Here’s the thing about churches. For most of us, regardless of our religious affiliations, it’s hard not to feel the tangible stillness of a sanctuary; to peer out of stained-glass windows and literally see the outside world through something like rose-colored glasses; to feel like the rich tones of century-old pipe organs are flowing through your bones. All the broad strokes of incomparable comfort exist in a church, and yet…
That’s a pregnant ellipses if there ever was one. Too varied are all our relationships with churches and The Church to fill in that blank; suffice it to say that while the physical trappings of a church may inspire comfort, it matters most what happens inside one. The devil, it turns out, is in the details.
It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for Lambertville indie band Those Looks. Their debut full-length EP, fittingly named Cults Near Me (Mint 400), is an album loaded with enveloping, lush, cozy tones undercut by devilishly captivating lyrics and sonic furnishings, which they recorded in an old church.
You’re aware of the recording space immediately on Cults Near Me, as the opening track “Hymnal” begins with pipe organ—a small-handcrafted one played by bassist Randall Newman. Newman, in fact, has lived in the church since 2005, turning it into a home. Because he did that, and because bandmates Kelly Bolding (vocals), Sylvia Barrantes (guitar) and Shaun Ellis (drums) are also close friends and longtime musical collaborators, the space itself helped create the velvety vibes of Cults Near Me and facilitate the recording process.
“This is fairly new to a lot of us—going to a studio—and the thought of going into a New York studio or something like that was really daunting to us,” Ellis says. “We wanted to feel comfortable, but the space itself sounds amazing. The sanctuary is a big space; you get this richness, a natural echo and reverb. In fact [producer Steven Xia] on his last day of the recording, he set up mics and he created his own plug-in so he has the reverb of the church that he can apply to any vocal.”
Xia (who’s worked with Camila Cabello, Boyish, Scotch Mist) and the band also set up amps in different rooms so they could record live while in the big sanctuary, thus maximizing the acoustic benefits of the space without muddying it up too much. Those natural acoustic effects amplify the swooping, whammy-liberal guitar melodies and airy vocals throughout the album. What keeps it interesting and reined-in is the tight, simple drumming, hooky basslines and interesting lyrics that cut through the lush tones and command attention—there are stories here—a queer country ballad, an anxious meditation on climate change, and a retelling of the ill-fated romance between poets William Burroughs and Joan Vollmer. Nothing on the album feels too saccharine, nor was anything brought to the table while recording that was too sacrosanct to amend.
“The beautiful thing about this band is it’s one of the most collaborative musical relationships I’ve had in my life,” Ellis says. “Everybody brings material to the table and sometimes it’ll just be a riff, sometimes it’ll be chords, vocals, a melody, a bassline, and we all kind of really take that and run with it. … The openness of the band to these different approaches has been really helpful and allows us to write in different ways and bring it all together.”
The openness comes from the tight relationship the band has forged over the years. And it’s pretty tight—Ellis and Bolding are partners and building a house together in Lambertville; Barrantes and her partner are building an identical house across the street from them. And while COVID disrupted many lives over the last three years, it actually brought this group of friends closer together, and helped the band (which started in 2019) grow as a unit.
“As terrible as the pandemic was for us and so many people, we actually kind of doubled down and formed our little pod, where we were really just hanging out together,” Ellis says. “It gave us the opportunity to write and refine a lot of these songs; where we might have been distracted before, it kind of gave us the opportunity to put this album together.”
Part of that time was spent getting familiar with new instruments. Although each person in the band has a rich background in music (and other art forms), the members took on different instruments for this group, which not only made songwriting interesting but had a unique and correlative effect on the sounds they were able to create. Barrantes, for instance, played violin and nyckelharpa her whole life, which translated, often, into longer guitar tones, sometimes weepy sometimes spacey sometimes something else.
For Ellis, his lack of familiarity with drums, but familiarity with songwriting and facility for keeping time, translated into sturdy, simple and effective percussion.
“It was almost a lack of knowing the instruments really well that created the sounds. My drumming is very simple. In a way, we were all really learning our instruments and seeing how they would fit together as we were figuring them out,” Ellis says. “I was playing mandolin almost exclusively in a bluegrass band. Knowing mandolin, which is traditionally like the snare drum of bluegrass, helped me rhythmically know where to put the beats and everything and think of the bass and the mandolin as being the rhythm section. That subconsciously translated into being able to keep rhythm and time.”
Playing bluegrass—notorious for its open jams with players hopping in and out and switching instruments—also provided a good foundation for being in Those Looks, Ellis says.
“I had to learn with all these people coming in or coming out how to fit in. It taught me that I could play something very simple and it could still have a profound effect on the way everything sounded,” Ellis says. “I think that has translated to this band as well. And because we are fairly new, we don’t have a lot of chops. Playing something simple is kind of what we need to do. But it can be an advantage because something’s are overly complex, especially in rock and pop music. Being simple is not necessarily so bad.”
Those Looks will celebrate the release of Cults Near Me (Nov. 11) with a show at John and Peter’s in New Hope on Nov. 12, with Best Bear and Kitty City. You won’t be privy to the acoustic glories of the record, but they’re keen on translating the effect to their live show.
“Like a good set of eyebrows, the live and recorded versions are sisters, not twins,” says Bolding. “They each have their own charms, but might seem superficial if they were perfectly the same.”
After the New Hope show, they’ll get back to working on their houses, but you’ll see them hit the road when the weather gets nice again.
“We’re gonna have a quiet winter since we’re finishing up our houses, but we’re planning on doing a major set of spring shows and hopefully even getting to tour,” Ellis says.
Those Looks w/ Best Bear and Kitty City. John and Peter’s, New Hope. 8:30 p.m., Nov. 12. Info here.