The Designer’s Drugs: Freezepop – Imaginary Friends

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Freezepop – Imaginary Friends

Anno: 2010

Not every band that makes a name in inside jokes and idiosyncrasy survives the switch to seriousness, but in Freezepop’s case, the change is not only survived but is illuminating.  The first release from the newly remodeled synthpop band shows a change in style to accompany its changes in lineup.  What Imaginary Friends sounds like more than anything is an electronic band busting out high-aerobic singles in its 80s heyday.  Yet despite the fact that it’s on par with the best music of that era, labeling this album as a retro homage or ironic nostalgia would really be shortchanging the quality work that went into its making.

Along with the band’s jettisoning of the rock direction which it flirted with previously, the wry observations and quirky pop culture references that have dotted Liz Enthusiasm’s vocals over the years have largely disappeared.  On the brilliantly synthed up “Lose that Boy,” Enthusiasm’s love advice is the closest the album comes to overt goofiness, but it’s nowhere near her established sense of whimsical self-effacement (see: “Brainpower”).  Instead, the overall impression of Imaginary Friends is that it is a very earnest body of work, easily Freezepop’s most straightforward and concise album to date.  Unless one is hopelessly hung up on references to PBR, Love Ninjas, Game Boys, and the actors of Growing Pains, this is in no way a bad thing.

For my money, the best track on Imaginary Friends is “Special Effects,” an electrojuggernaut that barely has time to slow down for a piano-tinged interlude.  “Natural Causes,” which is a little slower and darker, would be my runner-up.  The album’s against the grain track is its last, “House of Mirrors,” a ballad which plays like a stately version of “Swimming Pool” from the previous album.  And face-forward tracks like “Doppelganger” and “Magnetic” have bouncy hooks that crawl into the listener’s brain and take over.

Though the narrower scope and relative seriousness of Imaginary Friends don’t need to set a permanent precedent, in this case they work out to Freezepop’s advantage.  This is a great work of well-assembled electropop which proves that the new version of Freezepop is just as formidable and enduring as its prior incarnation.

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Freezepop: After Keytarmageddon

Freezepop: Liz Enthusiasm, Bananas Foster, Sean Drinkwater, and Christmas Disco Marie Sagan

Freezepop was created with the purpose of being a side project.  At the time of its inception, its three members – vocalist Liz Enthusiasm and producers/instrumentalists The Duke of Pannekoeken and “The Other” Sean Drinkwater – were wrapped up in other, more pressing engagements.  The original mission statement of the band was to play a few parties and have a few laughs.

Yet for the better part of a decade, the Freezepop trio’s hyper-whimsical brand of electro-pop endured.  The band’s appearances on rhythm videogames like Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band – owing largely to the Duke’s day job at game developer Harmonix – gave it a much higher profile that certainly helped turn it into the main attraction.  But Freezepop wouldn’t have lasted this long if that’s all it had going for it.

The past few years have proven this point.  One of the greatest turning points in Freezepop’s history came with the departure of the Duke a few years ago.  With the loss of this core member, the entire band’s future was called into question, yet the band weathered the change, regrouped, and is now in the process of releasing a new album, titled Imaginary Friends.

“I wouldn’t have wished it this way,” Sean Drinkwater said, “though it’s turned out great.”

Liz Enthusiasm explained the circumstances.  “[The Duke’s] job is insanely demanding.  He hasn’t had time to tour with us in a couple of years, so he just needed to bow out of the day to day process.  He’s still pretty involved with the band in terms of back catalogue and is still on board doing remixes and surprise guest appearances.”

Still, it wasn’t as though the Duke’s bandmates didn’t see this coming.  “Six months leading up to [his departure],” Drinkwater said, “we were trying to make a record.  Our label Ryko, which had licensed [Freezepop’s third album] Future Future Future Perfect, wanted to hear our new music and offer us a more straight-up record deal.  Even at that time, the Duke didn’t really have time to do any of that, so we were forced to write all the songs at that time.  Liz and I came up with 20 songs over the course of a couple months and sent everything to Ryko, and they loved it, so we thought it would work.  The idea was to use six or seven of ours, and he’d come in with four or five to round it out, and we’d have an album.  But it didn’t work out that way.”

