Photo Credit : Casey Curry
California's Dear Boy had an immense 2018; they were hailed as one of the best bands in Los Angeles by critics and music publications, sold out multiple hometown shows, embarked on a full US tour w/ Rogue Wave while also playing dates w/ Day Wave and Sunflower Bean - and there's no signs of slowing down in 2019. On March 1, the nostalgic band will release The Strawberry EP (the third extended play of their career) into the world via the band’s own label, Easy Hell and Burnside/The Orchard. Produced by Dear Boy, and mixed by Tony Hoffer (AIR, Phoenix, Beck, M83), the EP showcases the band’s ability to craft bittersweet songs pulling from late 70’s and early 80’s post-punk and early 90’s Britpop, large enough for arenas, but intimate enough to be with you during your most private moments.
The band's wildly creative nature that has attracted not only a wildly devoted fan base, but the respect of fellow artists who have gone on to be collaborators. The Strawberry EP features appearances by their friends Day Wave, Hazel English, and Patrick Spurgeon of Rogue Wave. The four real life friends that make up Dear Boy (vocalist Ben Grey, guitarist Austin Hayman, drummer Keith Cooper, and bassist Lucy Lawrence) have made something that is deeply personal, while celebrating their city and challenging the direction of modern guitar music.
Ahead of The Strawberry EP's worldwide release on March 1, we spoke to vocalist Ben Grey to break down the five-track collection, which you can listen to a day early exclusively here on Ones To Watch. Pre-order the album here.
OTW: Considering your previous releases, how would you consider The Strawberry EP to be a progression of your sound?
BG: I think The Strawberry EP is the closest we've come to sounding the way we've wanted to in our heads. The band's sound has been described as "bittersweet" since day one, and while I think we really perfected the bitter in our early work, I don't think we were able to get sweet until this EP. Melancholia is in our DNA… It's just musically and thematically what we're drawn to, but the dream was always to leave the listener and ourselves with feeling of hopefulness. I don't think we fully figured out how to do that until now.
OTW: When were the songs for the EP written/recorded between, and how did you choose what 5 tracks would make it?
BG: Putting out an EP was definitely not the plan! We've been writing for a full length record, but we seem to keep stumbling into recording opportunities. With the exception of "Love Interest," the EP was all recorded at our friend Clay Blair's studio Boulevard Recording in Hollywood, in between legs of our tour with Rogue Wave. We would work these new songs out on the road for a few weeks and then come home to track them. That's why I think they sound so immediate… They're straight from stage to stereo. And to answer your other question, it wasn't until Tony Hoffer sent us the final mix of Limelight, that we realized we had finished a collection. The songs had all coalesced so naturally and they truly did capture a moment in the band's career.
I should also note that the current count of new Dear Boy songs is 35, so I don't think it'll be very long until we follow this up with something else.
OTW: Starting off the EP we have the single "Semester" - a song that you've previously described as being about "following the moment". How has the response to the track been so far?
BG: I feel funny telling you that it's been great, but it truly has been pretty great. If I'm being honest, I am RELIEVED. Whenever you're in the process of working on something, it's so small and private. It only belongs to you and you can't even really imagine it existing in the real world. Any artist will tell you that this whole process is a cocktail of arrogance and earth shattering doubt, so I’m shook constantly. But the fact that Rodney Bingenheimer is playing “Semester” on the radio, our fans like it and my friends who I respect are still taking my calls, I'm finally going to concede that it's going okay.
OTW: The track is quite dreamy, though bittersweet lyrically. What came first: the music or the lyrics?
BG: The way it normally works with us is that the music & melody come first., but I'm always scribbling down stuff that gets a reaction out of me… The hope being that one day we'll be able to marry the nonsense to a piece of music and have it no longer be nonsense.
I've used this expression before, but I feel like songwriting is pick-pocketing in the dark. That's part of why it's so exciting. “Semester,” for example was just a word I had written down in the middle of the night 3 years ago… I had no idea what to do with it, zero context… I just knew that it made me feel something and it was my job to figure out why. It wasn't until we started writing this particular music that it became clear, oh this song is "Semester," and I think I know why.
OTW: I know that track was produced by the band w/ contributions from Jackson Phillips (Day Wave) - is this the only track on the record essentially self-produced? And what was it like working with Phillips?
