In mid-2011, 1,2,3 put out its first album, New Heaven, recorded by a big-name producer (Nicholas Vernhes) and released on a nationally known label (Frenchkiss); the band got some early buzz, toured a bit and seemed destined for some degree of fame. By the end of 2012, the four-piece was, essentially, broken: The one-record deal with the label was clearly not going to be extended; touring had been a bit of a bust because of illness; a follow-up album was halfway done but stalled; and frontman Nic Snyder decided to throw in the towel.
"There's a song called 'The Shapes of Wrath,'" Snyder explains. "[Drummer Josh Sickels] had gone to visit his girlfriend in Cleveland for a week-and-a-half, and I had this song. ...It was a bunch of different parts and I didn't know how to put them together. So me, [bassist Chad Monticue and guitarist Mike Yamamoto] sat out on the porch and just played them, straight-up Appalachian style — stomping, acoustic — and that was the very beginning stages of that song.
"Then we tried to record it once Josh got back, and everything went to hell. That's basically the song that made me quit the band. There's a video online of the final straw, where — my Mbox [recording interface] had broken. ... We had spent a week straight trying to do a rhythm track to this song, and it wasn't turning out well, then my Mbox broke, and ... it was too much."
That may have been the final straw, but things had been adding up for 1,2,3: Pressure came from the label and the band's booking agent at the time to push New Heaven in ways the band wasn't feeling. "I just wanted to not be bothered, [and make another] album. I think a lot of other people wanted us to continue slugging it out on the road and promoting the first album for two years, and I don't like that model. If I'm not making something, I feel like I'm suffocating."
Of course, the split didn't stick — 1,2,3 got back together later in 2013 to finish what would become the band's sophomore release, Big Weather. It took a bit of time, and some recontextualizing, but what had already been done — even "The Shapes of Wrath" — started to sound good again.
"A year later," Snyder says with a laugh, "I came back and listened to it, like ... 'This is fucking sweet!'"
Big Weather, the band's new double LP, was basically a concept album (though Snyder shies away from the term) from the start. The idea, overall, is climate change: The entire album deals in one way or another with weather-related disasters. It's not pedantic, or really political on the surface, though.
"I think that there's sincerely something wrong," Snyder says. "I think most people recognize it at this point. Obviously, there are a lot of conservative extremists who still deny it or think it's some sort of political ploy, climate change. I didn't want to make a political album, though. I wanted to draw attention to it through stories and humor and darkness, more than being like, 'Fuck the Koch brothers.'"
"There was one song that didn't make the album that was more fiercely political," says drummer Sickels. "We put it aside; probably more melodically than anything, it didn't fit. It was probably a bit heavy-handed, how straightforward it was. But I'd say at least half the band, if not more, is pretty politically charged. I'm fiercely progressive."
The ideas the songs explore are charged, but often in a more roundabout way. "Big Weather II," the first song the band wrote for the album, and the simple centerpiece of the second half of the double LP, is a shimmering look at a charmingly simplistic take on the whole issue. "I wanna watch movies," says the narrator. "I wanna sit in traffic / I wanna meet girls." And later: "Don't wanna burn books for kindling." It's the most basic reaction we all have to the idea that something big is bearing down climatologically: Can't things just stay the same?
Related themes rear their heads throughout. "Refusal Bop" and "The Shapes of Wrath" both bring to mind the idea of the hardy — or foolish, depending on who you ask — souls who stay put in disaster-prone areas despite the risk. Tornado Alley, the Louisiana delta, the capes of North Carolina: We question why some would choose to stay when they know another disaster is probably on the way. But as the ice caps melt, maybe we're all in the same situation to some extent.
The end — for individuals or for a larger society — looms large here. "Mile High Grass" alludes quite directly to the four horsemen; "When the Levee Broke at the County Fair" is a darkly humorous look at a Pompeii-like moment in time, with characters having the time of their lives just as disaster strikes. "Leave Me in the Sky With the Lawn Chair" is written from the perspective of someone resigned to death in a storm: "I don't really care, I've got nothing down there / Leave me in the sky with the lawn chair." (That, of course, might be another approach to the larger issue of a changing climate.)
Musically, Big Weather is in line with what we heard from the band on New Heaven, but instead of the glossy finish Vernhes provided on the first album (with violins from K. Ishibashi and a vocal addition by Sondre Lerche), we get a rawer, imperfect sound.
"We had the entire first album demoed out" before the Vernhes sessions, explains Snyder. "I just wasn't very good at recording yet. What the New Heaven recording sessions ended up being was: 'Let's try to do this, only make it sound a little bit better.' It ended up being pretty daunting, and may have lost some spontaneity for that reason. I like imperfection; I like things that happen on the spot, and there's a lot of that on Big Weather." The new album was self-recorded, first at Snyder's then-residence in a stone house in Monroeville, and then at a cabin near Punxsutawney.
That's evident from the start of "Big Weather I," the album's opener: The lead guitar plays loosely with the rhythm section, clearly not by accident, but in order to lend a feeling of slip-sliding instability as the riff builds. The drums and bass do much of the work of building the songs' basis throughout — 1,2,3 has always been a rhythm-heavy band, and Big Weather shows that even more than New Heaven did.
"The first album has a lot of songs with very specific instrumental melody lines," says Sickels. "Mike's guitar parts really complement the new album, because he doesn't go for the big riffs; it's more these dirty parts that spice the songs up."
"Mike would try to write more melodic parts," Snyder adds, "and I would say 'More rhythmic, more rhythmic!' I wanted the songs to work as one big machine, churning out a particular rhythm, and just let the vocals handle most of the melodies."
"This was the first time we really created something from scratch" as a full band, Yamamoto notes. "But by the end, we started to see the schematics of how these songs are, what the real vision is."
"New Heaven has kind of a lonely, spiritual anchor, and Big Weather has, like — it's a setting that you place your songs into," says Snyder. "Big Weather definitely has a pretty strong setting: within the eye of a storm, or the aftermath of a storm."