by Rob van Alstyne
The men of Valet are teachers, taxi drivers and grad students. They are also—mostly on weekends and when their busy schedules allow—one of the best indie-pop bands to call the Twin Cities home. This isn’t news to local scenesters; the band’s been universally hailed in the local press since their formation and quick rise to prominence as Foxfire Coffee House regulars at the close of the ‘90s. However, after the fervor surrounding their self-released 2001 record The Glamour is Contagious died down, things got quiet in Valet land pretty quickly.
Download an mp3 of Valet’s song Havana.
The band gigged more sparingly, the real-life demands of late 20s adulthood (bills, families, girlfriends) began to sink in, and writing new songs had become just one of many tasks on the overly long to-do list of singer/guitarist Robin Kyle.
In spite of everything, the band slowly got around to crafting a sophomore album, methodically tracking on weekends that worked with everyone’s schedule over the course of a year, and aptly naming the resulting album Life On the Installment Plan. Less an extension of Valet’s previous sound than a complete overhaul,Life, recorded with core members Kyle, Judd Hildreth (drums), Kris Lightner (bass), Paul Fugelstad (keys, accordion, bells) and new addition Steve Yernberg (guitars, piano, keys), more than fulfills the promise exhibited on the band’s debut.
The austere robotic sound that dominated Glamour is gone, banished in favor of a decidedly more lush, yet no less hypnotic, sonic template. The presence of
Yernberg’s second guitar provides the perfect counterpart to Kyle’s
minimalist electric jangle, injecting complementary bits of dissonant rock distortion
at key moments into the otherwise placid waters of tracks like “Bring
Back the Firing Squad.” The bells and synthesizers that provided so much
of the coloring on Glamour are still present, but now they’re merely
another piece of a much larger puzzle that finds the band beefing up with some
unlikely instrumental additions (mandolin, trumpet, violin, lap steel).
the sonic renovations, Valet’s sound remains grounded in what they do
best; Kyle’s songwriting stock-in-trade is still word-heavy mid-tempo
pop. Within that framework, however, they manage to find plenty of interesting
creative wiggle room. There’s the pure pop of “Havana,” the
noirish creepy spy theatrics of “Journalists” and the country-ish
piano-led album closer “Get Your Riot Gear.” Nearly every song comes
through with a memorable instrumental hook or captivating vocal melody. The
entire affair is meticulously recorded and crisply put together, with Kyle’s
relaxed clear vocals mixed at the fore. It’s the sort of readily digestable
album destined to conjure comparisons to “it” indie-bands of the
moment (I can already envision countless allusions to Death Cab for Cutie and
Up-era R.E.M. on the national press horizon), but distinctive enough to be worthy
of attention all its own. Then again, as with all Valet songs, the music only
tells half the story.
Throughout Life’s ten tracks, Kyle’s lyrics weave together
a series of stunning snapshots that investigate a horde of complicated ideas,
weaving together the personal and political by employing myriad real-life historical
figures as characters in his deeply layered story-driven songs. In “Georgie
Best vs. Michael Stone,” the Belfast-born Kyle uses the greatly contrasting
lives of two famous fellow Irishmen (Michael Stone was the perpetrator of the
famed Milltown Massacre in 1988 in which he launched grenades and opened fire
on a crowd of mourners at a funeral procession for slain IRA members killing
three and wounding several others, while Georgie Best was a famous Belfast-born
soccer star in the 1970s) to make a larger point about Ireland in general and
nationhood and citizenship as a whole. Elsewhere Kyle references the likes of
former Abbie Hoffman compatriot and “Chicago Seven” activist turned
stockbroker Jerry Rubin, and Ethan Hawley, the morally bankrupt centerpiece
of John Steinbeck’s “The Winter of our Discontent.” The characters,
fictional and otherwise, inhabiting Kyle’s songs have plenty on their
minds, occupying a world rife with duplicitous politicos, stealthy assassins
and dubious acquaintances. And although Kyle claims, “I’ve got no
manifesto to speak of,” on the album’s second track, it’s
clear that in his own circuitous way, he’s just crafted one of the more
politically charged and emotionally riveting albums of recent memory.
