“I’ve been guilty of trying to hide behind effects, but I don’t want to do that anymore. It feels boring.”
TEEN is a tough band to peg down. Their 2012 debut In Limbo (Carpark) featured equal parts post-punk bluster and heartfelt vulnerability, shining through an ambient, layered haze of production. Singer Teeny Lieberson, previously of Here We Go Magic, slides easily from Lou Reed-style insouciance to impassioned plea. Since In Limbo’s release, the band — which consists of Teeny Lieberson, her two sisters Katherine and Lizzie, and a fourth member, Jane Herships — has been touring extensively, becoming ever more confident as a live act. Carolina, a new EP released last month, captures that newfound bluster with a more straightforward, pared-down sound.
Teeny and Lizzie Lieberson met with TMT recently to talk about the two records, Teeny’s varying vocal styles, the benefits and drawbacks of reverb, and what it is that makes live music so compelling. Teeny did most of the talking, with Lizzie adding the occasional clarification.
To start with, could you talk about recording the new EP, Carolina?
Lieberson: I met [Daniel Schlett, who produced Carolina] through Here We Go Magic — they built this beautiful new studio [Strange Weather] in Williamsburg and I was like, I want to get in there before I can’t afford it any more.
And so we rehearsed like crazy all of January, just kind of came up with these songs that month. I wrote some of it in December but–
Lizzie Lieberson: –but it was essentially like 10 days of workshopping, intensive…
TL: Which worked really well for us. Just like nine-, 10-hour days. And then we went into the studio and knocked it out: two days of recording, then mixing.
You’ve spoken about a contrast between the recording process for In Limbo and for Carolina. For the EP, you’ve said, the goal was a more simplistic approach. Was recording In Limbo more of a track-by-track, layer-by-layer process?
TL: Totally, because we had two other people recording [In Limbo] with us — Jen [Turner], from Here We Go Magic, and Maia [Ibar], who used to play drums. There were I don’t know how many tracks on some of the songs. We weeded about 50 percent of it out, and so when we went to play it live, it was really difficult. We were like, How are we going to make that sound that was there for one second? Is it important? Trying to figure out what parts we needed to play and how to do it.
We’re really not into backing tracks, loops… it just feels like there’s all this stuff happening and no one’s playing it and there’s no excitement in it, you know?
With this we were like, “I don’t want to do that anymore, let’s just play it and record it how we’re going to play it live.” It was really great, because when we were done tracking the EP we were like, “Oh wait, we have a show this week, we’re totally prepared.” And it was great; it’s more fulfilling too, you don’t feel like you’re missing… you get really attached to how things sound when they were recorded, and there was none of that with this.
Was it also that you were coming off a tour — that you were more comfortable playing together as a band?
TL: Definitely, and that helps, especially when you’re feeling loose and you’re more confidant — and we had a different drummer, now that Katherine [Lieberson] stepped in. It’s very compatible. Writing with us is really the easiest thing. We come up with things very fast, so it seemed like there was no other way that would make sense.
You mentioned the difficulty of reconstructing songs from In Limbo live. More and more bands are using electronic elements, whether it’s building loops on stage or incorporating prerecorded material — how much non-live stuff do you use?
TL: Zero. Katherine plays an SPDS sometimes, but it’s only to trigger an actual sound, and it’s triggered through her snare so she’s still playing the snare — it just makes a different sound when she hits it. We’re really not into backing tracks, loops… it just feels like there’s all this stuff happening and no one’s playing it and there’s no excitement in it, you know? I think that’s a big part of why we wanted to start doing everything live. For me as an audience member, that’s what I like watching. And hearing the mistakes too — I don’t want to hear something perfect. Maybe that makes me, like, old.
Here We Go Magic came from a real… I played with them for so long and we were, like, never going to play with any loops… It was all about trying to create that sound live, which is so cool and so much more exciting.
LL: It’s more satisfying.
TL: The laptop on stage; I can’t deal with it.
You were working with a different producer on Carolina. Other than live vs. layered, was there any sound you were going for?
TL: Pete Kember [aka Sonic Boom], on In Limbo — it was very spacey, which was cool, it was a vibe; I think at that moment that was what we were really going for. But with this we wanted things to be much more compressed, and much tighter. It’s still pretty psychedelic, but we were trying to get away from a lot of echo, a lot of reverb, and everything being washed out. Being able to hear things, to hear what’s going on — I think we’re trying to go even more in that direction with Daniel. We just wanted to sound more like a rock band.
Part of the reason why we were trying to get away from all that layered stuff is: When you’re playing festivals, you don’t want to fucking hook up everything and have to figure out your perfect sound, you just want to be able to fucking wail when you get up there and your amp sounds good because you know how to play through an amp, you know how to play a guitar, you know how to just do it live.
On In Limbo, the first songs on the record, like “Come Back” and “Electric,” are more concise; later there are songs like “Why Why Why” that are more drawn-out and meandering. Was it a conscious decision to split the record like this?
TL: No. I think we were thinking about it like: Side A/Side B. It was really hard to sequence that record. Putting [certain] faster songs at the end felt really weird or something. To be honest, probably a couple of songs shouldn’t have been on there, and it should have been more split up. But I think that was the only way that the record felt like you could listen through it. I don’t really remember, I think I actually just lost energy… it was hard, it was just hard to sequence it, and it felt like that made the most sense, thinking of it as a Side A/Side B.
And because, like, “Better” — the band didn’t play on “Better.” We weren’t going to put it on the record, we were just going to release it as a single first, because it was just me on a four-track and I felt like it was so different from the rest of the material, you know? But we did it. We were just experimenting, we didn’t really know what we wanted to do yet. Still figuring out band members…
LL: I mean the difference between the process of making that record and where we are now, it’s a different animal. It’s like night and day.
