Some of the best songs are designed for a few people to hear and even fewer to understand. Skeptic Goodbye, the debut recording from Cambridge, Mass.-based duo You Won’t, is one for the basement dwellers, collectors of musty 4-track demos designed for the consumption of one, maybe two trusted friends, ambiguously labeled to protect their creator's identity. Those cassettes contain a fragile chemistry that can’t be duplicated in a real studio. But in some cases, it's worth trying.
Josh Arnoudse (rhymes with “clouds,” vocals and guitar) and Raky (sounds like “rocky”) Sastri (vocals and percussion) gathered demos they’d recorded over a number of years, ones they’d become attached to, and did their best to reproduce them -- keeping vocals that peaked levels into distortion, guitars that sound like they were directly plugged into the board, preserving random, accidental-sounding atmospherics -- when other artists would have cleaned them up. (Arnoudse wrote new material for the album as well.) Skeptic Goodbye is accessible, and also hilarious. (“If I was a ghost on your hall,” sings Arnoudse on “Who Knew,” “I would haunt you and walk through your walls at night / but I’m flesh and I’m bone / and I’m stiff as a stone.”)
You Won’t performs at Cafe Nine in New Haven on Dec. 6 with Pearl and the Beard and Lucius. Arnoudse spoke to the Advocate by phone while driving to a show at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
Q: You guys were friends in high school?
A: Yeah, we met in high school. We met doing theater in high school in Lexington, Mass. And then we stayed in touch through several years when we were living in different places. We remained close friends and whenever we could we met up to work on creative projects together.
Q: Were you playing music together in high school?
A: We weren’t playing music. Technically, we played once. Raky invited me to join his Jeff Buckley cover band for one show only, and I forgot the chords, so just pretended to play guitar while the rest of the band played. But apart from that, we weren’t playing music together. Raky was in the jazz program and he was drumming, and after high school he was in a number of different bands. Music wasn’t something I did publicly until after college. Before that, I would send Raky mp3s of songs I had written, and he would do the same. So we had a relationship around creating music. We would give each other notes on each other’s songs. That went on for several years before we ever formed a band.
Q: Did any of those earlier songs end up on the album?
A: Yes, a few of them did, the tracks “Fat and Happy,” “Just Can’t Say” and “Fryer” all came from that period. And for years, Raky and other close friends were the only people I would share them with. When we were getting ready to record the album, I had a bunch of new songs I had written within a year or so of making that record, and then there were those that had been kicking around for awhile. We made a list and picked out the strongest ones and which ones made the most sense.
Q: Some of the tracks have different production values than others. Some tracks have a 4-track feel to them, while others have a more expansive sound.
A: Some of the older songs, we had grown really attached to the demos that we had, you know? We had recorded versions of some of these older songs for years, in some cases, and we were pretty married to the sound of the original recordings. We wanted to make something that was a little higher quality but keep the vibe of the original recordings, so we actually went to great pains to reproduce the bedroom atmosphere of those older songs. That was actually, maybe, the hardest part about making that album, living up to these recordings that we had just for ourselves for a long time. It was really a challenge. We almost gave up a few times when we just didn’t think we could make it work. But we found a way.
Q: Isn’t that funny, how you get attached to the sound of demos? Trying to reproduce them must be...
Q: You lose something in that process.
A: Actually, now, preparing songs for the next record, I’m only recording demos in the most basic form, just to avoid that phenomenon [laughs]. Just guitar and voice and we’ll fill in the rest when we do the recording. I want to avoid repeating that process if I can.
Q: When you were compiling the first record, you had this body of work to draw from. How is the writing going for the next time around? Is it different knowing that you don’t have stuff you’ve building up for a long time, or maybe you do?
A: There’s a couple that we demo-ed for the first album and then walked away from that may end up on the next one. We’ve been playing them live. But for the most part, it has been different in a number of ways. When we recorded the first album, we weren’t really a band. It was just a project. We’d been playing in another band for a couple of years. We were playing Raky’s material primarily, and we just sort of agreed to record an album of my songs, but we really didn’t know what it was going to turn into. It was only after we finished the album that we started to play live shows. So we have a much better grasp of what our voice is as a musical unit, what we are good at, what we enjoy doing, what works well for us in the live setting and what doesn’t work so well. Our identity is a lot clearer now.
We definitely had a vision when we made the first album and we really worked hard to make something that we thought was cohesive. But playing for the last year and a half, I think we have a lot better idea of who we are. The writing now is informed by all of that. I’ve been collecting demos and showing stuff to Raky and I’ve been realizing how different my process is now than it was the first time around. We are also out in the world touring now. It’s a lot easier to envision the types of places where these songs are going to live now. Lately I’ve been a lot more intentional about, you know, “I’m going to go spend today just working on a song, and maybe something will happen, maybe it won’t, but I’m going to spend the day working on it.” And that’s been a change for me. Before I was always just … whenever the wind was blowing in the right direction, the bees were buzzing at just the right frequency, or whatever it was, I would write a song. Now, I’m really choosing to make it my job, my work.
Q: Clocking in, putting in the hours...
A: I try not to think of it too much in that way, because I want to keep it mysterious and magical, but it is just like putting in a certain amount of time. Some days I won’t come up with anything, but I can’t be too hard on myself... “I put in the time.”
Q: You mentioned musical identity. You are obviously talented. You could have formed any type of band you wanted. You could have augmented your sound, or you could have chosen not to have a folk instrumentation. You could have gone in a lot of different directions, and yet it seems you decided, “We are going to keep this a duo, keep this instrumentation...” Was that a conscious decision or is that an organic thing?
A: In terms of how many of us there are, starting as a duo was initially just out of necessity. There wasn’t anyone else around that was going to be in a band with us. And then, after we’d been playing for about a year, we invited our friend Tony to start playing bass with us. He’s a great bass player and a wonderful person and good friend of ours. He brought a lot to what we were doing. It was interesting to play with another person. I personally learned a lot about articulating myself better and doing the arrangement process. On the other hand, it felt like we lost something distinctive about us in expanding, certainly more like a traditional rock band, really. It was also an issue of time. Tony’s in a lot of other projects, and it was tough to schedule things.
But it started to feel like this wasn’t quite the right fit for us and that something unique about what we were doing was being lost. So we went back to being a duo. We are always making changes live, and it’s come a long way in that department. There’s also something great about being forced to be really inventive about how we arrange things when there’s just two of us. Those limitations, for us, actually push us to do something more interesting and surprising. Raky plays a dozen different instruments within the run of a live show. I have it a little easier, just guitar and vocals. We really work hard to create as dynamic a performance as we can. It’s also about commitment. We are both putting our all into this, and after a certain number of years together have a certain level of trust and understanding between us that lends itself to being in a new upstart band. There’s a lot of hurdles to jump over.
Q: You can also jump off the stage if you want to. You are a very portable configuration, which can lead to some interesting situations.
A: We like that. We like to play acoustically and doing stripped down sets... We are very portable.
You Won't w/ Pearl and the Beard, Lucius, Dec. 6, 8 p.m., $10-$12, Cafe Nine, New Haven, manicproductions.org.