When I heard Incognito was going to be released, I could hardly wait. Zibaldone, their previous one, had been excellent, folky/rocky college rock, a style of music I love and am glad to reconnect with via their label, Big Stir. Anyone who loves this kind of music should check it out.
Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome, who lead the band, and started Big Stir, answered a few questions for me about Incognito.
Andrea Weiss: How did Incognito come about?
Christina: We like to think of it as the antithesis of a “pandemic record,” but there's no way around the fact that the crisis is the reason why it exists! Throughout last year, Rex and I were trying to figure out how to run Big Stir Records while the world broke down. We were honored and grateful to be busy, but we also needed a creative outlet, and The Armoires are usually a band that lives to play onstage. We couldn't record with the whole band – that had been the plan – so the two of us started doing different types of songs and learning how to produce ourselves. Suddenly it was fun and we were in an experimental mode. Gradually we folded other people in remotely and a new kind of record started to take on a life of its own.
Rex: With all the different types of albums and singles BSR was releasing as so much happened in the world and our culture last year, even the label was in an experimental mode. So we hit on the idea of releasing our own songs under fake band names into that flow. It seemed like a fundamentally absurd idea for absurd times, and the more details and clues we put into it, the sillier and crazier it seemed. We figured, "in for a penny, in for a pound," and played a very long game. The album is both a diary of that and of our growth as a band while we tried on all of these different disguises.
AW: What were your influences for this album?
Rex: I'm really glad you asked, because one part of the “undercover” nature of the different singles was that we felt free to really, really wear the influences on our sleeves! Aside from the covers, we either quoted or doubled down on chasing the sounds of some of the bands we adore. There are little bits of Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel tunes hidden in there, and we didn't try to hide the places where we were channeling The Go-Betweens, X, Gang of Four and Dylan (at the same time!), glam-era Bowie, Blondie, Mitch Easter-produced R.E.M., The Fall and many others. We were literally going for recordings that could fit onto albums by those bands, just with our own harmony sounds over the top.
Christina: I hit on the idea early on that whatever the songs sounded like individually, they added up to our version of Tusk – a melodic pop band creating an experimental sprawl that still sounds all of one piece.
Rex: And that worked! To me that patchwork of references that still sounds like one band also made it kind of our Lolita Nation. I love and miss Scott Miller so much and listening to the whole record, I like to think he would have heard it and said, “I get what you're doing here.”
AW: I think your cover of XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" is as good as the original, and I prefer your version of John Cale's "Paris 1919." Why did you choose these two songs to cover?
Christina: Most of the covers were outside assignments destined for tribute compilations – in fact the XTC one was supposed to be on Futureman Records' XTC tribute last year, but the band was too busy touring to get it done in time! I had always wanted to record “Senses,” for literally decades, so I wasn't going to let it go, and quarantine provided an excuse to finish it anyway. It's a challenging song, which, like a lot of XTC tunes, has more going on than you realize... a tough nut to crack, and it took lots of guests, including Karen Basset (Pandoras) on drums, Julian Moss from Charms Against The Evil Eye on bass, Dolph Chaney on guitar and vocals, Blake Jones on vocals, and Peter Watts of Spygenius mixing it and adding genuinely British asides. But we got it there!
Rex: I'm a huge John Cale fan and Christina and I always wanted to do a sort of Guided By Voices kind of version of that song, simple as that. The Incognito sessions were sort of a “bucket list” affair. Lots of stuff we had long wanted to do, but never found the right context.
AW: “Homebound” and other songs feature topical lyrics. Do you think these songs lend themselves to this approach, with everything that's going on the US these days?
Christina: What's odd is that aside from “Homebound” and one of the hidden tracks, none of the lyrics were written during the pandemic. All of the originals were older songs that we'd never had the time to record before now, or they never fit whatever record we were working on. On this record we were really concentrating on performance and production; almost every song was already written, by us or someone else. We looked to serve the songs as best we could.
Rex: A few of the older songs that we picked felt eerily “now,” though! “Walking Distance” was written a long time ago, about an imagined post-apocalyptic future that turned out sort of boring, and the need to keep your moral compass in difficult times when everyone's out for themselves. That was 2020 as we experienced it, in a lot of ways! I'd say we picked quite a few, like “Jackrabbit Protector,” “Awkward City Limits,” and “Magenta Moon,” that were about how crucial empathy and thinking beyond yourself are. “I Say We Take Off And Nuke The Site From Orbit” is a cautionary tale about egos out of control on social media; it was written pre-Trump, pre-QAnon, but “uninformed and unaware” seemed just right.
AW: I hear college rock, folk/rock, and country on these songs, which is great. Did this just come about naturally?
Rex: To me, The Armoires belong on the college rock airwaves from the '80s, which was such a great time to discover a whole range of music. So it's really good to hear that – I'm generally happier when we get compared to The Go-Betweens or The dB's than some of the obvious '60s influences. I miss that era the very most. It's peak rock and roll to me, the diversity and the quality of the writing.
Christina: I've always loved the country songs we'd written, but Rex has always been a little shy about putting that foot forward, I think because he grew up with his dad being in a country band in West Virginia, but here we made peace with that and his dad even does a guest vocal! And my daughter Larysa's other band, they're a real-deal bluegrass group, and they backed us on “Bagfoot Run.” Honestly, we both always worried that the male-female Americana duo was a bit of a cliché, but again, these sessions were our chance to try on different costumes, so we went for it on several of the songs... and we're glad we did!
AW: There are a lot of guests on this album, which is fun. Did making the album seem like a party at times?
Christina: A socially distant party, maybe! But actually, it was less like that than our previous album, Zibaldone, where we had a lot of guests, too, but they were all in it together. On Incognito, since we did the tracks two at a time as the singles were released, it was more like having people crash on our couch for a weekend, one or two at a time. Except we were almost never in the same room with them!
Rex: I think a lot of people have been moving towards remote collaboration for years, and the pandemic just sped up the process. The deeper we got into the “fake bands” idea, the more we viewed it as a casting call for each band we made up, hahaha! Like, “Paris 1919” needs arty e-bow and cheerily ghostly backing vocals – Dolph Chaney, and The Corner Laughers! This one needs angular post-punk guitar leads, so let's call Jon Melkerson. Big glam-rock leads? Chris Church! I think everyone had fun being in on the secret.
AW: These are all singles, and any one of them could be a popular, mainstream hit. They are that good. Is it frustrating that this type of music isn't getting more exposure?
Christina: Of course, and that applies to literally everything we put out on the label. If you just look at the stuff we put out just this year, The Stan Laurels and Dolph Chaney and Chris Church records, it's so accessible and well-crafted and passionately performed, we can't imagine people not loving them. It's our mission to get them to more ears. It's definitely a challenge from the business perspective, but we also need to let listeners know that this kind of stuff is out there, and not just on reissues! It's not that hard to find, you just have to be open to it.
AW: If someone were going to start their own label, what advice would you give?
Rex: Assuming they think Big Stir Records is a good role model, we'd say... first of all, you have to find a way to make passion and patience co-exist! And while you need to respect yourself and your artists enough to take the business side very seriously, and take on every last new skill you need, you also can't follow any rulebook to the letter. You'll need to be ready to respond to anything that might happen (like last year) and experiment and try new things. You can be as creative with the business side of things as the artists are with the music. Be prepared to reinvent a wheel or two!