|Photo: Jackson Helms|
There’s an old cliche that says when one door closes another door opens. While some glass-half-empty people might ascribe the outlook to unreasoning optimism, that’s exactly what happened for Argot. Born from an ending, they’re the brainchild of transition. After the breakup of frontman John Brooker’s longtime band Great Yankee, he knew he needed a new outlet for his creative energy. Joined by fellow Great Yankee bandmate Joe Fusco and adding Brian Arne and Chris Howell, the band proved to be a fresh start for all of them.
Argot released their debut EP Murder Lounge in February. The four-song EP introduced their slick and strapping indie rock. I had the opportunity to grab some coffee with Brooker and discuss the origins of Murder Lounge, Car Seat Headrest covers, and the Charleton music scene.
You couldn’t live without?
I don’t listen to it much but I really liked At Dawn by My Morning Jacket. I was into it a lot a while ago, but it’s one of those things I always want to be able to come back to it and be like, “Oh yeah there’s that. I remember that.” It’s just great from end to end. It’s a great album to drive with. It’s just very primal feeling.
Do you remember the first time you listened to it?
I don’t remember the first time I listened to it. I think I heard bits and pieces and I was like, “Wait a second, this is all from the same record,” and then I would listen to it all the way through. Maybe that and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco.
You think is perfect?
That one! Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s hard to find those but that would definitely be one. Let me think, recently I’ve been listening to City Music by Kevin Morby which feels like a really complete album. Nothing is too out of place there. Definitely Boxer by The National; I think that is a very perfect album.
You know all the words to?
Definitely Boxer and Alligator by The National, Being There by Wilco, probably most of ‘Yankee Hotel’.
Charleston has a pretty tight-knit scene, how important do you think that that community is to the artists?
That’s really important. We had our EP release like 6 months ago I think, around that, and we had it planned for Holden’s house at The Embassy. He had a giant hole in his stairs, at the top of the stairs in the landing there, and people used to just put chairs over it. We had our thing planned, we were even playing around with a funny pirate theme, and then at the last minute he was like, “Guys, my landlord says that he has to fix that this weekend” and we were like, “No.”
But what happened was, do you know The Mobros? We were playing with them like a week or two later at Royal and we were going to open and they were closing and there was somebody else in the mix, in the middle. We talked to them and said, “This happened. Any way we could…” and they were like, “Yeah, no problem, that sounds horrible. I’m so sorry that happened to your release.” So, it was a better way to have a release party really. But yeah that’s just an example of people being friends and really helping you out when you need it.
Who are some of the standouts in the scene right now?
I just saw Hermit’s Victory, they just played at The Embassy but I really like their music. They haven’t played in a long time. The High Divers, I think we played one of the High Divers first shows in Charleston with them. We didn’t even know who they were but they said, “Hey can we play with you at King Dusko”, like back when that existed, and we were like “Yeah yeah yeah sure that’d be awesome” and then they played and we were like “Oh my god we have to follow that, that’s unbelievable.” Obviously SUSTO and them are very big. I think there’s been kind of a shift and there are some different people popping up now.
I feel like it went from more of a SUSTO indie scene to a lot more psych-rock popping up.
Yeah I’ve seen that. I feel like a lot of it sounds a little more Ty Segall-esque versus like alt-country. I think it was a close community with Hearts and Plugs, it was all kind of like a similar feel, but I think it’s a little bit wider now.
Do you think that the scene here influences the way you make music and your band in general?
Oh definitely, I think the more music you see you can be like, “Wait a second, I can do that.” It’s one thing to see a national act do it because you get swept up in that whole magic of being in a big concert, but when you’re seeing a friend of yours do something amazing you’re like, “Wait a second if they can do it, and they’re like a normal person and I’ve seen them in all these other contexts then we could do something cool like that.” So I think it definitely does and you’ll be inspired by what they’re doing, so being here and having the people we do here will lead to us being inspired in similar ways.
Do you do the majority of the songwriting?
Yeah, for this group.
Are you in multiple ones?
No, sorry we used to be Great Yankee, but we’ve shifted and now we’re Argot. It was me and a friend co-writing for Great Yankee. His name is Joe, he plays bass in the band now, but it used to be a co-writing thing, but now I do pretty much all of the writing for Argot.
How did that shift happen?
You know when something just feels like it needs to end? It was kind of like that. Nothing particularly bad happened, but our drummer did move away and it was kind of weird because he was like the glue. Co-writing is a difficult thing to do because you’re both like, “Let’s pick my song,” “No, let’s pick my song.” Kind of an egotistical thing, but it does get difficult so we ended it and I kind of started doing my own thing. Then Joe, who’s a good friend of mine but we also had that relationship from the band where we were co-writing, was like, “Oh you’re doing this new thing. Need a bass player?” I was like, “Uhh wait, hold on?” He was like, “No no no I want to play bass.”
