We recently headed to the studio of a promising trio of Brooklyn twenty-somethings known as Young Heel. We’ve been following Young Heel for the past few months after hearing their lurching ballad, “Not a Name.” With a delicate mix of vocal harmonies and a sparse electro-pop landscape somewhere between James Blake and The Knife, the track grabbed our attention and we found ourselves grooving out, staring into space until the track ended. We recently got our hands on their newest single “Guide Me Through,” which whips up the pace into a brisk sprint with an insistent drum beat and earnest vocals that seem to be just within reach of the finish line.
At that point, we were very down with Young Heel, and set out to learn more about this elusive trio. Fortunately for us, the band welcomed us into their basement studio in the industrial-chic Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO on a frigid Tuesday night. After waiting for a few minutes outside, Clay Bassford, the band’s founder and leader, popped out of an unmarked door and led us down the stairs into their spacious studio. Immediately, we saw how comfortable these three were with each other through their constant joking and never-ending musical references. They also never stopped playing their instruments the entire time we were present.
We sat down with Clay on a couple of worn leather couches on the studio side of their space while JT Norton and Steve Greenberg jammed on a few trip-hop-like ideas just behind us where their gear was set up in preparation for a set of upcoming shows. We chatted with Clay about balancing the writing process, the appeal of banging on metal, and what it means to be experimental while JT and Steve stopped the beat long enough to chime in.
After seeing how you interact in the studio, it seems that your songs come together in a very casual way. Is that accurate? How would you describe the writing and production process?
CB: I think our best ideas come organically, and that’s how we start writing all of our songs, but sometimes it takes some tinkering and reworking, and then coming back to it later to get it right. The writing process is back and forth between really opened-ended ideas and then intensive studio work, where we edit the ideas and flesh out the structure and vibe of a song.
How collaborative is the recording process? Is there one songwriter and one producer, or are all three of you involved in each step?
CB: It’s very collaborative. We each have a hand in the creative process. JT or I will usually come up with an idea and I’ll take it home and develop it, forming a progression or drum idea around it, and bring it back to the band and play with it live, then back to the studio, and so on. Steve is also our producer and audio engineer, so he has a hand in everything from writing to recording to mixing.
After hearing the progression from the Falls EP to “Guide Me Through,” the vocal range seems to be expanding and gaining more of a personality. Has there been a conscious effort or just a natural progression?
JTN: I would say both. I took vocal lessons for a month and pretty much re-learned how to sing. Who knew you needed your diaphragm for anything? But I think it was also a natural progression because my singing is really influenced by our sound, which has also been expanding and refining itself.
Your music is hard to categorize. You call it experimental pop. How did you decide on that tag? How is it experimental?
CB: That tag seemed like the most open-ended, applicable term we could use. I come from a musically experimental background. I spent a lot of time in college looping guitar and sampling everything. I’ve always loved stuff like My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and Modest Mouse’s “Sad Sappy Sucker” — weirder stuff with a lot of character that still makes you feel something powerful. We’re trying to do the same thing I felt those artists were doing: expressing hard to describe sentiments, then condensing them into a pop-like format.
This type of experimental pop has grown quite a bit over the past year or two with artists like How to Dress Well and Rhye. How do you set yourself apart from the other artists in this genre?
CB: We don’t worry about that too much. We’re all definitely tuned in to what’s going on with our creative peers, but at the end of the day, we’ve learned to trust that intuition of writing something that feels good before anything else. There have been times, though, when we have a vocal melody we really like and then we realize we jacked it from a Tom Petty song or a Beyonce song. We also try to use sounds we haven’t heard other people using in the same context before. That’s definitely a way to do our own thing in a practical sense.
Okay, so here’s a James Lipton-style question. What sound or noise do you love?
CB: Musically, it’s the steel drums, or maybe brass sections. Something about people using metal to make resonant sounds is super cool.
What sound or noise do you hate?
CB: Incessant honking, specifically on the busy street outside my bedroom window at 6:00 a.m.
SG: Yes, definitely that.