The songs that the Los Angeles-via-Chicago duo Houses create aren't so much written as they are crafted — layers of samples and instruments, built up on top of one another. But that doesn't mean it's a haphazard process — just different from the way many songwriters work.
"It's definitely like sculpture," says Dexter Tortoriello, who writes most of the music in the band he shares with girlfriend Megan Messina. "I've tried to work with people who can sit down and say, ‘I just came up with this vocal part, let's write a song to go with that.' And that makes no sense to me. It's just not the way I work. I wish I did more; it seems kind of nice.
"I cut up samples and try to get all the songs just the way I want them before I even start thinking about which part could be the chorus, what part will be the bridge, what I'm going to sing over what."
But the music Houses make — as on its second album, A Quiet Darkness, released earlier this year — isn't the beep-buzz-whirrrr stuff you might associate with "sound-sculpture" artists. Houses songs are generally mid-paced, understated affairs, a bit contemplative, recalling bittersweet material from bands like Low and Red House Painters. But the music is informed by a flurry of samples — in this case, many songs were recorded on the sly in abandoned homes the band found in California.
"It was pretty much a lot of creepy-crawling," Tortoriello says with a laugh. "There are a lot of weird ghost towns on Highway 10 coming out of California, and it's a whole microcosm of forgotten things out there. I guess there were people who thought these would make booming cities, since there was nothing in between Arizona's big cities and California's big cities. But it's just too hot, and there's nothing there. There are a lot of remnants of people's dream towns that didn't pan out."
If the ghosts living in Houses' songs are one thing that adds an element of suspense to A Quiet Darkness, another is Tortoriello's unorthodox songwriting approach — like his take on vocals.
"I think they're very important to what we do," he says. "But it's just as important when they're not there as when they are. On both of our records we have instrumental songs, and those are generally some of my more favorite songs off the albums. But you can't push out an instrumental as a single, so less people are going to hear it — and even people listening to the album aren't going to listen as closely.
"But on the new record, for example, there are songs with choruses that have no vocals. That's not a mistake."
A Quiet Darkness doesn't contain too many mistakes; it's a pretty record with a background that matches its sounds in terms of intrigue. And if you hear some ghostly sounds in there, don't be alarmed — that's just part of the story.