Even though you write all of the songs how does everyone contribute in their own way? Is Argot completely yours or more of a mesh of everyone’s individual tastes?
It’s definitely a mesh. I’m not the type of person nor do I have the ability to write everyone’s parts and be like, “You’re doing this for drums and you’re doing this.” So Brian, he’s the guitarist, he’s been with us since the beginning of the project and he kinda has a very different background than the rest of us. He’s a former music comp major and he’s just really good at guitar but also he comes more from metal and is much more into the technical side of things. I’m not that much into technical playing. He brings a different element that’s a little darker.
I think that we would make things prettier but Brian kind of makes it uglier but in a good way, cause you don’t want it to be like too bubblegum pretty. So there’s that, Chris is the drummer, he’s a singer-songwriter so he brings his own aspects and although I’m writing a lot of it he’ll kind of influence it and be like, “Let’s throw this chord here,” or something like that. Each person kind of does their own thing and we try to bring it together.
So what’s your personal musical background?
I was in bands since I was in high school. My first band was called Earl Grey, just like the tea. But no I have just been playing and writing I did a lot more kind of like singer-songwriter stuff especially when I was in college, with like acoustic guitars and stuff. But it’s much more fun to be up there with a full band playing electric.
So you put out ‘Murder Lounge’ in February, and that was the first time you put out music with this lineup, what was that like?
Yeah, that’s the first thing we ever released with Argot. We did that all at my friend Chris’s house. With my last band Great Yankee, we worked with Wolfgang over at his studio, his storage units when that existed, and that was really different because someone else was there being like, “Hey let’s do this, let’s do that, let’s do this better.” We were newer to the recording, like we definitely had done recording before but not professionally.
But this time we had a little more leisure and were able to sit down at my friend Chris’s house. We did it all ourselves and it was actually a really quick process cause we were just rolling on it, and you don’t have to coordinate with another guy, you don’t have to make sure there’s studio space, so we could just go to his house and finish it. So yeah we just had four songs in the bag, and we kind of changed little things as we recorded but got it done pretty quick.
During your writing process who were you listening to? What was really inspiring you?
I accumulate random things in my phone that I write down. Sometimes I’ll listen to a band and I’ll mishear their lyrics and be like, “I think I like that better,” and I’ll write that down, but then usually I kind of put things together and think about what is thematic. Most of it is not the most cohesive story all the way through, it’s kind of like different angles on things and different themes. But one of them I wrote all in one, it was “Been There,” I wrote that one all in one go which was just weird. Sometimes it happens like that.
Is there an overarching theme on Murder Lounge? Between the title and some of the songs there’s a sort of darker vibe.
Yeah, especially the title of the album. I’ll explain that cause it’s supposed to be kind of funny but it comes off as weird. It’s funny to us but we’re just weird. My buddy managed a restaurant, I can’t name the restaurant because they got mad when we named them originally in our Post and Courier article and we had to get it redacted.
So basically, my friend managed that venue, it’s also a wedding venue, and there was a basement that was really gnarly looking. It’s just cement walls, someone had drawn a creepy clown at some point down there. First time I saw it I was like “Why are we here?” But it was one of the few places to practice and we used it. It was originally the employee lounge for the restaurant then they renamed it the Murder Lounge because it was just so creepy. But yeah, so the restaurant didn’t want to be known as the Murder Lounge.
It makes sense but…
You have to google it. Like, “Alright where are we going to have our wedding?” “Oh honey we’re having it at the Murder Lounge.” “They call that place the Murder Lounge? Are you sure we should book here?” I think a lot of it was about relating, or lack of relating to other people. It was about connection and lack of connection. A lot of them are different, but I guess there are some darker themes in some of it. “Creeps” is the single, and that’s about another angle on connection, but it’s about people that don’t really care about other people.
What about those connections are so fascinating to you?
I think that’s kind of the only thing we have. I don’t know. It’s like the one thing that connects us to everything outside of us in general. I think the most important thing in most people’s lives is their connections with other people.
When you were making Murder Lounge what was….
The most influential record?
Oh man, just The National. I’ve been deep into them for a while. I think what they do which I like a lot is he’ll kind of capture thoughts that you don’t even really believe or you’re like, “Oh I don’t really think that.” It’s like a little flash of an idea or an emotion. Then what they’ll do is capture that, whether it’s good or bad or ugly, and then try to show that almost in a theatrical way. It’s like an exaggeration of life.
