As far as debut album mantras go, “Be Impressive” is a fantastically simple statement of intent.
For Sydney party-starters The Griswolds it proved the driving ideal that would shake off the daiquiri-flavoured tropical tones of their Heart of a Lion EP and unite the four-piece’s more refined musical goals. Be Impressive? These 11 shimmering, anthemic tracks are that and more. Be Impressive isn’t just an indie rock record you can dance to; it’s a record that’ll break and mend your heart, have you dancing with joy. It’s the hedonistic island paradise that’s an escape from all of your worries… before it becomes obvious it’s better to confront them than to run away.
It’s a long way from the Sydney houseparty where Christopher Whitehall (vocals/guitar) challenged “sometime drinking buddy” Daniel Duque-Perez (guitar/synth), to write a riff on the spot. “That was how the band started,” laughs Dan. “Chris thought that riff was really fun and interesting, and it turned into our first single, ’Mississippi’. The two of us realised that perhaps we could do something really cool, that the way we wrote songs together was something neither of us wanted to waste.”
‘Mississippi’ and second single ‘Heart of a Lion’ from their debut EP launched the band to a worldwide audience and having finally settled on a name (thanks to a passing comment about National Lampoon’s Family Vacation), the band were suddenly playing shows with San Cisco, Last Dinosaurs and touring Australia to ever-increasing crowds. “It was great; a whirlwind,” reflects Dan. “That’s what we want to do; write fun songs, and have fun playing them to people who want to party with us.”
After forays to the UK and US, the band — Chris, Dan, bassist Tim John and drummer Lachlan West — were itching to record their debut album, signing with American super-indie Wind-Up Records. The only hitch, as it turns out, was writing all the new songs needed for the record. “Yeah,” laughs Chris, “that was a problem. We needed 30 songs, and we had about six.”
A writing retreat at a “hippie meditation cabin in the middle of nowhere” outside of Sydney, Australia, ended in frustration and only a couple of workable songs. “It was really tough,” remembers Chris. “With the touring and being away from loved ones and family, we were going through some personal stuff. The songs weren’t flowing and we started to worry about our abilities as songwriters. Then we went to New York.”
With deadlines looming, NYC provided songwriting panacea. There Chris and Dan hit their stride; in the studio where Tupac Shakur was shot, no less. “It was great,” remembers Dan of Quad Studios, “we finally found our groove. It helped that it was during a polar vortex, meaning we could barely ever go outside in sub-zero temperatures. We just never left the studio; we ended up having fun making these songs because we had to.”
By January 2014, the band were flying to LA, getting in a cab to their hotel, dropping off their bags and then heading directly to meet producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Foster the People, M83). They instantly hit it off; a planned week of pre-production needed only three days before heading into Hobby Shop Studios to record.
In Hoffer the band found a willing collaborator, “like a member of the band almost immediately”, enthuses Dan. But most importantly, adds Chris, “He was an amazing presence, always challenging whether a lyric or melody or drum line was good enough. He pushed us so far as a band and it meant we could really achieve what we wanted from the songs.”
“Adopted in everything we did”, was the ‘Be Impressive’ ideal says Chris. “We’d spend entire days in the studio only to be up until 4am at our hotel working on and re-writing parts; one chorus we re-wrote 16 times,” he laughs. “It was so much fun though.”
“Yeah; you only get to make one debut album,” says Dan, “and we wanted to make ours as impressive as we possibly could. Working hard and late nights mean nothing when you’re working on something you love. So ‘Be Impressive’ became something we thought about all the time.”
“We got to make a record that’s wild and a bit weird; that’s us in a nutshell,” laughs Chris. “And, y’know, being in the studio with Tony and challenging ourselves every day was the coolest creative experience of our lives.”
“If you wanna stay / I will never miss you while I’m away”
‘If You Wanna Stay’, ‘16 Years’ and ‘Right on Track’ harness the striking growth in The Griswolds songwriting, with synths and keys playing a prominent role. “We started using synths to add more depth to our sound, and really to capture that dance floor energy,” explains Chris. “But the party flavours are definitely still there, like on (first single) ’Beware the Dog’.”
That sonic evolution is clear, and nowhere more apparent than on ‘Not Ready Anymore’ or ballad ‘Thread the Needle’ — with strings by composer David Campbell (Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones). Infused with the carefree spirit of youth — helped by Chris’ nieces and nephews on the title-track and hedonistic song ‘Down and Out’ — the album also adds more depth, more honesty, more heartbreak.
“What we found is the songs started to take on our personality,” says Dan. “As we were writing these songs we were growing up, and then as we were recording them our musical tastes were developing into something deeper, and often a bit darker.”
Says Chris, “We wanted to make a fun record that touches on deeper feelings we all have from time to time; that idea of balancing out maturing and wanting to have fun and live life the way you want to. Knowing that growing up can be painful, but those experiences add up to something fun. It’s about that cusp of being a carefree kid and an adult.”
“We are young / And we are free”
Be Impressive is about growing up, finding your own path and dealing with the challenges that presents. It’s about love and loss; spontaneous happiness and devastating sadness. It covers a wide emotional spectrum; able to soundtrack a crazy road trip with your best friends… or your next ‘we all lost our shirts’ house party… or your next breakup.
The band’s intentions, though, remain as simple as the album’s title. “We’re pretty chilled, relaxed guys, but we take making music seriously. Because the more people we get to play to around the world,” says Chris, “the more we want to keep touring… and keep partying with people who like our music.”
After all, the Be Impressive ethos was a challenge to be true to themselves and make the best record they could. As a result, it’s easy to revel in The Griswolds uncomplicated worldview. “We’re all about melodies, big hooks, choruses you want to singalong to and having lots of fun,” grins Chris.. “That’s what this band, and this album, is all about.”
That’s impressive, alright.