Holed up in their unfinished practice space beside a metal machine shop on Raleigh's Capital Boulevard, the six members of the band Annuals are deciding which songs to cram into a 30-minute set. In two days, they'll drive six hours north to Baltimore to play a showcase for industry executives, and they need to turn heads.
Kenny Florence, Annuals' lead guitarist, leans against his amplifier and pulls a notebook from his pocket, fielding setlist suggestions from the rest of his bandmates, huddled alternately behind a keyboard and a slide-guitar stand, two drum sets, a maze of quarter-inch cables and interlocked microphones. Adam Baker, Annuals' lead singer and songwriter, helps Anna Spence lift her keyboard stand, while Nick Radford and Zack Oden trade drum fills.
Someone suggests they play "Brother," which builds from whispery nostalgia to a triumphant chorus of violins and guitars. It was the surprise hit from their 2006 debut, Be He Me, released by a small New York independent label, Ace Fu. It was recorded in this room.
"We're trying to impress these suits," Radford opines.
But Florence retorts: "They're not putting out our last record."
Just three years ago, Ace Fu signed Annuals after discovering the dreamy, shape-shifting songs they had written, recorded and posted online. Annuals made most of that music in the decidedly un-soundproofed industrial space in which they're practicing tonight. Though three sets of doors couldn't keep the noise of the manufacturing company next door out, that material—recorded at all hours of the night, without guidance or rules from an outside producer or concern for time or a budget—helped the band find the big, busy rock sound that's landed them a major-label recording contract. Indeed, though no one in this cramped space is older than 24, they'll release Such Fun, their first record for a major label, on Oct. 7. The first music video from the record is bound for MTV2 soon, and the band leaves in four weeks for a three-month tour in support of indie stalwarts Minus the Bear. Basically, any day now, Annuals could be gigantic.
"We're trying to get somewhere," Baker explains, as the band takes a break to watch the rain from a concrete-floored loading dock. "Since this [record] is the one that's being pushed, we're going to try to push it as hard as we can. It's not a lot of money to split among a lot of people."
In the end, "Brother" is scrapped for a roots-influenced, heavily rhythmic, eight-song set, comprised entirely of songs from Such Fun. They recorded most of the album themselves, which they say gave them the freedom to build the songs over four month's time. After all, that's what they've always done best.
In 2006, the basement-tape earnestness of Be He Me caught the attention of bloggers, fans and even Rolling Stone, who declared it "studied artiness mingling with youthful exuberance." The record catapulted Annuals into the limelight—an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, several opening dates with The Flaming Lips, and a legion of fans in places flung from Seattle to London.
It also earned them their current contract with Canvasback Music, a Sony imprint, and a sizable budget for the record that became Such Fun. But instead of paying top-dollar for a high-end studio, Annuals spent much of that to improve their home recording space—a ranch house in Raleigh, where Florence lives. With their new equipment and improved soundproofing, the band recorded most of Such Fun at Florence's house, between dual two-week sessions in Echo Mountain Recording Studio, a nice, professional room in Asheville.
"Confessor," Such Fun's opening track and first single, was recorded entirely in Asheville with Jacquire King, a producer who's worked with Tom Waits and Modest Mouse. Its slick production is markedly different from the largely self-recorded business of Be He Me. Baker says King pushed him to treat his voice like his instrument, and their collaboration resulted in a fullness and precision not present on Be He Me.
But Baker and King's respective creative processes were often at odds. Annuals liked to build their work in the studio, while King wanted them to come in with a better idea of what they wanted from the top. After finishing "Confessor," Baker wanted to record "Wake," the album's final song, and his favorite—even though, at that point, it was just four piano lines and an idea. Baker says King was frustrated.
"I went in there and said, 'Yeah, that's it. I don't really have a vocal, or anything going. But, let's start building. I think I'll put drums to it next,'" Baker says, as the band drives back home from several days of interviews in New York. "[King] was like, 'Hold on, what? You don't have the arrangement done yet, but you want to do drums now?'"
That's what Baker was used to doing back in Raleigh. So, between sessions in Asheville with King, Annuals returned to the home studio to build the songs, track by track. During the next session in Asheville, King better understood the direction of the partially constructed songs.
