New York City Queens, one of Houston Press Artopia's musical guests at Winter Street Studios Saturday night, make it a point to never make the same album twice.
For the local indie-pop five-piece's upcoming Glass House, front man John Stephens (who works full-time at Houston's Studio713), made liberal use of a 2008 Prophet analog synthesizer and a drum machine, hoping to steer the group away from the guitars and live drums that dominated their first two albums. This time he wanted to explore the less linear musical territory staked out by albums like Radiohead's Kid A and Beach House's Teen Dream. This one should be released in the first half of this year, he reckons.
"We were focused on producing a record that is a true break from our previous releases in terms of tone and production value," Stephens says via email. "It was a purposeful challenge to put down the guitars and drums and focus on picking up new instruments."
Those new machines also helped drive the band's songwriting this time, Stephens says.
"The ideas on this record focus more specifically on our interaction with each other, person to person, as it is affected by our reliance on machines/computers," he explains. "The lyrical ideas are bigger in scope; focusing less on personal relationships and more on relationship dynamics in general."
Sounds like they had a lot to sift through. Glass House's predecessor, 2012's Burn Out Like Roman Candles, was done fairly quickly, over about three months, recalls Stephens. (Such intense activity may have been catharsis; Stephens says he was "really depressed" while creating Roman Candles.) Leading up to Glass House, which Stephens says he enjoyed making much more, the Queens would record in bursts of three or four weeks and then spend months before picking back up again.
They were basically living their extramusical lives, Stephens explains. During that time, he and guitarist/bassist Daniela Hernandez got married and guitarist Tom Guth's father passed away. Experiences like that caused the Queens to step away from each other and the band in order to, Stephens says, "feel their weight." Now he thinks that weight can be felt in Glass House.
"We had some of the best and worst moments of our lives this year, and I think you can hear that on this record," Stephens offers.
One song you'll hear for sure on the new album is "Kurt," Stephens' tribute to one of his idols, the late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. It's an odd sort of tribute, though. In it, "[I'm] confronted by his telling me that I'm basically shit," he says.
"There's a lyric on this record where I say I've buried all my idols in shallow graves," continues Stephens. "In this song, Kurt digs his way out and confronts me with the idea that I'll never be as good as I hope; that I'll always be a failure. I've done my best to prove that idea wrong."
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Three of the Queens — Stephens, guitarist/bassist Kitty Beebe and Guth began their lives in the Kingwood area. Hernandez transferred to Kingwood High School in her junior year. She and Beebe were already playing together when Stephens, who had recorded Somewhere Different all on his own, invited him to play with him because "I loved their chemistry together." Guth and drummer Isaac Chavez-Garcia were the last to come aboard, the latter replacing Stephens' brother Phillip.
Drawing from a grab bag of alt-pop sounds, from jangle to electro, the Queens have steadily become one of the bigger draws in Houston's fertile indie scene while taking advantage of opportunities to reach even wider audiences.
They played the first CMJ Texas Takeover (where they were surprised the Big Apple crowd loved their name) and have done Free Press Summer Fest twice, including last year. The Queens also tour frequently enough that they've built up a good-size following in the region, including — for reasons they can't explain — Arkansas.
"We have this really dedicated Arkansas fan base," Stephens says. "We love them to death but we've had some wild experiences out there. It's best if we don't get into details here."
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