On the opening track of Extra Arms' new record, Up From Here, singer and guitarist Ryan Allen sings, "Fuck last year."
Not to indulge in the cliché of "songwriting as therapy," but in the case of the eightsongs that make up the band's new release, the result is exactly that.
"As violent or outwardly effecting as it can be to hear someone singing 'Fuck last year,' I just knew that in order for myself to heal, I had to purge all those feelings," Allen says, sitting in a living room encircled by three dudes in majority black attire: Extra Arms lead guitarist Michael Gallacher, bassist Ryan Marshall, and recently joined drummer Daniel Stover. "I knew I couldn't start to figure out how to navigate this situation without doing this."
"This" is the lyrical content that builds the new album by Extra Arms, out this week, and the "situation" is not veiled in any metaphors in the album's lyrics, as it includes, among other things, the end of a long-term relationship.
The message from the band, upon encountering their singer in such a state, was, "Let's keep going," Gallacher says. "These songs are pissed off and mad, so let's get loud."
During the process, the band "bonded," says Allen, "And I think you can feel it on the new record. Like, OK, within the span of four months, we're going to write an entire record, while also performing shows, and then record it entirely, but we're also going to California to record it, and we're going to lock ourselves into this industrial studio space and get everything done in five days."
"From writing the songs, to demoing, to actually recording them, it was so quick, so there wasn't time to overthink anything," Gallacher says.
It all started when the band sent last year's very kick-ass Headacher to California-based engineer and musician Paul Miner — whose production credits includes albums by punk heavy-hitters like New Found Glory, Thrice, and Agnostic Front — to mix and master after all tracking was completed in Michigan.
"He did an amazing job on that one," Gallacher says. "So when it came time to do this new record, he said he really wanted to record the whole thing. But I told him, 'Dude, you're 2,000 miles away and this band never has any money ... which is a byproduct of why we record so fast." The band said "fuck it" and went and did it anyway because of how much they trusted Miner to capture the sound perfectly.
Gallacher describes Miner as "the George Martin of punk rock," referring to the "Fifth Beatle." Allen, meanwhile, posits that even if the whole California trip and the general tracking process was a whirlwind, they were still able to add a lot of textures and vocal harmonies to make this a unique standout in the developing canon of Extra Arms. He compares the end result to fitting somewhere between the punk aggression of the Ramones and the vocal theatrics of the Zombies.
Allen has been around the Detroit music scene for 20 years (as has Gallacher), and his early synth-punk/noise-pop band Thunderbirds Are Now! had a hot streak in the early 2000s. During that time, they managed to garner quite a bit of buzz from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, wound up getting on a national record label (Frenchkiss, home to Les Savy Fav, the Hold Steady, and Passion Pit, among others) and playing high-profile shows (including tours with the likes of early-aughts indie stalwarts like Minus the Bear and Enon, as well as an appearance at the very first Pitchfork festival in Chicago).
While Thunderbirds have slowed to occasional one-off appearances over the years, Allen kept busy with other projects. He angled his knack for writing angular three-minute power-pop songs with indelible choruses into the Pixies-indebted Friendly Foes. Then, in 2010, he apprehensively — but as a personal challenge — presented himself as a "solo project." While he was still making guitar-centric music influenced by the likes of Superchunk and Guided By Voices, he consciously chose to wear his heart on his sleeve for the first handful of releases billed as "Ryan Allen & His Extra Arms," writing songs about fatherhood and settling into domestic bliss. He played most of the instruments on the recordings himself.
Before Headacher, Marshall (also of the new-wavy Palaces) and Gallacher (who was working on a project called Monarchs) hopped aboard to become permanent members, with Stover hitching a ride less than a year ago after original drummer Sean Sommer stepped back from the group. "This is definitely the 'punk-est' record I've ever played on," Marshall admits, who considers his comfort zone to be nearer to the hazier realms of shoegaze and dream-pop. "But I like doing something different. It's fun to play a bunch of fast songs. And playing with Dan is the easiest time I've had playing with any drummer; he's super consistent and never has an attitude."
"I'm objectively in too many bands in Detroit," says Stover, who plays drums with like-minded punks Break Anchor, Reuther, and Splitters. His union with the group seemed like destiny, though. Reuther shares a record label with Extra Arms, and all of his bands have shared a stage with Allen-led projects over the years. Stover even lived a mere half-a-block away from where Allen was living at the time. When Stover found out Sommer was taking a break from playing music, Allen recalls, "Dan basically said, 'I'll play!'"
"Hearing everything in context and what all these songs were about, I knew I couldn't fuck this up," Stover says, referring to the lyrical content heard on Up From Here. "They gave me demos, and I got cracking."
"But also [Stover] didn't know songs could be under 200 beats-per-minute," Gallacher quips. "But yeah, there was a fast-forwarded intimacy with him joining and us getting right to work on the record."
Allen's brothers in rock weren't just holding his hand or patting him on the back through this rough patch. Instead, the band's input helped him navigate what is effectively a concept record. There was one song — the crunchy but atmospheric "Space Jam" — that Gallacher admits "I hated," at first. "It's not in my job title to worry so much about the lyrics, so I think I'm always the first to say whether something isn't a good idea or that we should take something in another direction."
"But you challenged me to think about it another way," Allen says. "And now I think the song is better for it, fits perfectly in the narrative, is super meaningful, and one of my favorites on the record."
"You could have four people executing the same exact vision, but I prefer — as frustrating as it can be sometimes — having all of these different opinions and perspectives," Allen says. "I mean, I'm going to write songs regardless of if it's going to be used in a band or not. But there's nothing like that overwhelming feeling of physically being in a room with other people and their instruments — just a mess of wires, drums, and amps. And it doesn't matter if we always agree. What we are, and what you hear on this record, is this band."
Even if it starts in the depths of anguish, the chorus of the first song — "FUCK LAST YEAR!" — forms the acronym "F.L.Y." The chorus of the album's closer and title track is "You can only go up from here." And when the emotional rush of the album is over, there's no other choice but to agree.
Extra Arms celebrates a release party for Up From Here with Hidebehind on Saturday, Nov. 2 at Bowlero Lanes & Lounge, 4209 Coolidge Hwy., Royal Oak; 248-549-7500; bowlerodetroit.com. Doors at 8 p.m. No cover.
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