Interview The Babies: A Little More Mellow

DIY speaks to The Babies at a hometown show in Brooklyn.

Despite the success of the Babies’ principal songwriters in their other groups, Vivian Girls and Woods, the band insists they are not a side project. They’re right to deny the label - not only does side project imply a temporary repurposing of inferior ideas, but it also leads to a prejudiced comparison of previous work. That said, while the “rock band” umbrella could easily cover The Babies, Vivian Girls, and Woods, the Babies’ music presents much different parts of pop history than the other acts. While Woods are comfortable with extended psych jams, and Vivian Girls simplify pop to its most elemental state, the Babies recall a hybrid of country male/female vocal harmonies, and a road weary, mid-century American West.

But that doesn’t mean the Babies sing modified cowboy tunes. Instead, their characters have a familiar wanderlust: trains always head West, heists are romantic affairs, and cities are still the only place where things happen.

I spoke to the Babies at their last hometown show in Brooklyn before singer Kevin Morby started Woods’ massive fall tour.

Cassie, you designed the cover for ‘Our House On The Hill’?
Cassie Ramone: Yeah. I built this diorama, and then our friend Matt Rubin took the photo of it, but then I photoshopped it and did all the layout.

And the first album cover is also a diorama?
CR: It is. It worked out well. They are both dioramas that I made not knowing they’d become album covers but then it just seemed to make the most sense. The first album [diorama] is really big, it’s like 3’x2’. And then the second one is just the size of a beer case. Small, like 9”x16”.

Are they on display anywhere?
CR: I have the second album one on display on my dresser, and the first one is a storage area. I don’t even want to look at it right now because I’m sure it’s all destroyed and I’d have to do a lot of maintenance to put it back together. But the first one is cool because it folds up and it’s actually built inside of this weird dollhouse I found in the trash. It has a handle and a little latch so you can carry it around like a suitcase or something.

I noticed this new album has a little “twang” on some of the songs.
CR: Yeah for sure.
Kevin Morby: Definitely. I think twang has always been there, but this new album brings it out a little more. 

CR: It’s definitely twang-ier.

There’s also some different instrumentation on this record. Who’s playing the sax?
KM: That’s our friend Jenna Thornhill-DeWitt who played in Mika Miko and she played saxophone in the Strange Boys for a while. Now she’s in a band called Crazy Band in Los Angeles.

And there are some strings too?
CR: Oh yeah.
KM: That’s the guy who recorded it, Rob Barbato, he heard that in his head and thought it would sound good. And after we left the studio he brought in a guy that he knew and had him do that part.
CR: And he sent over an MP3 and we were like, “Oh this sounds awesome.” 

KM: Yeah, so go Rob. We never met the guy who did it. 

CR: J.W. Reed.
KM: Yeah that’s his name.
CR: Mystery to me.

Do you guys ever send each other tracks or demos, or do you mostly write in person?
KM: I’ve definitely done stuff where I’ve written little demos and sent them to Cassie or Justin [Sullivan, drums]. I don’t really like to write in terms of figuring out a song with somebody because it gets too chaotic in my brain. I like to do it with me and Justin or me and Cassie, so no ideas get lost in the shuffle. I find that when there’s more than two people, you’re connecting with one person, and the other person might feel kind of bored.
CR: I feel the same way. It’s way easier to write with just one other person first and then expand upon that. I don’t really make that many demos, honestly. I usually find that if I make a demo, I usually end up liking the demo more than whatever it becomes. But all my demos are really bad quality recordings because I’m not really good at recording, so I kind of just want to save myself the effort and wait to record the song later. Usually. I have made demos in the past but for most of my songs I don’t do it. I tend to do most of my writing in person. 

KM: I kind of demo constantly, but I keep those just as reference points. It’ll be something just like the Voice Memos on my iPhone. I’m a very forgetful person. 

CR: Oh yeah. I’m not very forgetful. I have an insane memory for music that I write.

I saw there was a night in San Diego, where Cassie had to do double duty and play a set with the Babies and then Vivian Girls. What’s that like changing gears?
CR: Oh my God, it was so weird. I remember The Babies played, then Grass Widow played, then Vivian Girls played last. During Grass Widow’s set I felt like I was in a dream. At this point, I’m estimating that I’ve played around 700 shows. I know the Vivian Girls have played around 500. But it’s gotten to be such a routine for me at this point. Like setting up, playing the show, and the feeling of relief afterwards. You get to relax, and everything’s all good in the world. And that anticipation before playing is so crucial. I’ve really ironed out my mood changes throughout the course of the night. But like, after the Babies set was over I felt insane. I felt like I was dreaming because I didn’t know how to feel. I had a sort of sense of relief after playing the Babies set, but I had insane anticipation for the Vivian Girls set. Especially because we hadn’t practiced that much. That was our first show with our old drummer Ali [Koeher], who’s back in the band now. We only practiced for an hour and half before that show. Katy [Goodman, bass] and Ali played together. They both live in [Los Angeles] and I live here. I just felt insane and I decided to get really drunk and just fuck shit up and go wild. Vivian Girls are more of fuck-shit-up kind of band, and the Babies are a little more mellow.

When you were writing this last album, I imagine it overlapped with making the new Woods record?
KM: Maybe. I don’t have too much creative input on the recorded stuff. I’m more of a live jammer. But, it’s all basically Jeremy [Earl]. Woods is Jeremy’s vehicle. Any overlapping with Woods isn’t writing, because I write Babies songs on my own time and Jeremy writes Woods songs on his own time. But it’s more of tour scheduling or just shows that gets confusing.

