INTERVIEW. 47 secret cities

Secret Cities once was White Foliage, a project that started as cassette mixtapes travelling through North Dakota between teenagers Charlie and Marie. A few years later, Alex joined the band and they became Secret Cities.
With two full albums - Pink Grafitti (2010) and Strange Hearts (2011) - this trio created a world of their own, where romantic pop meets up with a soothing psychedelia and the combination of echoed vocals and distant uuuhhs gives a certain haunted, vintage and charming feeling to their sound. Add to that the variety of instruments and layers and you're ready to immerse into their music.

(Beautiful bedroom pop with original experimentations with instruments, layers and vocals creating an image of 60's pop being played in the middle of a foggy forest on an autumn afternoon).

Secret Cities | Pink City from Western Vinyl on Vimeo.

We talked with Charlie, Marie and Alex about making music via mail, creation process, perfect pop song concepts, main differences between their albums and more...

01. I’ve heard it all started with cassette mixtapes travelling through North Dakota. Could you talk about the origins of the band when was still known as White Foliage? What were your expectations towards your music back then…
Charlie: Marie and I were pretty young when we first started making music together, maybe 15.  My expectations were instant rockstardom.  The way it turned out is cool too I guess...
Alex: When I joined in 2005ish I honestly had no expectations at all. I figured I had joined just in time for real life to get in the way of any new material being made. When I started getting new demos from Chuck and MJ after about a year, it was kind of a shock. "This band has songs and everything!"
Marie: Ha! Well. It started when Charlie and I were 16; we were chatting over AIM and I mentioned that I had just finished writing my first pop song and I was pretty happy with it, and he said, "You should record it and mail it to me." A week after I sent the tape I got it back and he'd added a track, and that's the way we recorded for a while. We lived too far away from each other to ever rehearse, much less play a show, and so....I don't even remember what my expectations were, really. I can tell you what I did NOT expect, not in a million years: I did not expect to be getting reviews in the kind of publications in which we've been reviewed, I didn't ever expect to release anything on vinyl, and I certainly never even dreamed of touring Europe. Because who formulates those kinds of goals when they're starting a band in high school? No, I would've been happy just putting out a five-song demo in home-made paper cases.

02. If you had to materialize your music how it would look like?
Alex: A white chocolate covered walnut, with the shell still on.
Marie: Which album? I always think of Pink Graffiti as pumpkin pie and Strange Hearts as cherry cheesecake.
Charlie: Pretty much like the album covers Micah Lidberg has done for us.  That guy is magical.  Sorry, cheap answer.

03. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about your music is sound research, atmosphere, layers, up to date chamber pop, charming dream pop psichedelia and crafting… loads of crafting. And it’s hard to think of bands that use so many references without making it sound obvious. And I think you have a very special way of doing so, always adding your own take and twist on things. It’s music that has everything to be romantic but ends up being strangely romantic: always a thought ahead, I think. How do you perceive your music? And what is a perfect pop song for you?
Alex: I see our music as the result of many communication errors at once. We all have such free reign over our input to each song that inevitably one of us is going to take a part in a direction it wasn't intended to go. The way we eventually resolve or gloss over that conflict is our sound, and probably comes out sounding like the "crafting" you refer to. Really, we're just trying not to sound schizophrenic! We're always walking a very fine line between being totally immersed in our own worlds and being totally in tune with each other musically. It's a challenge, but it's an incredibly rewarding challenge.
In a weird way, I guess for me the perfect pop song reflects that a little bit; I like when you get thrown for a loop. You catch yourself nodding your head or singing along to a song, then at the end you have this great moment of realization like "Wait, what was that weird shit I was just listening to?!" I think Outkast's "Hey Ya!" is easily the best pop song of the last 10 years, and it's a perfect example of this. Everybody knows the call-and-response parts and the chorus, but nobody can define what kind of song it is.
Charlie: A perfect pop song to me is one that makes me a little happy and a little sad at the same time, which I guess makes me kind of a sap.  Also, I have to be able to listen to it again and again without losing those feelings, which means never really getting a good grip on what makes the song tick.  That's more or less what I try to accomplish when I write a song; hopefully I get it right sometimes.

04. Whenever I hear music that has a rich variety of sounds (instruments, effects, vocals…) I keep wondering how long it took to that song sound like it does. What I wanted to know is how long do you take editing a song? Adding and/or taking away elements…  And the most important: when do you know that a song is ready?
Alex: I think we know when a song is ready when we're sick of working on it and our deadline is in an hour.
Strange Hearts (2011)
Marie: Hahaha, yeah, Alex is right. Some of the songs on Pink Graffiti took years to be finished. Everything on Strange Hearts took four months to record because we imposed a deadline on ourselves, and when it was done, it was done, and nobody was going to try to make alternate versions or write new lyrics. So....deadlines.
Charlie: It's the side effect of writing and recording like we do.  We never play a song live until the recorded version is complete so there's never really a chance for a song to be fixed a certain way until we have to actually release it.  It's more fun for me to tinker with a song that's mostly written than to write a song.

05. What are the main differences - and references -  (if there’s any) between ‘Pink Grafitti’ and ‘Strange Hearts’?
Pink Graffiti (2010)
Alex: I've been telling people that "Strange Hearts" sounds like it could have been played by a few people in a room together, and "Pink Graffiti" sounds like it could have been played those same few people's laptops in a room together.
Marie: If I remember correctly, he's also been saying that Pink Graffiti was more experimental and Strange Hearts was more straightfoward conventional pop music. I agree with that.
Charlie: For me, the difference is in both the process and the creative goals I had for my contribution to the new record.  We had to work fast, and we worked more closely as a unit, so Strange Hearts sounds a little more like a band.  I also wanted to try stripping back some of the extraneous stuff from our first record to let the songs breath a little, see how they stood on their own.

06. You’ve just finished an European tour and are about to go through an US tour. How’s your live performances? What one can expect when coming to your show? 
Alex: Our live shows are fun, but they have yet to end with any kind of pyrotechnics. Lame. You can expect to wonder why I'm wearing a bowtie, and why there appears to be a guitar cable coming out of it.
Marie: Fun! Yes, they are fun. No pyrotechnics, but we usually end with Charlie looking like he's about to throw his guitar at Alex and never actually doing it.
Charlie: When we play live we just sort of tear through our songs with reckless abandon.  We just wanna rock!

07. Any song(s) you’d like to cover?
Alex: "Shame and Pride" by the Mighty Diamonds, A classical piece of Marie's choice, and anything by the Embermen Five.
Marie: I'm not confident in our ability to do justice to anything by the Embermen Five, but anything else goes.
Charlie: I've really wanted to do Sam Cooke's "Cupid", but I've yet to figure out what I can add to such a perfect song.

08. A place and time to hear your music.
Alex: Listen to Pink Graffiti pt. 1 while watching kids play double dutch (or while doing double dutch yourself).
Charlie: Listen to Pebbles in a car around sunset by yourself (which is maybe my favorite time to hear any music but that song of ours works well).

09. When I say ‘warm inside’, which music video comes to your head?
Alex: The same video that pops into my head all the time, which is the one for Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun"

Charlie: The new Low video for "Try to Sleep" starring John Stamos.  That video is amazing but not all that warm, it may be popping into my head just because it's the last video I saw that I felt really strongly about.

10. Anything else you feel like saying? 
Alex: Thanks!


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