Album Review and Interview: Mansions, “Doom Loop”

For a band that was on the brink of giving up during the writing of their dark and sludgy sophomore release, Dig Up the Dead, Mansions’ follow-up to that album is startlingly confident, aggressive, and upbeat. After gaining the reputation of being a “fuzz-rock” band from their live shows, Mansions – made up of Christopher Browder, bassist Robin Dove, and drummer John Momberg – decided to adopt that description and explore it with Doom Loop.

They achieve optimum amounts of fuzz, no doubt, but they also pick up a lot more achievements along the way. The guitars are crunchier than they’ve ever been, and the riffs are downright filthy (“Out for Blood,” “The Economist”) while still managing to slide straight into the most sure-fire choruses that the band has ever written. “I’ve thought about avoiding a big chorus or not being super melodic – but I realized that’s just not who I am,” Browder said in a press release. “I like pop songs, yet at the same time I like things a little fucked up and distorted. Might as well run the vocals through a guitar pedal.”

The weirdness of “Two Suits” and “Flowers in My Teeth” comes off as charmingly cryptic, and lyrically, Browder’s metaphors are unexpected and fascinating (“La Dentista” stays quite true to its name, with lines like “we’ve got our hands in your mouth, you say you’ll change,” and “I could pull out all your teeth, but you’d still lie to me”). There are lots of nods to the band’s older material tucked away in Doom Loop, too – “100 Degrees” could be a sequel to “Tangerine,” album closer “Falling Down” makes a powerful reference to one of the bleakest lines in “Dig Up the Dead,” and you can practically hear Browder winking as he delivers the final words of the chorus to “Last One In.”

Not only is the album a sonic evolution for the band, incorporating thick heaps of distortion alongside electronic blips and jitters and giving Dove’s vocals a couple prominent features for the first time, but Browder has evolved as a vocalist, as well; his percussive phrasing in the verses of “100 Degrees” and his falsetto in “If You’re Leaving” prove that he’s grown confident enough to try a few new vocal tricks, and they add even more flare to his already established command over the songs. 

Christopher Browder kindly agreed to talk to me for the first issue of Brickwork about Doom Loop, out now on Clifton Motel, as well as how Mansions has grown since their 2009 Doghouse Records debut album New Best Friends. We spoke a week ahead of Doom Loop’s November 12 release date.

MATT METZLER: Doom Loop comes out a week from today – is it a busy week for you, leading up to that?

CHRISTOPHER BROWDER: Not especially, really – we’re not on tour or anything right now. We might try to do an in-store kind of thing, but when we’re not on tour we’re kind of just living normal life and working and that kind of thing. So it’s not really any different, but we’ll try to do something fun to make it special.

How was the recording process this time around?

It was cool. It was similar to how we recorded Dig Up the Dead in that we didn’t really go to the studio to record it, we recorded everything except drums in our apartment in Seattle, and drums were recorded in Austin, where our drummer lives, and he got to go into a really cool studio down there and record them – which was interesting, because we didn’t get to play the songs full-band or anything, I just sent him demos and he recorded the drums.

I’ve read some interviews where you described Dig Up the Dead as dealing with existential stuff, lyrically, and New Best Friends was more about personal relationships, so what kind of stuff was on your mind when you were writing Doom Loop?

Probably kind of a combination of the two. I think lyrically, even if the songs are referring to pretty concrete things, I think the lyrics are a little less concrete, or a little less literal than some of the other records. Like, on New Best Friends, what I was into at that time was really direct, pretty literal lyrics, which, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but for this round there’s a little bit more metaphor to it. But it’s still very much rooted in interpersonal relationships, and the existential questions that go along with that.

So you’re releasing this primarily on vinyl and digital, right?

Yeah, and we’re going to have CDs at shows, because I think that’s one of the only places where people buy CDs still.

So was that more of just a practical decision, then, not to do CD preorders?

Yeah. I mean, we didn’t even really have a big discussion about it. The label that we’re putting it out with, I think in their experience the CDs never really sold that great for preorders, you know? And I can’t really remember the last CD that I bought, personally. But I know that, at shows, CDs are definitely good to have, so it just seemed to make sense. And the vinyl comes with a digital download, so even if you don’t have a record player, you can still get the vinyl just to have it.

Earlier in your career you released some stuff on crazy formats, like Thyme Travel on cassette, and the mini-disc of demos – do you see yourself doing more of that in the future?

I think we’re talking about doing a cassette soon for Doom Loop, which would be cool. Yeah, I think that stuff is fun, and it’s cool to make a special thing for people, but I don’t like making things collectible just for the sake of making them collectible. But I think it’s cool to do. The mini-disc thing was cool because I had a mini-disc player when I was younger, and I was able to pull that out. But I think there’s something fun about tapes, even though it’s sort of hipster or stupid, but it’s fun and it’s good if you have a car that just has a tape player, you know?

