When Now, Now released their first new song in five years this past May, it was a grand and welcome comeback for some; for others, the significance of the band’s return might have been lost, or those people may not have known who Now, Now were at all. It’s understandable. Now, Now (née Every Children) got their start on Myspace in the middle of the ’00s, and for much of their career have been sandwiched in with the artists you’d typically associate with that period. They’ve opened for the likes of Paramore, Motion City Soundtrack, and Fun., and they shared in the same sort of passionate and intimate fanbase that those bands attracted, but the music that Now, Now made always felt out of step with the scene that they were frequently lumped into. Now, Now had more in common with the strain of indie-rock that developed a few years before they were around. They were influenced by early Death Cab For Cutie and sounded a bit like Midwest emo acts such as American Football and Mineral — bands that placed as much emphasis on atmospherics as they did on anthemics — but, for whatever reason, Now, Now were never able to completely cross over to the side that championed those groups.
But Now, Now’s material has aged gracefully, which can’t be said for all of the bands from that era. The band started in the suburbs of Minneapolis after KC Dalager and Brad Hale met in their high school marching band, and they started making music together almost immediately. Their chemistry with each other has been a draw since the beginning. The songs they wrote, uploaded to Myspace, were hooky and sad — Dalager’s lyrics wordy and raw, Hale’s drumming crisp and precise. Even on their earliest tracks, there was an ear for production and a songwriting depth that felt beyond their years. Standouts like “Everyone You Know” and “Friends With My Sister” — two songs that show off the wide range of dynamics within the band — helped them make a name for themselves, and they were both repurposed from early EPs for their 2008 debut, Cars, a strong collection of bleary-eyed songs about youthful heartbreak that were intensely likable, vulnerable, and surprisingly ambitious.
When it came time to record their sophomore album, they had begun to veer onto a different path. The Neighbors EP, which preceded their second album by over a year, hinted at their new, more muscular development, but Threads is a monument all on its own. It was released on then-Death Cab member Chris Walla’s Trans- Records label, and their 2012 album is cohesive and conceptual in a way that the band had only grazed in their earlier work, a mini-masterpiece of taut, skeletal rock and high-wire tension. By that time, Dalager and Hale had been joined by guitarist Jess Abbott, who helped fill out their sound and pushed Now, Now to new heights. (Abbott announced earlier this year that she had parted ways with the band to focus on her solo work as Tancred. She’s not involved with the new songs.) Threads high water marks like “School Friends” and “But I Do” capture the firecracker energy of their earlier work but feel more mature and considered; the minimal, math-y arrangements highlight Dalager’s narrative-building skill and the song constructions feel loose and unstructured.
After a two-year touring cycle opening for other bands following Threads, Dalager and Hale found that diving back into writing wasn’t coming as easily or naturally as it had before. They took some time to explore, push against their own personal songwriting boundaries. “SGL,” their first single in five years, is indicative of the progress they made in their time away. At its heart, the components are the same as any Now, Now song — Dalager’s words spill out like a confession, Hale’s drums provide a sturdy framework — but it’s poppy and self-assured in a way that the band has never been before. Hale describes the song as a “bridge” from their older work to the material on their forthcoming third album, marrying the kind of scratchy acoustic momentum exhibited on something like “Dead Oaks” with a more sleek and modern sound. It’s an invigorating development for the duo, one that bodes well for the future.
Earlier this month, the band embarked on their first-ever headlining tour — a weird quirk of their status in the industry is that they had never gone on a headlining tour of their own, despite being around for over a decade — and we caught up with them in New York. Check out our interview with Dalager and Hale below, where we talk about handling pressure, their unique creative partnership, and how they came to make their first new album in five years.
STEREOGUM: What have you guys been up to for the last five years?
BRAD HALE: Well, we toured for about two of those years. And then we finished that cycle and we were like… Oh, now we should have another record ready to go. But we were kind of shocked at the intensity of the touring cycle, which we weren’t used to and weren’t really expecting… Coming off of that, we had to figure out what to do next and deal with the pressure of having to follow up a record. It took us a little bit to get through that. The rest of the time, we were just writing and trying to figure out what we wanted to sound like, overcoming some writer’s block…
KC DALAGER: That was mostly what the last three years have been — trying to figure that out.
STEREOGUM: Was there a moment that it all clicked and it felt like you were on a good path?
