Young Narrator in the Breakers utilises the writing talents of all the five band members who recorded it, Eliza Bagg, Oliver Hill, Austin Vaughn, Ian Romer and the now departed Nolan Green.
The New York based Pavo Pavo, signed to Bella Union, released their debut album last week. It’s a record that’s beautifully nostalgic, which seeks to recreate the sounds of the past from the future, that muses on loss, the transition into adulthood and moving to New York. In the midst of their first UK tour they took some time out to take us through Young Narrator in the Breakers track by track, and you can also listen to the record in full below.
“Ran Ran Run” is the only track on the record that was more or less started and finished in one day. We had booked three days to record with Sam Cohen in Nate Martinez's Carroll Gardens Brownstone and we had a few songs demoed out and ready to go. But on the second day we came up with the verse melody ("Time is a hole in my head") and thought, ‘Why don't we try to turn this new one into a finished thing by the time we leave tomorrow?’ Sometimes that's a bad idea, but this time it was a good idea. Sam played drums and we played the rest and we didn't record our other songs!
Oliver wrote this tune on an Omnichord, a funny little synth made by Suzuki in the 80s. It plays the hook at the top, we were thinking a lot about "sonic hooks" - how can the notes/rhythms/instrument/sound of a bit of music be woven together into one package? I think we achieved that here, because that melody can't really be translated to any instrument other than the Omnichord. The lyrics on most of the record are about moving to New York City and its accompanying joys and sorrows - we wrote all the songs in our first year or two living here and most people agree the experience is a shock to the system. "Annie Hall" is about the best parts of the city, the romantic moments, when you're not getting parking tickets or walking ten blocks to the laundromat. "The bridge is like a harp tonight" is about that feeling, walking in Dumbo and seeing the Brooklyn Bridge and feeling like the whole city is vibrating in sync.
We recorded this one at a studio in Woodstock called Applehead, under the steady hands of Danny Molad. We started with that low guitar lick and four-on-the-floor and then thought it could be cool to have us singing really high three-part harmonies, so there's a gulf of space in between those elements. From there, the lyrics came about - with the whole song in wall-to-wall harmony, it felt like we needed to be saying a sort of mantra as a group, instead of writing personal lyrics. Oliver had just watched the Kenneth Anger documentary Scorpio Rising about biker gangs and wrote some stuff reflecting on their death-obsessed culture and the self-fulfilling prophecy of spending your life obsessing over something as dangerous as motorcycle racing, "You can buy the bike today and choose to die another way." The fairy dust on this recording was a bunch of chopped up, collage-ified strings and pianos that we made on a 4-track and overlaid. Special shout out to Eliza for playing drums on this one.
This song came together very piecemeal - all the different parts originally belonged in other songs, that type of thing. At one point there was a long outro section that sped up and modulated like crazy but we said ‘enough is enough’ and just looped and faded out that vocal melody at the end, since its circular nature made it feel like a point of arrival after a journey.
This was meant to be a tip of the hat to our chamber music background, Eliza and Oliver met playing in a string quartet and I think this band will always operate like a chamber group on some levels - listening, dynamics, moving and breathing as one. So we recorded this live in one take, Oliver on mellotron, Eliza on Casio CZ-101 (the whistle and lawnmower sounds), Nolan on guitar and Sam downstairs making the percussion sounds on a Funmachine. Then one of us said "We should call this something like ‘A Quiet Time with Spaceman Sputz’." From there, Spaceman Sputz became a kind of a musical character, or an atmosphere that exists a lot on this record - this piece is his world.
This is the oldest song on the record and very much a Nolan song. As you might know, he lives in Los Angeles and isn't in the band anymore, so it feels a little complicated putting this on the record, but it also feels like an honest reflection of the whole arc of writing and recording. Partly because the song is about touring and friendships with bandmates – ‘Hanging on those summer days / Something that you cannot overrate.’ He's playing Wurlitzer and singing lead. For the guitar sound, we turned the reverb on full blast and used a volume pedal to fade in shards of reverb sound with no attack. We miss you Nolan!
We recorded this with Danny at his apartment in Ditmas Park on a beautiful fall day. We got morning coffee at Cafe Madeline, dinner at Cafe Tibet and had such a grand time that we decided to move to the neighbourhood and we've been there since, so this recording is very "Ditmas Park". The lyrics are very much about New York as well; finding beauty in the constant grime, "In the smog your perfume is the elephant in the room." It's about as close as we get to a love song on this record.
Eliza wrote this song on the Omnichord on tour in Iowa. It's maybe our most harmonically adventurous song - the chords kind of crawl around and follow their own logic. Going into the third verse ("How can I bury all your graces?"), the change from E major to Bb minor is about as strange as it gets - Eliza grew up with a lot of Joni Mitchell and I think her influence is apparent in those kinds of jarring juxtapositions. We were also really excited about how the drums came out. We blended live drums with the built-in drum machine on the Omnichord and ran them through echo and tweaked the delay time throughout, so there are trails of varying lengths adding to the swirl of the track.
This one was recorded about six months after the rest - we had a new batch of songs and wanted to commit some of them to tape, with no real intention of putting them on the record. But this one kind of ran with the pack and it's nice when one track on any given record seems to point toward the next record. I feel that way about "The Sprawl II" (from Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs) pointing toward Reflektor, and "Oh! You Pretty Things" pointing toward Ziggy Stardust. The MVP on this recording, which we made at Saltlands studio in Dumbo (rest in peace), is Ian tearing on his Hofner bass.
This one went through lots of different iterations. First it was on a 12-string guitar then it had a sort of island feel with shakers and woodblocks, before finally arriving at the idea of a murky intro blooming into hi-fi retro pop. The lyrics are about Nolan's family friend John French in the hospital - saying goodbye with the 2012 London Olympics on in the background. We also recorded a song called "Best Friend" about elementary school and thought of making these two a 7" about the bookends of life, but for now John lives here and we'll release “Best Friend” at some point. The intro was the first time we used an echoplex tape echo, we put it on the piano, cello and Eliza's vocal because it sounds unbelievably cool on everything.
This was purely a little moment of studio fun that we wanted to keep on the record, both as a breather from all the dense songs and because the pulsing synths and guitars seemed to roll like waves, which suited the title and themes. It started with the kick and snare (plus flanger!) then we added a few layers of a synth called “Volca keys” and just piled guitars and things on from there, muting and unmuting to give it shape. It's also nice as a sort of intro to “2020, We’ll Have Nothing Going On”, an optional extension of that suite.
This song was our first collaboration with Sam Cohen - we recorded it at Seaside Lounge in Park Slope with him behind the desk and playing bass. I could listen to his bass part in the intro a hundred times in a row. The lyrics are kind of an answer to “Annie Hall”, about the more harrowing parts of living in the city - saving up for rent, scrambling to make plans and then the chorus is a portal into a fictional, easier place - the country. "I'm a platform cowboy now" captures that struggle, trying to be a city kid and a country kid at once. In the outro we wanted to express that easy place musically, so we triple-tracked three part harmonies to evoke the sounds of shaker and hymnal singing. Eliza's violin playing in the outro is also very loose and free, so it feels almost like a hoedown cast in a stranger setting.
Young Narrator in the Breakers is available now on Bella Union