(originally published in Star News, with additional Q and A below)
By Brian Tucker
It took several changes of scenery to complete Baby Grand, the new album from The Love Language. The erratic, sometimes truncated recording process for Stuart McLamb, the heart of the band, ultimately helped get it made. A North Carolina native, he moved to Los Angeles in 2017 with what would become Baby Grand in limbo.
“I lived in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Winston-Salem a little, lived in Wilmington,” McLamb said as he drove through rural back roads to visit family before the tour begins. “I was bouncing around North Carolina like a pinball, never quite got out. It was good for me to make a big jump.”
The production path is as erratic as the album’s sonic palette. Styles are all over the place and it works superbly. From spare country numbers (“Southern Doldrums”) to electronic (the infectious “Juiceboxx”) and bash and pop (“Castle in the Sky”), Baby Grand feels like midnight to sunrise, beginning with the colorfully brash “Frames” and ending on the gentle “Glassy.” Songs were initially written in Raleigh, but burned out from living in the Triangle Area, McLamb cleared his head staying at his brother’s home in Roanoke, Virginia.
“I had a great network of friends and musicians, but at the same time I needed a challenge in my life. I got to a point where I was un-enthusiastic about things and I knew that was wrong.”
He spent six months making sense of folders of numerous song demos, writing new ones, and trying to shape a record from so many choices. He was thinking of making a country record, or a noisy, experimental record, or something old school Love Language, but realized it would take years to make those albums. Instead, he chose ideas from each for Baby Grand, the result becoming like a playlist, or even a compilation.
“I get bored and wanted to try out different styles. I have a lot of respect for very cohesive things, like a Ramones record, but at this point what I wanted was to express a lot of curiosities and travel around a little bit (musically).”
Excited about the idea, his self-imposed pressure to finish in Roanoke didn’t happen. He also “hit it off quickly” with someone there who became his girlfriend. They decided to carve out a new life from scratch in Los Angeles. The move fostered new confidence, and clarity. McLamb rented a rehearsal space, revisited songs, and two months later flew to Greensboro. At Legitimate Business Studio Kris Hilbert who became instrumental in shaping the album’s sound.
“He’s one of the best we’ve got in North Carolina, a crazy talented dude. The final thing was taking these demos to him, and Hilbert transferring them from my laptop. How they sound is night and day.”
Baby Grand is the fourth Love Language album, and like 2013’s Ruby Red it illustrates a proclivity to move beyond what came before – the summer-y, 60s pop of their surprising debut and sophomore album Libraries. Ruby Red was bigger sonically, and darker McLamb says. Baby Grand is a glowing step forward, and leads to wondering what those albums the song ideas came from would have been like. But it’s the songs longing for something new, like “Let Your Hair Down,” that give the album weight.
“Lyrically, I think it was about me in a place very much longing to move, a daydream feeling that I should. That was all written prior to moving to L.A., making that happen, that was a little bit of a prophecy, I guess.”
Living the last year or so in L.A., are you enjoying the change of scenery?
McLamb: I really am. It’s been crucial as I’ve never done that before. It was good for me to make a big jump. It feels refreshing to get back. I was at that point of living in L.A. that I was ready for a vacation too.
I’m from North Carolina, born and raised in Cary, the Apex area, and suburbs of Raleigh., My girlfriend and I just flew in from L.A. and we’re staying with her family and seeing my brother the next three days. Then we start tour. I’m pumped. It’s been hustling in the city and its been since maybe 2014 or 2015 playing in Wilmington. It’s been a minute for sure.
I’ve seen the band play Tiki Bar, at Gravity Records, at The Soapbox. The band, the music, seems to fit in almost anywhere.
I really appreciate that. I think about that sometimes, how to define the band, the music, there’s been some shows we’ve played, for instance we played the Tiki Bar which was great, a lot of family and kids and we tailored the set list to get that vibe. Then there’s been sweaty, beer soaked shows at Reggie’s and that’s been fun. I feel like we do our thing but at the same time, like a comedian needs to read the room, or a DJ, and change your delivery based on the room.
Each Love Language album is different but you keep the core but play around too.