DALAGER: I feel like it happened maybe a year-and-a-half ago. Something changed. I felt like we’d been trying to figure out what we wanted to be, and we finally clicked into something that I started to feel good about. I hadn’t finished a song since Threads. I didn’t finish a single song. There was a good three-and-a-half years of me not being able to write anything. Finally, it slowly started to fall back into place. Oh, I can do this. I feel really good about it. Once that happened, the album finished itself within a handful of months after that.
STEREOGUM: What do you think was blocking you? Did you feel like you were just rehashing old ideas or did you not really feel inspired…?
DALAGER: I’ve always been a really insecure person. With everything we’ve ever put out, I’ve never felt… I was true to myself in it and true to my feelings in it, but it’s never been something where I would want to listen to it. I think I was thinking about everything too hard, and it was crippling to me. I’ve always been scared to say exactly what I’m thinking or feeling, and it eventually got to a point where I wasn’t scared to do that anymore. There came a point where I was like, Why am I scared to do this? The only thing that was scaring me was me. There was a lot of pressure to get the album done. That alone was… I felt very compressed. I didn’t want to feel the stress of everyone being like, It’s been five years. Where’s the album? I didn’t want to feel that stress, so I very much shut off my emotions to the stress, which allowed me to feel no emotion whatsoever about anything. And I think it hit a point where I couldn’t do that anymore. And I’ve been a lot happier since then.
STEREOGUM: Five years is a long time professionally as well personally… What do you feel has changed in your lives that’s reflected in the new material?
HALE: We learned how to not really care what the outside perspective was thinking about what we were doing. For me, personally, I was letting the pressure and the expectation… or what I thought the expectation from the world was about us get to me. It was really stressing me out. Once I learned how to not give a shit about that, we landed on exactly what we wanted because we were just doing what felt right between the two of us.
DALAGER: For me, I was struggling with a lot of stuff in my personal life. Weird relationships with people… me not knowing my self-worth in any way. Once I was free from those situations, I felt like a different person. I think that was one of the biggest factors for me. Just being able to say, I don’t need that. I don’t need anyone else’s negative energy around me. I don’t need to be muting myself or my feelings for the sake of anyone else anymore. It’s just not worth it. Being able to tap into those emotions and allow myself to feel more confident instead of feeling guilty for feeling confident… I don’t know if it’s because we grew up in the Midwest or whatever, but anything where you feel comfortable with yourself is seen as you being arrogant. The way that I grew up, that’s how it was. If you’re being confident, you’re not being humble. So I always felt the need to hide. Not belittle myself, but kind of…
HALE: I mean, the big difference between Threads and this new record is that Threads is covered by a lot of shit — the sound of it is very dark and wet and hidden. In a cool way, but the new stuff is very much…
DALAGER: Out in the open.
HALE: We’re not afraid to have some happy moments and be excited. Threads was obviously important to us and I think it’s a cool record and I love it, but I think with that one we felt like we needed to be a certain type of band to make our way into some sort of cool…
DALAGER: I don’t feel that at all.
DALAGER: No, I feel like we were doing what was natural to us at the time. It was whatever came out was what came out. There was no thinking about anything. I mean, we really thought about the individual parts, but there was no structure to the songs that really made any sense. We didn’t know much about songwriting…
HALE: I think it made that record special…
DALAGER: …to not follow certain formulas or whatever. I think that can be really cool, but it was almost like we weren’t allowing certain things to do what they wanted to do just because. I didn’t feel pressure to make a weird record — it’s not even that weird — but I just wasn’t thinking about it the same way.
HALE: Making this record, I think we had it in the back of our minds that we can brush the pop line, but we still had to make it feel genuine and special. So I think that way of thinking is still parallel to Threads… Does that make sense? You’re giving me a look…
DALAGER: No, I just feel differently about it than you do. I think we had different experiences with the same thing. I don’t feel concerned about genre. You’re saying “brush it,” like we can’t cross a line because that’s a dangerous path…
HALE: I guess that wasn’t quite the right way to say it. I think it’s just that, with this record, we were exploring pop structure and style, but with an underlying grounding of the two of us in terms of….
