It's been something of a storybook beginning for Scottish rockers We Were Promised Jetpacks, though not without its rough spots. Though they were signed right out of college, the band's debut was almost a lost cause before an intrepid producer polished the mixes.
That debut, These Four Walls, brings together swells of crashing guitars, moments of supple beauty and singer/guitarist Adam Thompson's keening melancholy tenor. It's an album that vacillates between bristling crunch and shimmering indie-pop melody.
This tension between the loud and soft mirrors the lyrics' emotional tone, balancing anguish and hopeful resilience. You can hear it in the acoustic album-closer, "An Almighty Thud," whose title describes the sound made by the singer's fallen crown. He laments, "I lost my throne to a successor with far more expansive plans than I ever did; I abdicated." In the last lines, he not only promises that he'd "love to stay here," but adds that he refuses to leave. On the pretty, slow-building and equally dour opener, "This Is My House, This Is My Home," he announces, "Something's happened in the attic / We both know I'm not going up there."
It's a fairly downcast attitude for a young man who had a job waiting for him after college -- a job making music, no less. Reached by phone at his Edinburgh home, Thompson reports that such is the Scottish character. "Traditionally that's what Scot people are known for: a modesty. Everyone's fucking miserable," he laughs. "I think there's a humor in Scotland that is a little bit different than everyone else."
Perhaps that's why WWPJ ended up finding a home on Fat Cat Records, alongside fellow Scots Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad. The band began as a quartet of high school friends. While in college, they played a fortuitous gig in Glasgow opening for Frightened Rabbit, whose leader, Scott Hutchison, recommended his label check them out. Toward the end of their junior year, Fat Cat expressed its interest.
"It was no point in doing three years to not get a degree, so we just hung on for one more," Thompson says. "It was quite nice to have it to look forward to once our degrees were finished."
In late 2008, when they went into the studio to record These Four Walls, they'd made but one week-long jaunt around the country and were still fairly callow. They recorded with Ken and Joylon Thomas (Clinic, M83), tracking everything live. This was their first mistake, as everyone bled into each other's mikes, making for a nightmare when they got the album back. "It was really awful," Thompson recalls ruefully.
Fat Cat was disappointed with the sound, too, and rather than allow the Thomases to mix it, the label contacted American producer Peter Katis, who'd produced the band's Scottish labelmates' recent albums. "Peter was really busy. He had a band in at the time and he did us on his days off, and in any spare time he had,"w says Thompson. It was a big ask, but he did it. ... He saved the record. It was either that or scrap it and start over again, and we didn't want to do that."
Katis (The National, Interpol) was able to bring out the guitars and beef up the drum sound. Overall, it's hard to believe the initial recordings were so bad, because the album sounds quite triumphant, and earned its share of nice press, particularly in America. WWPJ was further bolstered by an album-support tour last year with Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, which helped expose their similarly minded sound to those established acts' audiences.
Though Thompson's still not quite happy with the album, he says he's over it and ready to get onto the next one. The band's already begun demoing some tracks, and on the current tour he expects to showcase a few of its new, "rockier" songs, such as "Boy in the Backseat" and "Hard to Remember."
"There's less peaks and troughs where it's quiet/loud, so there's less build-up and there's quite a lot of guitar parts and little bits and parts of songs," he says, comparing the group's latest efforts to its debut. "We're also trying a few different rhythms. We definitely want to use the studio more, because we just had one sound for our guitars last time, but this time we can add a few things in, so it's been fun trying that."
But there's little worry it'll sound as lush as the recent Frightened Rabbit album, Winter of Mixed Drinks, for instance. That's simply not WWPJ's style, particularly for a band that's known for being a lot more aggressive live than on disc.
"For whatever reason, when the four of us get into a room and start playing music, it just keeps getting louder and louder," laughs Thompson. "I have to go, 'Whoa, whoa, stop. Not every song can do that.' It just seems to be the way it goes with us."
We Were Promised Jetpacks, with Bear Hands and Landline. 8 p.m. Thu., July 8. Mr. Small's Funhouse, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $12. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com