Kurt Heasley goes the distance for pop purity
by Brett Milano
Lilys frontman Kurt Heasley is drinking iced coffee outdoors in Central Square, chewing over his musical reference points. "I find a lot more joy in the Velvet Underground than in Nelson," he notes, "And sometimes I stare at girls' butts when they get off bicycles." Sure enough, he's spotted exactly that on the sidewalk a block away. Not that Heasley is being purposely elusive, just that he goes off on a lot of tangents.
As does his music. The Lilys' Better Can't Make Your Life Better (Sire/Elektra) -- the looseknit band's third album and major-label debut -- sounds at first like a standard pop CD, but it's too odd for that. You might call it one of the most sophisticated bubblegum albums ever made. The tunes never resolve into straightforward hooks; neither do the lyrics ever lay their meanings on the line. And the more intricate they get, the more Heasley's inclined to throw on an ironically sweet back-up chorus or '60s guitar. It sounds for all the world like what would happen if Frank Zappa wrote songs for the Bay City Rollers.
"It's `Louie Louie' with changes," Heasley notes. "It's '60s in the sense that a G-chord is '60s. I wasn't born in the '60s [Heasley is 25], so I could just as easily have made it sound like the '20s. A 12-string is my favorite instrument, but out of no particular liking of the Beatles or the Byrds do I love 12-string guitars. In fact, I probably heard it first from the Pale Saints." Heasley appears to have absorbed pop music as obsessively as anyone I can think of. He notes, for example, that he liked the Dream Syndicate's first couple of singles but lost interest when their debut album came out. Nothing too odd, you might think, except that he was about 10 when those were released. So he knows history well enough to resist easy categories for his own stuff.
"They're deciding now that orchestrated pop is the big thing. Big deal. I've had Pet Sounds all my life, and people are really getting a boner for it now? Like they spent the '80s listening to nothing but Animotion and forgot that Sgt. Pepper was around?"
A few entertaining digressions later he notes, "This is why I never did interviews before; people thought I was kidding. But after the last album, they thought I was the most depressing person on the planet." That was Eccsame the Photon Band (SpinArt, 1994), recorded in the wake of a bad break-up. "I was completely heartbroken and I let it rule me for two weeks. You can hear that I'm in the void. I figured I could start there and expand out of the blackness, instead of just sitting in it."
Much of the new album was written in the studio during the sessions. Heasley figures that he's less inclined to be a perfectionist about his songs if he enters the studio with no songs at all.
"Believe me, it's a much more frustrating experience if I walk in knowing exactly what I want. I can write better than I can play, so I'd rather sound like someone who can barely do anything." And he stayed away from modern digitized production -- one of the banes of his existence. "When I record bands [at the .45 Studio in Hartford, where he engineers and produces], I make sure they don't spend $75,000 on a record. They can spend the major-label money on something else, like a life." Later he notes that "I was just listening to George Harrison's Somewhere in England -- you know, that fucking terrible album? But it would be beautiful if you could hear it the way I heard it, if you could strip away the producer's input."
The Lilys haven't been a Boston band until very recently. Heasley has run different versions of the band from Denver, Louisville, Washington, and Hartford (Velocity Girl's Archie Moore is the most famous alumnus). "Twenty-seven people in five and a half years. Most people who were in the Lilys wind up leaving pop music altogether. One of the original members is a choreographer in Prague. Most of them are smart-asses, which is one of the main criteria for joining. You like melody, you like rhythm, you're a wise-ass and you can count to four? Good, you're in the band now." The Lilys play T.T. the Bear's Place next Friday, September 6.
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