DALAGER: …taking a formula but staying true to ourselves at the same time. Not: What would anyone else do in this situation? But what would we do that’s different from what someone else would do? To not copy-and-paste the same thing. Because I feel like when you start to copy-and-paste is when it starts to lose meaning. Not to veer off the formula for the sake of it — because I think the formula is great and that’s important — but just to make sure that you’re giving it heart in every piece of it. And also not be scared to interrupt the formula as well.
HALE: I guess what we’re saying is that we feel very free to do what we like and what we want.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s interesting to see a band develop over time and watch them learn that being direct isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that getting the most out of a song and not willfully obscuring it can sometimes be more skillful than hiding underneath a bunch of layers. How do you guys feel like your creative relationship has developed in response to that?
HALE: I mean, we’ve known each other for 15 years now. And not long after we met each other, we started writing together somehow. Not even creatively but personally, we understand each other and how we work. We’re really good at resolving conflict when it happens. I think that’s maybe one of the most important things. If we disagree about something, we’ll get upset about it for like, a minute, and then we’ll get over it and keep going and figure it out. I think that after knowing someone for that long, we don’t really have to think about what we like or what we wanna do — we just do it.
DALAGER: I feel like we have such a natural creative process. When we’re feeling something, we’re both feeling it. We just lock in.
HALE: I think what’s developed over time is our personal skills. She’s really focused on her songwriting, I really focus on production. But the closeness of us has been there for a really long time. Since we started recording songs, I don’t really feel differently.
DALAGER: It feels the same.
HALE: Something crazy just happened where we work together really well.
DALAGER: It is strange. It’s special. It’s the kind of thing that I feel doesn’t make sense to anyone else. Anyone else that’s in the room is like… What? It’s hard for people to understand our relationship — our friendship and our creative partnership — because we’re so completely unfiltered with each other that it may seem really tense, but it’s just us being as honest as possible with each other. It’s hard for two people in any sort of relationship to be honest all of the time, and I feel like that’s something we’ve always done, for better or for worse. We just go there instantly in the moment. And I think that’s why we work so well together and have been friends for this long. I don’t ever feel like… Brad and I are locked in for life. I don’t have any concern about one day when Brad and I won’t work together. That’s not even a possibility.
STEREOGUM: Fifteen years is a long time… You’ve been doing this for almost half of your life. How have your dynamics changed when other people entered the band? In terms of Jess [Abbott, their guitarist for eight years] leaving the band… What happened with that? Did it solidify the relationship between the two of you?
HALE: That whole thing happened pretty naturally. She’s always been really good at what she does, and it was good for her to be able to go off and focus on it. Through that, it just showed us that the two of us have a thing… I don’t want to discount what we did with Jess because obviously it was great and did something really special for us, but for the two of us, it was cool to go back to how we started. Outside of Jess, even, with us working with other people… We’ve learned in a lot of different ways that we have this thing together and that’s what we need to keep focused on.
DALAGER: For us to be in a happy and healthy writing environment, we just need Brad and I. It’s hard for anyone else to be in that situation. It’s harder for us and harder for them because what we have is so developed already. With someone else involved, we can’t do the sort of thing where we say No, I don’t like this because it hurts their feelings. Which is totally understandable, but it feels like more work and more energy when you have to tip-toe around each other. It’s harder when there are other people in the mix because it’s more people to please and more people to emotionally take care of. Unless you’re going into a situation with the mindset of everyone’s being open here and no one’s feelings are getting hurt — and there are obviously situations where you can go into it like that — but for this project it’s hard for someone else to be involved and it’s harder for us because it’s tough… This is what we have.
HALE: I think we really learned that on this record. We gained a lot of confidence back. Being gone for three or four years and having people ask what was going on with the album constantly is really degrading on your mind.
DALAGER: It’s a lot of pressure. it makes you feel like you’re not doing anything when we were literally writing every day, all day. We would wake up and try to write and we would get nothing done. We’d have so many ideas… hundreds of ideas…
HALE: So to have people on the outside being like, What the fuck are you doing? You’re just sitting at home. It was hard. We started to work on stuff in a studio, but we finished the whole thing in a basement at our house. I think that going into the studio was a necessary psychological thing for us to do to realize we didn’t want that…
DALAGER: That’s where we started writing together… in Brad’s parent’s basement. That’s where we started writing together, and that’s where we did the majority of this album after realizing that the studio environment wasn’t right for us at that moment… So much of this was circumstantial. I don’t think being in a studio is necessarily bad for us. I just think that, at the time, being where we were emotionally, it was something we didn’t need. We just needed us two to be free of anything else, anyone else.