Drinkwater went on to describe the impact of the Duke’s departure.  “To lose your primary songwriter, your producer, your sonic architect – there were some questions as to what the hell we were going to do.  Luckily I happen to have those skills, so it wasn’t like we were totally left out in the dark, but the transition was a lot slower than I had thought.”

Part of the rebuilding process was seeking out the Duke’s replacement, yet Enthusiasm and Drinkwater went further and expanded the band’s roster to four.  Keytarist and electropercussionist, codenamed Robert John “Bananas” Foster, was an old hand on the job, having spent years filling in for the Duke when needed.  His promotion to official member was largely a formality.  Less inevitable was the recruiting of Freezepop’s new synth player and supporting vocalist, codenamed Christmas Disco Marie Sagan.

“Once the Duke told us he was going to go, we asked Bananas within a few days so we’d have that anchored,” Drinkwater said.  “We’ve been touring for 2½ to 3 years without [the Duke] at this point, and [Bananas] had been touring with us that whole time, and he was probably going to join the band anyway.  There was definitely talk of it being a four-piece with Bananas and the Duke.”

“As for Christmas,” Enthusiasm continued, “she was a friend of ours.  We knew that we wanted another person, and we knew that we wanted a girl, somebody who could do backing vocals, and she was on our shortlist.  We found out that she was classically trained on piano.  It just seemed to fall into place.

“We were kind of amazed because she had never been in a band at all.  She made her debut on stage in front of several hundred people.  It must have been really nerve-wracking, but she handled it pretty well.  She learned her parts so quickly, so it’s really been as seamless as one could hope for.”

Freezepop 2010

Following the reassembly came the practice.  “It was months and months of rehearsing,” Drinkwater said.  “It takes a while to get a real dynamic formed with people, to make sure that it’s the right thing, getting everyone comfortable and figuring out people’s roles.  Then we had to go back and revise the record a little bit here and there.  That’s kind of been the transition.”

“We did a mini-tour this April, going out with the new lineup to get things up and running,” Enthusiasm said.  “There are a lot of technical considerations now: we’ve brought in video, new person, new gear, different arrangements of the songs.  We did that week and a half in April to get going, and it went really well.”

On that tour – which included one reportedly bizarre night featuring the band performing at a bowling alley – Freezepop toured with its optimum setup, as described by Drinkwater:  “Christmas is playing video and doing vocoder and synth stuff.  Bananas is playing an actual v-drum kit where he sits down to play, and keytar as well.  I’m doing pretty much the same stuff; I play guitar on a few songs, but mostly play keyboard.  So there are certain songs where there are three keyboard players.  It’s nice because we can use fewer preprogrammed things, which we’ve always wanted to do.  Musicially, it’s a little bit more live, and the record reflects that a little bit.”

However, he admitted that Freezepop’s current west coast tour will be much lighter in terms of equipment.  “The problem is that we can’t quite bring the whole rig when we tour certain places.  We’re not gonna be able to bring the video screens, and we’re not gonna do the drum set, because we’re gonna fly out there and have to strip the gear down.”

“Now it’s getting a little more tricky because we do have a new person and different gear,” Enthusiasm noted.  “We used to be a lot more portable.  If we got an offer to do a single show, we would be able to do it.  We used to be able to fit in a car and go places, to be able to fly in and out of shows.  Now, maybe the four of us could fit in a minivan.  We’re going to figure out how much we can pare it down without going back to the old ultraportable setup.”

Still, there are advantages.  “Touring is definitely way more fun for me now,” Enthusiasm said.  “I like not being the only girl anymore.  It’s interesting stepping back and seeing the band through the eyes of somebody who’s involved with it for the first time.  [Christmas] gets so excited about everything.  She started out as a fan of our band, so now whenever we play super old school songs she gets very excited about it.  It’s not like we’re jaded, but we’ve played “Science Genius Girl” three million times.”

“There are only so many hands that [Bananas] and I, or the Duke and I, have had on our own,” Drinkwater added.  “It’s been nice to have a little more musical flexibility.  We actually have played a couple of songs just straight-up live without using sequencers, which we’ve done pretty uncommonly in the past.  It probably seems more complicated, but if we didn’t think it was worth it we wouldn’t have done it.  I feel pretty confident that this is the right thing to do.  In terms of the record it’s definitely the right way to go.”

That record, Imaginary Friends, is set for release in November.  When asked to describe its sound, both Enthusiasm and Drinkwater emphasized its advancement of the established formula yet also noted a completely different approach to the hows and whys of its making.

