Interview: Turtlenecked

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“I’m never going to change my lyrics to just like please the masses. And you can quote me on that when I sell out!” As sole songwriter and performer for Turtlenecked, Harrison Smith takes his work seriously, but not too seriously. While Smith’s original aim was to make a country-leaning album, the band’s sophomore album, Vulture, is rather an eclectic, post-punk mix of underground sounds.  

The band’s previous album, Pure Plush Bone Cage, was created within a sandbox of Smith’s own rules. It became grandiose in its limitations, especially its experimental punk sound and the idea of keeping each song under two and a half minutes. However, “with Vulture I wanted to explode some of those limitations by exposing myself.” With each new album Smith makes he challenges himself “to create a bigger masterpiece than before… I feel like stakes are higher. Even if that isn’t really true.” Set free of restrictions, Vulture allows Turtlenecked to bring in a wider range of influences and sounds, as well as letting each song stand on its own.

When it comes to writing, “a lot of times I’ll come at it in a more traditional way where I’ll write the whole song on acoustic guitar and I’ll have it all written out and I’ll have potentially performed it for myself completely before I ever record it. But I think I did that a lot less on Vultures than I have in the past.” This time around Smith played with various recording techniques, which he was able to do because he records everything himself. In a lot of ways recording software has become a part of the medium. “Often times the ideas will spring from listening back to recordings of snippets and I’ll be like ‘okay, I know what I want to happen next.’” This leads to a very fractured songwriting process, which Smith says he indulges “as a result of my interest in nonlinear music and really surprising and drastic turns.”

While Smith views an album in its entirety as the ultimate unit of art, he also takes inspiration from individual moments within certain songs. “A lot of times I view them as tricks for tension and relief. It’s manipulation of the listener and it’s really pleasing.” The song must be up to par as a whole, of course, but a turn of phrase or unexpected riff will be what carries it from good to great. “There’s definitely a combination of large-scale satisfaction – kind of like micro and macro that I think about when writing songs. For example, the macro is the hook and then the micro would be one crazy lyric or one yelp in the bridge that I think is really interesting. For me to really enjoy a song, the song has to have a healthy combination of those things. Because I can love a song for the hook, but it won’t continue to surprise me if it doesn’t have a bunch of interesting nuances to the composition or the recording.”

During the writing and recording process Smith will often bounce ideas off of and ask suggestions from his friends. Whether it’s thoughts on these smaller, more experimental moments or larger song structures, his friends eventually piece together “a Frankenstein knowledge of the songs” as their creation goes on. And luckily these are the same friends that share the stage with him when Turtlenecked performs live. As tour dates approach, Smith says he’ll “just teach them the songs. Like we’re just hanging out in the basement and we learn the songs. And I think it becomes a little bit more punk live than on record.”

Smith tries to improve upon himself when performing in the same way he does from album to album or demo to final recording. “I always want to up the energy and the showmanship so I try to make everything more dramatic.” And this came in handy earlier this summer when the band embarked on what Smith stated was their “first tour ever, I mean in the history of our lives… Our tour mates [Cool American] ended up suffering every possible catastrophe, which sucked, but even they triumphed over that so I think it went really well. People seemed to like it and everybody had fun.”

As a whole, critics seem to like Tutlenecked as well. Many reviews and write-ups hold the music in high regard; almost on a pedestal of art rock. “It’s nice” Smith says, “[But] I don’t take too much of it very seriously. All my friends think I’m super egotistical and try to destroy any credit I receive to prevent it from going to my head.” In an attempt to keep his creative objectivity Smith tries not to put too much stock into the praise he receives, though he admits, “at the same time I do kind of obsess over it.”

But don’t worry: he realizes that’s an artist cliché. This has an interesting effect on Smith’s writing process. According to Smith, “by releasing music I am inherently making it for other people.” Though his main goal is to write lyrics for himself; lyrics personal to him that he finds entertaining. Smith states that the music he enjoys the most comes from “people being creative or honest or interesting without any kind of being contrived.”

Through his music Smith hopes to explore his own mind while “incorporating a healthy amount of abstraction. Not to hide the emotional content of my lyrics, but to hopefully make it seem a little more than just a confessional or an exposé.” The end result is an album that is completely self-involved at times, but often becomes bigger than itself.

Turtleneck’s previous releases have come in quick succession so it is only fitting that writing for the next album has already begun. “It’s me moving further towards a pop direction, but hopefully without becoming stale or derivative.” Smith is expanding on the sampling and quirkiness in Vultures in a way that makes Turtlenecked less of a straight rock band. “That kind of thing is rampant throughout the whole album and I think the songs are a lot more interested in being emotional than just being abstract.” Next time around there will be more of a melodic and thematic foundation to provide the groundwork for a growing sonic landscape. And beyond that? “I’m gonna do, I don’t know, a folk album?” Smith says with a laugh. “I have no clue.”  

– Scott Fugger