HALE: Put us somewhere where there’s no one, then we’ll be productive. Don’t talk to us for a year and we’ll probably get a record done. But we’re already writing new songs, so… I think we’re being proactive about it this time, which feels really good. We worked through all the mental blockages that were going on.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about the new album? How is it a progression from Threads?
DALAGER: The emotion is still genuine to who we are, and I think that’s the most important thing. We knew that when we put out “SGL,” there would be a certain group of fans that would say, This is too polished for me, this is too clean and poppy. But those same people are now like, I didn’t really like it at first, but now I can’t stop listening to it. Because it’s still so naturally us. It’s not like we were like, How do we write the perfect pop song right now?
HALE: That song came out so naturally, really fast… That was the first song we finished. “SGL” is a good bridge into this record because it’s got a really solid pop structure. That’s the thing about this record: There’s a lot of pop influence happening on it, but it still feels like us. Her voice is very unique, of course, but the depth of emotion is the same… It’s deeper, even.
DALAGER: I feel more emotional about this album than I have about anything we’ve ever written. I feel so connected to these songs because it was so honest. It goes back to trying not to cover up the feelings you have or bury them underneath anything else. The lyrics to “SGL” are so simple. But I meant them. It wasn’t just about what fits where, it was about exactly what I feel. This is what I would say to someone… it’s words that I said. I feel like I’ve gained so much more confidence with my voice, understanding how to use it in a way that makes me happy and feel good about it. I’ve never felt that way before.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like there’s a more electronic influence on the new songs?
HALE: There’s a good mix. I feel like we’ve always had a hint of electronic stuff in the mix, but this record is a little more thought-out in that regard. I feel like I’m treating the electronic stuff the same way that I would an actual instrument, as opposed to ooh, I have a computer and I can do anything I want.
DALAGER: Exactly… we’d think about what the stereotypical electronic beat would be, and we tried to do something different from just what anyone else would do.
HALE: That was one of the things that took the longest because we wanted to make sure that every part was doing something important. We didn’t want to just throw things on there.
DALAGER: A lot of our older stuff was just layers on layers. It was a wall of things, which is cool, but for this one we wanted every piece to have its own place to live and have its own special moment. We tried to simplify it as much as possible.
STEREOGUM: The new material sort of reminds me of the transition that Tegan And Sara and Paramore made within the last few years… I’m not sure what it is about the kind of songwriting that you all do, but it translates very well to gauzy, poppy, ’80s-inspired music that’s still very guitar-based.
HALE: Yeah, I don’t know… It’s funny because when we first started writing for this record, we were like, no guitars!
DALAGER: Any time we tried to add a guitar, I hated it. I was like, ugh, get it away.
HALE: We had to find the right way to bring them back in. And I think it was necessary because once we found it… It was really good to get “SGL” done and be like, oh, this feels right. And after that, it opened up. It was like, oh, I can try a guitar thing. And then more and more, it started happening. With the electronic stuff, we just wanted to make sure it was doing something emotional and making something feel a certain way. I was really concerned about the “no guitar” thing at first. I was really freaked out… I was like, No one’s gonna like us if we don’t have guitars. I was so in my head about it. We’re gonna have no guitars, there’s gonna be beat production, and what’s everyone gonna think? I think we needed to go way over there and then come back, and now here we are. I wish the album was out…
DALAGER: I really wish it was out.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any updates on that?
HALE: We’re still figuring it out.
DALAGER: It’s a process.
HALE: Everyone’s excited about it. It’s just about making sure what we do is the right thing.
STEREOGUM: What are your hopes for this album? What do you want to get out of it?
HALE: I think I’m already getting what I’ve longed for in the past. We’ve never done a headlining tour, so we’ve never really been able to fully experience people being there for you.
DALAGER: That support from people… I’ve never felt that. It’s energizing us. Seeing that people are excited… that just gets me more amped. I want to keep slowly creeping up, leveling up gradually. I don’t think it will happen, but I don’t ever want to get to a point where we go from here to here — I want to be slow and steady because I want this to last. I want this to be a strong thing that just keeps growing. I want to get better at songwriting and have even more control of my voice. But with this album, I just want to reach as many people as we can and continue growing… That’s my biggest thing.
“SGL” is out now.