"That's just part of what I like so much about [recording] at home. You don't have to explain what you're doing. You know how it's going to work out," Baker says. "As long as there's some sort of knowledge of keeping respect for soundwaves, and making sure you're not letting annoying noise bleed in, you can take it anywhere and put it together."
When the recording process began dragging, King bowed out. So, the band went back home and kept recording. When they'd reached a satisfactory point with a song, they took it to Ian Schreier, an engineer at Osceola Recording Studios in Raleigh. Together, they fine-tuned the home recordings. Somehow, on Such Fun, the hybridized approach works. It's bigger, better and more precise than Be He Me.
"I feel like a lot of really good ideas were on the [first] record, but not exactly done justice to, just because we had no idea that this record was going to be the one that would really start what we hope to be our careers," reckons Baker, who locked himself in the Capital Boulevard space for days at a time to record Be He Me. He kept awake with Adderall, and the songs slowly evolved over a two-year gestation period. "When I step back and listen to it, I think, 'Fuck, I wish I could've heard that more clearly. I wish these drums didn't sound like bird's nests hitting the ground.'"
For a band that has achieved such acclaim before any member's 25th birthday, Annuals remain relentlessly self-critical, and they see their modest success not as a validation of their talent but as an opportunity to improve. Most members of the group have been playing together, in one form or another, since middle school. Baker played drums in Sedona, which Florence now fronts under the name Sunfold. All six members of Annuals also play in Sunfold, which released its debut album earlier this year. Several members were in a pop-punk outfit in high school. Spence, a classically trained keyboardist, is the relative newcomer. She joined Annuals in 2005.
"We all critique ourselves, and we all critique each other," says bassist Mike Robinson on the way up to Annuals' show in Baltimore. "I really think that this particular group of individuals has a good chemistry for that. I've seen it over our touring and playing together—we've all improved, and we all still want to get better. ... We're all right there with each other."
Because they don't ship off to a recording studio outside of town, the members of Annuals tend to isolate themselves while they're recording, even if they're at home. As the band has grown together, they've grown apart from the rest of their lives—most notably in the studio, where Annuals' obsessive self-criticism peaks. Increasingly, they find it difficult to stay connected with others while pursuing their career so intensely. Robinson admits he hasn't had a girlfriend since the band was signed.
"It's the hardest part of recording," says Baker, who has dated his girlfriend for eight years and insists they will one day marry. "She knows how completely devoted I am to music, and how the band has been at this for so long [...] but it's hard at the end of the day. It ends up that you have two different lives."
"The Tape," a lonely piano ballad on Such Fun, describes the "ballast of obsessive dispel" that is the band's recording life, which they live for, but which keeps them away from everyone but themselves: "What must I say to keep you all day, any day?" Baker sings. "What must I say to change your mind?/ Maybe if I could turn off the tape, rub the death from my face/ Head home, and forget all my songs."
"That's true for everyone in the band," he adds. "We live different lifestyles. It's not even a rock star lifestyle; it's working in a different way than most people do. [...] When we come, everyone thinks we were just having fun and getting drunk. It's hard to relate. And it's hard with relationships. Our lives are definitely progressing. We're less and less a part of them every day. It definitely took its toll. It's still taking its toll."
Still, it's unlikely Annuals will turn off the tape anytime soon. All six members talk about the band as their career and each other as their best friends, something Robinson says has played "a big part in keeping everything together, and keeping us improving." And Baker is already planning the group's third album, which he envisions as a complete return to the recording style of their debut, but with the technical knowledge they gained from King and the equipment they bought with their recording budget.
"I definitely want to return to that recording style, because it was so fun—it was completely free," he says. Baker works best "in isolation, late at night, when there's nobody looking over your shoulder," he says. The band hopes to pitch the idea of an entirely home-recorded album to its label bosses as a less tumultuous process. The title Such Fun is a sarcastic poke at the creative battles they waged in professional recording studios and won, ultimately, at home.
"This whole thing was really hard to make the label feel OK with," Baker says. "They're used to an entirely different kind of band, and songwriter—someone who does it all advance and throws it down in the studio. I just like having as many options as possible with the songs—I think it creates the most interesting thing that you can get."