By Dustin Lothspeich
“Muses are all around us. My job is to abuse the muse.”
Andrew Mills, frontman and chief songwriter behind the San Diego alt-rock quintet Barbarian, isn’t at a loss for words when it comes to inspiration. Writing anything can be a chore — you should see how long I anxiously struggled with the dizzying blank space of this article before eventually getting started — and, as most wordsmiths know, sometimes they don’t exactly come easy. Mills, however, has been blessed with an uncanny ability to find that creative spark pretty much anywhere.
“I constantly write and vomit thoughts,” he explained. “And I feel we all have such a vast peripheral view that we constantly absorb like sponges. A song is like a puzzle for me and only after it’s completely done will I sit back and try to define it myself, if I do at all.”
It’s a good thing too because Barbarian’s debut full-length album, “Night Blooms,” ain’t exactly easy to define. Recorded and co-produced with Jon Greene (also the band’s bassist) at Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree (where artists such as Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, Vic Chestnutt and Mark Lanegan have worked) over the last year or so, the record is a nine-song, 36-minute opus of eclectic post-rock/pop. While it has a similar feel to the band’s 2013 debut EP, “City of Women,” Mills and co. have definitely upped the ante the new release.
For a quintet (also comprised of guitarist Seton Edgerton, keyboardist Dan Nichols, and drummer John Heger) that was tapped to join Bat For Lashes on a North American tour two years ago, and were handpicked to open the sold-out Arctic Monkeys show at San Diego State’s Open Air Theatre last August, this record may very well be exactly what they need to propel them from “premier San Diego band” to an in-demand national act.
And that’s no small feat. For every track crammed with hip shaking disco beats and frenetic energy, there are just as many awash in solemn gothic beauty. “Night Blooms” swerves from the singalong, after-party pop sway of “Last Call Withdrawal” and the horns-fueled drug den vibe of “Pheromoans” to the croaky, fuzz rock pulse of “Into Thin” and the Mobius loop build of “Lonely Mountains.” Unsurprisingly, Mills admits to listening to a wide range of music — some of which made its way onto the new album.
“[I listen to] everything from Scott Walker to Swans to Sharon Van Etten to minimal electronica and techno, so it’s definitely across the board,” Mills said. “I feel, as humans, we borrow from those things that inspire us, whether it’s to dance or write or cook or design spacecrafts. If you soak enough up, some’s going to drip out … I think I was listening to more and more of the dancier side of the ’80s post-punk stuff: Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Jesus and Mary Chain, and the stuff I was demoing just felt energetic but not biting … still original, so it felt right.”
With each track seemingly inhabiting its own universe, it’s a wonder that “Night Blooms” works as an album at all. But by using such a broad spectrum of head-turning melodies, dance floor-ready grooves and liberal combinations of campy and darkly confessional lyrical content, the schizophrenic mood swings and myriad sonic textures unfold in an expansive cinematic scope — one that the band deliberately set out to capture on tape.
“I was a film major for awhile and have always loved cinema so I tend to start with mood and ambiance when it comes to the music,” the singer explained. “I also have a love of pop and I am a hopeless romantic — but also have some strange odds and ends so I guess that’s where the pop sensible hooks come into play with the sick-and-twisted love song lyrics. It’s honest.”
A true headphone delight, it’s easy to get lost in the plethora of styles. How many albums exist that feature both a midnight hour slow jam sex romp with a burly, “Careless Whisper”-style saxophone solo (“Mourning Sickness”) and a shimmering, acoustic duet (“Hot Climates”) that takes more than one starry-eyed cue from The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”? Not many, that’s for sure — although amusingly enough, Mills is quick to admit that he would’ve plagiarized that entire ’80s hit if he had the chance.
“Immediately after laying down the demo in my room I was like, ‘This is great but it’s a rip off of The Church, Echo & the Bunnymen, Jesus and Mary Chain, the ‘Donnie Darko’ soundtrack’ … and the first lyric of the melody is ‘Sometimes’ just like ‘Under the Milky Way,’” Mills explained. “But … it turned out to be more of an homage to that era rather than a rip off. I don’t know anyone who plays bagpipes [laughs] or I would have completely ripped it.”
“Night Blooms” is not only tied together by the band’s wistful, youthful urgency, but by Mills’ fearlessness. Throughout, he defiantly trades lost love (“I’m doing all those things you promised that we’d do / Not doing them with you”), disillusionment (“I’m shattered like a shot glass filled with no hope / Shattered like the American Dream we bought and sold”) for the unburdened physical connection of sex (“I can’t complain / The way you take all night and keep me up all morning”). Whatever works, right?
Regardless of the narrative, it’s safe to say that as Mills evolves, so does Barbarian. When he sings, “Waste your time / You’ll never notice where you’re going’s not the focus,” in “Last Call Withdrawal,” it’s one of the few universal truths: The journey is, in fact, all that really matters. For now, the frontman seems satisfied with the band’s future and the brand new record — which was released on Jan. 30 and comes to life at the band’s big record release party at The Casbah on Feb. 12.
“We had an amazing time making this record and took a lot of risk and experimentation but it paid off,” Mills said. “I think [the album] invokes different things in different people and grows over listens. I can’t ask for more than that.”
—Contact Dustin Lothspeich at firstname.lastname@example.org.