Exactly, yeah. It was like, when it took so long to get done, I feel like people misunderstand…I may be getting off subject here. People are like, ‘how come it takes you five years to make a record?’ They’re imagining me every day working on the record and it’s not really like that. You’re always working and trying to make sense of stuff, but I had multiple folders of demos. I was thinking about doing a country record, or a noisy, experimental record, or old school Love Language.
Then I made sense of it in a four month period of what it was actually going to be and finished and completed the songs. But I had to go through the process to get it done. I feel like that’s why I feel like the songs jump around. I cherry picked them from all these different folders and ideas for records. (I decided) I’m just going to put it together like a mixtape, mix it up a little bit, ones that I felt, even if they were different, I felt that they could flow together like a playlist.
Hearing “Juiceboxx,” I thought you might have been hanging out with Howard Ivans. Your new record has some danceable songs.
I love Ivan, he’s in Portland. We’ve texted a few times in the last few months. I need to go see him. No, I think people listen to a lot more (music). I think you have less people, what would I say, like cliques, people don’t just listen to country. I feel people are subjected to so much more music from playlists and the internet in general – this constant faucet of information. I think that’s reflected in the stuff I wrote.
I’ve talked to a lot of musicians that feel like that. Its almost like being in one genre, as much as I have respect for that, I get kind of bored and want to try out different styles. I do have a lot of respect for very cohesive things, whether it’s After the Gold Rush, or a Ramones album, or a restaurant that serves just cheeseburgers. I do have a lot of respect for that kind of thing. But at this point for me what I wanted was to express a lot of curiosities and travel around a little bit (musically).
Is the album part east coast and part west coast in terms of writing and recording?
I’d say that it’s mostly east coast, a lot of early demos was written in North Carolina and the I made sense of everything in Roanoke, Virginia. I lived there for about five or six months with my brother and sister-in-law. I built a little studio which was the first phase of the album. Some of the stuff recorded in that studio remained on the album. Songs that have less of a room sound of drums, like “Juiceboxx” and “Let Your Hair Down,” those drums were all recorded in Roanoke and the bigger, more room-y drums were recorded in Greensboro with Kris Hilbert.
He’s just one of the best we’ve got in North Carolina. He really cares about it, just a crazy talented dude. He gives 100% and doesn’t just show up and really puts so much into this. The final thing was me taking these demos to him, transferring them into how they sound is night an day. He’s instrumental in how a lot the things sound. I worked with Kris on the Soon A.D. record. That’s when he and I hit it off and worked well together. There was two separate sessions for Baby Grand. We started a session and I wasn’t happy, and it was mostly the songs I brought in. We kept four of them that ended up on Baby Grand.
It’s a hard record to describe the process in a simple way. Demos written in Raleigh made sense in Roanoke, and then didn’t quite make sense of it in Roanoke. Then I wasn’t sure if, like am I even going to do a record, even going to do Love Language? I was in a weird spot. I was excited but I put this pressure on myself to finish this record in Roanoke and it didn’t quite get done. And then I moved to L.A. with my girlfriend, who I met and we hit it off really quickly in Roanoke.
That was a real exciting thing, to decide to start something fresh and I think a fresh mentality gave me a confidence and clarity that I could re-approach the stuff I worked on and complete it. And pretty quickly, in a two month period, I rented out a rehearsal space in L.A., nothing fancy, and put the final touches on it. When I realized I had the record written and recorded I flew to Greensboro. Kris was crazy instrumental, I feel like I haven’t given him enough credit, in the actual album and how you hear it. He mixed it and we worked on these demo sessions I had done on my laptop and then we re-recorded stuff, actual drums, actual synthesizers.
Did the demos graduate to the record? Are they close?
We actually worked off my original demo sessions in the studio in Greensboro. We listened to it – this song has a really good vibe but has some fidelity issues, this tone isn’t good. The overall vibe was good in the demo. We really just re-tracked stuff we had issues with but kept the same vibe. It was like sculpting, chiseling away. We didn’t start from scratch but take an element away and replace it. I would have fake drums on a demo and mute that and have Tom the drummer come in and play drums. The writing process was scattered over a three year period, the demos got 70% there in Roanoke, then 80% there in L.A. and then I flew to Greensboro and they got a 100% in the studio.
