Tomten's second album, The Farewell Party, is a soundtrack for the slow-motion pan across a dilapidated banquet table. It's post feast, and the streamers that streamed are now strewn like downed power lines. Hollow bottles lay on their sides, and the revelers have long since gone. Cake and lipstick are smudged on a jacket crumpled in the corner. Or is it blood? Producer Jason Quever (Beach House, Papercuts) and Tomten singer-songwriter Brian Noyeswatkins have stitched together movements of warm and mournful pop. Analog threads of organ, keys, and Mellotron tie together Noyeswatkins's tranquilized vocals with accompaniments of strings, brass, woodwinds, and guitar. The Seattle-based trio of Noyeswatkins, bassist Dillon Sturtevant, and drummer Jake Brady spent much of the past year touring the United States. Noyeswatkins spoke from the beach town of Pajaro Dunes, near Santa Cruz.
Describe what you see around you.
I see ice plants, lots of rickety, unfinished wood buildings, and old people watching birds. There's a boardwalk and aged houses. One looks like a King Arthur castle with wooden shingles. It's probably split into units. There are also some smaller shack-type places with circular windows. It kind of feels like the end of the world and this is the last community left [laughs]. It's around 62 degrees. I might jump in the ocean when we're finished talking.
How did you come to work with Jason Quever on The Farewell Party?
I met him when I was around 18. I went to one of his shows and gave him a really crappy picture I'd painted for him of this giant animal Richard Nixon character with chicken hands. We started e-mailing, and years later I said, "I'd love to work with you on a new album." I sent him the one we'd previously done, we talked, and he was in. We drove down to Sacramento to record. It was June, and it was hot—more than 100 degrees every day. We lived in the studio for our time there and took sink showers together.
How did he go about dialing in your sound?
He's really great at getting specific sounds. I love the bass sounds he gets on his albums. He gets great drum sounds from experimenting with placement. He also helped me with vocals a lot. I would go into something maybe trying to do too much, and he'd tell me to stop trying to do my glissando, jazzy bullshit [laughs]. We'd do a lot of takes and eventually end up with something that was easier or simple. He'd also sit down at a keyboard and play something that I didn't have in mind before. Or come up with ideas on the spur of the moment, like a delayed piano in the back on "Wayward Song." He said, "I don't think I should play my slide guitar on this one. I think you should sit down at my piano and bang out notes."
Glissando means two notes blending into each other, right?
It's like sliding into a note, or gliding from one pitch to another. I guess I was doing that a lot, so he said, "Just sing it straight" or "Don't be an asshole." [Laughs]
He does get great sounds, as a producer. Let's sex that up. What's sexy about his producing? Make it sexy.
Imagine his face, it's sexy. Imagine him in cargo shorts saying things like "Don't take pictures of me while I'm wearing cargo shorts in the studio." [Laughs] He doesn't need much. He keeps things simple, and clean. And that's sexy. Getting his drum sounds, you see what he does and you're like, "That's all you had to do?" He played a lot of guitar on the album, using this old Gretsch amp, and it had this tremolo on it that sounded like an old rotary organ speaker. He likes playing through neat old gadgets. Which is also sexy.
So his version of being Phil Spector pointing guns at people in the studio is telling them not to take pictures of him wearing cargo shorts.
That, or pointing a Brie baguette sandwich at people while doing sit-ups in cargo shorts. I wish they'd been the ultra kind of cargo shorts that zip into long pants if you want them. It was so hot in Sacramento, you had to pull out all forms of shorts. One morning, we woke up at the studio and there was this super weird guy outside screaming, "CAMERA! CAMERA!" Maybe that was Phil Spector, I don't know. The studio is shared with a banana-cooling factory.
A banana-cooling factory?
Yeah. If you were to slide back the walls, there were crates and crates of cooling bananas.
Talk about "Wayward Song." What were you listening to when you wrote it?
