Some people write great songs about larger-than-life things; on their new album If a Band Plays in the Woods…? The Philistines Jr. write about things that are exactly the same size as life: litterbug neighbors, unruly pets, broken cable service. "Write about what you know," explains Philistines mainman Peter Katis. "So I write about my brothers and writing songs and home life and recording our band and other people's bands." But the feat here is that it all adds up to something moving, inspiring, and maybe even a little profound. And you can hum along with it too.
The Philistines Jr. are brothers Peter and Tarquin Katis along with drummer Adam Pierce (Mice Parade) and an ever-expanding extended musical family. There's a good reason why the album title asks, if a band plays in the woods, do they exist? The Philistines Jr. have been playing in the woods of suburban Connecticut for 20 years, making charming, smart, even visionary music that has never seemed to catch a break. It's not for nothing that the band titled one early EP The Continuing Struggle of… "We got a great review in the Trouser Press Record Guide," Peter recalls. "And when the NY Press reviewed the book, they wrote 'And marvel at all the space given to struggling nobodies Philistines Jr.' Ouch. We've always had an underdog mentality."
Actually, in recent years Peter has gained some fame as an in-demand producer, having produced acclaimed records for Interpol, The National, Jónsi (of Sigur Ros), Frightened Rabbit, Tokyo Police Club, Mates of State, the Swell Season, Fanfarlo, Jukebox the Ghost and many others. No wonder the album sounds so gorgeous. But it's also the reason the record took so long to make. As Peter notes, "If you work on a record three days a year, it takes about ten years!" Peter wrote all the songs (along with Tarquin) and plays most of the instruments on the album — and no, that's not a fat lady singing on the exquisite title track, it's session ace Rob Schwimmer on the Theremin (and piano).
As with most Philistines Jr. albums, the music mixes rock instrumentation, vibraphone and glockenspiel, and electronic sounds like a half-broken sequencer, a cheap Casio keyboard, or the legendary Dewanatron, here played by its co-inventor Leon Dewan. In keeping with the lyrical themes, the sound is quietly radical — listen to the subtle but epic shift from keyboards to guitars on the majestic "B." "When I appreciate things for being weird," says Peter, "they're not obviously weird."
The album's ominous opening, with its definitively spooky strings, sounds like the part in an old horror movie where the ghoul is about to pounce on an unususpecting victim; it quickly gives way to a sun-lit, Xanax-fueled waltz about how the cable TV doesn't work and the band isn't going anywhere. But that specific, even pedestrian imagery swells out into something universal — every day, everybody feels the same way about something. Or as Peter sings, "the theme stays the same/ with the notes and words rearranged."
The guy who's frustrated by people honking their horns ("The Bus Stop Song") is the same guy who doles out heartfelt wisdom to his child ("Tarquin's Half-Assed Mission Statement"); he's the same guy who indulges in a Walter Mittyesque fantasy ("If I Did Nothing But Train for Two Years, I Bet I Could Be in the Olympics") and he's the same guy who reels in horror and disgust at burgeoning neo-McCarthyism ("Working Title: The Mob"), and feels relieved when his brother doesn't have to go off to war ("My Brother Tom, the Green Beret"). He's a guy who cares a lot, and when he starts to think people suck, his bitterness is mixed with a generous dose of melancholy. "These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be happy," Peter says. "And many times I've figured out the secret of happiness — but then the next day it's gone. You've got to keep rediscovering it. And that idea is in the record, even in the instrumentals. It doesn't have to be a song with words to get that idea across."
Maybe you'll hear echoes of the pretty and finely wrought songcraft of Sufjan Stevens or the wistful, digital-flavored yearning of the Postal Service, but the fact is, Peter has never really delved into either of those. If a Band Plays in the Woods…? stems more from the Cars' sleek pop, '60s exotica like Martin Denny, the dramatic juxtapositions of soundtrack maestro Bernard Herrmann, New Order, the spartan sorrow of Erik Satie, the righteous power of Fugazi, the plainspoken musings of Jonathan Richman. Years ago, Peter absorbed Pet Sounds and that's in there too. "The Beach Boys are often overtly playful but with a very heavy underlying melancholy," he says. "Which I think is very much what our band is. To me, sadness in a song means power and beauty — not a crushing sadness, but a hopeful sadness." Which is why a song called "Hell No, We Won't Go" can sound forlorn, or why Katis can sing words as defiant as "All day, all night/We'll stay and fight" and make them sound resigned.
There's probably a little of the Who's rock opera Quadrophenia in there too. See, the Philistines often make what can loosely be called concept albums, like 1995's The Sinking of the SS Danehower, which suggested an analogy between a sunken submarine and the band's lack of success. "I've always found it fun to make records that aren't random collections of songs," Peter says. "We've always reworked musical or lyrical themes and extended them across the album. If you've got a good idea, why waste it on just one song?"
Here, it's the motif which goes, "Hey, hey, it's the end of the world again/ Here we are, just waiting for everything to end" — it's funny how one can take something like excessive car honking as a harbinger of the downfall of civilization. And each time that theme comes around again, it has a different resonance. In "Tarquin's Half-assed Mission Statement," it has a moving ring of mortality. But that "again" is key — the truth is, there have been plenty of times when a lot of people were convinced the end was nigh, and yet the world has gone on. By the end of the album, the theme seems to suggest that we all depend on a little drama to keep life interesting
What does Peter hope people feel when the last song on the album is over? "I hope it makes them kind of sad," he says. "But it's all right to be sad. Life is sad and life is hard. But it's also really good."
And finally, to quote a voiceover by Peter and Tarquin's dad on a previous record: "...and so the Philistines Jr. continue to write songs only about themselves, further alienating their listeners and annoying their friends."