Putting the Art into Pop
Interview by Chris Wheatley
Twin Cities/Bay Area indie duo The Ampersands can trace their musical roots back to the great innovations of the 60s, when bands such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, alongside producers such as George Martin, Phil Spector, and Joe Meek broadened the definition of popular music to include ambitious arrangements, unusual sounds, and experimental adventures. It might seem that the days of thoughtful, forward-thinking pop have long passed, leaving us to treasure the heady days when Talking Heads, XTC, and The Flaming Lips jostled for places at the top of the charts.
In reality, as The Ampersands ably prove, bands such as the above still exist, although undoubtedly pushed to the margins by the unstoppable juggernaut of the modern mainstream music industry. It's a double pleasure, then, to spend time with The Ampersands' music, and the two men behind it, Aaron McQuade and Jim Pace, who had some enlightening things to say regarding their music and their latest album, Happy to Be Here.
PSF: Can you tell me a little about how you met and how you began making music together? Are you both from musical backgrounds/upbringing?
The Ampersands: We met in middle school and bonded immediately over our love of baseball, and. upon discovering that we each played an instrument (Aaron could play the Halloween theme on the piano, which was especially impressive to Jim) we began playing together, and basically have been ever since.
PSF: What prompted you to begin recording/performing professionally? How did you start?
The Ampersands: We started playing live shows together in high school when Jim put a full band together, but actually didn't record a full-length album until more than a decade later. We started recording when quality home recording became more readily available and have done more and more by ourselves with every release.
PSF: How would you describe your sound?
The Ampersands: We went back and forth on this for a while, and the best we could come up with was "quirky pop." We have a lot of freedom in what we do, and we like to use it.
PSF: Where do you think your love of music comes from? What were your earliest musical epiphanies?
The Ampersands: As far as epiphanies go, Jim's was watching the "Compleat Beatles" documentary in seventh-grade music class, which instantly made him want to learn guitar and start making music. Aaron's was getting The Coasters' Greatest Hits cassette in elementary school, and marvelling at how they could go from goofy songs like "Yakety Yak" to a soul groove like "Down Home Girl."
PSF: Can you tell me about your songwriting process?
The Ampersands: It's different for each of us and for every song. One constant is that we do both put a LOT of ideas out there and sometimes a song appears immediately, and sometimes nothing sticks. And we put a lot of stock in each other's opinions.
PSF: How about your working environment?
The Ampersands: We both have little office areas that pull double duty as day-job desk (thanks to the pandemic) and a recording studio. Jim's parts are all recorded at his home studio in Logic Pro. Aaron's parts and the mixes are done at his home studio in Cubase. For the last two albums, we've then gone to co-producer Jamie Hill, who uses ProTools. So mostly we're just carting WAV files around.
PSF: You have a great quote: "We believe music should do more than just get stuck in your head - it should do something constructive while it's in there." Can you tell me more about that ethos?
The Ampersands: That's kind of our way of describing both our lyrical approach and our often out-of-the-ordinary arrangements. "Constructive" in this case is about trying to give the listener something novel to notice every time they hear a song or using metaphor to get at a feeling they can relate to in some way, or conveying an emotion through the way a song is sung and how it's played that resonates with people.
PSF: What other bands/artists do you think have achieved the above?
The Ampersands: The most successful bands of all time all do this to some extent; it's why their music is so meaningful to so many people. Just a few who resonate with us - the aforementioned Beatles, and other acts with a combination of a wide variety of emotional outputs and interesting musical arrangements. Others who jump to mind for us are Curtis Mayfield, XTC, De La Soul, Of Montreal, and Wes Montgomery.
PSF: Desert Island Albums - you can take three each. Which would you choose and why?
The Ampersands: Jim: Revolver, Kid A, The Soft Bulletin. Aaron: Giant Steps, Black Sea, The Low End Theory. And the "why" is basically the answer to the question above - these albums all "do something really constructive" for us.
PSF: Happy to Be Here took nine years to make. Why so long?
The Ampersands: Honestly, life. Raising kids, changing jobs, and moving thousands of miles a few times each, the theft of Aaron's studio computer and backup drive, and some bouts with mental health conditions! (LOL) Some of these songs have been sitting around for 10-plus years - the basic tracks for "Pigeon," "It's All Been a Wash," and "Amino Acid" were all basically done before we even started mixing "This Is Your Adventure Too," for example. But the songs kept speaking to us, and things eventually settled down enough where we could pick them back up and give them the attention they needed - and then when we did, Jamie had to work from Aaron's rough mix mp3 files for all the older songs, which took longer as well.
PSF: And your future plans are...?
The Ampersands: We have a couple of projects in the works - one is another full-length album which is already nearly complete, the other is a series of periodic but more frequent outputs, which we literally just decided to challenge ourselves to do, and - by naming here - we're now locking ourselves into doing. Exclusive!!
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