I recently met up with Kyle, Hildreth, Fugelstad and mysteriously silent bassist
Kris Lightner in the days just before the release of Life On the Installment
Plan to chat about avoiding the sophomore slump, using the dreaded day job as
musical inspiration and the merits of Kyle’s expertly groomed moustache,
among other topics.
There was awhile there in the time leading up to this record when it seemed
like you guys weren’t really very active. You were gigging pretty sparingly
and from the outside it looked like you were on a bit of a hiatus. Was there
ever a period between The Glamour is Contagious and Life on the Installment
Plan when you guys formally disbanded?
Robin Kyle: I think we were just really busy.
Paul Fugelstad: When did we break up?
Kyle: Oh, that was way before our first record.
Judd Hidlreth: You can’t remember when we broke up!
Robin: I think everybody was just really busy with different stuff ...
Fugelstad: And Robin wrote songs slowly.
Kyle: Yeah, I didn’t write the songs fast enough. We’re just
a fairly lazy band, I guess.
Hildreth: Not any lazier than any other band—I don’t think
we ever went longer than like two and a half months without a show. Three months
Kyle: For a while there was nothing really to play for any more. We didn’t
have a new CD and we didn’t want to be playing the same songs every week.
It got to a point where [The Glamour is Contagious] had come out so long
ago that it just felt like people kind of lost their excitement over the band.
When we first started out we played all the songs on the record for awhile before
we even recorded them, and then after you finally get a record out and people
have the chance to listen to it in their car or whatever then you have a whole
new group of people that are excited about coming out and seeing you and hearing
the songs but they were already really old to us. It was just sort of, ‘why
play out a lot when we don’t have a new record?’
Kyle: Plus Paul’s in grad school, Steve’s a teacher, Kris
is going to school now. Everybody’s just been busy with their lives, trying
to pay their bills and go to school, let alone make records. Everybody else
in the band plays in other bands too. It’s hard to get five people together
to practice, let alone learning new songs and recording them.
Pulse: When it did finally come time to make Valet album No. 2, was there
any conscious decision on the part of the band to try and come up with something
really different from Glamour?
Kyle: It was all a pretty natural process, what we decided to change
we wanted to go with our sound all just sort of happened.
Hildreth: The only thing we went in really knowing we wanted to do with
the second album was to spend more time on recording it.
Kyle: Yeah, just to perfect it a little more than the last one because
we rushed the last one so much. With [The Glamour is Contagious], we
were paying for the recording ourselves and it was kind of pricey. So we just
kind of recorded it, mixed it, and then it was done.
Hildreth: I don’t think the new record is perfect or anything,
but the last one was basically like a recording of our live show. There wasn’t
really a whole lot going on soundwise other than what you could see live. With
this record there are just some little added parts, like the trumpets. Also
Steve [Yernberg] wasn’t on the first record and I think the second guitar
adds a lot in and of itself.
The presence of the second guitar was something I noticed right off the bat
with “Havana.” It’s just a much fuller sound.
Fugelstad: It was also recorded at a different place which I think automatically
gives things a different sound.
Pulse: How long did you guys spend recording the album? Some of the demos
for the record have been floating around the internet and I know the 2024 Records
website has been streaming songs from the album for months.
Kyle: It was basically recorded just on weekends over about a year’s
time. Whenever the engineers were free and we were free.
Pulse: Did you find that making a record in that sort of piecemeal process
lent itself to better editing? It seems like one advantage of working in that
situation is that you could record things and then go back to them later with
a different set of ears and possibly come to radically different conclusions
about what you wanted the song to sound like.
Kyle: I think that was a conscious decision that we made when recording
the record this way. It was great to be able to sit on the songs for a while
and then go back and listen to them closely, and decide what we really liked
and didn’t like about them. We were able to rework some of the songs that
Hildreth: Some songs didn’t end up making the cut for the record
as we originally had planned it, another song ended up being on the record again.
[Life on the Installment Plan’s “Zurich Revisited”
is a vastly
overhauled version of the song “Zurich” from The Glamour is Contagious].
Fugelstad: Recording this way we could go and mix and have Robin pass
out in a chair and have his non-input on the songs. It was very crucial to the
overall feel of the record.
Pulse: I think the lyrics have always been a huge part of the band, but
I noticed this time around you’ve printed them out in the booklet so that
people will be more likely to really key in on them.
