STUDIO TO STREET: Wowser Bowser

Wowser Bowser

If you’re one of the many in this town who have become disenchanted with music choked by irony and self-aware detachment, Wowser Bowser are here to help you. The foursome’s unique blend of dreamy, psychedelic rock and emphatically upbeat synthpop is steeped in wonder and enchantment and their self-titled debut—out today via Adair Park Recordings—snaps with youthful vigor. It’s a surprisingly diverse and dense recording, one that provides a litany of layers and electronic headphone candy to help flesh out the group’s joyously unrestrained songs. But most importantly, it’s music that demands you uncross your arms, and dares you to stand still. The band’s live shows—part dance party, part balloon-strewn carnival—are as much an event as they are a performance, and local audiences have responded with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is both rare and refreshing.

Recently, I got the opportunity to talk with bandleaders George Pettis and Jake Thomson. We discussed the philosophy and recording process behind the band’s debut full-length, as well as their thoughts on the Atlanta music scene and questionable culinary decisions.

Can you give us some background into the recording of your debut? Where you recorded it, who you worked with, how long it took, etc.

George Pettis: We recorded this beast in about twenty different places over the space of roughly two years. The recording process consisted of me and Jake being simultaneously OCD and lazy, which is a weird and terrible combination for musicians (laughs). This meant that we would rarely get together to work on the album, and when we did we were being super perfectionists about the mixing and recording and all that. The live recording was mostly done in my old house in Decatur, as well as our (then) bassist Nick’s basement, but a lot of the vocal tracking and mixing was actually done in Jake’s tiny apartment at Tech. This album is definitely a sonic patchwork quilt labor of love. We’re pretty proud of it for sure. I should mention that the real credit for the mixing goes to Jake, because he’s the Logic Pro genius, not me.

Jake Thomson: It was a real challenge for us to see how good we could make the recordings sound without any professional help (although we did get it professionally mastered by Carl Saff), and although we could have gotten it done a lot faster with, say, an actual engineer or producer, I don’t think we would have learned as much or have been as proud of the finished product as we are now. From the songs’ conception in late 2009 to now, the tracks came together very gradually over about a year and a half and went through a lot of sonic changes, although the chords and melodies stayed pretty much the same. I think we just really wanted it to sound as perfect as we could make it.

Describe to me your thought process heading into the studio. What kind of sound/aesthetic were you guys trying to achieve?

GP: I’m not sure we really had a concrete goal in mind as far as a “sound” going into to making this album, but we definitely noticed some recurring themes as the album started to take shape. I think there is definitely a juvenile, childish theme that comes through in a lot of the songwriting itself; and I think that we tried to capture that feeling of wonderment you used to get when you were a kid. I often think about how before we were dulled by the pressures of adult life, every day was like an adventure, a birthday party, a game, etc. and I think my songs reflect that innocence, in a way. Basically we wanted the album to sound like children’s music for adults. One of our friends once told me at one of our shows that it was like watching a bunch of drunk eight-year-olds with synthesizers, and I thought, “That’s pretty great. Yeah, let’s shoot for that.”

JT: I think we (or at least I) were really looking to escape certain styles of music we had been playing for years and to try to make something that was fresh, fun and invigorating. Oh, and easy to dance to. Some ideas I brought to the table were probably derived from stuff like Brian Eno, the Flaming Lips, Passion Pit and the Magnetic Fields, to name a few. Especially the Lips—because we tend to go overboard with adding layer after layer of sound into our recordings, we just embraced the whole “orchestral rock” idea we picked up from albums like The Soft Bulletin and decided to play real instruments over densely arranged MIDI backing tracks recorded ahead of time. That way we could have the sound we wanted and have our hands mostly free on-stage to goof around and kick each other and stuff.

There are a lot of layers in your music, a lot experimental sounds and electronic twists. How much of that was thought up in rehearsals and how much was completed in the studio?

JT: Our goal in mind was to create a very full sound, so we would take turns adding and subtracting layers from the music. For most of them, George had already worked out the song structures that remained pretty concrete the whole time, while I would take a copy of what he was working on and just add whatever I wanted to. Then we would sort of go back and forth from that point, building off what the other had added to the song. We spent a lot of the time just tweaking the sounds themselves, playing around with synthesizer settings until we got the exact sound we wanted out of each instrument voice. And because our rehearsal space was kind of also our studio space, we could change things on the fly, so that our studio tracks would affect our live performances and vice versa.

GP: SO much of the song comes to fruition in the last two weeks of recording. We would have a working version of something for like, months, and then at the last minute Jake or I would get some sudden inspiration listening to it on our own. One of us would call the other one say something like, “I think there should be a GONG there” or “this guitar should have a filter effect on it,” and suddenly we’re making all these changes. That’s easily my favorite part of recording—the collaboration that happens when two people have the common goal of just making the best song they possibly can. I mean, some of the songs were weird anyway from the get go, but our goal is always to get weirder (laughs).

How would you judge the final recording? Is there anything that you would change about it?

