by Rob van Alstyne
Four years ago Divorcee appeared to be that rarest of all local music commodities, an instant-success-feel-good story. Their debut, Lovesick, was rubber-stamped with the approval of the local rock elite—partially recorded at Semisonic’s rehearsal studio and mixed by ace veteran Bryan Hannah. The slick pop milkshake went down smooth wherever it was heard, with the insta-anthem title track finding strong college radio airplay and national press kudos at a level rarely seen for local self-released debuts.
There was every reason to believe Divorcee were going to be the great new local pop hope of the 2000s—that is, until the wheels fell off the project and the band imploded after just a few gigs around town.
Download an mp3 of Divorcee’s song “Still Life.”
himself band-less and frustrated, front man Ryan Seitz quickly regrouped with
a new set of sympathetic players (drummer Matt Novachis and studio whiz/multi-instrumentalist
Then the fates conspired against Seitz again. As work was just beginning in
earnest on the record that would become Music For Cleanup Men, Breakdown
and Inbetweeners, Setiz’s mother was diagnosed with cancer—she
would die six months later—and the intervening time was spent concerned
with matters far more important than making rock ’n’ roll records.
Fortunately for music fans, Ryan Seitz is a man of resolve, and after weathering
storms both musical and personal the retooled Divorcee are back—and as
the cliché goes, “better than ever”—with one of the
standout local pop albums in recent memory.
Painstakingly laid to tape in fits and starts over the course of months at Herchert’s
studio space (credited as “the Hamlet of Deephaven on the Strommen Estate”),
then endlessly reshaped in mixing for a whole year after the final recording
sessions, Cleanup Men bears the mark of meticulous craftsmanship. The
sparkling melodies and Brit-sounding vocals that defined Lovesick are
still at the core of Divorcee’s sound, but this time the music has been
beefed up considerably, with Herchert running wild on a wide array of vintage
keyboard equipment. There’s plenty of mid-tempo pop pastiche (“Brand
New”), the occasional brash rock number (“Blow Me”) and the
requisite tear-jerking ballad or two (“All That You Did”).
times Lovesick felt a little too reminiscent of its forebears, and Cleanup
Men is a similarly tradition-bound release. However, snappy, catch-all comparisons
that fit their first album—say, “the Hang Ups covering the Sundays”—no
longer adequately convey the breadth of Divorcee’s pop-craft.
Every song’s arrangements feel decidedly thought out, yet still crackle
with a visceral humanity. The proceedings may be ornate, but they never step
over the line into gaudiness. Each tune boasts at least one little touch—a
tremolo effect-treated guitar line, a spot on backing vocal outro—that
elevates it out of simply enjoyable pop terrain and into the more rarified air
Not content to marry this lush Summerteeth-level sumptuousness to mundane lyrics,
Seitz has penned a memorable (albeit slightly lean and repetitive) set of words
on Cleanup Men. Dealing with big themes (loss, grief, renewal, perseverance)
in a straightforward manner, Seitz’s characters are equal parts hopeful
(“rising like a phoenix”) and despondent (“I used to believe
in miracles, I used to believe in you”). Some of the lyricism is clearly
informed by the loss of his mother, but Seitz wisely avoids direct confessionals
on so deeply personal a subject. Instead, his purposefully ambiguous approach
enables any listener who has been disconnected from someone close to them—whether
that be through the death of a relative, or the stinging end of a relationship—to
wring their own emotional catharsis from the listening experience.
finally made good on the promise exhibited by his debut—albeit just a
tad bit behind schedule—Seitz and his entirely revamped crew (Novachis,
Herchert, keyboardist Cory Eischen and bassist Schoen Oslund) are now set to
reintroduce Divorcee to the local music scene. With a sound that plays equally
well to older Beatle-philes as the college crowd, Divorcee just may very well
end up being one of the leading lights of the Twin Cities pop scene in this
decade after all.
The band—minus bassist Oslund who was unavailable—met up with Pulse
just a few days before the release of Cleanup Men to discuss the dissolution
of Divorcee’s original incarnation, the home recording process, and the
arduous task of album-mixing, amongst other topics.
Pulse: So is this a whole new band from the original lineup?
Ryan Seitz: Everybody who did not quit was fired. (laughs)
Pulse: It must have been pretty tough having things fall apart like
that after the first record had such a positive reception. Did you feel like
you lost a lot of momentum when the band sort of dissolved for a while?
Seitz: I think—behind the scenes—what people didn’t
know is that I never had a stable band to begin with. When I first started Lovesick,
there was a different guitar player, the drummer on the record quit the day
we were done mixing. I don’t know what that says about me, but I’ve
always sort of been in a state of flux in terms of whom I was playing with.
[The reaction by the band to the first record doing well] was sort of just like,
“Oh all this great stuff is happening for us, let’s just get drunk
all the time.” We just weren’t being responsible and paying attention
to the music and it kind of fell apart.
Pulse: Was there ever any doubt that you’d make another record?
There was definitely a little bit of that, but it really wasn’t too
long a span of time from when [the Lovesick-era band] fell apart to when
I linked up with Matt [Novachis] and Jon [Herchert] and started working on new
stuff. We kind of kept it going, but the live thing definitely suffered for
quite awhile just with different things happening in our lives. My mom got really
sick and eventually we just decided to worry about finishing the record and
not play any gigs until we had wrapped it up. We just didn’t feel the
need to play really.
Pulse: I don’t really know what the band dynamics in Divorcee were
like previously, but judging from the liner notes of this album it seems like
Cleanup Men was a highly collaborative effort, with Jon handling a lot
of the instrumentation and production duties. There are so many groups out there
sort of masquerading as bands but really just a dictatorial frontman with a
revolving cast of players. This album, by contrast, feels very much like the
work of a full-fledged band. Do you feel Cleanup Men was a more a collaborative
experience than Lovesick?
