THE ARMOIRES – INCOGNITO (Q&A, and more …)

THE ARMOIRES unmask themselves to present their new album INCOGNITO, a unique collection of the singles the beloved Burbank band has secretly released under fictional identities over the past six months in a playful gambit of experimentation with the pop music form and their own musical expectations. It’s out as a deluxe CD and on all digital platforms on April 1, on Big Stir Records.

Christina and Rex, founding members of The Armoires and owners of Big Stir Records, told the story behind the story to Sweet Sweet Music.

Now, that’s a story! How did you decide on this approach?

Christina: Well, unlike a lot of people, the two of us, as Big Stir Records, actually got even busier as the pandemic took hold last year. It seemed imperative, without the live scene happening, to do more and do better to serve and promote the records and artists on the label. We were grateful to have a focus and that responsibility, but between that stress and… well, just remember how much crazier the world kept getting from month to month last year. It was a lot… too much. We needed an escape, and re-learning how to be musically creative became our silver lining.

Rex: Very early on, Steve Coulter (of The Brothers Steve) invited us to contribute a track to this sort of instant, lo-fi compilation called Quarantine Sessions. The brief was to be fast, loose, immediate, visceral – we weren’t the slickest at home recording, so that suited us, and we did a track that sounded nothing like The Armoires, and yet it did. We’d also been tapped to do tracks for several tribute compilations from Futureman, SpyderPop, and Curry Cuts, and those were covers, of 20/20 and Andy Gibb and XTC and “Yellow River”,  that were going to be side by side with some real legends. So having started down the self-recording road… we figured we’d better get good at it. So we started upping our engineering game and taking on new skill sets in the studio (although we had some real pros like Michael Simmons and Nick Frater and Peter Watts mixing them). Somewhere in there, without any plans for a record, we started liking what we heard.

Christina: We were already in this headspace of not doing our own songs, doing atypical stuff for The Armoires, and I started gravitating to these older originals of ours, things we never finished or set aside because they didn’t seem right for the band, but I loved them. Things like “Magenta Moon” and “(Just Can’t See) The Attraction” and “Jackrabbit Protector”, just different stuff.  We went into a kind of “if not now, when?” mode. I’d ask Rex, “What about this one? Why didn’t we finish that?” And he’d always be like, “I don’t know, that’s so old or odd for us that it’s almost like another cover”. And my reaction was “Totally! So we do it just like Bowie, or X, or R.E.M. or Blondie, even though it’s our song!” I think that since all bets were off, we just took it as a challenge to do what was right for the song, and forget about what was right for the band.

Rex: So she sold me on that idea, of just experimenting with our own identity, but we were still like, what are these? Pandemic singles? Spare tracks for a rainy day? And then it was my turn for the brainstorm – like, wait a minute, we’re a record label, we put out a new single from a different artist every week, what’s to stop us from playing dress-up here, and just putting these out as a whole bunch of fake bands? Like one a month, starting on Halloween of course, ending on April Fool’s Day?

Christina: I was… not sure about that at first, but it became absurdist fun. Each pair of songs got its own fake bio and press release, and we made up characters to be the musicians. There were all kinds of little hints, like band members named after our pets, acronyms and in-jokes and references… it was like, how ridiculous can we get with this before someone figures it out? And crazy stuff did happen. My favorite was that Rodney Bingenheimer fell in love with the band that was literally cartoon characters, The Yes It Is! That seemed somehow perfect. A few of the fake bands ended up on indie Top 10 lists. French DJs loved the artier stuff, and we got to play up our countryside with my daughter Larysa’s bluegrass band, because why not?

The singles are very nice but the whole is even better than the individual parts, I think. Was that a bonus or did you expect that to happen?

Christina: It was mostly luck, but I came up with a way to frame it as an album. I wanted it to be like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, where a real pop band gets experimental and weird, but you wouldn’t mistake it for anyone else.