Hardest song to finish?
I’d say “Beast of Your World”. The other ones were written really quickly. With that one I really liked the line “beast of your world” and I remember I just had a bunch of phrases and was like, “There’s an idea somewhere in all of that.” It took a while to push together.
Yeah, you mentioned that some of the songs were older, when did you actually do the majority of the writing for Murder Lounge?
Right after Great Yankee ended, which was like maybe 2 years ago, I’m fuzzy on time. Right after that ended I had a lot of momentum just from writing and writing and writing. I wasn’t playing as much out so it was less a part of my life and it kind of slowed down. But a lot of those came in the wake of when I still had all that energy but wasn’t playing with a band or getting it out in any fashion. At least the basis for those songs were written there. “Been There” was written a little bit later.
Now that you do have that platform where are you finding the inspiration from to keep writing?
You just rev up the machine again. We have 6 songs that we’ve recorded demos for, we’re working on new ones now so I guess the inspiration is just random life experiences, writing down random things in your phone as you think of them.
Most rewarding moment of the process?
I remember I was at work and I was driving from place to place, and right as I was leaving this meeting I got a message that had all of the new mixes. We sent it to Chris’s friend in California who mixed it for us, and then we sent it to someone else to master it. So basically we just recorded everything and it sounded good but there was a lot going on. This guy is a magician as far as taking the vocals and making sure they’re out there in the EQ spectrum so he’ll pull out like, “Okay the drums are crowding this here so we’ll pull out a little bit of that.” But I got back the mixes on that and I was really excited. I was trying to drive from a meeting back to MUSC and I was sitting there like, “I’m just going to try to take another lap and listen to these other songs.”
If you could personally thank a musician who would it be, and why have they had so much influence on you?
I think it would be Jim James from My Morning Jacket. I liked him a lot when I was in high school. He’s got really positive things in his music. I enjoy music that’s definitely not as positive, but having music that you really enjoy that has a positive message is really cool. Especially being in high school and having someone where it’s like,” This guy is an awesome rock star and he’s also saying cool things that are good for people’s lives.” The values he was professing were universally good things like be yourself and don’t get too screwed up on drugs and alcohol.
Okay, we need to talk about your Car Seat Headrest cover, first of all that was awesome, second how did you guys start playing that?
My roommate showed them to me a while ago. I think I heard “1937 State Park”. When I first heard them I didn’t think I was going to like it cause it had more of an emo vibe which I was not feeling. I was like, “I’ve been there.” But then I kept hearing in her car and I was like, “Whoa this is really good,” and then I listened to the rest. I remember the first time I heard “Killer Whales” I was like, “This is amazing”. And then we just started playing it. At first I was like, “I want to play it, but we can’t play it because I have a really low voice and the chorus is really high”. But then Chris was like “Dude I’ll just do the chorus.”
Do you guys usually cover any other songs?
Yeah we just got a cover of Pavement, we did “Grounded” by Pavement at the show. We do Timber Timbre “Hot Dreams.” Actually this Saturday we’re playing at Royal and we’re covering a Great Yankee song cause Joe our bassist he’s going to leave. We have a new bassist coming in, he just didn’t really have the time to do this. He wants to focus his energies elsewhere but yeah for his last show with us he’s going to do one of his songs from Great Yankee. I had to relearn it. This was bad I was like “How did I forget this> I’ve played this so many times.”
You keep coming back to Great Yankee, what about that band was so meaningful for you?
I think some bands are bands first and they’re friends second, but we were kind of the opposite. It was all my good friends and it was also a very tumultuous band in a way which makes you remember things more. There was definitely some drama, nothing crazy but I don’t know. I guess it just sticks out. It was also right after school, we had just graduated and we were doing this thing and getting to travel a little bit.
So what do you see next for Argot?
We’re going to do some more runs. We just went to Atlanta which was really fun and it’s fun to play in front of people that you don’t know at all. Cause it’s like one thing if your friends are really happy like, “This is great!” It’s like, “Thank you but I think you’d say that as long as we weren’t really awful.” But doing some runs, like our new bassist his name is Grady Rogers he’s from Columbia he’s from Bad Weather. So we’re like, “Oh wait you’re from Columbia, lets play at New Brookland. We can play with your band too so it’s even easier.”
Doing that and then I think we’re going to work on releasing. We have those 6 songs that are demos or maybe we’ll turn them into the real thing, we’ll see. We’re kind of working with those but they’re mostly done. So maybe an album? Maybe an EP? Depending on if I can hold off and be like, “Let’s make a full record,” or if I’m like, “Alright screw it, let’s just put them out.”