TL: All those songs were such little personal vignettes and little experiences that really meant a lot, so it was hard to let go of any of them. I think that’s why everything was included, but it probably could have been shorter.
LL: I think it’s pretty bad-ass.
TL: It’s experimental, which was cool, it was what we were doing at the moment.
How long had you been playing as a band before In Limbo?
TL: We hadn’t… We didn’t start playing until a couple months before we recorded, because I was so active in Here We Go Magic that I didn’t have any time. Then we recorded and we started playing more consistently. Maybe we had played a couple of shows, but only a couple of months, on and off, I was touring extensively so I never had any time. I’d play, rehearse, kind of commit to something… and then we made the decision to really start doing it.
When you’re playing festivals… you just want to be able to fucking wail when you get up there and your amp sounds good because you know how to play through an amp, you know how to play a guitar, you know how to just do it live.
On the new EP there are a few extended jam parts to the songs — on “Carolina” and “Circus,” for example — where the band takes a few extra measures to extend a certain part. It seems like the longer, layered parts on the second half of In Limbo reemerge in these parts on the EP.
TL: I think we were trying to reel that in a little bit. Here We Go Magic was a real… We jammed a lot, we jammed a lot live, and I like the feeling of extending something for really long periods of time where it gets into this rhythm, where it becomes pretty psychedelic. But it felt like it wasn’t totally successful on our first record. For me, when we would play it live, I feel like we got a little bored, and so it felt like with the EP we were trying to give a feeling of that without going too far into it. Because, some of the songs are like — like “Why Why Why,” this goes on forever — which is cool, you can get into a real vibe with that, but I wanted to try and consciously… reel it in a little bit. And our bassist can’t stand playing a song longer than five minutes.
It’s also, we are living in a time when people are more impatient, and it’s something to consider. People don’t necessarily always want to listen to long jams.
LT: Well, and sometimes when there’s too much jamming in a band, it’s about the band, it’s not about the audience.
You’re singing style can change depending on the song. On “Better” your delivery is more nonchalant, whereas on “Charlie,” it’s more impassioned. On Carolina it seems you’re still varying your approach.
LT: On In Limbo, when I was writing a lot of that music, I was feeling much more aggressive, so I wanted to sing in that way — I wanted to not care how I was using my voice, I guess. But then I realized, upon listening to it, “No, actually, I can offer more than that as a vocalist.” I just felt like I knew that I could do more, and people weren’t hearing that side of my voice because I wasn’t offering it, and I made a conscious decision — I was also listening to a lot of Kate Bush — I made a decision to use my voice in a softer way, in a more beautiful sense, because it felt like, I was so angry. I didn’t want to do the angry thing any more; the cool thing, you know? I was thinking about that too much, and so I just let myself sing. And the girls, too, Lizzie and my sister Katherine, both beautiful singers, and I think we’re moving toward even more of that, because the voice is an instrument, too, and I wanted to start using it that way.
LL: I think that’s become an under-appreciated thing—
TL: An arbitrary thing, in the band. I think a lot of that comes from being able to hide behind so much production and so many other sounds. Using your voice, it’s such a powerful thing.
Also, we love R&B. We saw D’Angelo at Brooklyn Bowl, just him and ?uestlove. We’re just watching these people making music like, “This is two people making all of that.”
No one can sing anymore. Why do you think Radiohead is so huge? Because Thom Yorke is the most captivating singer. You don’t understand what he’s saying half the time but it doesn’t matter. It’s energy coming out of a person. There’s nothing else helping it out, it’s just that person. That’s huge.
And since when is it not important or meaningful or cool to have somebody who can tell a story and carry the entire thing? That’s what a singer is supposed to do, and it’s been completely lost. Twenty, thirty years ago, you couldn’t be the lead singer of a band if you weren’t good at that. There’s was no reverb, people weren’t hiding behind this stuff. I’ve been guilty of trying to hide behind effects, but I don’t want to do that anymore. It feels boring.
Can you talk about the lyrics on Carolina?
TL: “Better” is a joke, by the way — I was making fun of someone. Which is funny because people hear it as bragging, but I was actually mocking somebody. But on the new record, I like the lyrics to “Glass Cage.” It’s not personal — on the last record, “Roses and Wine” is really personal. And I like “Paradise,” too. I was able to play with words in a way that I liked. It’s more playful, and expresses what I was going for without necessarily giving it away too much.
“Glass Cage” it was like, I listened to an episode of Radiolab, and it was talking about how infants experience the world when they first come in. And I liked the idea, these babies, apparently they hear everything in echo, and they see everything as if you were wearing sunglasses and it was high noon in Greece and you take them off and that’s what it feels like all the time: over-stimulation, constantly being fed too much information. I feel like living in New York can be like that — or just being a sensitive human being. I liked that sentiment. When things are too straightforward, it freaks me out.
There is the question of which approach is better, whether to be more direct or to leave things open.
TL: We had an interesting upbringing where our mother was very folk-oriented, loved Joni Mitchell, words were the main thing. That’s not to say that she’s not musical; she’s completely musical — but our father was a composer. And I find a lot of pleasure in the little melodies that happen outside of the words too — so that it becomes a fuller experience. And so for me, in the initial writing, I have confidence in more of the outside stuff that can blossom, make it bigger; whereas folk music—
TL: No, I love it, and I love the blues. But finding those little things that your ear can hook onto that you don’t expect, little vocal melodies, little guitar lines that for me can serve as much as words can, because I relate to that as much as words. Like that Björk record [Medúlla] that she made where it was all vocals? I couldn’t even believe how much was happening and how much it made me feel without necessarily always singing words all the time.
[Photo: Shawn Brackbill]