Artist Interview: Charmer Discuss Releasing Their Album in the Age of Coronavirus

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“Are you driving?!” The members of Michigan’s Charmer pop up one by one on my screen. There’s vocalist/rhythm guitarist David Daignault, at home in Marquette—his floppy-eared dog, Trout, visible over his shoulder. There’s drummer Nicholas Erickson, also at home, also in Marquette. Lead guitarist Neil Berg dials in from the Negaunee apartment he and his wife, Anna, are remodeling. And here’s bassist Zack Alworden, calling…from the front seat of his car?

It’s not a typical interview, but in the age of COVID-19, nothing is typical. Even driving—which is why Alworden’s bandmates are so flummoxed at the sight of him behind the wheel. “I’m parked outside my parents’ house,” Alworden, 27, says. His bandmates cackle. “They’re sitting there, like, watching the news, and it’s loud, so I had to go to my car.”

Needless to say, the week of their new album release, musicians aren’t usually hiding from their parents out in the driveway. But such is the reality of living through a pandemic. Charmer’s new album, Ivy, drops April 3. The plan was to be on the road now, supporting the album on tour—not hunkered down at home. The plan has changed. Before COVID-19, Charmer were getting together a couple times a week in their rehearsal space—the basement of a law office on the main strip of downtown in Marquette—gearing up for multiple tours this spring and summer. Now, they can’t even sit in the same room. 

“We had a release show planned that got canned, and we had a couple local shows in town before we went on tour, but once things started dropping we kind of realized that everything was going to get dropped,” says Daignault, 26. “So it’s been pretty difficult to stay active leading up to the album. I think everyone right now is sitting at home constantly staring at their phones because there’s nothing better to do, so a lot of people are fighting to get out there.”

Not that Charmer is off anyone’s radar. Ivy is the hotly anticipated sophomore follow-up to 2018’s self-titled album. The first single, “Slumber,” came out February 5. The second, “Doom,” followed shortly thereafter. And the music video for another new track, “VCR666,” dropped Wednesday—the latter giving listeners a sneak peak of the rich, bolder sound that comprises Ivy

There are the hallmarks longtime listeners will look for: twinkly guitars, mathy composition, and Daignault’s languid vocals that just beg you to sing along. But with higher production value and more complex writing structures, Ivy climbs higher than the band has ever gone before. “It’s just…shiny,” says Daignault. “The writing process was much longer; there was a lot of trying different things out and having one thing and liking it and then deciding later on that there was something better and changing it. It’s definitely more of a group effort than the first one is.”

Even though the album was a labor of collective love, the foursome disagree about their favorite songs. Listeners may be taken aback by the second track, “Dead Plants,” a poppy, four-chord banger Daignault was at first “super hesitant” to show anyone. “It’s my favorite song on the album, straight up,” says Alworden. “I hate it,” says Erickson, eliciting howls from his bandmates. (Daignault refuses to name a favorite song, though he concedes  he “likes ‘Slumber’ a lot.” Erickson’s is “Doom;” Berg’s is “Wither.”)

Though Charmer attributes the difference in sound from the lo-fi, dreamy first LP to the brighter, glossier second one mostly to production, they reveal the writing and recording process was much more elaborate this time around. “There’s definitely an extra stage to the songwriting this time around. Like a third…phase, whereas the first record, it was just, like, two,” Erickson, 28, says. Adds Berg, “We had the songs together, spent some time kind of refining them, then we went to the studio and changed some things there, too.”

The songs on Charmer use three different tunings; there are four at play on Ivy. (“If you could see our Facebook messages,” Berg says, “the most asked question is ‘What tuning is this in?’”) Berg looked at some of the tunings Algernon Cadwallader and American Football have used as inspiration for Ivy. A whopping three (!) songs on Ivy use standard tuning—but before you report the band to r/Emo, they’re a half step down. 

And if you dug the horns on LP1’s “Topanga Lawrence,” courtesy of Daignault’s brother’s trumpet, they’re back on Ivy’s haunting penultimate track, “Sunshine Magazine.” “Every band is a ska band,” Daignault says when I inform him that horns are somewhat controversial. “So we’re definitely a ska band. You can write that down. That’s on the record.”