Are you working on a new Vivian Girls record right now?
CR: Kind of, but not really. I was just out in LA to work on stuff with them. We wrote two new songs, but they’re not done yet. It might take a while, maybe some point eventually soon-ish there’s going to be another one, but it’s not really in effect yet. 

Did you decide to make this record in LA partly because 2/3 of Vivian Girls are out there?
CR: Oh no, not at all. I think we just wanted to get out of the city. Our first record was recorded at our friend Jarvis Taveniere’s studio [called Rear House].
KM: Which is my house.
CR: Yeah Jarvis from Woods. He’s a great friend of ours, and great at recording and producing. Our first record took two years to record because it was done in little short spurts, like a few songs at a time. We thought it would be a good idea to make a record where we made the whole thing in two weeks. In New York there are so many distractions, we all have so many friends here and things to do. We wanted to go somewhere where we didn’t have those distractions. We have a lot of friends in LA too, but it’s a different environment. We were going out there for work.
KM: Yeah when you invest yourself in that, “We’re going to LA to a studio to record an album.” It’s different than, “We’re recording in my house.”

And did you like that process? Would you do it again?
KM: Yeah!
CR: Definitely. It was incredible. The studio we were at was really beautiful. Great place, great vibes. Good people. Very positive, very funny. We were looking for a place to live out there and the only place that ended up working out was this gigantic loft in downtown LA, it was the biggest room of all time. It was so weirdly bohemian because there was nothing really in there, but it was huge. It had this Zen minimalism thing. All the bedrooms were separated by curtains, so we didn’t really have any privacy. It was pretty weird. It got really cold late at night and we’d always have these issues with the space heaters. But it was cool. It was really different.

Do you think you would choose a different city to make another one, or would you go back to LA?
KM: If we’re talking about the next Babies album, if it were to happen right now, I don’t think I’d ever pick a city based on the city, it would have to be someone I wanted to work with who lived in a city.
CR: Exactly. I feel the same way. 

KM: But I do like the idea of some point of my life going to a bizarre place and being influenced by my surroundings and recording a record.

Do you think releasing the acoustic EP, Cry Along With the Babies, affected the writing process for ‘Our House On The Hill’?
KM: Well, in my mind, Cry Along With the Babies was songs that maybe could have been on the first record, or could be on the second record. They were songs that I liked, and I liked those recordings and I didn’t want to just get rid of them. They’d all been on tapes. Then our friend Matt [Mondanile] from Real Estate and Ducktails offered to put it out.
CR: And we were like, “Cool. Let’s do it.”
KM: I sent the recordings to him just so he could have them. And he really liked them. And he really wanted to put them out, and his label [New Images Ltd] is known for non-traditional albums. EPs and things like that. And because he felt close to it and wanted to put it out, we were game with that. I think at times that song ‘Trouble’ maybe could have been the direction of the second album, but we didn’t really run with that. We ran with kind of this other material that we were working with.

The Babies play live all the time. Is that an important part of the songwriting and recording process?
KM: Yeah. An important part of recording the second record was doing the European tour we did for a month right beforehand. 

CR: Yeah true.
KM: [It’s] funny because the European tour wasn’t wildly successful or anything. We were all really cold and we had really long drives.

CR: It was semi-miserable, but also kind of fun.
KM: I remember we played a show in London and it was sold out. We were in London and playing a sold out show, but it didn’t affect me because I was so cold and tired.
CR: We were just constantly cold and tired there was never any relief.
KM: I think on that tour, we became really tight as a band without any of us really noticing. So it made it so easy to go into the studio. I would say about half of the songs we were able to bang out in a couple of takes and we were really happy with them. They had a really good energy. And other songs we kind of pieced together. But because of that tour we kind of took the new songs we played in that set, took them to the studio, and we were able to lay them down really quick. It was like second nature at that point. It wasn’t like we had been playing them too long, it was just that tour.

So it was a quick recording process then.
CR: [It was] like ten days in the studio. And then we did a few overdubs at Rob Barbato’s house. And then we all went our separate ways. Rob would send us MP3s of the mixes and we’d all have to tell him what to change, and he’d send us another MP3 like an hour later. 

KM: It was kind of crazy because her and Justin were living in Arizona and I was living in Kansas City, I went back to see my parents for a month. Bryan was in New York, so it was all different time zones. So it was hard to schedule mixing via Gmail.
CR: The place we were staying didn’t have a good speaker setup, so to listen to mixes we’d have to burn CDs and go drive around in our car that we rented, which was a Mustang convertible. It was really cool. We burned so many CDs, like 30 CDs, probably, over the course of the trip. So many CDs that were obsolete after an hour. We’d just drive around in our convertible listening to the Babies. It was pretty beautiful.

What made you choose Woodsist for this album? It seems like first record you made in your home studio, but then released it elsewhere. And with ‘Our House On The Hill’, you made it elsewhere, but took it back to release it.
KM: That’s cool.
CR: That wasn’t a conscious thought. We are huge fans of Woodsist. Jeremy is a really close friend of ours and we’ve always really respected the label. And we were psyched when he asked to put it out. Shrimper, the label that our first album was out on, that guy Dennis [Callachi] is a really good friend of Jeremy’s.
KM: Jeremy is kind of responsible for the Shrimper record. I met Dennis through being in Woods, but Jeremy emailed me saying like, “Dennis wants to put out your record, I think this would be really good for you guys. And it would really fit the label.” And then the day before we went to LA to record [‘Our House On The Hill’] Jeremy came over and asked me if he could put out the record. He was like, “Who are you going to do the record with?” He was like, “I think you should do it with… Woodsist!”

The Babies’ new album ‘Our House On The Hill’ is out now via Woodsist.

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