by David Chiu
There’s a good chance Don Draper and his Mad Men cronies may have stumbled upon a band with a sound like that of Chicago-indie band Distractions at one of their hip New York nightclubs. The band’s surf/lounge music evokes the sounds of the early ‘60s; but also possesses the spirit of underground pop/rock acts. A contemporary reference might be the Boston-based Morphine.
Co-founded by by singer Tom Owens, Distractions have gone through various line-up changes–the current band consists of Owens, Justin Fernandez, Robert Kenagy, Karl Ostby, Joseph Murphy, Jake Acosta, and Matt Fields. The group released their self-titled debut on cassette and recently signed to Infinite Best Recordings. Distractions play at Bruar Falls with Twin Sister on Sept. 10 and Glasslands with Twin Shadow on Sept. 11. (SO MANY TWINS!)
MME recently spoke with Owens about the group’s history and music and the highlights of an ascending career.
How did Distractions form?
Well, we’ve actually been together in some form for two years, But originally, it’s like me and this other one drummer who’s no longer [with the band]. He’s a guy that I’ve been in a band with in high school. Me and him were looking to start a band again because we’re just kind of reconnecting as friends. I think my Dad came up with the band name “Distractions”. So it’s just me and him for a little bit. I mean there’s so many people [chuckle] in the band it’s at this point that I can tell you the story if you want.
I moved to Chicago after I graduated college in 2007 and I moved into a big loft space, and the idea was we can rehearse there and I wanted to throw concerts there. So it’s like a DIY music space…and then we called it The Halfway Lounge. That was what tied us all together. Now it kind of varies right now anywhere from five to seven people in the group.
Was there a certain type of sound that you had envisioned for the band from the beginning, or was it sort of like something that developed over time as you guys played more?
I think I’d say it developed over time. Our sound was definitely a lot less developed when we started. It just kind of happened, a combination of the influences I guess. I usually write most of the songs, at least just like a rough skeleton of them and then bring them to the band, and then everyone else contributes. It’s a pretty… I mean it’s usually pretty free.
Your music to me certainly evokes the feeling of the ‘60’s. What is it about those sounds that appeal to you?
I like bands that create masterpieces of albums. And then I was exposed to a lot of like the newer indie stuff and sort of listened to that for a little while and then decided to go back to mostly old music. Yes, most of it does sound ‘60’s. I feel like, I went through a heavy, let’s say more ‘70’s phase.I was really into David Bowie albums from the 70’s and, Brian Eno’s work, got really into that. And then along the line I got into Beach Boys.
I was really into like Drag City Records for a while and basically whatever I could hear, whatever I checked out from them I usually liked. Specifically I got really into Jim O’Rourke, all his productions and his solo, more of his like, solo pop albums, and that stuff I would say is pretty lounge-y. I know he even covered some Burt Bacharach on one of his albums. I guess maybe what creates the lounge sound too is I definitely come from a jazz background, having studied it.
Tell me about how you came to record your debut?
We pretty much recorded all of it in my spot I was living in, the Halfway Lounge. And it has a really big room. I’ve since moved out of there, but it had a really nice room and it sounded pretty good in there. One day I was like, we just need to get a recording because this band is probably not going to go anywhere if we don’t have a recording.
About half the album was tracked as a band and then at least three of the songs were just songs that I recorded on my own, and played like all the instruments We kind of pieced it together I guess. It wasn’t necessarily conceived as a whole album, but through time we made it work, we tried to.
The sound on the record really evokes a certain mood—very trippy, jazzy, avant garde.
I was doing a lot of was running everything through amps. A lot of the vocals were sung through like a tube amp, which gives a kind of older sound. Another thing I was doing that was kind of weird, but I have these like little battery operated amps that have a real tiny speaker in them. And I ran a lot of things through that like through these little amps which gives them just kind of a weird, maybe like almost AM radio sound. I tend to do a lot of strange techniques like that or at least explore them. One of my roommates had a really nice tube spring or reverb tank. So I started using that on like all the vocals.
How would you describe your songwriting?
I’m writing about stuff I’m going through. Someone pointed out that a lot of the songs, or at least a couple of ones I’ve written more recently, are about growing up. I’m 25 years old, so I’m kind of going through the transition from my wilder teenage years to like my adult years.
In terms of the dreaminess of it, I think that it just comes as a result of a lot of my influences. I tend to listen to a lot of mood heavy music. Mostly, not as much in the lyrical vein as much, I listen to a lot of ambient and electronic type stuff that’s really mood heavy. I kind of apply that to my guitar playing and keyboard playing. We all use a fair amount of pedals. They’re mostly delay pedals. To space it out and create the mood often times.
Why a cassette-only release?
I became sort of obsessed with cassette tapes in the last couple of years. I just sort of approached the Chicago label whom I’d been collecting their tapes. I felt like I wanted to put something out on that label. So I just kind of went for it. I thought it would sound good on a tape, and I do like how it sounds on a tape.
How do these songs translate when you perform them live?
Well, they’re two kinds of different things in a way. But I think it still sounds pretty much like the songs. Because those are ones where I played all the instruments on the recording so when it comes to live show, they end up sounding a little different. It’s pretty big sound now when we play it live, which is pretty cool. All the different guys in the band, they’re really talented and know when to play out and when not to. So it’s an interesting mix of sound happening on the stage. It seems to grab the crowd just because of the sheer volume or all the parts coming together, it just hits you. We’re using basically all the same tools that we used on the record, besides some of the string reverb we don’t really have.
What has been the most memorable experience with the band so far?
We played a New Year’s show at my old place where I lived, and it was just kind of an insane show, party thing. We played last in the course of the night and I just remembered everyone was kind of going nuts. Occasionally, I just let loose a lot and shredding and bleeding on my guitar. I remember that night, I was rubbing my guitar all over my amp and doing all sorts of crazy stuff.
One other thing I remember that’s really funny was at this one show, our bass player, in the middle of “Baby Steps,” which is a pretty mellow song, he dropped to his knees to play his bass line and I thought it was pretty hilarious. It was awesome at the same time.
I heard that you have some demos—are these new songs?
We have probably like six songs that we’re planning to put out eventually, maybe along with a couple more. We probably could do another album pretty soon. The cassette that we just put out is basically sold out. So we don’t really have anything to sell on this tour. And we were trying to put together a “tour only” cassette. We’re making like a little limited edition thing that we are going to bring.
Distractions: All Night