So, switching gears a little bit – you opened for Fall Out Boy earlier this year, how did that come about and how was it?

I don’t quite remember exactly what happened with it, but I know that when we were shopping Dig Up the Dead around to different labels and trying to get somebody to put it out, one of the few people who responded to it was actually Pete [Wentz] from Fall Out Boy, weirdly enough. I don’t know if he even remembers that at all, so that might be weird to talk about. But the big thing was that the label putting out our record, and that did the vinyl for Dig Up the Dead – they’re called Clifton Motel – is made up of guys that work for Crush Management, a big management company that manages Fall Out Boy. So I think they just needed somebody for one show that for some reason the other bands couldn’t do, so they hooked us up with that. And it was fun, it was definitely different for us playing those kinds of shows, the same with the ones with Taking Back Sunday – it’s a bigger world than we’re used to, but they were all super nice, and them and their crew treated us really well. It was a lot of fun, and the kids were really nice at the show, too.

You kind of already talked about this a bit, but I was wondering what your daily life is like when you’re not on tour, you’re just working other jobs?

Me and Robin, who plays bass in the band, we both have office jobs, basically. We do the 8-5 thing, Monday through Friday. It’s been cool, we both started temping as just a way of finding stuff in between tours, to make some money on the side, and we both were pretty lucky with where we got placed for temping, we’ve stuck around those places longer and been able to move up and they still let us leave when we have to, especially when we’ve been writing and recording and there’s not really band income coming in while you’re doing that, so it’s good to kinda have a normal life for a while.

Since you’ve lived in Seattle for a while now, have you found any noticeable differences in your songwriting since you’ve moved to a big city?

The songwriting’s definitely different, but I don’t know how much it has to do with the move. I think the space that we’re in emotionally is very different up here, and I think a lot of that has to do with being up here and being part of a big city, and finding those temp jobs, and finding a way to make it work where we’re trying to make the band happen but still be able to pay our bills and that kind of thing. So I think that definitely put us in a different space, whereas, writing Dig Up the Dead, it was feeling like, well, this is probably it, I don’t think we can keep trying to make this band thing happen. We were in a fairly small city in North Carolina, and so I think that contributed a lot to the overall tone of the record being sort of dark, or more depressing I guess, because we weren’t particularly happy then.

Have you ever viewed any element or aspect of Mansions as political in any way?

Not really… yeah, not really. I definitely have pretty strong political views, but I generally get turned off by bands voicing real political things, even if it’s stuff that I agree with, just because, I don’t know – I think a lot of people in bands aren’t really that informed and you get this kind of reactionary stuff. There are different levels of things, like I want people to agree with us politically of course, but really I want them to relate to me as a human being, and if that helps affect their world view to where they change their political beliefs then that’s great, but I don’t usually try to convince people to agree with those same things. I guess I never really imagine that being successful; I don’t see a lot of people really changing people’s opinions. It seems more like they just get the reaction from the people that already agree with them, and everyone’s like “Yeah, you’re great!” and then the other people are like, “Oh, I hate you because I don’t agree with this.” And it just isn’t very productive, you know?

Have you ever had any experience with record labels or tourmates or fans trying to pin Mansions down into a certain scene or something that you didn’t really feel like you identified with?

Yeah, I think because our first record was on Doghouse Records, who, especially at the time, had a certain reputation with certain bands, but for me, that wasn’t really what I saw them as, because they had a lot of bands that I really loved like The Get Up Kids and Koufax and stuff like that, but I think coming out with our record at that time meant people said, oh, you’re this kind of band, and so this kind of website and magazine is going to be interested and these other ones aren’t. But I think musically I never really felt much in common with those other bands, and especially when we played shows with a lot of the bands, it was just like, man, we are in some totally different worlds, not believing in the same things about what music should be or what the point of doing this is. So I think we never really felt a part of that, and I think that that group of fans never really responded that well to us, anyway, so it was a weird thing where we were kind of getting pushed toward people who didn’t really want to hear us, to no fault of their own at all. I don’t know, we’re in a sort of middle ground where we’re not hip enough hip enough or scene enough. Which I’m totally fine with, and most of the bands that I really love are in that same kind of middle ground, but yeah, it can be a little funny sometimes.

So does that shape the way that you handle and present the band?

A little bit, yeah. And I think we’ve gotten more careful about it as time has gone by, about choosing the types of things that we do, and as we’ve gotten more support from different places we’ve probably had more options – like, we can premiere a song at this place instead of this place. It’s weird, it’s like all that perception it’s all really a lot of small decisions and moments kind of added up into a bigger whole, but yeah, there are certain tours that we know we wouldn’t really do, because they don’t make sense for who we want to be.