Kyle: We would have done that with the first one, except we couldn’t
afford to because we were doing it ourselves and could only pay for one page
of liner notes.
Hildreth: A label out of New York (Snow Globe), re-released it and that
edition had the lyrics printed in the booklet.
Pulse: I was really excited to see the lyrics printed out for this one,
because as rich as the music is, the lyrics are probably equally important to
the feel of the record for me. Is it frustrating if people treat these things
as pop songs just to bop along to, and maybe aren’t taking the time to
investigate the songs a little deeper?
Kyle: It’s not frustrating to me. It’s important that the
lyrics are there for everyone who wants to take that trip, and they’re
important to me, but I understand that a lot of people don’t really care
about them. That’s just the way it is, unfortunately. I just happen to
care about them a lot, and I know at least some other people do too. It’s
nice that you can get into it a little bit more and you can actually research
the stuff if you don’t know who certain people are.
I don’t think I’ve ever come across an album with this many people’s
names on it. I know some of them were references to different historical figures,
others seemed like they were fictional. Either way, I thought the usage of the
names was a really interesting ploy. Somehow it seems like putting a name on
characters automatically makes things more gripping and specific, rather than
just using some nebulous you, I, or me. Even if it’s just a first name
like Janey, it has you thinking and imagining a specific person. I read that
the Velvet Underground always tried to do that because Lou Reed thought it made
the songs more vivid. Do you see yourself employing so many names for similar
Kyle: Most of the people in the songs are very specific real people and
their presence is usually very specific to the story and setting of the song.
In the last record—the “Cop Stories” song—I just used
Janey as a character name, because it’s such a rock ‘n roll name.
Janey’s been everywhere; the Velvet Underground had Janey hanging around.
Sometimes it’s just a fictional name and not really based on anything,
but a lot of the time I’m actually singing about a specific person. I
just think it’s nice to get to create my own worlds with all of these
people that I can choose to use from wherever and make stories with them where
I get to make comments on social or political issues. I get to use that person
in a context that allows me to say a lot more than if I’m just singing
a normal song, where I’m obviously limited by having only so many words
and descriptions I can fit into a four-minute pop song.
Pulse: That’s an interesting point. I remember interviewing Stephin
Merritt from the Magnetic Fields, and he claimed that story songs with characters
were pointless because there simply wasn’t enough space to flesh out the
characters and make them anything more than one-dimensional archetypes. It seems
method of using real people as characters is a way of attempting to circumvent
that problem and getting to go a little deeper with things.
Kyle: They’re all story songs but I almost look at them more like
photographs. It’s like telling a story with pictures rather than with
words. They’re just a bunch of little pictures, but if you put them all
together they should
tell a larger story, that’s how I look at my songwriting.
Pulse: Trying to tackle social and political issues in song is always
a tricky proposition and a hard thing to pull off without coming across as really
lame and preachy. But by looking at those issues through sort of the altered
lens of the song’s characters you’re able in songs like “Bring
Back the Firing Squad” and “Get Your Riot Gear” to get into
some pretty spooky areas and songs filled with fascist images. Was that your
way of doing political commentary type songs without being obnoxious?
Kyle: I didn’t intend to write any political songs or any personal
songs, but it turned out that there was a lot more of that ending up on the
record than I realized. I wasn’t trying to write politically, but I think
kind of hard not to these days with the kind of climate we’re living in.
It kind of came out of me without me even trying, I just ended up writing a
lot more politically.
Pulse: How much has your job as a taxi driver influenced your songwriting?
It seems like the kind of gig where you would get to do a lot of interesting
Kyle: My jobs have always been around people. Before I was a taxi driver
I was a server in a little diner, and I got a lot of material from people in
that way too. It was all about hanging out with the regulars and talking to
people. That’s just the way life has been for me. You need that sort of
experience when you’re writing songs and have to use your imagination,
because even your imagination has to be based off of real people and real things.
Pulse: That seems like one of the tricky things when it comes to musicians
and the issue of day jobs. Obviously I wish everyone success, but it seems like
one of the reasons so many bands who end up making it big lose their edge, so
to speak, is that they’re no longer involved in the same everyday working
world as their listeners. What can you really write about that normal people
are going to relate to if you just live on the road and are a full-time musician
hanging out in rock clubs and staying in hotels?