The album doesn’t follow a straight line, songs have their own personas. It’s like a greatest hits album.
I had a song like “Glassy,” that was something I was thinking about for a country record. Then a song like “Shared Spaces” was for an electronic record. I had all these songs in different styles intended for different albums. I realized this is going to take me years to get all these done so I picked my favorites and its almost like a compilation. The thing is, in the demo process, I was always like, this is way different, maybe this isn’t a Love Language song, but I’m going to have fun with it. At the end after trying all the stuff it did make sense in this capacity.
Would this be a different record if you hadn’t gone to Roanoke?
Yeah, for sure. As far as what was written, I think “Juiceboxxx” was written from scratch in Roanoke. I think some others were sort of finessed. A lot of it musically, and even some of the lyrics, were written prior to Roanoke. But in Roanoke I found a lot of clarity in that. I was in a little bit of a rough patch for a couple of years in the Triangle Area, just some personal stuff or whatever. I didn’t have a lot of clarity. I was writing some stuff, some of the music was promising, and had some ideas but couldn’t finish it. I was too cloudy. Sometimes with art, it can make something kind of crazy but sometimes it takes a clear vantage point to finish. So that’s what happened in Roanoke, it wasn’t so much that I wrote a lot but that I made sense of things. But there was a few songs written in the process.
Do you feel when making a record it’s more instinctual, and later on you look back and see what was going on?
I completely identify with that. (Ruby Red), it’s so funny, I haven’t listened to that in so long. That’s actually tricky, what is the vibe of Ruby Red?
Is that the record you ‘graduated’ with?
I would say…the first one was done with discovery, working with a simple recording device. Being like, I can multi-track and make bigger songs than just a guy with a guitar. That was the first album, the second (Libraries) was in the studio. These albums are so influenced by the people in my life, the situations that paint it. I almost feel like Ruby Red is a little darker, maybe, if there was one word I would pick, I think its not as summer-y as the other albums.
I think the first album was a little murky in production value, even the songs were like…that album has some psychedelic stuff, a country song, some pop. The second album, I was going for a sort of embracing a very summer-y pop thing, that was the direction I was going for – real 60s, Burt Bacharach, Ray Davies, sort of influences, and once you get two albums from a band, then you can sort of define them.
We got pigeon-holed as a 60s throwback, nostalgia, summertime band. Not that that’s even bad but that’s not me, the band is a reflection of me and my personality, so whatever happened after that has been a reflection of my life and personality. But I definitely think things got a little harder to define for a music writer or something.
“Let Your Hair Down” from the new album almost like a torch song.
Yeah, that was very inspired by bands like the Chi-Lites, those doo-wop groups with big harmonies and vocals mixed really loud, the drums and rhythm section mixed low. The song was written almost more of a breezy Neil Young style, the first actual demo of that. It was a very different feel, a lot faster, a little more upbeat. That was written in Raleigh and in Roanoke I gave it that doo-wop treatment and slowed it down and that’s when it made sense. Lyrically, I think it was about me in a place very much longing to move, a daydream feeling that I should do.
Were you burned out in the Triangle Area after a while?
Yeah, you know its tough too say. I think about that a lot. I think about being in L.A. and hustling, being the new guy in town, trying to get on some shows and people declining me. But its good, its humbling. In North Carolina I had a great network of friends and musicians, but at the same time I needed a challenge in my life. I think I got to a point where I was un-enthusiastic about things and I knew that was wrong. This has really re-invigorated me, this move.
What’s most curious thing about L.A. for you?
We knew it was going to be hustle, broke as hell for a while. I do think I didn’t realize how stupid expensive it was going to be. But we stuck it out. Me and my girlfriend Megan lived in a studio apartment for a long time with my friend Justin, bed sheets attached to the ceiling. Our mentality when we got there was we’ll do this for a few months, because we have to get our footing and figure some things out, it’ll be like summer camp for a few months.
And we stayed there a lot longer. It’s crazy out there, it’s just so expensive. We finally got a nice place that we’re happy with. There’s just a lot of people there. There’s something that still very alluring to me about it. There’s always some new experience to check out. It does always feel like it’s about to fall into the ocean or run out of water in the next thirty minutes.