Earlier on in your career, you released a lot of material in a really short amount of time, like with the EP Initiative and around that time period, and then it’s kind of slowed down a little bit and I was just wondering if that’s because you’ve been focusing on these songs a lot more than maybe you did in the past, or if you’ve just been having less time to write and record?

Yeah, I think there’s a combination. Before New Best Friends came out, I’d been writing songs for years without them really coming out anywhere, and after we recorded New Best Friends, it took a year for it to actually come out, so there was still this backlog of other songs, and then – definitely, the time on my hands played into that, I had time to just be writing and recording. And the thing that was cool about the EP Initiative was that we had those deadlines set up that were pretty tight deadlines, like every two weeks there needs to be another set of songs done, and that forces you to make decisions, where you’re like, okay, this is what the song’s going to be, I’m not going to be able to redo it again, and, you know, that’s that. There are songs that came out with all of that that I wouldn’t have put on a record because I don’t think they were good enough or I would’ve re-recorded something, but I still like how it happened, because it forces you to just accept where things are at after a certain amount of time. So that was a big part of it, whereas now it’s definitely been more focused on album stuff, where there’s probably just as many songs coming out, but we’re really trying to edit those down into the best set for a record. But also, we don’t have as much time to work on songs, so it’s not the same as before as far as having all that time to write.

I’ve noticed that you use a lot of religious symbols and motifs in some of your lyrics, like in Seven Years and On My Way, and I was just wondering what it is about those images that draws you to them when you’re writing a song?

I think it’s interesting. I think it’s very elemental, as far as, that’s just kind of like the biggest question there is, you know? Is there a god, and if so, what does that mean? So I think that’s just endlessly fascinating in a certain way, and I think there’s a lot to say about that, and I think a lot of music that I like speaks to some of those questions. I just think it’s kind of like a well that is never ending as far as things to talk about and to think about.

I was also wondering about the lyrics to “OMG,” and this is mostly just because I relate to that song a lot personally because I have Crohn’s disease and it’s always a struggle to get my body to agree with me basically, and do what it’s supposed to do, and I was just wondering sort of what that song means on your end?

I guess I don’t want to give away the keys to the castle too much, you know? But yeah, it’s that kind of thing, where it’s like, my body doesn’t do what I want it to do all the time, for sure, and I think that’s just a very human thing, and there’s also the kind of metaphor of the body as like the flesh, where that’s the kind of human nature or instinct part of you, that doesn’t always lead to good things, I guess, you know? So it’s kind of a combination of all those different, that kind of brain vs. body kind of thing.

Thanks for sharing that.

No, no problem. I’m glad that you like it, and I’m glad that you know your stuff, it’s a good thing.

I know you’re a big Ryan Adams fan – I am too, what’s your favorite stuff by him?

It was actually his birthday today, I don’t know if you know that. I didn’t realize it either, but I hadn’t listened to him in a while, but I had the urge to listen to Heartbreaker today, which was awesome, and then I realized it was his birthday. But, man, what do I like best? I like Cold Roses a lot, that one especially with time has gotten better to me. Heartbreaker means a lot to me, it was a very specific time in my life that I listened to that a lot, and I mean, like some of the songs are not his best but the songs that are good are like his best songs ever. I guess the one that kinda got me down the Ryan Adams rabbit hole was Love Is Hell, Pt. 1 specifically, part two is okay but part one… I just don’t know another record like that, that does what that record does.

Yeah, that’s the first stuff of his that I got into as well.

That’s awesome, what songs do you like on it, or what’s your favorite song on it?

I really like “This House is Not For Sale,” that might be my favorite song by him.

Oh yeah, for sure. Did you know that it’s about the movie Beetlejuice?

Yeah, that’s so crazy. I listened to it for a long time before I found that out, and I mean, it was definitely surprising because it seems like it would be so much deeper, and it obviously is still deep, but to know that it’s based on a movie just sort of throws you for a loop.

Yeah, totally. It was one of those things where that should ruin the song, but it doesn’t. And have you ever heard our song called “When I Sleep”? The arrangement of that one is kind of ripping off “This House is Not For Sale,” as far as some of the tones and things. It’s always cool to meet another Ryan Adams fan.

I just wanted to say thanks again for taking the time out to talk to me, especially because, like I said in my email, we’re just starting this publication, and this will be for our first issue, and it’s really nice to be able to have a cool, substantial interview with someone who isn’t just a local musician in Ohio, so I really appreciate that.

No, no problem, I’m glad you’re trying to make it happen. And thanks for asking! I’m a little bit rusty on my interview game, so it’s fun to be doing it.

-Matt Metzler, for Brickwork