20 Minute Loop
Brace yourself: it's the ultimate indie rock cliché! Local band 20 Minute Loop isn't in it for the money or fame. They're in it for the music, man. Yeah, we know -- you've heard this one before. Countless times, we're sure. This time it just might be true.
Consider an encounter which took place months ago between the very writers of this article and members of 20ML. Following the Pixies show in Berkeley, we clearly recognized a couple folks from the band and felt compelled to say hello and share in some Pixies afterglow. When we introduced ourselves and complimented their work, vocalist Kelly Atkin's massive blue eyes nearly popped out of her head: "Wait, you know our band?"
Clearly not a very rock star answer. And this from a band which has achieved a degree of local popularity that allows it to be recognized now and again by aficionados (such as ourselves). But 20ML is a band still small enough to have its mind blown by such an exchange.
Months later when we arranged an official interview with members of the group in downtown San Rafael, just a stone's throw from their rehearsal studio, they maintained the same wide-eyed manner when talking about their music and their current stake in the local scene. Though they did introduce us to some friends as reporters from Rolling Stone and Spin…
Further proof that 20 Minute Loop is singularly focused on making powerful pop music is the band's newest record/labor of love, Yawn + House = Explosion. The band's third full-length album, which will officially be released January 8th in conjunction with a co-headlining show at Bottom of the Hill, is a monster of a record. It spent the better part of a year incubating in the band's bedrooms, garages and cars. It's rare to see a band at this level take its time with the recording process, rarer still to hear a record end up this congruous and fully realized. The band agrees this is their best work to date.
We sat down with three members of the quintet: Atkins (vocals/keyboards), Greg Giles (guitar/vocals) and Nils Erickson (bass). (Missing from this interview are Joe Ostrowski (lead guitar) and Mike Romano (drums)). 20 Minute Loop has been together for six years, and has demonstrated an incredible confidence in the blustery pop sound it has created -- proving along the way that the music really might be the only thing that matters.
SF Station: So one interesting thing we noticed is that the bass player (Nils) has a producer credit on the new album.
Nils: Well, it was by default because I'm the only one who really knows about recording stuff. What we did is record all the basics over at Closer [recording studio] in about three days in September of 2003. We went in one afternoon and got all of our sounds and headphones done. The next two days we pretty much laid all the tracks down. We had one headphone mix shared by everyone -- that was really rough. But we were pretty happy with the basics, so we took them and recorded all the vocals back at my house.
Kelly: We did everything on a laptop, which was a real first for us. We did everything with a producer in a studio on tape on the last two records, and we were really purist about it this time.
SF Station: Was that a financial decision?
Kelly: It was partly financial, but we also wanted to do things a little differently.
Nils: It was kind of nice to be able to do it how we wanted it. That enabled us to really make some good decisions about it.
Greg: You know, necessity is the mother of invention.
Kelly: Exactly. When we were mixing it, we actually gave it to four or five different people, and we weren't happy with anything until the very last person that mixed it.
Nils: It's not that there was anything super wrong with the first few mixes, it just wasn't what we'd pictured when we got it back. It didn't really resonate with any of us.
Kelly: We just realized we all knew how we wanted it to sound.
SF Station: So how did you want it to sound?
Kelly: Well, the way it turned out.
Greg: Too often on previous albums, once we got things mixed it sounded, at least to my ears, a little flat, a little muddy. What Scott (the final mixer) was able to do was make it a little more sparkly and dynamic without sounding too terribly slick. So it was nice to have that balance, which we didn't have in the past.
Nils: I think the other thing that was nice was that we were able to take a lot of time. There was a long break, but throughout the process when things weren't exactly what we wanted, we just kept plugging away and plugging away.
Kelly: I'm always really in awe of people who record records in like three days. I'd have a hard time with that because I'm so judgmental of everything I do. There's something to be said for not making it perfect too, but in the end I don't think we over-perfected it.
Greg: And what helped it not sound too much like a ProTools recording was that we all recorded the basics live together. We didn't use a click track at all.
Nils: That was actually one of our goals at the beginning of the record, and we talked about it a lot before we started. We just wanted the record to have the sound of the band and feel like it was not just some construction paper thing. We wanted it to be all of us playing. We practiced like crazy for a few months beforehand and we practiced how we were going to record it, without vocals and everything.
Kelly: To go back to the original question (about Nils recording), to have somebody who had a good idea of how the songs should sound made it so great to have someone in the band record it. At first we thought it might be a negative to not have a fresh ear recording, but it wasn't. It was great and actually worked to our advantage.
SF Station: So maybe we're drawing conclusions here, but looking back it seems like there are things from the first two albums you were not happy about, like the recording process.
