

DO: You better keep an eye on Oscar.

OG: I’m going to spend so much money…

KO: “Where’s the band money, Oscar?!”

DO: Dream band to tour with?

JR: Deerhoof.

KO: Oh, yeah.

OG: Dream local band? Jelani Sei.

JR: Jelani Sei all the tour.

KO: Honestly, we’ll tour with anyone. You can put us in front of almost any crowd and we’ll flaunt our stuff. But if we were to tour with Deerhoof…the hardest part about that would be knowing they’d come out every night and make us look like shit.

JR: Versus if Jesse Lacey of Brand New was like, “Hey Queen Moo, come on the gig,” we’d just smoke ‘em every night. (Laughs) Yeah, dream band to tour with is the type that’s huge but that we could blow out of the water. That’s what we’re looking for.

KO: Brand New, challenge us. I dare you guys. You won’t take us out on tour (laughs).

DO: Any cool music you’ve been listening to lately?

OG: I looove the new Kendrick album. Yasei Collective, Fine Products. They’re this four piece jazz fusion group. Really cool. The new Tyler record. Breakup Songs by Deerhoof.

JR: I’ve been on a Deerhoof kick for a really long time, so I’m still parsing through that. My new goal this year is to learn as much of their music as I can. I feel like I could learn a lot from them. I’m pretty much on an endless of Montreal kick. I try to check out as much new stuff as I can.

KO: Since I’m on a quest to study pop song structures and write the perfect pop song, I have been obsessed with Randy Newman and old jazz standard pop tunes. A lot of that. Porter and Gershwin. It’s good stuff, I feel like no one listens to it.

JR: Oh yeah, and Bowie, I’ve been a huge Bowie kick.

KO: Also a lot of Rolling Stones, never really when out driving or something, but definitely in our house.

OY: Me and Kevin are suckers for bossa nova music…

KO: Oh yeah, Oscar and I are bossa nova fiends. We know… too much about bossa nova. We’ve asked ourselves “when do we start learning portuguese?” (Laughs)

DO: It’s cool that you guys have such diverse taste in music that exists outside the bubble of indie rock.

KO: Yeah we had a funny moment with Topshelf. They sent us an email saying “we’re working on the ‘for fans of’ and influences part of your press release”… they came up with a few bands, and we responded like… we haven’t listened to any of these bands (laughs). I think Pavement on there… I couldn’t tell you one song by Pavement. We wrote them back and said our influences are this, this, and this…

OY: I find myself myself listening to indie rock music less and less actually.

JR: Most of it is not geared toward what we like doing either, it’s this weird thing that, I always want to talk about Pile. Pile has been a massive influence on us, but even with their new record, Pile has been up and coming for a while.

DH: You’re taking an interesting approach that I don’t think a lot of people take; One is more inclined to understand what they like and want to do that similarly… instead you guys are doing the opposite.

JR: Well, being in this band, and in many bands before this, and playing a zillion fucking shows is that you see a lot of the same kind of band. There’s a certain point in a time in a song where I can see where it is going or get bored. It’s my personal taste of course. We never overtly are like, let’s just do this because it would be different or shock people, but it does come out in our music sometime where we want to keep you on your toes all the time.

OY: Simple is good too.

JR: Simple is good too, but if you’re just biting the style, but not putting a new spin on it… it’s just our style.

DO: What’s the next step for Queen Moo?

KO: Jason and I just quit our jobs.

DH: Congrats!

(All laugh)

KO: Yeah, we’ve had a few opportunities in the years that we’ve had to say no to, so we’re giving ourselves the opportunity to say yes to that sort of thing. Lots of bands go on the road for 280 days a year and that’s not really our intention. We just kind of plan on locking ourselves in this house and practicing for 10 hours a day… individually and together.

JR: Ultimately, we just want to make some good records, and we are bound to make a couple more. So, we’re going to put some serious time into it and find our way to make something great.

Listen to Mean Well by Queen Moo:

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