Perfection is better in concept than practice, as most anyone who's lived with a perfectionist will tell you. Reconciling one's ideal world with the reality we inhabit is a daily struggle, one that's even more vexing when it comes to a work of art over which you're presumed to have complete control. It nearly brought down the Chapel Hill band The Honored Guests until they learned to scale their ambitions and expectations to a place where the means of playing music were as important as the ends of making the perfect record.
That struggle is encapsulated not only in the title of the Guests' third album, Please Try Again, but also in the songs themselves. Sure, the album suggests The Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin with its richly layered songs, oddly shaped and resolutely catchy arrangements and dreamy countenance. But rather than being infused with hope, Please Try Again comes shadowed by a sense of frustration and dissipation, tracing a psyche at war with itself.
"It's very much a record about that time and that struggle. In a lot of ways, the record is about the making of that record. It's not shiny and happy at all," says frontman Russell Baggett. "It's pretty dark. It comes from a pretty dark place."
The Honored Guests began more than 15 years ago, in a Fayetteville basement where bassist Jeremy Buenviaje taught Baggett how to play guitar. At college in Chapel Hill, the pair hooked up with drummer Andrew Kinghorn to form the terse, tense rock band Milo. Graduation scattered Milo's members in all directions, but the bond between Kinghorn and Baggett remained strong. They continued to exchange ideas while living in different European countries. When they returned to America, they again recruited Buenviaje, and later keyboardist Patrick O'Neill, to become The Honored Guests.
They chased their debut, Iawokeinacityasleep, with the challenging experimental pop of Tastes Change in 2006. They resolved to run themselves into the ground until they were able to dispense with the day jobs or, essentially, die trying. Lots of touring—a trip west, incessant regional runs—followed. For all the album's atmospheric charm, Kinghorn admits it may not have served their purposes.
"We wanted it to be weird; it was intentionally difficult," Kinghorn says from his Chapel Hill recording studio. "I thought people were really going to get Tastes Change, but I realized a few months later that you had to listen to this record more than five times to really begin to see what it was that we were trying to do. And that's probably not a good thing for a band that most people have never heard of."
When they returned home from tour, Baggett remembers telling Local 506 owner Glenn Boothe that he intended to create a perfect pop album next time around. The Guests got right on it: By May 2007, they had already laid down music for eight tracks. They would record as many as 25 tunes (though most still lacked lyrics and vocals). By the end of the year, energy had flagged. Baggett's intensity and self-confidence began to wane.
"I wanted to make something sort of perfect, like Dark Side of the Moon," Baggett recalls. "It became clear that's not what we were doing, or I got a little shaken in our ability to do that. [I thought] maybe we're not good enough to make that record, and if we can't make a record that's as good as a Spoon or an Arcade Fire record, if we can't make something competitive with those bands, why bother?"
Struggling with self-doubt, Baggett threw himself back into day jobs. He joined Barack Obama's presidential campaign and worked 90 hours a week. After the campaign, he spent a month in Minnesota assisting Sen. Al Franken in his runoff with Norm Coleman. Baggett even considered moving to Washington, D.C.
Instead, he moved in with Cameron Weeks, then busy working on new recordings with his young, lean pop band Aminal. Their work ethic inspired Baggett to, well, try again. He bought an acoustic guitar and started fingerpicking some songs in his bedroom. As 2009 came to a close, he returned to Kinghorn's studio and began knocking out the remaining vocals to the 25 songs the band had accumulated over the past three years. Finally, he had the epiphany he'd needed.
"I began feeling that a lot of the pressure was self-imposed. I think eventually what ended up changing that was the realization that nobody gives a fuck and if we're not doing this for ourselves, then why are we doing it," says Baggett. "That brought it all back to being something fun again."
The songs Baggett had written in his bedroom crystallized the new perspective. Less polished and overwrought, and shaped around simpler acoustic lines, The Honored Guests finished the songs relatively quickly. Within two months, the band had completed the batch, dubbing it the Into Nostalgia EP.
"When we all decided to pick things back up, we knew this time around it has to be enjoyable," Kinghorn says. "It can't be the constant stress we were putting ourselves under where we made music a business. It has to be that we actually get pleasure from doing this, and that's where we are now."
Once the band reached that point, the album itself came together in a few months. With seven or eight tracks wrapped, a thematic pattern emerged, and the album began to focus itself. You can trace this story in these songs. During the sweeping opener "Paper Trails," Baggett is in "the winter of your discontent," his ashtray "full with the push and the pull." During the lilting "Talk Talk Talk," he seeks to recover the time lost to a failing endeavor. Finally, with the closer, "Opportunities," there's a rather downcast pall ("tricking themselves into thinking its meaningless, maybe it is," he sings) and a final declaration: "It's a slow death ahead if we don't get out of here." For Baggett, strangely, it's a positive jam.
"It's about understanding your situation and understanding that something has to change in order to get to a better place," says Baggett. "It's not about dying a slow death. If we can only get out of that situation, then things can be better."
The Honored Guests are not only promising change; they're delivering it: Baggett's resolved to never be caught in that anxious trap again, and he's already begun writing for the new album. They've added cellist Elysse Thebner. Her multi-instrumental abilities allow the band to better re-create the sound of the album, which has made playing live that much more fun. What's more, her singing style complements his own, and she's better able to hit the high backing parts Baggett tracks in the studio. "It sounds more complete in my mind when we play live now," he says.
On Please Try Again, amid the layers of handclaps, samples, swelling backing vocals, gauzy keyboards, percolating drums and shimmering guitars, you can hear the travails that rendered it. For Kinghorn, the process became a necessary part of its creation.
"It was like you have to live real life in order to condense all that back into what the piece of art is that you're creating," he says. "I guess that's what they call maturity."