Critics like to use the term "sophomore slump," but Gardens & Villa's Adam Rasmussen thinks of the band's Tim Goldsworthy-produced Dunes album as more of a "hellacious process."
"Not to get into it too much, but it was kind of a tumultuous time for the producer," says the Southern California indie band's keyboardist. "So that record ended up taking almost a year to mix after it was recorded."
There were also musical differences: Goldsworthy, the British expat who co-founded DFA Records with LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, has a keen dance-pop sensibility, as evidenced by his crisp, Depeche Mode-style production on Cut Copy's breakthrough album. That turned out to be a less-than-perfect fit with Gardens & Villa's more organic musical inclinations.
"In retrospect, the record was a bit microscopic and gridded-out for our liking," says Rasmussen. "It was very precise, with arpeggiators and more of a theory-minded production process."
Music for Dogs, released last month on the Secretly Canadian label, sets the band back on course, with most of its 11 tracks recorded in one or two takes. Rasmussen and vocalist Chris Lynch have gravitated toward a more diverse sound, from the twitchy pop of opening track "Maximize Results" — think Sparks and early Split Enz — to recent single "Fixations," which has more of the phase-shifting ambience of Brian Eno's solo work.
There's still no shortage of synths, but sequencers take a backseat to less predictable elements, like the gentle piano melodies and Eastern-tinged motif that surface in standout track "Happy Times."
"When I play piano," Rasmussen says, "a lot of the voicings [tone changes] that just come naturally to me are from studying a lot of Debussy when I was a kid. So there's a lot of fourths, fifths and minor sixths, you know, that kind of Eastern feel you describe. Although I think of it more as the late Romantic, early Impressionist period of classical music."
Actually, the connection works both ways. Ryuichi Sakamoto has described Debussy as the "back door" through which he and other Japanese pop composers found their way into Western music. "That's crazy," says Rasmussen, "we were just listening to Sakamoto like 10 minutes ago in the van."
Yet even while driving through the middle of nowhere, the band appears to be in a far better place than it was after touring behind Dunes a year ago.
"When we came back to Santa Barbara, we knew the label wasn't too stoked with how Dunes went, and it was like, 'What do we do now? Is this the end, or are we gonna give it one more shot?' So we decided it was time to do something crazy, and move to L.A., and write the record we really wanted to make."
Once this tour is over, the musicians will return to a warehouse along the Los Angeles River that they're gradually converting into their own studios and living spaces. It's in a former manufacturing hub that's rapidly turning into an arts district, says Rasmussen, and most of the residents have lived there for decades.
"There's definitely some tension, but we have good relationships with our neighbors," says the musician. "We're pretty chill, open people."