“Are you ready, Art Brut? Let’s go!” shouts frontman Eddie Argos, attacking the mic at Spaceland with his heavy southern-English drawl, leading his band through one of their first-ever U.S. gigs, circa 2005. The cheeky Brit pogos through the dense crowd at Spaceland, whipping it as he belts out the lyrics to Art Brut’s best-known tune at the time, “Moving to L.A.” “I’m gonna get myself deported . Hang around with Axl Rose, buy myself some brand-new clothes . I’m drinking Hennessy with Morrissey on a beach out of reach somewhere very far away,” he chants, and the Angelenos go wild.
Flash forward four years, and Argos has taken up part-time residence here. Art Brut have gone from being free agents in the States to having endured a highly publicized signing and subsequent split with a major label, and it’s just released its third full-length album, Art Brut vs. Satan, which the group managed to convince alternative-rock titan Black Francis (a.k.a. Frank Black) of the Pixies to produce.
“I’ve had a lot of time lying around on my back just thinking, ‘How weird is this?’” Argos says over the phone from Hamburg in the midst of the European leg of the band’s tour, musing on how far they’ve come since that early Spaceland gig. Returning to their humble roots, Art Brut are gearing up for a three-night residency at the intimate Silver Lake club in June. The singer has been taking it fairly easy lately because of a recent back injury that he suffered onstage in Amsterdam, which gave him plenty of time to ponder such matters. “This thing we’re doing at Spaceland — we’re doing it in New York and Chicago too — like, five shows at the Mercury Lounge and five at Schubas. It’s amazing people actually want to see us.”
Argos admits that when the band played those L.A. gigs half a decade ago, they never thought they’d be back on U.S. soil, let alone practically living and recording albums here. “We thought, ‘Oh, America. We’re never gonna come here again.’ So we did all the fun things — stayed at the Hyatt and hung out on the Sunset Strip, all those clichés. Now it turns out we’re in America much more than we’re in Britain,” he laughs.
A few months ago, the band found themselves in a part of America they’d never dreamt they’d visit — the sleepy, misty town of Salem, Oregon, where they recorded with Francis in his home studio for a down-and-dirty 12 days. Here the Pixies man helped them fine-tune their raw punk-pop sound into a powerful 11-song punch of an album that never lulls.
“I get quite bored in the studio,” admits Argos. “I like to sing a song and be done. And that’s how [Francis] records [with his band] the Catholics. The first Catholics album, they did it in one take. So we were thinking, if we’re going to record in this sort of style, who’s the expert in that?” The band unanimously decided on Francis, with whom they’d played a handful of gigs.
“We got in touch with him and said, ‘Could you please produce our album because you’re really good at doing it like that and that’s how we want to do it?’ And he was, like, ‘Yeah!’” Argos gushes. “So we just rocked up with our equipment and played the songs.”
In addition to his quick-take approach, Francis is also known for his unique gift for lyrical rhythm and syncopation, and juxtaposing screeching guitars with quiet, melodic moments, which helped establish the Pixies as one of the most influential alternative-rock forces of the late 1980s and early 1990s (and which Nirvana famously cited as a major influence).
When asked why he agreed to work with the young London quintet, Francis says many things attracted him. “In terms of the vocal presentation of Eddie Argos, it’s really special,” he says from his Oregon home, where his three young children are climbing on his lap. “There aren’t many people that can break down melody into something that’s more about rhythm. I can think of two great examples: Mark E. Smith of The Fall and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. People say Eddie’s just talking his lyrics but that’s an oversimplification of what he does. If he was just talking his words it’d be a lot more boring and it wouldn’t suck you in in a musical way. Not too many people can get away with that.”
In addition to highlighting Argos’ unique vocal style, Francis wanted to emphasize the “voices” of guitarists Jasper Future and Ian Catskilkin. “If you’re gonna produce, one of your jobs is to bring out and not disguise elements. So on occasion I did attempt to separate the guitarists’ voices from the singer’s voice, so there are passages where we hear less guitars and more Eddie, and there are other passages where we let the guitars happen without any voice. Other than that, I was just trying to be another band member by being with them in spirit and trying to make a good record and just listening.”
Argos adds, “It was almost like he was conducting us. We’d be playing a song and he’d be, like, ‘Oh, that bit is really good. Put it at the beginning as well.’” Francis was also responsible for helping to create the longest song in Art Brut’s catalog. “He wanted us to keep playing ‘Mysterious Bruises,’” Argos says. “He said, ‘Play it longer.’ We wouldn’t have had an eight-minute song if it hadn’t been for Black Francis. That’s kind of cool.”
When discussing the Pixies man, Argos can’t help gushing about how down-to-earth he is, how easy he is to get along with, and how it felt like “he was in the band for a bit” when they were recording the album. Argos also admits to being slightly awed by the indie legend. “At one point I was arguing with him,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I think you should do that.’ And I thought, ‘One second. He’s the dude from the Pixies. He’s probably right!’ I think I would’ve been really fanboy-ish if he hadn’t been such a brilliant person.” Argos pauses and sighs. “I’m telling everybody how nice he is all the time and I’m getting a bit tired of it,” he quips, adding, “I might start lying and saying he was horrible. ‘Oh, he’s such an awful person. Oh, he beat us.’”
All kidding aside, Francis unobtrusively and expertly did his part, capturing Art Brut’s no-frills, guitar-driven pop-punk stylings, and perhaps suggesting a few brief guitar riffs that could easily be mistaken for something off a Frank Black album. He also helped the other band members — Future and Catskilkin, bassist Frederica Feedback and drummer Mikey B, who write all the music — to keep things raw and energetic, punctuating Argos’ confessional yarns with danceable, moshable, adrenaline-filled tunes.
Meanwhile, Argos’ gift for penning hilariously biting lyrics has become even stronger over the years, with lines such as “Cool your warm jets, Brian Eno,” on the track “Slap Dash for No Cash,” which disses slickly produced U2-esque bands and glorifies those that “don’t sound quite right.” He also penned a curious ode to public transit in his newly adopted hometown. There aren’t many people who would extol the virtues of L.A.’s notoriously dire transportation system, but leave it to Argos to chirp, “Some people hate the bus, not me, I can’t get enough. Some people live in the fast lane, not me, I take the train!” Argos explains: “I wrote that on the 704 [bus] that goes to Union Station, and then on the line to Pasadena. It’s about that journey.”
Not to be forgotten is the amusingly confessional “DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes,” on which Argos openly admits to having a passion for both, despite being nearly 30. “DC comics and chocolate milkshakes/Some things will always be great/even though I’m 28!” As a result of this song, many like-minded comic book geeks have been approaching Argos at shows and testing his mettle to see if he’s as much of a fanboy as he professes to be. “Whenever we’re playing now, geeky comic fans seek me out,” he says. “They’re, like, ‘Oh, you like DC Comics. Do you really like them? When did Booster Gold beat Superman in a fight? And I’m, like, ‘I know that, it’s Issue 12!’”
At 29, Argos seems poised to tackle the next decade armed with an even greater arsenal of life experiences and candor. “Now that I’m nearly 30, I’m, like, aww, fuck it,” he says. “I can admit that I still like comics. I’m nearly 30, I may as well start being more honest. This is me, I’m not gonna change.”
Art Brut perform at Spaceland June 16-18, and at The Echo June 19.