“The whole process, especially going through the several phases of mixing and critiques and being in the studio every day with it, I was just done listening to it, to the point where if I listened to it, it would sound good and I knew it was good but I was just like, ‘This shit sucks, I need to turn this off,’” the vocalist says. “Or I’d get a little stoned, and I’d get anxious listening to it and I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, we’re failures,’ so I just had to stop listening to it. But the last time I listened to it, I was like, ‘Oh, this shit rules.’” 

It’s precisely because of all the effort that went into producing their second LP that Charmer’s dead on arrival spring tour is so hard to take. The band didn’t play many shows in 2019; they were working on, as Daignault puts it, “getting our shit together in our personal lives and writing the next record.” By giving themselves the space they needed to prevent the unthinkable—fizzling out—they were all finally mentally prepared to hit the ground running this spring. “It’s pretty bummy, because I was finally ready and mentally I was preparing and rehearsing a lot more and getting ready to do it on a bigger scale, and for it to just be, like, pushed back, that kind of messed with me quite a bit,” says Daignault.

The unrealized tour hits even harder for someone like Alworden, who joined the band later and didn’t experience any of this the first time around with the self-titled LP. “That’s all I’ve been looking forward to,” the bassist says. “Going out on these tours that we’ve been thinking about and preparing for and now it’s just kind of off, it’s definitely defeating but you also feel kind of helpless, because, like, what can you do?”

Indeed, for the first time in a long time, Charmer is stable. Though Alworden was the last piece to fall into place for the band’s current lineup, this wasn’t its first lineup change. “Of everyone in the band, I’ve known Nick probably the longest,” Daignault says. “I didn’t start playing music until I was, like, 18, and Nick booked all the cool-ass shows in town even then, so I knew him from that. I was always like, ‘Oh, book my band.’” 

Daignault and Erickson went on to become good friends when they attended Northern Michigan University. But it wasn’t until Charmer was a band for a year and a half or so that Daignault hit Erickson up to drum in the band. Prior to that, when Daignault had one semester left at college, Erickson was supposed to play a show in Marquette, but his band had to pull out. “He hit me up and asked me if I had a band or anything, and at the time I didn’t. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll get a band together,’” Daignault explains. “And I just contacted, like, three people in town I knew could play instruments well, and then I taught them the songs in like four days and that lineup ended up playing two shows.” That’s when Berg came into the picture. 

“Neil was at the second show, and he came up and introduced himself to me after, when I had, like, a bunch of equipment in my hands. He stopped me and started talking to me about how he had an acoustic EP and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s great, dude, awesome,” Daignault recalls, laughing. “Obviously, that worked out really well between the two of us, and then he joined the band, so Neil’s been the longest member.” “You forgot to say that I was, like, competent at playing guitar,” Berg, 26, adds. 

In a delightful stroke of fate, the first Charmer show was also the first Hot Mulligan show. Erickson: “My bandmates didn’t wanna play with a show with some pop punk band, so we made up a lie to not play the show, and Dave’s band played the show instead. That’s on the record.” Daignault: “Oh yeah, you can say that, that’s funny.” Erickson: “I was like, ‘We’re playing this show with Hot Mulligan,’ and they were like, ‘Hot Mulligan, who the fuck is that? We don’t wanna play.’ So we lied and we said that our bass player was sick. Oh; no! We said that our bass player double-booked the gig. I actually double-booked the gig.” Daignault: “So Nick is the reason that Charmer is a real thing, but he also didn’t play in the band until years later.”

Daignault and Berg, with two prior members of Charmer, played in Marquette for about a year and recorded the band’s first two EPs, 2017’s Whateverville and Best Worst Birthday Ever. After Daignault graduated from NMU, the original lineup moved to Rochester, New York, to pursue music further. But the transition proved trickier than any of them could have expected. The song “Bummer Summer” off the first LP details the months immediately before and after the move, while “Garden State” breaks down how everything ultimately came to a head about eight months later. The fallout resulted in Daignault and Berg moving back to Michigan—with the songs that would eventually comprise Charmer in hand.

