I grew up in Orange County, a suburb whose middle class malaise spawned both reality shows and teen dramas to tell its “story.” For that matter, I come from Laguna Niguel. Haven’t heard of it? I hardly have either. I spent most of my youth scouring the Internet for music much more interesting than my immediate surroundings. Little did I know, The Gromble was a couple blocks down from me making the very sort of music I was searching for.
On Feb. 12, they’ll release their debut album, Jayus. It’s a record stacked with pristine and wistful indie pop from start to finish. For a debut, the songwriting and arrangements really are pretty remarkable. It’s even more so when you realize the entire album was self-produced by the band.
Spencer Askin, The Gromble’s front man, is quick to say the lush and meticulously arranged record they ended up with is far from the one they started with.
“We certainly didn’t have that idea when we went in,” he explains. “At first, it was a pretty typical guitar rock album. Our drummer, Stefan [Macarewich], built a home studio and we started experimenting with box plug-ins, effects and stuff like that. A lot of stuff with the album was the result of us asking each other, ‘Do you think we can pull this off?’”
It took four years for the band to decide they’d pulled it off to the level of personal satisfaction necessary for Jayus to be the record they wanted the world to hear. An earlier incarnation of the album was wholesale scrapped.
“I remember one specific instance where we had tracked eight or nine songs” Askin relates. “We were playing a gig and we were out in the parking lot when everyone basically said, ‘Our album really sucks, man. It’s not a good album. We should just get rid of it.’ And I was like, ‘But this is kind of my life’s work.’”
It’s an anecdote Askin talks about with good humor. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person to grow an ego or let pride stand in the way of constructive criticism. One of the reasons Jayus works so well is how it seems to represent a band’s statement rather than one specific artist’s.
“For everyone else, it was moving forward and I was stuck in butt rock land,” he jokes. “They were right. It wasn’t the best representation of all of us as a whole. It was a representation of me really liking Pavement, The Lemonheads and that kind of stuff. We stripped a bunch of the songs down, kept the melodies and lyrics and rebuilt.”
The four guys in The Gromble really do seem to approach all of this as a type of pop music architecture. Trevin Eck handles the bass, Spencer Wiles takes cares of keys and both he and drummer Stefan Macarewich partner with Askin to arrange. Every time I’ve visited the band’s studio, Macarewich is working on some musical production. Ultimately, it’s a collaboration Askin seems to really appreciate even if it came about through discarding songs he may have released otherwise.
“Our drummer [Macarewich] is really into electronic music so he brings a lot of that influence in,” he explains. “Same with Wiles [keyboardist and sax player]. He’s really into vintage synths. Once I came around to it, I liked it a lot more. It was stuff I wouldn’t do on my own. The stuff I bring in isn’t stuff they’d do on their own. Hopefully, it’s more than the sum of its parts.”
Even if their collaboration was born out of their differences, though, there are areas in which Jayus still grew out of a shared aesthetic.
“When it comes to layering,” Askin says. “We all really love Butch Vig’s production on [Smashing Pumpkins’] Siamese Dream. There were songs where we’d have a hundred layered guitars but we peeled it back to make it sound better. We felt like that was an appropriate influence for a certain type of song.”
The Gromble spent a significant amount of time learning how to produce such a big-sounding record out of the more guitar-heavy demos. Even after that decision though, the album was still a far way off from being released. A decent amount of that comes from the band being made up of members who know their comprehension of music theory needs to be tempered with an editorial desire for simplicity.
“Wiles heard somewhere that the human mind can only focus on three different things at once,” Askin conveys. “I don’t know if that’s related to music specifically but I had that echoing in my head. We tried not to go over that limit when it came to countermelodies so it wouldn’t be distracting. It was a lot of arguing over what needs to stay and what needs to go. We have a tendency to go overboard with all that doubling and the stuff that’s added in.”
Of course, one of the main things that any human mind will focus on in a song is lyrics, and that’s Askin’s territory. So I wondered if these songs were written predominantly to convey general feelings or tell specific stories.
“It depends on the song,” Askin answers. “A lot of them are to convey a general feeling, but I will say all of the songs are personal anecdotes. They’re all taken from my history because I don’t know how to process it any other way. I’d say it’s a sad album with some nostalgic bits, but the lyrics juxtaposed against the music are something we’d want to end up hopeful. It’s sad, but maybe more through the music than the lyrics, it lets you know things are gonna work out alright or at least there’s still hope things are gonna turn out alright. The influence I think about for that is Rilo Kiley. They’ve got these super happy, ‘50s-sounding chord progressions but then the lyrics are awesome, sad and what you’d want. I don’t think that’s something that happened consciously, but a lot of our influences are like that.”
Songs like “Don’t Stand a Chance” and “Danny King” pack an emotional wallop akin to seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s a skill as intriguing to me as any of the studio workmanship, and I was curious who besides Rilo Kiley guided Askin to that bittersweet horizon and taught him how to write those sorts of tracks.
“For this album, the songs were written pretty far apart,” he admits. “There wasn’t one creative period where they were all written. The big ones for me would be Stephen Malkmus, Billy Corgan, Rivers Cuomo, The Cardigans. A lot of that stuff showed up in the writing even if the arrangements and sound are way different.”
Even with a weeklong tour up the West Coast coming this spring, Askin seems confident new music will be quicker to show up from the band now that they’ve learned how to get on their hard hats and construct the kind of sound they want.
“We’re looking to have an EP of new music out in April and another full length in the summer,” he says. “We’re really working on writing and making more music. We’ve always kind of hidden in our cave tinkering with weird, music nerd tools. It’s funny because we started as such a live band where we’d just play all the time. We’re gonna try to find a happy medium, which has eluded us so far.”
Through all this hard work, the band made an album with the obsessive precision of gearheads coupled with the heart and passion of songwriters. The long time it took to make the album, the study of how to play and record as well as they could, all serves the ultimate purpose of making music for people who love music. In every way, they succeeded. It’s a great feeling when a band from your strip-mall and chain-restaurant suburb is good. It’s an even better feeling when they’re The Gromble.