BG: Jackson is incredible. We met last year when our bands did a West Coast tour together and became fast friends. Working with him on “Semester” and “Something Good” was inspiring. A lot of spontaneity goes into his work. The opening swelling noises in “Semester” are a mistake with the tape machine… It was a synth arpeggio sped up all crazy, and he quickly suggested we record it and have it flow throughout the entire song, which I think is partly why “Semester” has its dreamy atmosphere. Feels like exaggerating a memory… And on "Something Good," Eleisha from Hazel English was hanging out with us in his studio and started humming something to herself during the bridge… Jackson asked her to record what she was doing and she graciously agreed… and now it's my favorite moment of the song. He's really good at disrupting your work in the way it needs to be disrupted. Ian Hultquist also produced "Love Interest" with us, but the rest of the record is DB.
OTW: Then we move on to "Limelight," which seems to further romanticize the valued fleeting time with a lover through stylings that seem suited for youthful romance. What can you tell us about the track?
BG: "Limelight" actually started out this slow, moody ballad, so you're definitely not wrong about those themes… But as soon as I played an early version for the band, it became clear that's not what the song was meant to be… And that’s what great bands do; they show you what you really mean. Keith, Austin and Lucy heard the song and instinctively knew what to do with it. I'm so thankful to be a part of a project that has such a confident sound and assured chemistry… My version of "Limelight" was small and limited, while Dear Boy's interpretation was big and thrilling and cathartic. I didn't realize that the lyrics belonged in a song like that, until I started singing them against this final arrangement.
OTW: Though it's only the third song, by the time we get to "Something Good," the EP has effectively avoided "sticking" to one definitive sound. Was it intentional for this EP to showcase your versatility as a band?
BG: I think we're always chasing things that are exciting and expansive for us, but it wasn't intentional. This song is the second in a trilogy of waltz's for the band, (the third is a song called "Die"), but everything about the creation of "Something Good" was surprising to us.
OTW: And did you always know you wanted an acoustic track included? How did "Something Good" come to be?
BG: We didn't! We actually had studio time booked to work on "Anything At All," but Keith had the flu and couldn't track drums… It was Austin's idea to work it. I wrote "Something Good" with my friend April Bender and it was meant to live on an acoustic guitar, but didn't really have a sonic identity beyond that. And maybe it's my own personal bias, but I'm super over bands recording token acoustic songs for their albums, so it was important for us to take it somewhere unexpected. We threw everything we could at it; There are mountains of analog synths, distorted ebows, lap steel, a mille feuille of harmonies, down-tuned conversational elements… it's very lush and I'm sure totally annoying for our mixer, Tony Hoffer. But it was important for it to not sound like anything else and after days of concentrated studio experimentation, we got this Americana Mazzy Star dark waltz thing. But most important, it sounds like our band and it opens up a lot of portals for us in the future.
OTW: "Anything At All" quickly picks the energy back up with an energizing guitar riff and an incredibly catchy hook. Talk to us about the track and is there a story behind the spoken outro?
BG: "Anything At All" is pure "band." A song built around a guitar riff, leaning into all the things you want to hear as an audience member… But the lyrics, in Dear Boy fashion, stand in defiance of the major chords. It's about despair and making the most out of your despair.
While tracking guitars, Austin and I would end our takes with excessive and unnecessary feedback, as one does… I can assure you that it was never meant to stay… but I dunno…one day while I was recording vocals, I just heard a little epilogue in my head… I wrote it down in 2 minutes, recorded it in one take and that was it. I didn't expect it to stay in, let alone be audible… but the band liked it, Tony Hoffer liked it and I didn't hate it. Admittedly, I don't know how I could live without it now.
OTW: "Love Interest," though the closing track, is probably the most pop-centric - evoking the pop-hook laced energy of 90's college rock. What influenced the track?
BG: I remember that we were at Keith's studio and somehow the guitar theme, which sounded like early R.E.M. meets Suede, willed itself into existence. The rest is fuzzy. But I do remember that I left that night with a crudely put together basic track of the music and then spent the following two months writing the lyrics. The song is, in part, about the clumsiness and optimism of love… the joy of being out of your depth. It's a sentiment I really wanted to get right, so I obsessed over it. I still kinda want to change one or two things.
OTW: Was it a conscious decision to end the EP with the eldest single from the set, seeing as it was initially released nearly a year ago?
BG: Not so much that it was the eldest, but more that it was the first song written in what we consider to be "The Strawberry Era." And, really… the message. Like we discussed earlier, leaving the listener with hopefulness for the first time was something appealing to us.
OTW: And finally - why "Strawberry"?
BG: This sounds made up, but I had been dreaming about strawberries for the two weeks before recording "Love Interest." Every night. The image of a skeleton performing the Hamlet soliloquy to a giant strawberry, dressing in clothes with strawberries sewn into them, running through strawberry rain drops… And because I NEVER remember my dreams, it seemed impossible for it to be coincidence. I don't think I'm tuned into the will of the universe or anything like that, but I'm also not foolish enough to argue with it.