Posted: by The Editor
Lifestyle changes don’t always have to come from world-shaking events, and methodical steps forward can often be the most rewarding. Mansions didn’t have a grand plan of hype building, no massive personal events that caused them to hit pause on touring, but instead let the natural flow of life take them to a logical conclusion: releasing new music on their own timeline, on their own terms. And that brings us to 2020’s Big Bad.
Sitting with this record for over a month has given me probably too much time with its sparse construction and dark groove, providing a rightfully moody soundtrack for the current state of the US and the world in general. The first Mansions release since 2017’s Deserter EP, and the band’s first full-length since 2013’s Doom Loop, Big Bad sees the band removing the huge drums, the fuzz-laden riffs, and much of the bombast from their earlier releases.
Speaking with Christopher Browder shortly after the release of Big Bad, the vocalist and guitar player insists that this is a natural progression for him and the band, and that no matter what was going on, there would be no “right” time to release it. “We’re kind of not touring full time these days anyways. So even if there hadn’t been everything on lockdown, we probably wouldn’t have been doing a big tour…But it’s sort of like any time that we’ve released a record, the industry and just the world changes so quickly that it’s always…it always is pretty different from the last time.”
But why the wait? The incredulous “where have you been?” This wasn’t just my question: when I heard Mansions were releasing a new full-length in 2020, I thought, “huh. Been a while!” So did many other people. But for Browder and the band, it’s just life. With a handful of shows over the last few years, Mansions have developed into even more of a beloved hometown Seattle band, but haven’t ventured much outside of their adopted hometown.
“The delay between albums isn’t due to lack of effort or anything like that. But yeah, I think we just kind of have a…a setup for us now where the band isn’t the only thing that we’re doing. It’s kind of not the full time gig, and so we’re not touring. And when it’s in between records, we’re still working feverishly on stuff, but there’s not really much to report to the world. Like, hey, we’re still working on songs. We still exist. You know?”
Big Bad is very much a spiritual successor to Mansions’ 2017 EP, Deserter, itself a pretty large departure from the riffs of Doom Loop. The drums are largely stripped-back. No stomping on fuzz pedals leading into an explosive chorus. Lead single, “Black and White” sounds like it could have fit in anywhere on from those Deserter sessions, but with its guitar stabs and building chorus, is possibly the closest thing to Mansions songs of old. “Do it Again” starts and ends with a low, subdued, bass drone, warping and fading in and out. Like most artists, with constant writing and workshopping bits and pieces of songs floating in the ether, Browder quickly highlights that the band is just interested in doing what works naturally for them. “We don’t listen to a lot of rock music in general. And probably haven’t for a while.”
I point out a few selected tweeted out sonic and thematic parallels between the new Mansions record and Give Up by The Postal Service, the electronic focused collaboration between Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello. For Browder, the natural progression of what him and bandmate Robin Dove are into at the moment is the most important ingredient. “The songs that seemed to be working and that we were responding to just as listeners were the ones that were a little more stripped back and were doing less of a big chorus kind of thing. And so it was like, oh, this is something that we’ve wanted to do for a while. Let’s see where this can go. We tried like…Well, you know, what if for the bridge of the song, instead of having big rock drums come in, what if we just have layers of synthesizers?” Browder points out a few tracks that solidified the record for him, personally. “For this one, I will say once we had “Do It Again” and “Get Loose,” that was when it was like, okay, there’s an album in here. This is the vibe that we can go for.”
With over thirteen years of band history, we shift to the possibility of outcry over the new direction of Mansions’ sound. Browder isn’t worried, viewing both how they write, record, tour, and work as a band as a blessing rather than a curse. “I think one of the ways that we’ve been lucky is that we’ve never had a hit record or gotten particularly big or anything like that. So it feels like we don’t really have any pressure of expectations or anything like that. There’s not much point in us trying to be a nostalgia act to our old songs…we can just make whatever record we want to and if we don’t like it it doesn’t have to come out and there’s no pressure.”
As I finish this, I move back to two of the record’s slower tracks, “Leader of the Pack” and “PPV.” Even though Big Bad was released a full three months into the coronavirus quarantine, these two tracks specifically stand out as bedroom songs: worked on and layered over, written in intense personal sessions at home. And yes, Browder has still been writing while at home. “In a lot of ways it’s a perfect time to be working on songs and creating. But we literally got the record mastered on a Friday, we played a show on Saturday, and then I think the Wednesday the next week was when my job told me to start working from home, and I think everything else closed down maybe the week after that. So it was like we finished the record just right before everything hit. And whenever we’re done making an album, I’m just pretty creatively spent.”
When asked about balancing his creativity with existing on a daily basis, Browder is pretty diplomatic, taking as pragmatic an approach as possible to both music and existence. When streaming royalties do next to nothing for most independent artists, and merch and record sales can only go so far (especially for a band like Mansions that hasn’t done a large tour since 2014), he’s extremely at peace with how his art and life work out. “One of the most dangerous things that can happen is when your passion becomes your job, you know? That’s a really easy way to destroy your passion for something. And I went through a little bit of that, and it’s taken a few years to get back in a place where I really just love working on music. And I enjoy it in a way that feels similar to how I felt when I was 20 years old. People talk shit on nine to five working in an office kind of thing, but one of the hardest parts for me when we were doing music full time was, you know, you can work your ass off and you’re trying so hard, putting in so much time, and nobody cares.”
“Nobody cares.” That one phrase that’s been going through my head constantly while the US has been under quarantine, and venues are shuttered indefinitely. Writing this in Boston, four blocks away from now-closed beloved space Great Scott (oddly enough one of the last places in Boston that Mansions played a show), I think to the cities and towns facing the exact same issue, with no safeguards and protections in place. “It’s just sad. I don’t know what they should do or anything like that. I know, I’m a dual citizen of Canada, and I know they have a lot of good art support. Particularly helping fund albums and stuff like that for Canadian artists and things. So I think it’d be important for government to acknowledge the importance of art and culture on the quality of life of their citizens, and to help step in with some it. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
Even with large booking companies like AEG and LiveNation present, Browder knows the importance of a music community lies in its independent spaces. He brings up Great Scott, Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, the Space in Hamden, CT. “Even just driving around town and seeing the restaurants and small shops and stuff like that just boarded up that you know will never be able to come back.”
Big Bad is out now via Bad Timing Records
Adam Parshall // @parshally_there
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