GP: (laughs) I am the WRONG person to ask. Jake will tell you that it can be such a headache working with me, because I’m almost NEVER satisfied with a song. If it were up to me, we’d STILL probably be working on the fucking thing, and I doubt it would sound any better than it does right now. I’m just crazy, I guess. That being said, once I finally admitted that we were done and actually took a few weeks off before listening the album again, I must admit that it’s pretty much as good as we could possibly make it.

JT: I would say I’m really happy with the final recording, although without a solid deadline we would probably still be mixing it, trying to work out every little kink and improve its quality somehow. We had limited knowledge on how to produce a commercially-released record so we tried very hard to make it sound as good as possible, but I’m sure down the road I’ll listen to it and think, “Man, I really over-compressed that one,” or “the kick track could have been punchier,” or “the vocals still don’t sit right in the mix.” There’s literally hundreds of things we could have tried differently that would have yielded different results, but there’s gotta be that point where you cut it off and just call it done. Hearing the mastered versions for the first time was a breath of fresh air, though, because they really did sound very clear like someone took Windex and squeegeed them clean. Mastering is just magic as far as I’m concerned.

Okay, so I have to ask. Where did the name Wowser Bowser come from?

JT: George came up with it, I’m sure he’s got a fancy answer for that one.

GP: I came up with it, and it was a super spontaneous decision. I think there was probably like 0% reflection (laughs). It was just like, “Wowser Bowser.” Boom done. Really, the point to the name is that there’s no point to the name; it is what it is. That being said I do think it really does fit the music and personalities of the people in the band. All except for Jake. He’s boring.

How did you get involved with Adair Park Recordings and how is that relationship going for you?

GP: We’ve always liked (Adair Park owner and operator) Gavin (Frederick) a lot. In addition to being a super cool dude he’s been really good to us for a long time. He hooked us up with our first relatively big shows in Atlanta and the Drunken Unicorn feels like home every time we play there. When I was in high school I used to sneak into 18 + shows at the Unicorn and think, “It would be so awesome to play here someday.” I still remember the first show we played there, it was absolutely a dream come true for me.

So originally we were thinking of putting the album out as an EP, and we had been playing shows with this amazing musician called Backseat Dreamer, who is on Stickfigure Records with Gavin and suggested we talk to him about putting it out. I approached him at one of our shows there and told me (in typical Gavin style) that he didn’t want to put out an EP because it wasn’t worth it, but that he’d be happy to put out a full-length if we could get our shit together and make one. After that it was the land of milk and honey (laughs). Gavin is definitely a weirdo, but he’s a down-to-earth weirdo who doesn’t bullshit people. Besides, we’re all a bunch of weirdos too, so it just makes sense.

It’s Friday night, you’re not playing a show and you want to hit the streets of Atlanta. What are you doing and where are you going?

JT: I’ll probably see what’s playing at the Plaza Theatre or Midtown Arts Cinema, I like nothing more than a cinematic adventure and a warm, flat soda.

GP: I like to invite myself over to my friends’ house and get drunk and just pee on things. Just anything I can find. I peed on David Grey’s beard. I peed on Danny’s sampler, and then sampled it. I peed on Adam Babar WHILE he himself was peeing.

What’s your favorite place in Atlanta to catch a show and why?

BP: The Big House hands down. Some of the most psychedelic musical experiences of my life were at the Big House. Everyone there is super nice and down with some good music and good times.

JT: I’d probably say Phillips Arena, because if you’re gonna see Phil Collins live, it’s gotta be really… oh wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I’d probably have to go with the Earl because they’ve got all sorts of bands coming through there, both local and national. The sound is always excellent, and the size is perfect for both intimate performances as well as head-pounding rock shows. Plus you’re right there in East Atlanta, and nothing gets you ready for a rock show like a fistfight on the sidewalk with a mustachioed 9/11 conspiracist (laughs).

What’s your favorite place to grub before a show?

JT: Waffle House. I’m also a fan of what they call “risky food choices,” so take that with a grain of salt.

GP: Taco Bell, because I’m an idiot.

What’s the best and worst thing about playing in the Atlanta scene?

GP: The best thing is free beer. The worst thing is Crab People.

JT: The best thing is that the bills for shows often have very different bands playing together because Atlanta’s scene is really diverse, so you never know what you’re gonna hear. And if we didn’t play so many shows around town, I probably never would’ve heard most of them!

The worst is that venues keep putting brown M&M’s backstage when our we specifically tell them not to. They’re sadists, all of them.

Give me three Atlanta bands that we should be keeping an ear out for in 2012.

JT: Qurious, Faun and a Pan Flute and Street Violence (among many others, of course).

BP: I hate it when people ask this shit (laughs). I’m such a puss about it and I’m always afraid of leaving people out. Okay, first three that come to mind! Here we go! Qurious, Street Violence, Adron. And as always, whatever you do, don’t listen to A. Grimes. Britt eats cats.

Wowser Bowser will celebrate the release of their self-titled debut this Saturday, January 28th at the Drunken Unicorn. Supporting them will be Qurious and Madeline. Doors open at 8:30pm. Admission is $8 and includes a free copy of the CD.

More Info:
Bandcamp: www.wowserbowser.bandcamp.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/wowserbowsermusic