Once Daignault and Berg were back in the Upper Peninsula and finishing up the songs on the first LP, Daignault reached out to Erickson and asked him to drum on them. That’s when the band kicked into a higher gear. “After practicing with Nick, I think, three or four times, that’s when No Sleep was like ‘Hey, we want to sign you guys,’ and then it turned into a much bigger thing,” Daignault says. 

And how did Alworden come into the picture? He smiles, cocks an eyebrow. “Right place, right time.” Alworden grew up with Berg but was living in Kalamazoo at the time—which proved useful when Charmer hit the road for local shows. “I lived, like, seven hours from Marquette, but they would always stay with me if they played shows in Kalamazoo, so I got to know everyone through Neil. We just all got along,” Alworden says. When he left his career in IT and moved back home, “they just happened to need another bassist again. I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, can I play?’ And they were like, ‘Sure.’” 

Perhaps the most rewarding part of getting any sort of candid look at a band’s inner life is witnessing the dynamics between members—read: the ribbing. And Charmer does not disappoint there. When I ask everyone to confirm their ages, Alworden says he’s 27. There’s a pause. “Hopefully you don’t die this year, Zack,” says Berg—referencing, of course, the 27 Club“We’ll sacrifice you so we can be famous forever,” says Erickson. Alworden is down for the cause. “If that’s what it takes,” he says. 

As talk turns to life and death, the band gets reflective—no doubt, lots of bands are in the current moment. Touring can be brutal. Vans get broken into, merch gets stolen, band members get sick or miss their friends for family. Some bands come back from tour with less money than they set out with. But now that the industry has slowed to a halt, those things don’t seem to suck as much as they used to. Do they ever take it for granted, being able to do what they do? They’re in their mid-to-late twenties; they know they can’t do this forever. But it is unmooring not to be able to do it right now“I think I definitely take it for granted sometimes,” Daignault says. “It’s pretty easy to forget what we’re doing where we live, because life here just seems so normal. And then we go on the road.” “Yeah, for sure, taking it for granted, but I was very ready to go on tour and promote this album and this just kind of like sucks to be in this situation where it’s not happening right now,” Berg adds. “I didn’t think too much of life getting in the way in terms of music too much. I never think about not doing it, really.”

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Erickson, who also runs a screenprinting shop, Repeater Press, has a different perspective on the situation. “I have a lot of complicated feelings about this. I have a family and a business and a job in addition to that. I’m more like a fan of music, you know? I love playing in bands. I was actually supposed to go on tour before the Charmer tour with a different band, and all that got canceled too.” Repeater Press is located across the hall from a shipping place, and Erickson is thinking of starting an order-fulfillment, hand-printing service for bands. He already prints all Charmer’s merch—just another way in which they embody the DIY ethos.

And then there’s Alworden, who doesn’t even necessarily know what he would be taking for granted because he has yet to experience it all, the way it’s supposed to be experienced. “Some days, when we’re playing the shows and we’re practicing and we’re just doing it, it feels phenomenal,” he says. “This is the first band I’ve ever really played in, so it’s a dream in a way, as cheesy as that sounds. Even playing at a show, if there’s even one person singing along, I notice. I think about it all the time; like, that’s crazy that anyone even knows the songs. But realistically, it would be great to have more stability because we’re in this weird limbo spot right now. So there’s a lot of uncertainty, but also I am grateful regardless.”

Still, it’s not all “Doom” and gloom. The foursome is healthy. The band is buzzy. There’s a real desire in the DIY community right now to support the artists that make up its lifeblood; if people love Ivy, they’ll find ways to let Charmer know. And for their part, the band is prepared to buckle up and ride this out. 

“We’re all pretty excited,” Daignault says. “Last time we released an album no one knew who we were, so I think that’s the big difference. That’s the only difference between the albums for me personally; now we have a set of people who are expecting something. I think there’s a song for everyone on the record. It’s not linear. Everyone can find one song on the album that they would like.” “Maybe two,” Erickson says.

Ivy is out tomorrowApril 3rd on No Sleep Records order it now on the their webstore.


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Michelle Bruton // @MichelleBruton

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