A Certain Smile are an indie band based out of Portland with their sights set on reclaiming the sound of shoegaze’s jangly 90’s heyday. Their debut album ‘Fits & Starts’ has become a critic’s darling, with tracks such as ‘Hold On, Call’ and ‘Aberdeen’. You can find it out now via the group’s Bandcamp.
Let’s start this off with an incredibly cliche question: Where did you come up with your band name? Were you fans of the classic film starring Joan Fontaine?
The name came about as a last minute decision before a show back in Philly. I’d never known the film at all, and I still mean to watch it. I was looking through my records looking for a name to give the promoter for the flyer, and when I hit “A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness” it just clicked.
Your single ‘Hold On, Call’ is probably the standout of the LP. Could you tell our readers the story behind this track?
I was living in Philly and my partner at the time was in Minneapolis for a summer internship. We would talk pretty much every day, and I spent the rest of the time at work or working on our house and writing songs. I came up with this little riff and the words came together super quick. It ended up just being about distance in a relationship, and how even if it starts to feel like it’s pulling away all it takes is one call to bring it right back to place.
What’s the recording process like for your band? Do you let things gestate?
This batch of songs took some time to finally get recorded. I think that has more to do with circumstance than anything else. It’s been through 2 states, 4 or so lineups, heck some songs have been through at least 2 or 3 different bands. So I guess I’d say these songs gestated quite a bit. We have a bunch of new stuff, and now that I think we have a solid core we’re writing more and looking to get things recorded with a much shorter timeline.
Recording generally, I think we try to demo stuff in practice here and there, and then get into the studio and lay everything down as live as possible. Then Zach and I tend to go in and overdub a bunch of stuff, from guitars to keys and vibraphones…kinda whatever we can get our hands on. Then we cut back till it all sounds right.
Why six missing puzzle pieces on the cover of ‘Fits And Starts‘? How did you go about collaborating with the artist?
I never realized it was 6 until you said. I came up with the name of the record first, and then we were talking to Dustin who did the cover and I said “How about like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces laid out not put in?” I liked the idea of having enough of the idea you could see it but that there were bits and pieces that were just left undone. It felt a bit like the whole process of the record for me.
You take creative inspiration from Sarah Records and Slumberland Records; What other record labels or artists do you find yourselves drawing from?
Oof, yeah so many. Clearly we love Sarah Records and Slumberland Records. But also 4AD, Creation Records, Postcard Records, spinART Records, Teen Beat, K,…I could go on, there are so many labels and bands that have inspired us. As far as artists, that’s another long list, but also kinda varied. New Order have been one of my favorite bands since I was like 4, I love The Field Mice and everything Bobby has done, Same goes for Neil Halstead and his various groups, the new Slowdive and that Black Hearted Brother record on Slumberland are amazing. I’ve always loved the Pale Saints and like old My Bloody Valentine. And obviously like The Wedding Present, Boyracer, and the Lilys are some big influence as well. But also bands like Sebadoh, The Jam, Guided By Voices, and The Afghan Whigs have an influence on us. Yo La Tengo is probably one of my favorite bands of all time and I hope we can channel some of their depth as we make more and more music. We’re also inspired by a lot of newer bands, like Martha, Spook School, Alvvays, Wildhoney, Adult Mom, and so many more. We’re music nerds…it can be a daunting problem sometimes.
How would you describe the scene in Portland? How does it vary from Philadelphia, where you were first based out of?
Portland and Philadelphia have some similarities as far as the scene goes. It can be hard for newer bands to find their footing if they aren’t part of a certain circle. We’ve ended up playing a lot more outside of Portland, though we hope to do more in town. I miss Philadelphia’s proximity to other places like NY, DC, Baltimore, etc. But I much prefer the weather here. Overall I’d say both scenes are cool and have a lot to offer, but can feel a bit closed off at first. We’ve met a lot of great bands we love here in town!
If somewhat redundant to the previous question, in what ways have you seen yourselves evolving as artists since the move cross-country?
I think I’ve relied less on other people’s push of influence on the songs. My old band was very much a collaborative effort between me and my best friend, but ultimately I always felt like it was my ideas put through his production in some ways. He’d take the pop out a lot, and since moving out here I’ve really focused on finding like minded people in songwriting partners. I also think moving across country and starting over in a lot of ways has made me more fearless for reaching out. When I got to Portland I knew no one. So I started reaching beyond Portland to people involved in the pop scene all over the world. I found a lot of super receptive and lovely people who have been amazingly helpful. I then took that same approach here, and when I lost the fear I was able to start a DJ branch, build a new group of friends and fellow musicians and really move forward with something I love.
Who are some of your sister bands in Portland? And on a somewhat related note: have you bought any interesting vinyl lately? If so, who or what?
There are a lot of rad bands in Portland, though most are a lil different than us. There are some major Portland bands that were a huge influence, like All Girl Summer Fun Band, Rocketship (who are in Portland now), I loved The Thermals when they first came out, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Kind Of Like Spitting. But yeah right now bed. are really good friends and a great band, No Aloha and Mini Blinds I think are some of the coolest things going round town at the moment, Wave Action are rad as well.
As far as new records I’ve bought, I’ve been getting a lot of stuff some older popkids in town have been selling off and it’s been amazing, a lot of old Harriet Records stuff I’d never heard. As for new things, the Star Tropics record, and the Fireworks stuff on Shelflife Records was amazing last year; and the new Spook School has been one of my favorites so far this year.
How would you describe yourselves live? What is your energy like performing?
I think we have a lot more energy and noise live. We try and just have a good time. Though we’re probably a bit awkward cause we’re mostly introverts. But yeah I’d say take the record and then kick it up, we’re always conscious about just having a good show and like getting people to move their feet a lil bit.
What’s on the horizons for A Certain Smile? Any more new music coming up? Maybe some gigs?
Well we’re working on some new songs. We’re hoping to have a few singles out this year. We’re looking at an east coast tour this summer, and hopefully some fun festival announcements soon.
Photo credits: Zach Selley (1st one), Molly MacAlpine (2nd one)