I had just gotten really into Bill Fay, an English singer-songwriter from the late '60s/early '70s, and his self-titled album. He only did a couple albums before getting dropped, and then he sort of vanished. He had a cool canvas style of writing where he'd sit down and play through whatever chord structure he had. Then he'd bang out lyrics that made sense for the sound. Originally, I wanted "Wayward Song" to have guitar on it, but we went with piano and I think that helped it. It's a simple two-chord, melancholy song. The guitar demo version sounded more like butt rock and shitty Zeppelin.
The lyrics and music were written together. I played through it a few times and thought of that "toll every bell" line. I thought the chorus should sound like you were on the top of a clock tower. The middle part was fun to put together, like a sound bed. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger. Lena Simon played space-echoed clarinet, and we got her to record these weird vocals. And she had a bunch of chimes we'd recorded on her phone outside her sister's house, which we played through an amp.
Speaking of wayward, on tour you stopped at the Space Age Lodge, where Burt Reynolds was rumored to have killed a man and got away with it?
There's a lot of lore about it at the motel. I imagined it as a long, drawn-out strangling at the front desk. Or maybe it had something to do with his bearskin-rug picture. All the bellmen wear Star Trek uniforms.
Tell me about the guy you met in Arizona. His name was Scotch, but he was drinking Long Island iced teas?
When we got to the club, they told us no one else on the bill was showing up, so we would be playing all night. No one was there except for Scotch. He'd been there since 4 p.m., trading the OxyContins he had for his back pain for Long Island iced teas. We started playing, and instead of heckling us, it was like he was having a dialogue with us. He'd be like: "No, no, nooo, that sounds too much like Donovan. I wanna hear Bob Dylan or Keith Richards." Then we played a heavier song, and he was happy. He said, "I've decided you guys are okay." Then he wandered off into the night.
Have you kept in touch with Scotch?
Sadly no, we didn't get his contact info.
Then in Fayetteville, some neighbors were fighting because one of them stole the other's alcohol?
We were going out to stay at some random guy's house, and it already seemed kind of weird. A huge fight had just broken up when we got there. The cops showed up and were the worst cops ever. They were asking if the people fighting were "black, or gay, or what?" When they found out it was girls fighting, they said, "Oh, never mind." And they drove away.
Where else did shit get wayward?
In Pendleton, Oregon, we stayed at someone's house and I sleepwalked into his room. We didn't know him. I went in after everyone was asleep and laid down in his bed with him. I don't think I've ever sleepwalked before. I remember waking up in this delirious state, and he was yelling, "You can't sleep in my bed." [Laughs] I saw him for a second the next morning when he was leaving to go to work. He looked at me on the couch when he was walking out the door, and I never saw him again.
Why is the album called The Farewell Party?
It's from a line in The Last Hurrah. I thought it worked with the mood of the record. I think the next one will sound much different.
You're a keyboard/organ lover. You played some Mellotron on the album. How was that? Describe Mellotron for those that might not know.
I loved it. It was a lot jankier than I thought it would be. Jason had one that he found at a pawnshop. We used a lot of the string sounds. Mellotron uses tape decks—real instruments recorded to tape and then played by the keyboard when you hit each key. It was kind of the first sampler. Or to sex it up technically, it's an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard. The fact that it's a real instrument filtered through tape and this rusty old keyboard can make it sound haunted. You can hear it on "Pipe Dream Boy," and there's a Mellotron solo on "You Won't Be on My Mind" right in the middle. It sounds like an electric bagpipe, but it's supposed to be a cello [laughs]. I'd love to find one someday, but they're pretty expensive, and they're a pain in the ass to keep up. The most famous Mellotron is on "Strawberry Fields Forever." Zeppelin used them a bunch too, and Roxy Music. It's crazy to hear how bands would take one on tour with them. They'd bring a technician with them who would realign the tapes before every show. So decadent and cool.
Tomten needs a Mellotron tech.
We need to up our decadence level a hair. But yeah, that's what we need to be spending our money on for sure.