Rex: Yeah, I mean, I sort of thought Revolver at first, since it was the first thing we’d recorded when we weren’t constantly playing live, but that’s a lot to live up to… Tusk seemed just about right, but, you know, less cocaine. Loose and weird and diverse and sprawling, but still melodic. Another thing that was freeing was just letting the record assemble itself as a journal of the singles, in release order.

Christina: Yeah, because everybody knows you can try a zillion ways to sequence an album and still not get it “right”! This way it’s a diary of what we got up to during the pandemic, and how we evolved over that time. So much happened last year that we can feel it as the album goes from track to track. I guess the safety net was that if we didn’t feel like it was working, there was nothing to stop us from pulling the plug after a couple of singles, and nobody would ever know, hahaha! But… we felt like it was working, and that empowered us to keep pushing forward, trying even weirder stuff, if it was fun. And it was fun.

In addition to a delicious record, has it also yielded other insights?

Rex: Well, it sort of validated a few of our core tenets – one being that it’s not worth doing a song if there’s not some kind of risk involved. We lived that to the hilt on these sessions. And another being that if you hit a brick wall, just get a sledgehammer. Develop the skill sets you need to do the next thing. I mean, that’s literally in one of the songs we recorded (“Awkward City Limits”), but we wrote that years ago. If there was ever going to be a trial by fire of that ethic, it was last year. We’ve reinvented a lot of wheels in a short time on a number of fronts, and we’re used to taking on new challenges.

Christina: But we embraced the flip side of all the pressure and hard work, too. We learned that you’re probably going to have more fun and quite likely do better work if you let go of expectations. Both whatever expectations anyone else might have for the band and even our own. It was freeing to not worry about whether or not the songs made sense for The Armoires… or made sense at all! My daughter (and our violist) wrote in the liner notes that we learned how to be ourselves by pretending to be other bands. She’s a smart one, Larysa. I think that sums it up perfectly.

How will 2021 look like for the band and for the label?

Christina: For the band, we haven’t yet unmasked ourselves, but there’s the weirdness of promoting a record we didn’t know we were going to make! But we’ve got a good story to tell. Whether or not we’ll be back out there playing live any time soon, we don’t know. Until the pandemic, we gigged and toured relentlessly. It all seems like way more than a year ago, and we haven’t even really learned any of these new songs. It’s starting over, yet again!

Rex: And yeah, Big Stir Records, we’re incredibly busy, with a lot of really exciting stuff. Our record is the fourth one we’ve put out on 2021, and the first three – The Stan Laurels, Dolph Chaney, and Chris Church – I’d have to say that those guys all also reacted to the limitations of the pandemic in ways that we related to, creatively. They all, in one way or another, let the new reality guide their processes, without fighting it… looking for the silver linings or letting The Force guide them (hahaha), and I think you can hear that on their albums. Coming up there’s a record from The Forty Nineteens called New Roaring Twenties which is just so relentlessly positive and punchy that you have to love it. And without saying too much, we have some cool stuff coming up from legacy artists, new to the label, and more from our core artists, too. We have the entire year charted out, which is a relief after how seat-of-the-pants 202o was. It’s full of great stuff, an amazing variety. We want to be reliable, but not predictable. We’re not strictly a “power pop” label, and you’ll see that for sure.

Christina: We’re already back to presenting live shows of a sort, via the live streaming monthly Big Stir Concert Series that’s been kicked off by Irene Peña and the folks at Musicians Unite! Together, Wherever. Irene’s also taken over curating the weekly Singles Series, which is a good thing because the promotion of the albums has come to require everything that Rex and I have – there’s more to do the better we get at it, and we never want to give it less than our all. There’s a feeling that having survived 2020 and even having grown from responding to all of that, we should be able to do just about anything. And we have this record of our own that we love as a result of it all, too. It was a horrible year, but beautiful things came out of it. That’s what we’ll remember as we move forward.

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