June 24, 2015

Show Us Yours #27: Mittenfields

We just recorded our mid-year review for CompCon with KoomDogg (here's part one), and we've been figuratively kicking ourselves because we failed to mention a terrific rock record from Washington, D.C. quintet Mittenfields. The band's long-player Optimists was released in late April and it has since become one of those go-to records for us, the kind of thing -- along with Beeef's tremendous Beeef EP, and Colleen's Captain Of None, and a couple others -- that we put on when we want to take a break for the hamster wheel of reviewing things and simply enjoy a listening experience. Optimists is big guitars and wall-to-wall hooks, and it is fraught with terrifically affecting, impassioned vocals the elongated vowels of which echo those of David Byrne. It's not really accurate to call Optimists an emo record, but the more we listen to it, the more appropriate the tag (meant to connote the modern, non-mallpunk sense of the term "emo") seems. But the thing that attracted us to Mittenfields' music is it can't really be pigeon-holed, and we especially love how it doesn't present overt "D.C.-ness." It's just a big rock record with tons of great melodies (driven home by the act's three-guitar attack), and is probably more like Built To Spill's Perfect From Now On than any release bearing the Dischord or DeSoto imprints. Pressed for additional RIYLs, we'd offer Dark Blue and The Boyfriends. But Optimists deserves to be met on its own terms, and we recommend heading directly to the album highlight "Telepathic Windows" -- and its heartbreaking, repeated assertion "you're never gonna get what you want" -- as a great introduction to the band.

Despite having just pushed out its full-length LP, Mittenfields has been around for seven years, its earliest germ springing from a Craigslist ad posted by bassist and singer Dave Mann. The lineup shifted for a couple years, but the act's three-guitar attack -- inspired by a particularly compelling Broken Social Scene show -- gelled around 2010, and now includes guitarists Sam Sherwood, Donald Seale and Michael Ball, as well as longtime drummer Brian Moran. After living with Optimists for several weeks we decided it was high time to get in touch with the band to learn more about how they do what they do and where they do it as part of our long, long suffering featurette Show Us Yours. All of the Mittenfields guys were super gracious with their time, so there's a lot of interesting stuff here, about gentrification, pie, and some upcoming tour dates. Oh, did we forget to mention that dudes practice in the back of a pie shop? Yeah, you read that right. Our advice? Click on the embed at the foot of the post, scroll back up here, and dig in.
Clicky Clicky: So why do you use this practice space? What makes a pie shop -- let me say that again for any readers who were like "wait, what?" -- a pie shop the best space for Mittenfields to practice in right now? This makes me wonder about the noise-dampening qualities of pie...

Sam Sherwood: One of the (many) side effects of the gentrification of so much of DC is that it's pretty tough to find a practice space at all: every commercial or industrial space in town is just waiting to become another small plates restaurant, and bands can't really compete with that rent-wise. And practicing in a house or apartment at the volume level we play at is a non-starter if you don't want your neighbors calling the cops every week.

Dangerously Delicious Pies has a solid rock and roll pedigree -- it was started in Baltimore over a decade ago by Rodney Henry, the frontman for the Glenmont Popes. They opened their first DC outpost a few years back on H Street NE (pretty much ground zero for the aforementioned gentrification), but the building was bigger than they really needed. Somebody had the excellent idea of putting up some soundproofing in the back rooms, setting up some PAs, and running the extra space as a full-time rehearsal studio. Pie Shop Studios pretty much checks all the boxes: good gear, plenty of nearby bars for pre/post-practice "band meetings", and sweet, sweet (or savory) pie.

CC: Is there an idiosyncrasy or quirk to the space that has affected the sound of one of your songs, or even the overall Mittenfields sound?

SS: The space itself is pretty straightforward -- we wish we had a story about how some weird reverb property of the room inspired the backwards guitar effect on "Doctor! Doctor!" but that would be a lie (I think). Sonically, the most notable feature is the presence of Supreme Commander, who've practiced in the same time slot as us pretty much the whole time we've been there. This is a major bonus. First, they're excellent guys. But also, we can get pretty bogged down in the minutiae of arranging parts for three guitars. When that gets frustrating, it's nice to step outside the room and hear the roar of Supreme Commander down the hall, just kicking ass and not arguing about major 7th voicings.

CC: You walk into your rehearsal space. What's the first thing that you smell?

Brian Moran: I do wish I could say delicious pies baking and just waiting to be eaten. Unfortunately, it's not quite so glamorous. The place is very well ventilated for a practice space, and the other bands are respectful, but sometimes you can't shake the smell of sweat from the walls. The load-in area is also in an alley, right next to some big dumpsters, so that smells don't make their way inside the space, [but] can still hang out for a while in your nostrils. But no pies. I think the baking is done in the morning anyways.