“[The Duke’s] compositional style is certainly characteristic of the band,” Drinkwater said, “and you don’t want to go too far and alienate everybody.  We were certainly making a Freezepop album; we were not making a new project.  That’s the reason we didn’t change the name.  It’s not like we were fighting our own instincts, but there is sort of a template.  We stretched it a little bit, but I don’t think our fans are going to be scratching their heads over it.”

“For a long time I thought it was like the second record, Fancy Ultra-Fresh, which is a little lighter than the third record.  But at the end of it that wasn’t as true as we originally thought.  It certainly has some hallmark Freezepop stuff on it; it’s not like we reinvented the wheel too much.  It’s a little more discoey in places, maybe.

“I think there was an effort to simplify it a little bit, to strip it down somewhat.  Rather than a lot of intricate, frenetic programming, there is a lot more playing, which is one thing we set out to do so it would work better live.  Some of the old Freezepop music, as much as I love the records, there are times when you start to play a song and it’s really tough to play and have it maintain any rhythmic balance.  For example: maybe “I Am Not Your Gameboy.”  It’s become a cornerstone because of the video game references and because it’s very synthy.  People really like that song, and they request it all the time.  It just never works live.

“With this, we tried to make it a little more direct.  That’s possibly the result of having played these songs before we recorded them, which we’ve never done before.  Normal bands write their songs and go on the road before they record; we’ve always had our albums manufactured before we went into rehearsal to take it apart.  This time we got to tour and figure out what was working and what wasn’t before we recorded.”

Though the new members make appearances on the album, the songwriting process was run entirely by Enthusiasm and Drinkwater, the latter having detailed each person’s role.  “Christmas sings on it a lot, which is kind of neat.  They sound great together.  [Bananas] sings on it a bit.  I sing on it a teeny bit – I’m probably less vocally present than I’ve ever been – but I just wanted it to be [Liz] on this one.  We all play on it a little bit, but mostly it’s Liz and me.  We needed that; we didn’t want to rely on anybody too much.  Hopefully the next one will be completely different, and we’ll do it in a much more collaborative way, but it wasn’t really time.”

This slow move toward a more band-like songwriting process doesn’t so much imply a disdain of democracy as much it shows the way the band has traditionally worked best.  “The Duke was the primary songwriter in the band,” Drinkwater began.  “My contributions to Freezepop had been sprinkled around here and there.  I don’t appear on the second album much at all, which is odd because it’s probably my favorite one.  The collaborations between the three of us had been few and far between.  It’s usually been one of us producing music, but the three of us collaborating is pretty rare.

“There was a time right after the first album where we tried to do it a bunch, and it didn’t go that well.  It was one of those things where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I backed off and let him do his thing on the second record.  On the third record, he wanted to do some songs that I had, so I sent in a few things and we decided what fit well and recorded them.  We’re both credited on a couple of songs, but we didn’t sit down together and write.  We’re both production minded in that sense.”

Yet following the end of that routine, Drinkwater has stepped out from the Duke’s shadow and cast off his old role as “The Other,” helping to ready Freezepop for a new, unwandered phase in its existence.

“Not by choice,” he was quick to add.   “If he called tomorrow and said he’d like to be back in the band, I think it would happen.  I have enjoyed how it has been up until now, and when he left it was a bummer, but this is pretty satisfying now that I’ve done it.  I might have a slightly harder time giving it up.”

* * *

So with the ending of this transitional phase, will Freezepop’s next work come out sooner than the last?  Drinkwater made no promises.

“After every album, we’ve always said that the next one will be out sooner, but that never happens.  I would love to do a Freezepop record next summer, if we all got to go into a farm somewhere for a month and made a record really fast.  Even if it was a weird one in the catalogue, just to do it.  Will that happen?  Not very likely.

“We’re not insane perfectionists, but in terms of this it took longer because we were trying to make sure that it was pretty right.  We didn’t want to release three good songs and a bunch of garbage.  It had to be a real album or we’d be digging our graves, especially since we had lost a key guy.  If you’re not making your best album at this point, you better do something else.

“On the next one, will we be a little easier on ourselves and be a little more experimental?  I kind of hope so.”

Imaginary Friends

Freezepop will be playing El Corazon in Seattle on Monday, September 27th with Ming & Ping and Aerodrone.  Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.