Brooklyn-bred band the Babies seek inspiration from way out west
There’s a subtlety and a relaxed confidence running throughout the group’s discography that one doesn’t often hear from bands formed amid the clatter and rush of the city. And given both the album title and the presence of songs like “See the Country,” "Moonlight Mile," and “Get Lost,” the question arises: is this album a reaction to the urban way of life?
“American traveling is a big influence on the band,” singer-guitarist Cassie Ramone said on Sunday afternoon. She and bandmate Kevin Morby met to talk about the new album with me in a Greenpoint Thai restaurant.
“[But] not in a way to escape the city,” Morby was quick to add. “On this record, I wanted it to be very influenced by the American West, but also rooted in New York. My ideal for it was a mixture of both.”
That interest in in-between-ness could have something to do with the group’s origins as a side project. Ramone and Morby are probably best known for their work with the bands Vivian Girls and Woods, respectively. But the slow-burning, fuzzed-out pop music they make as the Babies—along with bassist Brian Schleyer and drummer Justin Sullivan—gets inside your head in weird ways, from Morby’s David Lowery-esque vocals to the nimble soloing heard throughout their body of work. Morby and Ramone alternate lead guitar and lead vocal duties, and the result is a jangly sound that possesses more than a little alt-country influence. The interplay of their voices and the occasional solo all make for a compelling selection of songs.
To hear Ramone and Morby describe it, their songwriting approach for this group focuses on a knowledge of their bandmates’ strengths as musicians.
“[If] a song I write would sound good with the instrumentation that the Babies could offer, then I’ll float it by the guys and see if that’s something that they’d be interested in playing,” Ramone explained. “Some of my songs, I feel, don’t require two separate guitar parts or male/female vocals, and some of them do. Those are the songs that I tend to float in the direction of this band. Or a song that I feel would specifically sound good with Kevin’s style of guitar playing.”
For Morby, the complementary aspect of the group is equally present. “I really like Cassie’s style of guitar playing, and I really like her leads. It’s easy for me; I’ll write a song, and [leave] a lot of empty spaces in the song, [and tell her] ‘Go wild.’”
After their first album, recorded at Rear House by Morby’s Woods bandmate Jarvis Taveniere, the group chose a markedly different option for the followup. Our House On The Hill was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Rob Barbato, who has produced albums by La Sera, Neverever, and the Soft Pack. But for Morby, the decision to work with Barbato came about in part due to Barbato’s work as a musician.
“I really respected all of the stuff he was involved in musically; I’d heard stuff he’d recorded before, and I really liked them. I think what really sold it was...” Morby paused. “He was playing in Cass McCombs’s live band, and I saw them play … and Rob ended up staying with me at my old apartment in New York. We became buddies. It all kind of happened around then.”
For Ramone, one of the strengths of working with Barbato was the sonic range he offered.
“There were a lot of organs lying around; a lot of drums, and a bunch of amps and guitars,” she said, describing his studio. “We were just trying a lot of different stuff out.” Later she added that, “his help strengthened whatever song he worked on.”
One of the standouts on Our House On The Hill is a song titled “Baby.” Given the group’s name, the question arises: was this a de facto theme song?
“Not at all,” said Morby. The song’s roots, as it turned out, lay entirely outside of the Babies’ body of work.
“I recorded this solo album two and a half years ago that ended up not coming out because of complications with the record label,” Ramone explained. “Kevin really liked that song and said, ‘We should use it for the Babies!’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ After it became apparent that my solo record wasn’t going to come out, we re-recorded it with our band, and adapted it into our set.” But for Ramone, the juxtaposition was a welcome one: “I do always like it when bands have a song title that mirrors their band name.”
The group is set to tour for a month beginning later in November. Morby, for one, is looking forward to getting on the road.
“I write a lot on tour,” he said. “Physically writing in a notebook. When I get home, I have a lot of stuff to work with.”
Morby said that touring for him was pretty much the same whatever band he was on the road with, but for Ramone the differences were sharper.
“The dynamic of being in an all-girl band and being in a band with all guys.... Not to sound anti-feminist or anything, but there are obviously differences in that. Girls and guys like to talk about different things…. Every single tour [Vivian Girls has] gone on has been so crazy, in either a good way or an awful way. It’s either great, like we’ll get wasted every night and get into fights and meet these fucking freaks, or we’re fighting a lot; it’s so extreme. In the Babies, it’s not extreme at all. It’s very pleasant all the way through, but there aren’t as many crazy stories to come out of it. Neither one is necessarily better or worse for me. I’m glad that I’ve experienced both.”
Both Morby and Ramone seemed excited to revisit the road on this upcoming tour.
“When you’re in a band and you’re doing something in the arts and you’re given the opportunity to pursue it, it’s a pretty sacred thing,” Morby said. “It’s pretty cool, because not everyone has that opportunity. It’s pretty nice.”
The Babies play their album-release party for ‘Our House on the Hill’ at Knitting Factory Brooklyn Nov. 13.