Kelly: Speaking for myself, I think there are parts of the first two records that have really amazing moments. But there are other parts I would get rid of. If I could go back, I would re-record certain things, get rid of certain songs. But there are some moments on the albums where I'm like "Wow, I really still like that!"
Greg: Whenever you record something, if you're the musician who recorded it, it just shows you where you should go next. You don't want to do the same thing twice and usually the cue is the thing you don't like about it. That's pretty much the trajectory of a band.
SF Station: "Book of J" is our favorite tune on the new record and one of the best songs you guys have done. How did that song come together?
Greg: It was really an acoustic tune Joe had, it started out as this pretty little ditty he wrote. But then we arranged it for the whole band and I came up with the melody.
Nils: We were in rehearsal and thought it should be a rock tune. It has such a cool hook and it should be electric guitars, kind of distorted.
Kelly: That's a good example of a good team effort.
Nils: I don't know if Ethan (the band's former drummer) would have been into that tune. His response was basically, "What more prog rock?"
Kelly: This album in general though is a little more poppy than our last two.
Nils: It's more concise to me. To the point.
Kelly: Yeah, I just mean more consistent.
Nils: There's less kind of spacey tunes.
SF Station: And it's pretty short…
Kelly: We thought the last record was too long. You never know what other people's experiences with listening to it are, but we thought it was too much.
Nils: I kept saying "40 minute record, 40 minute record."
SF Station: So where does the band name come from?
Greg: It's a reference to the length of time that a cockpit voice recorder runs on a black box. On private jets, it goes 20 minutes. It's a digital recording and then it starts erasing itself from the beginning, so that they always have 20 minutes of tape in the event of an accident.
SF Station: It's smart because you're in the front of the alphabet at the record store.
Nils: That was our initial plan.
Kelly: I wanted to start with the number one, but they thought that wasn't subtle enough!
SF Station: Are you planning to tour for the album?
Nils: We don't have one booked yet, but the idea is that we're going to do it in the summer. We have a lot to work around schedule-wise between jobs and schools and babies and stuff.
Kelly: We're hoping to do 2-3 weeks. We've done a lot of West Coast and Southwest tours, we actually want to do something that's cross country if we can. It's long overdue.
SF Station: Can you run through a brief history of the band?
Greg: The guy who produced our first two albums, a guy named Chris Manning, he and I go back a little bit. I've always messed around on acoustic guitar and I'd been writing songs since high school. He and I hooked up and just started doing music on cassette.
Kelly: The weird thing was I also knew Chris because I went to college with him and he started producing the band I was in.
Greg: I played a show in Fairfax with these two guys, a drummer and a bass player. Kelly showed up and that's how we hooked up. I did the first five-song EP, which wasn't really 20 Minute Loop yet. Kelly was on that project, she did a lot of the singing and then we got more and more collaborative. Joe was the next to join and the rhythm section changed a lot. The next oldest member of the band is Nils who joined four years ago in January, and we found Mike just before recording the last recording session.
Kelly: Yeah, in July 2003. I can't believe it's been a year and a half. It's funny because the older we've been getting you find this all takes so much. You know, you have to support yourself and we have to have jobs and all – so it's a real labor of love to be in a band and really make it work. There are a lot of things we're dissatisfied with, so you have to keep trying and pushing. At the same time, there's a lot we're really happy with too.
SF Station: OK, so the inevitable influences question. We know the Pixies, everyone mentions them when they write about you guys.
Kelly: Which is really weird to me, because I don't really think we sound anything like them.
SF Station: All they're going for really is the weird aspect, and the guy-girl vocals.
Nils: Well there's a limited pool of guy-girl vocal bands to pull from as a reference.
Greg: But I think at that level we sound a lot more like X in the way we harmonize.
Kelly: Although I sound nothing like Exene.
Nils: Part of what makes it interesting though is that if you asked every single member of the band for a Top 5 Favorite Artists, there would be a total different list for everybody, with maybe one or two in common. It's pretty easy to say that there are a certain range of bands we can all stand listening to together. Of course if you mention the Pixies, we all like them. Or the Beatles, no one is going to argue with putting on Revolver in the van on the way to a gig.
SF Station: So where would you guys like to go from here?
Kelly: I think what we'd really like is to have the opportunity to actually have tour supported so we can go on the road or go to Europe.
Greg: Playing with a band we really like…
Kelly: Go on tour for a couple months where we could really not worry about anything else.
Greg: Yeah I mean ideally we could tour without having to pay for it all the time.
Kelly: I mean it's rewarding even when we do that, so imagine how rewarding it would be if we were getting paid or at least having our expenses covered. That's the next step and, if we did it, we'd be in seventh heaven.
20 Minute Loop w/ Elephone
CD Release Show for both bands
Saturday, Jan. 8, 10pm
Bottom of the Hill, $8
Writer Kevin Dick co-authored this piece