THE ARMOIRES return with their keenly-awaited second album ZIBALDONE. Sweet Sweet Music talked to the Burbank, CA band’s co-leaders Christina Bulbenko (vocals, keys) and Rex Broome (vocals, guitar).
Things change. What’s happened since the recording of the last record and how did it influence the new one?
Absolutely everything changed. That’s true in so many ways, but to limit it to where The Armoires are as a band in this world… we released our first album in 2016 almost into a vacuum. We were totally unknown. It seems odd, because outside of the band we (Christina and Rex) have since then become fairly well known within the guitar pop community for all of the various things we’ve done as Big Stir, and while the band has played live a lot, there weren’t many recordings going out… we were working on what would become Zibaldone and Side Three but definitely wanted them to arrive as singular works that summed up the band as it is now.
The biggest influence of everything that changed over that time was becoming part of that community and having adventures within it. That’s apparent both in the large list of guests on the album and the lyrics which are often celebrations of our journey and our fellow travelers. The album is awash in the talent and wisdom of people we hadn’t even met when we did the first one but now seem like lifelong friends. That goes from Steven Wilson (Plasticsoul) who produced it with as much love and care as if it were his own record to the total heroes of ours who sing and play on it and give it so much texture. But we’ve also got the experience of having the same live band and doing a lot of live shows, so that maybe paradoxically it sounds so much more like “us” than anything we’d done before.
Your sound is different. You use the instruments a bit different than others in the genre? Is that what sets you apart?
Right, we aren’t a two-guitar four-piece! So many of our favorite bands are, but as a collective, we sort of feel a calling to do something a little different that plays to our strengths as individual musicians – consider The New Pornographers and The Go-Betweens as very key influences there. The guitar is prominent but there’s less of it than you might think and a lot of our new songs follow our live sound in that there’s only one guitar track or at most an overdubbed solo… the keys and vocals fill in a lot of the space.
The two cornerstones of our sound are both happy accidents. Christina and Rex’s individual voices are very different and oddly in similar ranges, so they blend in some pretty unique ways and discovering that is what got us started. The other accident is that early on, Larysa, Christina’s daughter, jumped into the band on viola, which aside from John Cale in the Velvet Underground is an uncommon instrument for rock bands – it’s lower and richer than a violin – and Rex plays almost exclusively electric 12-string, which is higher and brighter than most guitars. We really worked on the chemistry between the two and sort of invented a sound that is, at least formalistically, like an upside-down version of the honky-tonk thing where the fiddle plays a higher harmony with the dark twangy Telecaster. Which would have been a brilliant idea if we’d actually done it on purpose… but we think we’ve refined it into a secondary sonic signature that we really like.
The new songs are always the best ones. What’s the best example of that? And why?
The Armoires had a lot of songs from the beginning, basically like 40 tunes that Rex and Christina had worked up to greater or lesser degrees, and only 12 made it onto our first album. The idea for the second record was to very quickly bash out the remainder of our live set in the studio for maximum immediacy, in the manner of some of our very favorite sophomore albums. But obviously, we took three years to finish it instead! And in that time naturally, new things took shape.
So the new recordings are a mixture of songs of wildly varying vintages that seemed to fit together sonically and thematically, although some are over a decade old (“Pushing Forty” shows its age as we’re both well past that mark!) and things that weren’t even written when we started recording, like the “travelogue” songs that bookend the record (“Appalachukraina” and “When We Were In England (And You Were Dead)”. We decided as we went along that songs, like wines, cheese, and people, mature at different rates and these were the ones that made sense together… some others still needed a little time to decide what they wanted to be when they grew up. They’ll show up on the next record, along with even fresher stuff, and we imagine that’s how we shall proceed from here on out… it’s just nice to imagine a future where we get to do that and have the panic of “what if we only ever get to do one album?” behind us!
What’s up for the second part of 2019?
Touring, although perhaps less than we originally envisioned… that may wait until next Spring if our current plans come together. Waiting to see how this baby is received by an audience we didn’t have last time around. And the promotional push that we’ve given to the other artists on Big Stir Records while crafting Zibaldone and waiting for our own turn. In every way 2019 will wind up being a watershed for the band and the label and we’re in the thick of it right now… we won’t really understand what’s going on now until the end of the year, and then we’ll have to sit down and figure out what just happened to us!
How easy is it to stay focused on your own music when Big Stir is growing and growing?
It’s both challenging and beneficial, really. Challenging in that, although we’re always together working on the community and business side of things, it’s easy to just think “we need to work on our own stuff but that can wait until tomorrow after we mail this bunch of records out and finish our pieces for Big Stir Magazine or do the press release for the next band in the Singles Series or”… it’s a long list. But at the same time being at the center of a community of great bands and writers and performers is VERY good for us… there’s a high standard to meet and when you’re on a label with Amoeba Teen or In Deed, you don’t want to come up short and look like the only reason your band is getting a release is because the singers own the business!
Inspiration is therefore always close at hand… we get very involved in the material we’re presenting from other bands and we can romanticize it being like a small-scale version of the great and productive friendly musical rivalries of the past, McCartney and Brian Wilson spurring each other to higher heights. Nothing that earthshaking, but the Big Stir bands listen to and steal from each other’s songs all the time, and our record certainly wouldn’t be as good as it is without us feeling a part of a living, breathing continuum of artists at the top of their game. Can we build something based on a Plasticsoul drum part, shoot for Michael Simmons-level harmonies, attempt to capture the way a turn of phrase from Blake Jones gets you right there, try to shape a 12-string riff up to Peter Watts’ level of elegance? Those are good targets to have close at hand!
The unique harmonies of Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome combine with jangling guitars, sparkling keyboards, soaring viola, and a singular sense of songcraft to create the essence of THE ARMOIRES. It’s sunshine pop with a kick, tapping the rich Southern California pop rock heritage from The Byrds to X and back to hits-era Fleetwood Mac, and melding it with a twist of English psychedelia and postpunk drive. The sweet and sour vocal sound gives life to Broome and Bulbenko‘s sophisticated lyrics – sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, always a bit mysterious. It’s a dreamlike combination of the warm and the unsettling that’s captured ears and hearts wherever The Armoires travel, and is as instantly recognizable as the pair’s visual profile: matching paisley attire, spectacles and platinum blonde hair.
The band is widely known as the founders and leading lights of the Big Stir collective, a global concert series and record label dedicated to the musical community based around power pop and similarly styled melodic guitar rock. But The Armoires are an artistic force of their own, with a pair of new releases for 2019: the Side Three EP (out now), and the Zibaldone LP due in August, with a number of tour dates to follow. Reflecting the spirit of community and family the band represents, the new records are produced by Steven Wilson of Big Stir Records mainstay Plasticsoul and feature not only Christina and Rex‘s daughters (regular violist Larysa Bulbenko and touring bassist Miranda Broome respectively) but also a slew of guest appearances from their fellow travelers on the worldwide pop scene, including Spygenius, The Condors, Blake Jones, The Corner Laughers, The Bobbleheads, Michael Simmons and more. The stalwart rhythm section of bassist Clifford Ulrich and drummer Derek “Kenny’s Plumbing” Hanna, longtime veterans of prior collaborations with Broome, provide the synergistic chemistry that makes the new songs hum with energy as The Armoires prepare for the next step in their strangely compelling musical journey.