Seitz: This is a lot more collaborative. Jon is the type of guy who
wants to be involved and wants to do as much as he possibly can—and I
think that’s great.
Jon Herchert: We recorded it at my space so a lot of the time it was
a situation where someone would say, “Hey, should we bring in a bass player?”
and I would just say, “… nah, I’ll play bass.” With
the keyboard parts I’m kind of a hack but I could fake my way around it.
I just love Ryan’s songs and getting to be a part of them. Originally
we went with the idea that we were kind of making demos and it sort of slowly
evolved into an album. I think it worked out pretty good as far as the whole
vibe of the record.
Whenever you’re in that kind of home recording situation it seems like
there’s a lot of pluses and minuses to factor in. On the one hand you’re
not on the clock and can work at your own pace, but on the other it seems like
it would be easy to overwork the album and not know when to stop and finally
let it go. There’s also the benefit of being able to record a song, sit
on it, and then revisit it later. Getting to bring a different pair of ears
to the songs and then kind of revise them. Was there a lot of that going on?
Seitz: No … it was all live first takes. (whole table erupts in
laughter). Near the end Jon went a little crazy. I guess I take for granted
what a studio and a dedicated producer can do. It’s actually really hard.
In the end you have to agree that someone’s going to take charge of it.
We had some other people do mixes, we actually had a different person mix the
entire record and we decided we didn’t like it. We ended up going with
Matt Novachis: At one point I think we sat down and figured out that
from the day we sat down and finished recording the rough mixes to when the
record was actually completely mixed took an entire year.
Seitz: Two other guys took passes at it and it really wasn’t right,
we had just wanted to get it out of our hands but we eventually turned back
I could see how it would take a lot of work to find the right balance of
sounds in mixing this record. When dealing with these sort of lush pop albums
that are really polished I think the danger is always that it can end up being
kind of sterile. It can sort of lack that punch at the expense of slickness.
Cleanup Men really stands out to me because it has that sort of sheen
to it but at the same time it has enough visceral guts that it doesn’t
feel hollow. Was that something you guys were conscious of when making the record?
Seitz: With this record I initially had the mindset that we had to throw
a bunch of stuff at it. Jon was coming from a different place, so I was saying
things like, “Wait—don’t you think we need to throw a bunch
of reverb at this?” And he was the one who would say, “No, it sounds
fine like this”—and he would be right. I think that’s why
it comes through so directly. Any of the lushness comes from the arrangements—
not studio tricks.
Pulse: That’s what seems so tricky now with home recording computer
programs like Pro Tools, it doesn’t take very much money to make a really
gaudy record that’s all just flash.
Seitz: I hate Pro Tools, I think it’s the worst thing ever. At
least for me personally I can’t sit in front of a computer and write a
song. I thought, “Oh, I’ll get Pro Tools and come up with all these
different parts and it will be awesome,” and what I actually find myself
doing is recording melody ideas by humming into my cell phone on my way to work.
Herchert: We just tried to keep everything really present. It’s
a very dry drum sound and there aren’t really any abstract sounds on there.
It’s almost a sort of ’70s record in a way to me. It’s pretty
Everybody has different expectations in terms of the reasons they play music
or release albums. Obviously you want people to hear this new record since a
lot of work went into it, but beyond that what would constitute success in your
view in terms of the future of Divorcee?
Cory Eischen: I feel successful right now. In the last few years that
I’ve started playing around town I was just looking for people who played
good music and whose music I loved. I just love Ryan’s tunes. I go out
and play with him and I enjoy doing it and I consider that success all by itself.
That’s pretty much it for me.
Herchert: I would love for a lot of people to hear this CD. I think
if people hear it there are a lot of songs that will connect with them. Most
of the songs are about loss and relationships, things that everyone can relate
to. I see it just from my wife listening to the record, her mother just passed
away and she comes to tears listening to some of these songs. I think it’s
a very powerful album.
Eischen: I don’t think that the songs are necessarily depressing
because they’re concerned with loss, though. Sometimes I feel empowered
by that sense of sadness and coming to terms with it. There’s a sort of
feel-good element to these songs as well.
Pulse: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting album lyrically because
it’s written in a very open ended way that leaves things open to interpretation
even though presumably it’s written about real personal experiences. The
album seems equal parts despondent and hopeful, and that to me seems like a
more accurate reflection of people’s life experiences.
I try not to make things too personal—I don’t want to be on
stage singing things that are just creepy-level-personal. I think it’s
great that other people get up there and bare their souls, but I prefer to keep
things a little more vague. A lot of things do come from specific incidents,
but the chorus could be inspired by a certain person and then the verse be about
someone else entirely. I like to mix it up that way so you can’t just
listen to it and say, “Oh this is the song about his dead mom, and this
is the one about the girl he wanted to date.” The other factor in that
is that I have a really hard time writing lyrics. I tend to come up with one
verse and just repeat it. (laughs)
Novachis: I was just going to say that in terms of goals I don’t
think we’ve ever really sat down and discussed that because we were all
just so into making the record. For me I’m just proud to be in this band
and proud of this record. Like the others have said I just really want people
to hear it because I think they’ll like it. I think this is a special
group and I just want to see it continue. For the three of us to come together
like we did with such different personalities and musical backgrounds and click
right away, that was exciting all by itself. ||
Divorcee plays the CD release show for Cleanup Men, Breakdown and Inbetweeners
on Sat. June 11 at the 7th St. Entry with Colonial Vipers Attack and Fussy.
9 p.m. 21+. $6. 701 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8388.
Find out more about Divorcee on their official website at DivorceeMusic.com.
Head on over to our mp3 page to download hundreds of tunes, including divorcee’s song “Still Life.”