The Austin-based band The Great Nostalgic creates the kind of complex, carefully-crafted music that’s becoming harder and harder to find. Though admittedly inspired by ‘70s rock, The Great Nostalgic has an expansive, layered sound that reminds the listener of Wolf Parade or Arcade Fire>. The band’s newest record, Hope We Live Like We Promised, is a semi-concept album with broad musical influences and intricately connected lyrical themes. In another band’s hands, that ambitious combination could be a muddled disaster; in the hands of The Great Nostalgic, it’s brilliant. I braved a mid-interview bee attack to speak to singer/songwriter/guitarist Abram Shook about the development of the band, what it means to be “nostalgic,” and the upcoming record the band has started recording.
I’ll ask the question everyone hates to answer: how do you describe your music?
Nowadays, I tend to say that it’s some form of art rock, but I think we’re originally influenced by ‘70s art rock bands, and there are even some glam aspects to the band. Our sound is developing more and we’re getting more comfortable with what we do well now after two records. We’re on the third record now: we’re defining our sound and it’s easier to focus in on what we do well.
What do you do well?
I think we do rock. A different take on rock. We’re really good at creating a mood in a song and getting the little twists and turns, either in a specific song or within the context of the whole album when things reference each other. We like to reference bands we like from different eras.
You don’t hear “albums” very much anymore, in their true form, but you definitely write capital-A "Albums." Why?
I usually write in chunks of music, so when I start writing songs they start coming out with similar themes and I feel like they have to be together in a record or they wouldn’t make sense. There was this blog that really liked the last record and they said something like “they leave little Easter egg treasures in the music for you to find,” and I feel like if the songs weren’t together in an album they just wouldn’t make sense. We like to explore big ideas, and it’s hard to do that in a short format.
How important is replay value, to be able to write a record that somebody can listen to many times? How does that affect your songwriting?
I think it’s really important, and I think sadly we’re at a point in history with art that people don’t really have much time anymore...and they don’t really take the time. I think that the listeners here in general have developed a short attention span. I’m not trying to be conceited or stuck-up or something, but I think there was a time when people slowed down more and listened longer and put on records for their friends. And maybe that’s where the name comes from, being nostalgic for those days. I miss that, getting to share with a friend and talk about music in a grand scheme. “Look what these guys are doing, look what they did on this record from this song to this song"...now it’s more about the quick rush, the little sound bite, the snippet.
I noticed that, especially on the most recent album, the percussion adds a really interesting layer to the music. How does that come into the songwriting process?
I think that’s a lot to do with Vince [Durcan]. He’s an intricate drummer. On the second record it was he and I getting together a lot and me showing him song ideas and him telling me in what direction he could take it, in a percussion sense. I can do this straight thing or I can do this cool weird thing...and I usually tended to go with the cool weird thing, and developed the songs that way.
It seems like both albums, the first tracks are introductions. How does having those fit into the larger purpose?
So far we’ve tried to bookend the records, to have something on each end that encases the rest of the album. On the first record in particular, I don’t think that the two end pieces of the album necessarily correspond, but they kind of set up and finish off what’s happening. It’s like introducing a book with a page that gets you into the reference of where you’re at - what the landscape is going to be, where you might be headed - instead of hitting you all at once with something.
The lyrics on both your albums are really intricate, and there’s obviously a lot of depth there. Tell me about the themes in the latest album.
The first album was a real concept and a story arc, but the second record came from an idea of walking around, just walking my dog around a standard suburban neighborhood. I was walking by and somebody was playing music really loud in their house, and I heard it and thought “This is interesting, that there are all these individual lives going on in each of these houses,” and then I was thinking about each person’s musical taste in those houses, and then I was thinking about the stories that go on there. So it’s more like a series of vignettes, like one of those movies like Shortcuts or Smoke where there are different scenes that don’t really connect but they kind of tie together. So there might be three or four songs that are about one theme and three or four that are about something else and there are loose connections between them. I think that’s why there are an lot of different musical styles and, as you mentioned, interesting percussion. We were trying out a lot more than we did on our first album. I was trying to think about the musical influences of the people in the houses...
[Interview interrupted by bee attack. Resumes minutes later.]
Tell me about how the band got together and what the songwriting process is like.
[On] the first record I wrote and played everything because there wasn’t anybody else in the band then - I was just recording with a drummer. The second record was a little bit more collaborative and now the new stuff we’re working on is kind of "all hands in." I usually bring a strong idea and some parts that I want to work on and everybody kind of adds their $.02.
In the most recent album especially it seems like there are a lot of different musical styles that you reference and bring into what you’re doing. Were there any specific influences you can point to for the album or a particular song?
Not particularly. I was mostly just listening to a lot of records I like and listening to the projection quality of them and how they piece together in the studio. I think we enjoy experimenting with sounds in the studio, so that had an influence over what we were doing. There’s a band called Sparks from the ‘70s: people had referenced us to them before and I never really got the reference until this record. I get it a little bit now because of the ribbons, the weirdness of it, the quirkiness of it… I don’t know that we were originally going for it but I can see how you can see that in kind of all the twists and turns that end up in the songs.
Would you say that ‘70s music influences you the most personally? What music do you love?
I like all kinds of stuff. I studied jazz in college and played that for a long time, I’m a huge jazz fan, but I grew away from that after a while. And I had an older brother in the ‘80s who was into the Cure and all the kind of awesome 80s music, Depeche Mode and stuff. So I got influences from all over. I’m a huge Bowie fan— a lot of people reference Bowie when they reference the band—but I also like Roxy Music, Brian Eno, this band called Love & Rockets… I like a lot of music and I try to pull from a huge variety of music so that I don’t get bored.
So what’s coming up with the new album? Where are you in that process?
We’re about ¼ done; we had several songs done but it looks like we’re putting 2 of them on a 7” that a friend of ours is helping us release, so we need to work towards the rest. So we have a handful of songs finished for it and we’re in the process of writing right now. It’s good; we’re becoming more focused. If the last record had a lot of different styles we were pulling from and learning where we wanted to go and trying things out, I think this record we’re honing in more on something specific, I don’t know how to put into words what it is but we’ve definitely hit on a nerve that we like, so that’s become our new focal point for the group of songs we’re working on right now.
You mean you’ve found a feel for it? Like, a mood?
Yeah, we’ve hit on a mood, and there’s dark qualities to it, there’s some—I don’t know if “sexiness” is the right word for it, but there’s definitely a mysterious mood to what’s coming out right now.