This past summer, Portland rock band The Domestics were gearing up for the release of their hotly anticipated sophomore record, “Little Darkness.” The group had made a splash in the local music scene with their self-titled album two years prior and built up a solid following on the back of their impressive live shows. For the new album, the band worked with sought-after producer Tucker Martine and were picked up by prominent local label Tender Loving Empire. It seemed like everything was falling into place.
Then, it all went awry.
A publicity stunt tied to the new album was poorly received (to put it mildly) and engulfed the band in a minor national news scandal. A more cynical group of musicians might have embraced the attention, but The Domestics were seemingly mortified. As we learned in our interview with the band’s songwriters Leo London and Michael Finn, despite conventional wisdom, they firmly believe that not all news is good news.
In the end, the band chose to literally start over with the release of “Little Darkness.” A new release date was chosen, and Tender Loving Empire, the label who helped orchestrate the stunt, issued an apology and agreed to void their contract with the band.
Although it happened a little later than we originally anticipated, The Domestics eventually joined us at OPB this fall and played some of the new songs from “Little Darkness.” It was a lively set with absolutely no drama. Well, except f0r the lyrics — the record is dripping with nostalgia and breakups.
Watch videos from the performance above, listen to the songs (and download MP3s), and read our full email exchange interview with the band below.
Audio Recording/mixes: Steven Kray
Editor: Nate Sjol
Videographers: Nate Sjol, Sam Smith
Interview: Jerad Walker
Executive Producer: David Christensen
Interview With Leo London And Michael Finn
Jerad Walker: Michael and Leo — You recorded and produced your debut record, but this time you handed the wheel to producer Tucker Martine and went to his studio, Flora Recording and Playback. Michael, you’ve worked there as an engineer, assisting Tucker for several years now. What was it like to bring your own project into the building?
Michael Finn: It’s the most rewarding process I’ve ever been a part of. Getting to apply everything I had learned in my time spent working with Tucker to this project that Leo and I had already poured so much into felt like the culmination of a half-decade spent learning what makes albums work. I feel so grateful Tucker took a chance on me way back then and that it turned into us making this record exactly the way it needed to be.
Leo London: We recorded our S/T album at Flora as well but on the midnight shift. Tucker is a good friend and outstanding producer. I think something beneficial about working with him at his studio is the knowledge of how to get the sounds we wanted. When we did our first LP we weren’t sure what we wanted to sound like yet. We weren’t even going to sing but we didn’t find someone else before the recording date arrived so we did it ourselves.
Now we know what we like better after spending years together working. We have an affinity for blown out compressors, synthetic strings from the 60s and 70s, baritone guitar with washout Dick Dale verb, tape loops and counterpoint drum samples. All stuff Tucker is into, too. So it made sense. We are still in debt for going that route but the result is a very shiny record that still has an interesting sonic imprint. It was like the best worst two months of my life.
Walker: Was it hard for you guys to let go at times?
London: Not at all. I mean Tucker isn’t the kinda artist that’s gonna say no you can’t do something. He very much just gets pumped and you chase the sound together. There were only two fights during the whole process.
One quarrel regarding who would sing on a song that didn’t even make the album and whether or not “Going Down The Wrong Way” guitar hook would play for two measures or four measures. I didn’t win and I threatened to quit the band and burn the tapes. Just kidding. I pouted for two minutes and moved on.
Finn: You only didn’t win because I actually threatened to quit the band and burn the tapes. And thanks to that decision that song has made us 17 dollars and 84 cents on Spotify [at press time].
Walker: There’s a strong current of nostalgia running through the lyrics on this album, as well as obvious references to failed relationship. For instance, “For the Last Time” is about the exact moment when a relationship goes on the rocks. Correct me if I’m wrong — Leo and Michael — I read that this was written while you both were going through breakups?
