There was a brief moment, back in 2003, when Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won over not just the public, but the music industry and media as well. I bring up that era because it’s the last time I can remember when a band could be fun, catchy, and a little silly and still get taken seriously by critics. Morose introspection, inscrutably poetic lyrics, bold political statements – these are the things that get major media outlets these days to put an album on their end-of-the-year top ten, and only that kind of very serious music seems inspire people all over the internet to write impassioned articles debating its merits. As a writer, I can understand why. There’s more to grasp onto and interpret when someone is baring their soul through music, and we lack to right language to describe the more immediate, sensory pleasures of a great beat or a catchy hook. We haven’t quite moved on from having to define music the way we do literature or film, in terms of narrative. We demand a story – the artist grappling with some internal obstacle. With simple pop songs, there’s no easily-defined conflict, so it’s a lot more difficult to explain the journey of the music.
The issue is that a lot of great stuff gets either ignored, or unfairly maligned if it falls into the category of “fun.” “Fun” has turned into a dismissive word people use to refer to music that they think of insubstantial. “Fun” is a musical ghetto where old Cheap Trick albums gather dust, rarely mentioned by anyone serious about music, but always available for when people need a break from the self-serious Arcade Fires and U2s of the world.
So, it’s hard out there for bands that simply want to play well-crafted, uptempo pop songs. The Bynars are one such group. They remind me of The Cars a little bit. All of their songs make heavy use of vaguely cheesy, eighties-style synthesizers, and they all make you want to do some embarrassing dad-at-a-bar-mitzvah-style dancing while you’re rocking out to them on your morning commute. Their songs tend to deal with the small frustrations and victories of everyday life, often with a healthy sense of humor (you can’t help laugh at the song title “Asking Your Mom for Money.” Most reviews I’ve read are positive, but they always seem to throw in a sideways dig about “simplistic lyrics” or some knock about their lack of substance (another example: “The Bynars doesn’t offer up anything you haven’t heard before. At all”).
I tend to disagree with these types of criticisms, since they reveal a narrow-minded criteria where music needs to be revolutionary to be important. It’s gotten me thinking about the place of optimism and fun in the current pop landscape, and whether a band like this, which really deserves all the love and attention in the world, needs to have some intense, artistic mission from God in order to get people’s attention. When did writing songs as purely pleasurable diversions become something we take for granted? It’s a prevailing attitude that has even starting working retroactively – in Ken Emerson’s mostly excellent book Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, the occasional misstep occurs when the author seems too eager to focus on songs that had some groundbreaking or subversive impact on not simply music, but hot-button societal issues, making all kinds of grandiose claims to get around the fact that the Brill Building was full of people who, first and foremost, aspired to writing crowd-pleasing hits.
But I’m rambling, as always. The Bynars are a good band, and they write fun songs. I hope more people check out them out and appreciate what they’re up to. Their self-titled full-length came out this year, and they’re currently promoting it with a nice single, “Every Little Thing You Love,” available for free download. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Matt Jatkola, the guitarist and lead vocalist of the group, about the new single, the band’s personality, and how they’ve gotten to this point.
Throughout the interview, I kept trying to gently push to figure out how the band feels about their persona. It was hard to read between the lines to figure out if these guys were frustrated by being pigeonholed, or embracing that type of characterization. Jatkola seems genuinely excited that the new single would go a ways towards illustrating that they were capable of more. “It’s a weird song for us,” he says. “Slow and ballad-y and pretty sad. People think ‘oh yeah, the fun happy synth-pop band over there’ but this one’s a downer. It’s a chance to show we’re not a one-trick pony.” He is quick to point out, too, that plenty of the peppy, danceable songs hide an undercurrent of sadness in the lyrical content.
And yet, the more I found out about the band, the more I got the sense that they tend to write the kind of music they do because they themselves are well-adjusted, happy guys playing in this band because they love it and enjoy each other’s company. The band is named after an alien race from Star Trek: The Next Generation and they give a shout out to Captain Picard in the liner notes of the new album, so they certainly wear their nerd credentials proudly. As a band, they’ve watched the entire Star Wars saga in one sitting, something which stretched the limits of even their enthusiasm: “Each time we thought it was going to be awesome, but by the time you get to Empire you’re thinking ‘please kill me!’”
They must get a lot out of the experience of being in this kind of group, since all four members of the band balance recording and touring with regular day jobs. Ben Mettey, the synth player, is, as Jatkola describes him, “a librarian by trade,” and bassist Kiel Szivos photographs eyes at a medical center, jobs few would associate with a rock and roll lifestyle. In geek parlance, they all seemingly have a Clark Kent-esque mild-mannered daytime persona, transforming into a rock band at night.
They’re still a New England band at heart, though they explore other ways of getting the word out than just playing the traditional circuit of the same four Cambridge bars. When asked about Boston, Matt cautiously explains it as “a double-edged sword. Theoretically, it sounds like a cool place to be. There are tons of venues and some really awesome bands. The flipside is oversaturation.” As a result, The Bynars can be often found touring more offbeat venues around the city and region. They do connect with other Boston bands, though, recently striking up a friendship with another excellent local group, Bearstronaut.
The band’s musical interests are all over the place. Jatkola explains, “I’m into good pop songs – songs that make me feel something. Ben’s into sounds and Brian Eno, Mike is into Daft Punk, Kiel’s more of a hard rock and metal kind of guy.” While many of those influences are apparent on the album, I can’t say there’s anything that could be described as ‘metal,’ so it remains to be seen whether they ever incorporate that facet of their taste. The songwriting process often starts with a hooky synth line, or vocal idea. Their criteria is simple: “melody is king.” That melodic strain ensures that no one would ever confuse The Bynars for a straight-up dance band, but there are traces of Daft Punk audible in how their beats drive the momentum forward constantly. Says Jatkola, “The album had a lot of programmed stuff and dance-ier stuff. Electronic music is a big influence on us, and we got an opportunity to show that.” Pressed to figure out his lyrical inspiration, he seems stumped. “I don’t know where a lot of the stuff comes from,” he says, elaborating on that to explain that often ideas come to him or another band member fully-formed, without a clear idea how they originated.
That murkiness may explain why they took the unusual step of putting together online focus groups where fans could rate songs and make suggestions, information the band used to decide which songs would make it onto the album, which would be scrapped, and which would be retooled (more on that can be found in this Boston Globe piece). And, Jatkola insists, it truly did lead to a better final product, particularly when songs that a band member thought should be cut were reworked based on listener suggestions and turned into something that the band could get behind. Despite that fairly inventive way of using the internet, Jatkola expresses some ambivalence towards the use of digital technology as a promotional tool. We talked just hours after the much-hyped Facebook-Spotify announcement, regarding which Jatkola commented, “It’s weird to think how Facebook changes the way you present your content to the people,” adding that it’s “not necessarily a good thing.”
Although the band has found creative ways to interact with their fans, at the end of the day they seem to be playing more for each other than for anyone else. Jatkola explains, “We have more fond memories about the really bad shows we played. We played a really bad one in CT – we didn’t really want to practice for the show because we were too consumed with the album. We came out in matching sweatpants and played pretty badly. The audience basically just ignored us. We had a lot of fun.”
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