Sunday, June 24, 2012

Downtown Struts

Three minutes into Victoria!, Downtown Struts' first full-length, a fascinating thematic thread peeks from the fabric of the record.

It happens during the coarse, denim verse of “Postcards”, the record's second song. As gritty rhythm guitars reel back and forth, as drummer Zach Byrne batters his snare in a steady assault, singer and guitarist Dan Cooper caws, “It rains today / over San Francisco Bay / and to LA. / We gotta go, we gotta go / but I know we'll stay.” His voice, though melodic, drips during the last line as he relates the urgency of hitting the road.

Other than the chorus,” Cooper says, “all the verses I've said to people while being on the road—things I said to my parents and friends. I kind of decided it'd be cool to put real life words that'd I'd say on the phone into a song.”

It happens again in “Back to N.Y.”, the record's third song, during which the speaker admits to missing a friend living in faraway New York City; alongside a series of resonant, ringing chords, the song concludes with Cooper wondering, “When will you be back in the midwest?” And it happens in Victoria's fourth track, “Tim”, a song about rambling around town at night, wondering whether where they live feels like home; “Outside Chicago,” guitarist and singer Ben Hjelmstad bellows, his voice like a punch in the face, “Nobody's home / It's all right, all right.” In fact, it happens in some way on every subsequent track; cities and states are mentioned throughout the band's debut, alongside the memories they evoke.

In addition to chronicling the people and places that the band has visited during their three years together, like some sort of punk-rock travelogue, Victoria! captures the complexities of displacement—both their own displacement and that of their friends', both by choice or as an unintended consequence, both on tour and off, both as a freeing feeling and a limiting one.

For Cooper and his friends, for better or worse, home has always been wherever they happen to be. “Our group of friends,” he explains, “for as long as we can remember, we've always been travelers, whether we play music or we're photographers or filmmakers or skateboarders. I probably have twenty really good friends and I would say they're scattered around six major cities in the US.”

Downtown Struts, though, may be even more transient than the rest of their social circle. When Cooper started the band with Byrne, they were still living in Indianapolis, but moved to Chicago shortly thereafter, where they added bassist Ryan Walsh and, later, Hjelmstad to the lineup. Since the band started, they also have called Arizona and San Francisco their home.

Lately, Downtown Struts has supplied Cooper and his bandmates with a reason to remain on the move, but the band doesn't necessarily drive this desire. “Now, it's the music,” he said. “We have to because it's our job. When we were younger, I just couldn't stand still—none of us could. All of our friends were like that, we kind of got that bug to always be doing something. None of us wanted go to college; we all wanted to be in the arts in one way or another. We were like, 'We don't need school, We can do this wherever we want. Let's just go to all the places we want to live.' A lot of people say, 'That's my home. That's where I belong,' but I always felt like, as lame as it sounds, my home is not having a home. That was my identity, and that became the band's identity.

So that's why we went to Arizona,” he continues. “Because the winters are incredible. And we went to San Francisco, where there's a lot of culture and I'm from there, so it was like being home for a while.”

Rocca Ave.” is about Cooper's relationship with San Francisco. Unlike Victoria!'s other tracks—which sizzle in the intense heat of two searing guitars—this seventh song strolls to the beat built around a shuffling acoustic. As an organ gurgles melodiously in the background with Walsh's hopping bass, Cooper croons, “I stepped inside and I looked around / Nobody's home but I hear the sound of / the city street, well I can hear her / I can hear this dirty town.” The song, like its lyrics, feels melancholy, but not miserable; it expresses the sort of longing that displacement induces.

Rocca Avenue is the street that my grandparents have a house on in south San Francisco,” Cooper says. “That song was about how, every time I go back there, it doesn't feel the same as it used to. I don't really see my family like I used to because I live in the midwest now. The only time I get out there is when I'm on tour, and I try to stop by that house, but I don't always have time to do that. Every time I do, though, it just doesn't feel the same; it's bittersweet.”

Thus, many of Victoria!'s songs aren't merely about locations, but also the feelings they elicit. A theme as central to the record as displacement is the feeling of being cast aside by society—a punk-rock notion if there ever was one, but also a direct result of not having a place to call home. Downtown Struts establishes this idea on the record's prologue, where Cooper's sings, “Have you ever been face down in the gutter / Have you ever been face down on the ground / I know I have”; the same lines are belted by Hjelmstad in “Lost In America” during an explosive bridge.

Even “Southpaw,” the record's final track, is about feeling different from everyone else. “I'm actually left-handed,” Cooper admits, “and 'Southpaw' is a way of saying 'You're doing everything against the grain, the wrong way.'” Cooper uses his dexterity as a metaphor—for how he feels as both an individual as well as a musician. “I think that, for a lot of musicians that are unsuccessful,” he says, “that's kind of what they feel like sometimes.”

These thematic threads, which tie each song to one another, make Victoria! as conceptually consistent as it is musically. What makes the record most meaningful, though, is that Cooper and his bandmates didn't set out to create something conceptual. Instead, they wrote from their hearts; what came out just happened to be an honest exploration of something so central to Cooper—the search for somewhere to belong—that he could no longer ignore it. Luckily for the listener, this honesty is particularly apparent and powerful.

For now, though, Downtown Struts are not displaced. They have returned to Chicago, a city that Cooper may finally feel comfortable calling his home. “When I moved to Chicago,” he said, “I didn't really like it. But, after moving around so much, I would feel weird if I didn't live here because I love it.” He stops to snicker to himself. “That's the first time I've ever said I love it,” he confesses, “and I think I mean it.”

Here, Cooper becomes suddenly reflective. He considers what has always inspired his transience, and what is driving his desire to stay in Chicago. “I thought I hated everywhere,” he concludes, “but I think I've figured out that I pretty much just love it everywhere.”

Cooper recorded these songs from Chicago on an afternoon toward the beginning of summer. He used a phone in the home office of Byrne’s employer, the only person whose landline phone he was able to secure for the recording.

“Rocca Ave." appears on Downtown Struts' 2012 record titled Victoria!. “Password" is a Kitty Wells cover; the song originally appeared on a 1964 single.

This is the first session that Cooper recorded for the Switchboard Sessions. View and listen to the second session here.

Visit the band’s website for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. 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.

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