CC: I see you've got dates in Arlington, VA this month and next month -- and then a show somewhat randomly in Atlantic City, NJ in Aug. I think that is the first time I've heard of an indie rock show in Atlantic City. Have you played there before? Is there a scene there?

BM: My first show with Dave and Sam was actually in Atlantic City. I'm guessing at the very same venue that we're playing coming up. We had the name Mittenfields, but instead of Mike and Donald, we had a keyboardist and a trumpet player. It was a rather different time. But like many leads we get through Dave, I usually never get much of a grasp on how we gained this contact in Atlantic City. We're playing some sort of festival over there -- from what I understand, the guy runs two festivals a year or so. The shows aren't held in the champagne-of-beers casinos of Atlantic City, but in tiny little bars, just like everywhere else. From what I remember about the Atlantic City show 5 years ago, there was a strong sense of community. I think bands came from all over to play there, but everyone was real cool to each other. I imagine someone's gotta live and play music there though?

CC: We're a very big fan of Optimists here at the blog. The thing that I find curious about it is that there is nothing about it that very overtly screams "THIS IS A D.C. BAND!" While it is definitely noise-pop of a certain stripe, the music on Optimists doesn't betray a huge Dischord, DeSoto or Slumberland influence. Was that a conscious decision at some point, to not sound like "a D.C. band," and to sound more like, say, contemporary hitmakers Dark Blue or The Boyfriends or whatever?

Donald Seale: We didn't really set out to get away from or try to honor the classic DC sound. It's more that it isn't relevant to what we are doing. We all have a few points of musical intersection but we have fairly disparate tastes. We are more worried about the parts fitting together in a way that satisfies us than just following genre conventions. Genre is kind of nebulous anyway. We just want to make memorable music that will have an emotional impact and hopefully be of value to somebody. If we played a more traditional or regional kind of music then the indigenous styles would be more valuable reference points. I personally grew up on punk rock and have a soft spot for all of that stuff, but it was created by a bunch of pissed off kids almost thirty years ago. While we (or more accurately I) am still pissed off, we aren't kids who for some reason are adamant about not ever getting laid or having a drink or just giving it a fucking rest for a minute. That said, the DIY spirit is alive and well in the world of Mittenfields. We do just about everything in-house which allows us the luxury of doing things exactly how we want. In that sense there is a real influence. So I guess philosophically that spirit is alive and well even if isn't immediately, musically apparent. Although, there are still a few spots where banging out some barre chords at an absurdly fast speed speed is really the only viable option. If you listen you'll catch it. Also, I'm still just looking for an excuse to shove a Doc Marten up someone's ass. Maybe we need a more adversarial audience to bring out the punk rock spirit.

CC: We suppose it would be really fun here if your response to that last question was hurt disappointment, like, "Damn it, we were REALLY trying to sound like Nation Of Ulysses!"

DS: Sorry to disappoint you.

CC: So what does the rest of the year look like for Mittenfields?

Michael Ball: More shows, more music. We've got a few local dates lined up, and plan to head up to Atlantic City in early August for an indie rock festival. We are also putting together some dates in the south -- Raleigh, Atlanta, Oxford, MS, and Chattanooga -- in mid-September. Beyond that, there are a few other shows here and there we hope to pick up, but nothing firm just yet. We're already working on some new tunes and trying to keep the creative juices flowing. Don't want to go four years between releases again.
Optimists is available now in a limited edition of 300 vinyl LPs, as well as on CD or as a digital download, all of which one can avail one's self of right here at the Mittenfields Bandcamp. Stream the entire LP via the embed below. As noted above, Mittenfields have two pending live engagements, and details of those dates are noted below as well. Our thanks to all of the Mittenfields guys for playing along and making Show Us Yours 27 a pretty darn good one.

Mittenfields: Bandcamp | Facebook

07.11 -- IOTA Club -- Arlington, VA
08.08 -- The Boneyard -- Atlantic City, NJ

Previous Show Us Yours episodes:
Shapes And Sizes | Dirty On Purpose | Relay | Mobius Band | Frightened Rabbit | Assembly Now | Meneguar | Okay Paddy | Charmparticles | Calories | Sun Airway | It Hugs Back | Lubec | A Giant Dog | Bent Shapes | Krill | Golden Gurls | Earthquake Party! | Hallelujah The Hills | Seeds Of Doubt | The Cherry Wave | Coaches | Night Mechanic | Kindling | Julius Earthling | Hideous Towns

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