Kyle: I guess you could write crappy songs about touring.
Hildreth: I think the real ideal would be if we could all get away with
working 20 hours a week. I know when we were working on this record there would
be times when Robin was like, “Man I really want to finish this song,
but I have to go and work a 12-hour shift.”
Kyle: When you work 12-hour shifts and 60 hours a week, you don’t
really feel like writing a song when you get home.
Hildreth: I think there’s definitely a happy medium with that whole
Kyle: The job provides plenty of inspiration but the downside is that
it takes away a lot of the time for any of it to come to fruition. When you’re
trying to make the time for jobs and families and a girlfriend ... and drinking,
too, it’s hard.
Pulse: Your record is the next high-profile release for 2024 Records
and it seems like the label has definitely become the big new player on the
local scene, especially with all the success that the Olympic Hopefuls and Plastic
Constellations have had this year. What sets 2024 apart from other local record
labels in your
mind and how did you guys end up hooking up with the label?
Hildreth: I think that 2024’s just got better financial resources
than a lot of the other labels in town. That being said, it’s still not
a situation where they’re just throwing money around stupidly for no reason.
isn’t what makes a great label anyway, but if something needs to be done
and done well on a timeline, they make it happen. I know Nate [Roise, head of
2024 Records] originally wasn’t interested in putting out our record.
I think he just thought the first record could have been a lot better production-wise
than it was, and I think we all agree with him on that. So I actually gave him
a four-song demo of what we had done for the upcoming record and I think he
saw that we were doing a more elaborate thing and that’s when he got on
board with making the record. A lot of other labels don’t pay enough attention
to the product, they only pay attention to the band. And I think the product
these days is just as important, if not more so, than the live show. Most bands
can’t tour, or if they do it’s a tiny tour and it doesn’t
make any big impact. The fact is that any impact that’s going to be felt
outside of this town is going to be based off of a record. I mean a band could
be great, but if the recording is just mediocre at best, how are you going to
persuade people you’re worthwhile?
Kyle: Especially because most times when you go out on tour you’re
playing in front of 20 people every night all over the place. I mean you would
have to do that for 40 years to put together and kind of a following.
Pulse: You guys have been in the game for a number of years now, but
do you still get excited at the thought of releasing a new record?
Kyle: It’s still exciting to have a record come out and get to
see the finished product—that’s always a really great moment. I
mean, one of my dreams in life is to make records, so it’s really nice
when you finally get to the point of playing the release show and people get
to buy the record and tell you what they think of it.
Hildreth: I don’t think it feels as new just because we’ve
done it before. But it’s still exciting. I can’t wait for the show.
Fugelstad: It should be pretty interesting because a lot of the songs
we’ve never played live before.
If the stars aligned and the record seemed to be drawing a lot of interest would
you guys be willing to make the big push and hit the road for some extended
Hildreth: I think we’d all like to but at the same time we have
a shared understanding that we’re not 18 years old anymore and we’re
not going to lose our jobs and our girlfriends just so we can sleep on floors
for weeks at a time and play in front of 10 people.
Kyle: We’d definitely all be willing to give things a shot, provided
there was a reason to give things a shot.
Hildreth: We’ll definitely do a little bit of touring. We’re
going to do a small tour in the winter. And we’re going to try and play
the CMJ and the SXSW showcases. We’ll sort of just see how the record
does and then let that dictate what happens as far as touring goes. If we can
do it right we’ll do it, but I don’t think anyone wants to come
home to a negative bank account.
Pulse: Any last minute confessions?
Hildreth: Robin’s moustache actually writes the songs and Kris
doesn’t speak because he’s too horny all the time.
Kyle: I do get the moustache nod from other guys with good moustaches
so that makes me feel good. We’re a pretty exclusive club. ||
Valet plays the CD release show for Life on the Installment Plan on Fri., Sept. 17, at the Turf Club with Askeleton and Mike Gunther. 9 p.m. 21+. $5. The Corner of University and Snelling Ave.,
St. Paul. 651-647-0486.
Check out Valet’s official website.
Download an mp3 of Valet’s song Havana.