When a band takes a “hiatus” from the recording studio, it can mean several things: Their creative inkwell has temporarily run dry. They hate each other but aren't quite ready to break up. They already broke up and just don't have the balls to tell their fans. Or they just need to rejuvenate from the rehearsal-studio-tour grind.
Three years have passed since Pittsburgh's spaced-out, punk-blues trio Modey Lemon last released a proper studio album. It's a startling drought for a band that released its first three albums in a span of four years. But singer/guitarist Phil Boyd says the sabbatical—born of circumstance and necessity—was exactly what Modey Lemon needed.
“I'm actually glad it happened that way,” Boyd says. “It was great. Things were just so much more slowed down this time, and the album was completely in our hands. It really helped the songs to develop.”
The fruit of that effort, Season of Sweets, was released June 10 on Birdman Records. It's the fourth full-length for the core duo of Boyd and drummer Paul Quattrone and the second with producer (and now full-time member) Jason Kirker.“We all have certain roles in the band, and we just take turns at bearing the burden” Boyd says. “Jason is the skilled recording guy. Paul and I mostly just sit back and make suggestions. It probably drives Jason nuts.”
Boyd says “unexpected shifts” in their personal lives initiated the lengthy absence from the studio. While declining to elaborate on the circumstances, Boyd says the breather was the catalyst for the band's best recording experience in its nearly decade-long existence.
Their previous release, 2005's The Curious City, was produced under strict deadlines and blistering label pressure. It also marked a somewhat dramatic departure from the band's first two releases. Their 2002 self-titled debut and 2003's Thunder + Lightning were both earmarked by short, sonic bursts of noisy blues. The Curious City built upon that foundation but expanded the sound by focusing more on grooves. Season of Sweets follows a similar path, albeit without the constant pressure to cut-wrap-print the album.
“I think it's a really good cumulative glimpse of what the band has done,” Boyd says. “I think it's a natural progression for us. When I listen to this album, I think somehow that it all comes together.”
More than anything, the band is glad the album is finished so they can get back on the road. Modey Lemon is renowned for its ferocious live performances, punctuated by the searing individual energy of both Boyd and Quattrone. “I'll say this,” Boyd chuckles, “I'm certainly aware of how much my back aches after a show. But we really don't think about it all that much. We're just the kind of guys that want to get on stage and make it worth everyone's while.”
Modey Lemon was born after Boyd and Quattrone—then students at the University of Pittsburgh—decided to busk together one summer in the city's Strip District, a huge marketplace by day and a rollicking bar scene at night. At the time, they were both listening to Fat Possum blues artists like R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, and those influences slowly seeped into their performances.
“We'd go down to the Strip District and play that stuff pretty straight up,” Boyd says. “But we also thought it was kind of silly because we were white, middle-class college kids. So we figured we'd act like we were British, just to be smart-asses. We were saying ‘moldy lemon' in really bad British accents and that's how the name and the band came about.”That smart-ass attitude and DIY mentality has stuck with the band throughout the years, though Boyd acknowledges a desire to make a tangible and sincere connection with fans in an increasingly disposable industry.
“People are digesting things so fast these days,” Boyd says. “When I got my hands on that first Public Enemy cassette, it was like I had accomplished something. I played it until you couldn't read the song titles on the cassette shell anymore. Nowadays, that kind of crazy connection is taken out of it.”
But the band's hell-bent mentality and irreverent attitude has bred a strong bond between The Modey Lemon and their fans. And with Season of Sweets removing that last line of outside influence and pressure, Boyd says the band feels even more unfettered from conforming to any ideas or influences that don't emanate from within.
“We'll always just do things the way that we do them,” Boyd says. “And that definitely contributes to our success-slash-lack of success. Not everyone's going to like it, but it's also helped carve out a niche of people who really appreciate that in us.” Modey Lemon plays Tuesday, July 1, with The Muslims and Christmas Island at The Casbah. www.themodeylemon.com.