Calgary electro duo defy the sophomore slump with an album that lives up to and builds off of the promise of their award-nominated debut.
There to be defied, but also to be lived up to.
Calgary electro duo AM Static are well aware of those things as they get set to release their second proper album Rise and Shine, which drops Friday, June 8 with a hometown show at Festival Hall.
It’s something they’ve been asked a great deal about and have had to come to terms with.
“I think any sophomore album in music has historically come with expectations and they’ve usually been bad,” producer Nils Mikkelsen says. “I think the curse of the sophomore record is a thing.
“But I think what you’re referring to more is the fact that our first one was nominated for a Juno.”
Ah, yes. Buried the lede once again.
Of course there are expectations — from them and for them. AM Static’s full-length debut A Life Well Lived, after all, earned the duo a nomination for Electronic Album of the Year at the 2016 Juno Awards that were held in this city.
So, yeah, to say that there is now a certain amount of pressure from all sides for them to follow up on it and build from it would be a fair statement.
It’s a task the pair of Mikkelsen and Chris Austman prove more than up for with Rise and Shine. It’s a bloody beautiful record, with Austman’s gorgeous voice swimming effortlessly through the waves of sunny, sometimes deep and dark electro-pop his partner envelops him in — recalling everyone from Yazoo to the Boo Radleys.
And it certainly doesn’t sound as if the pair were weighted down from the expectations or found the task to follow-up daunting.
“It would have been more daunting if the majority of this record wasn’t completed before we got a Juno nomination,” Mikkelsen admits. “But then it was weird that it happened in the middle of the project, because then you definitely go through a period of second-guessing everything. It definitely adds another level of neurosis to the project.”
As to how they eventually managed to keep all of that outside noise from entering into the creative process, Austman says simply, “We didn’t.”
“We didn’t. We acknowledged, I would say, at perhaps many steps along the way that we had that in the back of our minds, that we had a bit of that pressure. From the Juno-nominated record, we also wound up with some interesting people in the business messing around the back stairs and that also led us to conversations, talking about the pressure that we felt from that,” he says.
“And in the end I would say that one of the useful things that happened was that it actually motivated us. It motivated us specifically to take a look at all of the content of the record and make it as concentrated as possible — so really distill out of every one of the songs exactly what the song should be and strip off all of the fat.”
That’s borne out in the tracks, which are less ambient, wallpaper epics than quick, dreamy hits, the majority of them clocking in at the three- to four-minute range, flowing quickly from one song to the next, not a wasted moment or breath.
That, Mikkelsen says was “intentional,” the brevity, finding the essence of the tune quickly and moving on.
“It reminds me of when Slayer put out Reign In Blood,” he says, comparing it to an album that he calls “a seminal metal record,” but which the band “got a lot of flack over … because it was (28 minutes).”
Mikkelsen relates how Slayer bassist Tom Araya looked at that record and then Judas Priest’s beloved Screaming for Vengeance, which was 10 minutes longer.
“He went through both records and found that they had the exact same number of verses and choruses. So his response was, ‘We do the same amount of work, we just get to it a lot faster.’
“So I guess we took some influence from Slayer for this record.”
As for other influences, taking it back to people “messing around the back stairs,” AM Static managed to limit that when it came to the rest of Rise and Shine.
Like their previous work, it was all done in-house, save for the artwork and the mastering, and it is being released independently. The only other people that had a hand in it were members of the city’s musical community, including drummer Matt Doherty, bassist Stephen Shepard and cellist Clea Anais, who they brought on as guests. (Friday’s show will also feature the band as a five-piece.)
Even with the added expectations and outside interest, they wanted to be true to what brought them to this point and maintain the control.
“We just tried to make sure that no matter what the worry warts in our mind says, when we do the work it’s always as succinct and always up to our standards,” Austman says.
Mikkelsen agrees. “It’s all about the work. And even after that when you do kind of start to think about, ‘OK, does this change what we’re doing? Does this change why we’re doing it?’ Not really. It’s still just us making an album in our bedroom studio because we really love to. That never really changed.
“It’s easy to think about it changing and to worry about that changing your process or why you do something, but our process is still as unglamorous now as it was before.”
In other words, while the Juno nomination may have changed things, it hasn’t really changed them.
They joke about walking around with giant “bobble-heads” due to all of the attention and ultimately think it’s been a benefit to their careers, but for the most part it’s still sort of status quo in the world of AM Static.
“Getting that kind of attention just means that those people who we may want to have contact with in the future will recognize our name — that’s all. So I see that as a good thing,” Mikkelsen says.
“And also it was a good test for us to see what that felt like when it first started to happen. And obviously, as any artist will tell you, when you get something that even your parents can be impressed by, it’s kind of a big deal.”
He laughs. “If you get something that legitimizes your bizarro career choice that even your most critical aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and lovers in the oil industry (notices) then that’s typically a good badge of honour, no matter what it does to your head.”
AM Static release their new album Rise and Shine Friday, June 9 at Festival Hall. They will also perform this year at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, which takes place July 27-30 at Prince’s Island Park. For tickets and information for both, click here.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com.