Not long after the 2006 release of Be He Me, North Carolina’s Annuals was being called the band to watch by pretty much everyone under the blogosphere sun. Thanks in part to a healthy endorsement from the folks at Pitchfork.com (who dubbed the group a “fantasy hybird of Animal Collective, the Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene”), the six-piece went on to tour alongside Manchester Orchestra, Bloc Party, and the veritable circus that is the Flaming Lips. And in between these outings the band (composed of head songwriter/vocalist Adam Baker, guitarist Kenny Florence, bassist Mike Robinson, keyboardist Anna Spence, drummer Zak Oden, and drummer/guitarist Donzel Radford) just kept on truckin’.
But that’s not to say the Annuals are all work and no play. On its sophomore full-length, aptly titled Such Fun, the band takes the experimentally scattered sounds of Be He Me and tones it down-though not by much. A bouncing mish mash of country twang, whimsical piano, and energetic harmonizing that calls to mind both the Beach Boys and Fleet Foxes, Such Fun is a brilliant step in a new direction for the 22-year-old Baker, and proof that Annuals is not slowing down. In anticipation of the group’s Friday night stop at Muddy Waters Cafe, Baker phoned in to discuss life on the road.
How did you guys meet? I guess we all sort of met when me, Mike, and Kenny were 12, 13, and 14. We really met just through wanting to play in bands. We played with a couple people before, and we met each other through those other people. At the same time, in a different suburb called Knightdale, which is right next to where we are from, Nick and Zach were playing together in a band. And we all just sort of met down the musical road through our local musical connections. In our scene everyone ended up always being friends, so :
I don’t necessarily think of North Carolina as a hotbed of musical activity. What is the scene like there? Growing up, there was definitely a dark period where everyone was just sort of doing the same thing, or following very specific musical trends. But as of about two or three years ago, I’ve been noticing there’s lots of really good, original music coming out of the area – Lonnie Walker, The Rosebuds. It’s very good right now I think, thriving if you ask me. It’s coming back to its heyday of the early ’90s, which I was a bit too young to experience the full extent of, but I definitely saw the tail end of its glory when I was just getting into it.
And you also have another band with your fellow Annuals, Sunfold. Where do you and that project now stand? With Annuals I’m sort of the songwriter-musician-singer dude. I do a lot of the recording and basic outlaying of the songs; just sort of orchestrating the general flow of things. But in Sunfold I just sort of sit back and play drums, which is very very nice for me. A lot of times Kenny will ask me to help out with electronic beats and backup vocals, but mostly drums, which I really enjoy. I miss my kit sometimes and I want to keep my chops up. I like being different things for different projects. It makes me feel like a more well-rounded musician. If I can understand the role of every asset to a group, it would help to understand the musical process more. It’s just one more way to grow as a music man, I guess.
With so many multi-instrumentalists in the mix, how do you find a balance when it comes time to start writing? It’s tough sometimes. The way we do it, I sort of do the song, then when I feel comfortable with it-and sometimes as it’s happening, because our studio is in the basement of Terpsikhore Records, so everyone’s always in and out-we just sort of add parts as someone comes up with something … And later, toward the tail end of the record, we just have to do some skimming and cutting of some of the weight from the song, because all the different parts have accumulated. It’s fun that way. It leaves more doors open.
Are you completely self-taught in terms of mixing and recording? Um, not completely. When we first started in high school, me and Mike started learning ProTools and stuff like that from this guy who was just a terrible teacher. He had taken the class himself before there even was ProTools. He just went to a weekend [seminar] to actually learn how to teach the course; I think he was a softball coach. But it was cool because it gave us a lot of free time to just mess around and create little things in class. I remember me and Mike made the most-we thought they were hilarious-commercial jingles. They probably weren’t, come to think of it, but it was good practice for sure. One time we replaced an entire scene of sound effects on a Lord of the Rings tape. You know the troll fight when the huge troll comes in and almost stabs Frodo with a pitchfork? We replaced the sound effects to that. It took so long, but it was really fun :
You guys have gotten a lot of attention for using one of Bob Ross’s landscapes for the album cover. How did that come about? Well, basically we had the idea to use Bob Ross-style art. Cheesy is the wrong word, because Bob Ross was not cheesy at all – but there are definitely cheesy knockoffs of him, like the sort of cottage hotel paintings and just really bad art. So we were just going to use that, but when the opportunity came up someone said, ‘Well why not just ask Bob Ross’s estate to actually get you good art to be on the cover and inside?’ We never had any idea that that was even a possibility because Bob Ross is just one of the coolest dudes that ever lived. The estate was actually very easy to work with. They gave us a bunch of options based on what we wanted, and one of them was just perfect.
Such Fun undoubtedly has a lot going on stylistically. How do you structure an album once all the songs are completed? It’s always hard. It’s like you have all these islands – each song is an island – and it’s hard to make them come together as a sovereign nation. They’re so different and they came about in different ways, through different processes, and I don’t know. It was tough, but it wasn’t as hard as the last record, I think, because the lyrics are a bit more cohesive. There are different themes that kept coming up, not even lyrically, but musically. It really sucks, but you have to listen to the record after you’ve made it, over and over again in different sequences. And you’re already so fucking sick of these songs you can’t even tell what sounds good or what was just awful anymore. I hope the sequence came out well.
You’re known for your insane touring schedules. How, if at all, have things changed since going out in support of Be He Me? There are more people coming out, luckily, thank God. I feel like we’ve gotten better as a band, but the touring feels exactly the same because you do the same shit all day. But the shows are always just slightly a little bit different in some way, which is the perk of the day. But everything else, all the memories, still feel exactly like what I’m staring at right now. It doesn’t change much, but it does get easier, and sometimes more boring, actually. With it becoming easier to be away from home, I start getting bored with really cool shit everyday. I keep forgetting how awesome it is to see the landscape everyday. I’m really into nature, so to see the different topographies: But it’s mostly the same. It’s fun. We’ve definitely gotten used to it, so even on long stints you just sort of blank out. Sometimes it’s nice to just sort get away from your real life. Back home, bills and rents and all that shit, they can’t get to you here because you’re in a different state. They can’t possibly get to you, which is probably a really bad form of escaping and I should probably get over it, but: I think we all have very good social skills after having to deal with each other all fucking day long. [Laughs.]
What do you do in your downtime? Sometimes, like in New Orleans last night, we actually go out. We’re on tour with bands that you get to stay on tour with for a month or so, and we’re gaining friendships there. A couple bands we’ve played with in the past we’re still friends with, which is really exciting. We don’t go out as much as most bands, but we still do. We like to hang out with each other a lot. I mean, my best friends ever are in this band right now, so it’s hard for me to imagine just stepping away from it. I feel like I’ve tried once or twice, but it didn’t work – I like them too much.
Annuals will play Muddy Waters Cafe (508 E. Haley St.) with Jessica Lea Mayfield and labelmates What Laura Says this Friday, February 20 at 8 p.m. Call 966-9328 or visit clubmercy.com for ticket info.