"Have you been to South by Southwest before?" asks Josh Pope, bassist for Raleigh band The Love Language. "I've been kind of in awe of how much it reminds me of the North Carolina State Fair—with a lot of music going on."
It's near midday during the warm Sunday afternoon finale of SXSW, Austin's annual five-day gathering of thousands of bands, industry types, listeners, partiers and hangers-on. Pope's band just cracked the day's first round of Lone Star ("The National Beer of Texas," they say) open. They're on their way to recovering from six sets—at shows sponsored by Rolling Stone, Fader and Seattle's KEXP—over just two days in Austin. The band will leave Austin riding a wave of buzz for its spirited live show and its eponymous debut, recorded in a bedroom and a rented practice space as a way to deal with a break-up, not to make a career.
Some expected Pope's old band, The Capulets, to make it to Texas about four years ago, anyway. Pope and his current The Love Language bandmates Stuart McLamb and Tom Simpson were three-fourths of The Capulets, Raleigh-via-Greenville garage rock revivalists. After capturing a fair bit of regional acclaim—and comparisons to The Strokes—and some local label interest, the quartet abruptly called it quits three years ago.
"We had gone through the period of really being passionate about the music that we were creating, and by the time people started noticing [The Capulets], we had lost that passion," says McLamb, who sang lead and played guitar in the band, just as he does with The Love Language. McLamb left Raleigh and moved in with his Winston-Salem girlfriend. It was an unproductive period of "drinking a lot and working shitty jobs." Meanwhile, he was writing little melodies and bits of verses he couldn't quite piece together.
When that relationship ended, McLamb returned to the Triangle, moving in with his parents and working the breakfast shift at The Carolina Inn. A marked departure from his decidedly rock 'n' roll lifestyle back in Winston, of course: "It sharpened my senses a little bit, and then the songs just started coming."
McLamb started spinning John Cale's Vintage Violence, Rod Stewart's Gasoline Alley and Phil Spector's Back to Mono compilation. Along with a healthy dose of Otis Redding and The Walkmen, those records helped shape the tracks he began recording. Putting each song to tape (like, actual tape) as he finished writing it, McLamb recorded a dozen or so tracks between January 2007 ("Two Rabbits") and the summer of 2008 ("Providence"). He played everything on the album himself except the drums for "Nocturne," provided by Chris Hutcherson-Riddle (formerly of Spader), and the tambourine for "Sparxxx," provided by his younger brother, Jordan.
"It was the most physically demanding tambourine part ever," says McLamb, "and I remember trying my hardest to do it, punching in and out. He just had the arm for it."
Nine of those tunes—mostly lost-love anthems sung through crackling tape hiss—became The Love Language's self-titled, self-released debut. McLamb began to think about how he could recreate them in a live setting.
"At the beginning, I was brainstorming ideas about getting a boombox to play backing tracks while I strummed guitar," he recollects. While that never happened, McLamb played shows with Hutcherson and guitarist Jeff Chapple, his multi-instrumentalist brother Jordan occasionally sitting in, too.
Then The Rosebuds came calling: The duo needed a band to open a September 2007 show at Raleigh's Downtown Event Center in advance of a tour with The National, and they liked Stu's songs. McLamb asked several friends to help him translate the rough recordings into a polished live set quickly.
"When I was making the recordings, I wasn't limited to a certain number of tracks," he explains, "so I was figuring out how to perform the songs when there's an organ, piano, acoustic, electric, drums, maracas... and I felt all these parts were important, so I had to put together a big group."
That six-piece included Chapple, the younger McLamb, and organist Kate Thompson, as well as ex-Capulets Pope and Simpson. While Pope acknowledges a "Yoko factor" played a part in The Capulets' dissolution, he had no trepidation when McLamb came calling to fill out his live band.
"There was zero hesitation. I've known Stu for 10 years, and like with any good friend, we have spells where we want time apart and then gradually come back together," Pope recalls. The pair, who lived together during their days in The Capulets, had gone months without speaking, but Pope admits he paid attention to the demos McLamb had made available on MySpace.
"There was some inevitable competition," says Pope, who was posting demos of his new band, The Light Pine, at the same time. "But I was completely jealous. He just found soul somewhere in him that I had never heard before." The line-up gelled and, with the addition of Soft Company's Missy Thangs on keys, has been the live incarnation of The Love Language ever since. It's added an element of collaboration to McLamb's new songs.
"This band really took the songs and ran with them," McLamb says. "They've blown away any expectations I had."
But McLamb now needed to find a home for his songs. The Rosebuds wasn't the only big North Carolina name to notice the songs. Ramseur Records—the Concord roots label that launched the career and steady ascent of The Avett Brothers—showed interest but asked if higher fidelity versions were planned, according to McLamb, who "just wanted to put the album out as it was." Meanwhile, the demo discs McLamb was burning were getting regular in-store play by employees of Wilmington's Gravity Records. A customer heard it and recommended The Love Language to his cousin, ex-Ashley Stove singer/guitarist Matt Brown, who co-owns Portland, Ore., label Bladen County Records.
"He had the confidence of putting it out and putting time and money and a team behind it," McLamb praises, "even with it being such a lo-fi record."
Though the album has a definite lo-fi aesthetic, that happened by default rather than design. With bands like Times New Viking, Wavves and Vivian Girls, lo-fi rock records seem to be in vogue right now. That's now what McLamb was aiming for, however.
"At the time, I thought they were awesome, high-fidelity recordings. It wasn't a conscious lo-fi recording," explains McLamb, who borrowed instruments and bought used equipment to capture the songs. "I just had a shitty, blown-out condenser mic and an 8-track recorder and did the best I could with it."
But that fuzzy vintage sound is part of the album's charm for label owner Brown, along with "the song structures and how beautiful [McLamb's] voice is." Quasi-single "Lalita", which Brown describes as "simply compelling," was the first song he heard: "Mac McCaughan said years ago that the key to a great single is that after the first time you hear it, you end up putting the needle right back to the beginning of the 45 and listen to it again. 'Lalita' has that appeal."
And, apparently, Brown's not the only one who hears that charm: Before returning from SXSW, The Love Language scored a gushing review from Pitchfork for its high-octane live performance, along with a full-page piece in April's issue of Spin. It's a bit of a full-circle story for the trio of ex-Capulets, who once let artistic indifference and interpersonal conflict get in the way of their chances.
"[The Capulets] were like a tired old married couple who just wanted to get divorced really bad," McLamb explains. "I love The Capulets for what they were, but we were doing the hip rock thing and there wasn't really any substance to it. We were searching for something more substantial."
Maybe this divorce had the best interest of the indie rock kids at heart, after all.
The Love Language releases its self-titled debut Saturday, March 28, at Local 506. Max Indian and Oh Captain, My Captain open the show at 10 p.m. with a $7 cover. The band also plays a free in-store at Schoolkids Records Saturday at 3 p.m.