Thursday, August 4, 2011


In 2010, when Larcenist lost one of their songwriters, guitarist Brandon Mastrangelo and the rest of his Boston-based band took some time to re-consider their musical course.

Sure, Mastrangelo and pianist Jonathan Schoek had also been writing songs for Larcenist since the band started, so the loss of this third songwriter didn't disable them. It did, however, disorient them. “Initially, for us, it was hard because it really put things on hold,” Mastrangelo explains. “We needed to decide what we were going to sound like, if it was going to change, and how we were going to move forward. We were a little stagnant for about three or four months and didn't quite know what the next step would be.”

When Mastrangelo, Schoek, and drummer Jonathan Tompkins—the core trio that started Larcenist in 2007—decided to try writing music together again, neither the writing process nor the songs themselves were dramatically different from what they had been before; the vision that these three musicians had for the songs, though, had evolved significantly. “What came out of that were a bunch of stripped down songs,” Mastrangelo says. Unlike Larcenist's self-titled, self-released first full-length—on which the band's folk skeleton is wrapped with firm, full rock 'n' roll muscles; wheezes with country's dusty lungs; and throbs with the impassioned pulse of a punk-rock heart—the band intended to keep the bones of these songs bare.

The acoustic stuff just worked out really well,” Mastrangelo adds. “Initially, we were going to do this once and pick back up our electric instruments and keep rocking, but we just fell in love with it and just got into the sound. We all decided this is how we wanted to continue to move forward and not try to change up anything again.”

Invigorated by this new vision, Larcenist made some immediate changes before recording these songs. First, bassist Steve Terry abandoned his StingRay for a stand-up bass, an instrument with which he had no previous experience, and taught himself to play. Next, Tompkins decided to downgrade his drums to a simpler set-up. “When we were playing originally, he was playing a really large, six-piece kit,” Mastrangelo explains. “For this record, he basically took a sixteen-inch floor tom and flipped it on its side to turn it into a bass drum. He also plays a snare and a washboard, and he has one little crash cymbal attached to the kick drum, and that's all he's using. He stripped it down and really had to stretch himself to learn how to play a little differently.”

Among the most dramatic additions to Larcenist was Valentin Splett, a Swiss violinist who had been in Boston for six months before he answered the band's Craiglist ad. “We were looking for another string player to fill out this EP and had no intention of making him or her a full time member of the band or anything,” Mastrangelo tells. “We just wanted someone to track these songs, but weren't really having much luck until we came across Val, and it instantly worked.” Splett, who has played violin since he was five and moved to Boston to perform in the symphony, had never previously performed with a rock band. “He's a phenomenal guy,” Mastrangelo continues, “and has quickly become a close friend.”

With this stripped down instrumentation and these additional strings, Larcenist recorded We Become the Hunted, a five song EP that effectively executes their new primitive vision on several levels, including the way in which the record was recorded: live and in a single day. As a result the instruments on a song like “Ocean City, Swallowing” feel as if they've melted together. Splett's violin weaves between the pickets of Schoek's piano, dodges the daubs of Tompkin's tambourine, and swirls around the swishes of brushes swiping against a snare drum; rarely does it emerge for some sort of solo or lead. Mastrangelo's acoustic guitar and Terry's deep, doleful bass act as the song's breath, keeping the beat almost unnoticeably.

Though this same simplicity appears as a lyrical theme throughout We Become the Hunted, it's at its most powerful and present on the EP's opener “Leon”, a song about Mastrangelo's father. “Never been much for fast talking or shiny things / Working on the land and the steel got me where I am today,” Mastrangelo sings, the second verse continuing to shuffle behind him, when his lyrics reveal the speaker's core conflict, “And now I'm raising a family that's caught up in finer things / What's going to happen when I'm not around to fix your kitchen sink / Or hunt to fill the freezer full of meat?”

It's a song that I think I've been trying to write for a long time,” Mastrangelo admits. “I speak through my father's voice about raising kids that didn't quite appreciate some of the values that he was trying to instill on us at the time—myself and two sisters. Personally, I didn't take much interest in swinging a hammer or going hunting. I look back, though, and I really feel like I missed out on opportunities to be taught a lot of important skills and traits.”

In many ways, We Become the Hunted is an exercise in (and exhibition of) addition by subtraction. Musically, it's a demonstration that power doesn't always come from distortion pedals and Triple Rectifiers; lyrically, it's a plead to appreciate the simplicity of family, friends, youth, and love. Maybe more importantly, though, this EP is proof of the power of searching for and finding one's voice, of taking a risk and following what feels right, regardless of whether it seems sudden or strange or uncertain.

For Larcenist, following what feels right may not mean writing stripped-down songs as much as it means writing songs with friends. “The best thing is that we're all buddies,” Mastrangelo says. “I really feel like we'll be that group of guys where, if a lot of ears don't perk up, we'll still keep writing music in some way, shape, or form.” It just so happens that the former makes the latter more likely, and maybe more fun.

Mastrangelo sent an email initiating this Switchboard Session in February, and faithfully followed up in the summer to nail down a date when there were more dates available. He recorded these songs using the conference phone in the office at which he works on a Sunday afternoon in the summer.

"Leon" appears on Larcenist's 2011 record titled We Become the Hunted. At the time of it's recording, Mastrangelo's second song had yet to be titled and was not intended for any specific release; he does cite a song from Drive By Trucker's most recent album as influential to the song. "Oh My Sweet Carolina" is a Ryan Adams cover; the song originally appeared on the 2000 album Heartbreaker.

Visit the band's Tumblr blog for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

Read more articles.