London: I wrote “For The Last Time” driving home from work one night. I only had the verses for a while. My friend Jen told me a story about how she smoked pot with her Dad at a Destiny’s Child concert so I would tease her with the main chorus lyric to what in mind was more of a My Bloody Valentine riff. I would make up alternate lyrics like “we could shoot speed to Lou Reed” “we could snort blow to De La Soul” you know for fun. Then it evolved with the “For the last time lyric.” It’s also about substance abuse.
Sometimes it’s going to be the last time if you keep partying. The song “Love That Dress” is about my friend who died from drugs. The original lyric in that one was self-edited from “the band was shooting up in the garage with the ladies” to “the band was tuning up in the garage with the ladies”. I don’t know why I changed it. Maybe I didn’t think the label would get behind that. I regret changing it now. But yeah Mike and I both went through breakups during the writing and recording of this record. Though it has a lot of that in it, sometimes the classic Loves Labors Lost song tactic is more of a parable regarding substance abuse or I don’t know something else.
Walker: Was it the plan all along to essentially write a breakup record — or did this just spontaneously come out during the writing process?
London: Lots of the meat of the album I wrote in a two week period. I think “Going Down The Wrong Way” and “Tunnels And Trains” were demoed in the same 24 hours. And that set the tone of what it would end up like. Simple lyrics with hardly any adjectives, dry vocals, drums loops, baritone and guitar riffs. We went so far to chase the demo on “Good Not Great” Mike and Tucker were talking about bouncing the original take and using it and I was like “dudes, I’m the guy that sang it. Let me try it out.”
Walker: Late last year you parted ways with your label Tender Loving Empire. They were initially supposed to release “Little Darkness” in September of 2016. But the marketing of the record went awry due to a bizarre publicity stunt that involved sending cassettes labeled “Trump/Comey tapes,” bearing a ton of Cyrillic print, out to music journalists with return addresses to groups like InfoWars, Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. Long story short — it understandably freaked out some people and garnered a lot of negative national media attention. And the label eventually released you from your contract at your request. Did the label tell you guys they were sending out these cryptic tapes?
Walker: Did they tell you about the return addresses?
Walker: How did you find out?
London: Same time as everyone else.
Finn: More precisely, about a half hour before the story broke.
Walker: How did this promo concept come about — it’s kind of mystifying because your music has very little to do with politics?
Finn: There’s been so much written and explained about this whole ordeal in the days and months surrounding it that at this point I feel like pointing fingers and dredging it all up again is only good for people who thrive off of being angry and those who benefit from that anger. It’s all out there, in our statement, Tender Loving Empire’s apology, and multiple national music news outlets, and we are gonna leave it at that.
Walker: In the end, do you think more people heard the record because of the mailing?
Finn: There’s no way to ever know how the record would have done without everything that transpired. What I do know is any small bump in Spotify traffic pales to the difficulty of having to preface an email addressed to a booker or label or venue with a link to a clarifying news article, not knowing what headline or fraction of the story if any at all reached them.
Walker: As a response to the fallout, you converted your record released party into a fundraiser for the Anti-Defamation League and the Multnomah County Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program. How many people showed up?
Finn: Over 200.
London: I voted for WIC because it was there for me before I was adopted and my birth parents were drug addicts. It felt good to be able to give something back.
Walker: Was that a cathartic moment?
Finn: It’s complicated. I thought we played really well and having Patti and Kyleen King playing strings on the balcony and Ryan Wiggans on Trumpet was really great. Tobin Tanner did a great job with the lights too. It felt intense, but the fact that after everything that had happened we were able to play to a packed room on a Tuesday night, that was a warm feeling.
London: I was still in shock from the scandal and I don’t think I had slept well for weeks. I was too in my own head to enjoy the night at all.
Walker: You have a track on the record called Good Not Great. It was written before this incident, but it reflects a certain exhaustion with the business side of the music industry. What was going on when you wrote that?
London: Many years ago I entered a contest to win some free recording time at a studio in New York owned by my friend Justin King. I did win which was a big surprise. The judges were all industry people and they all had blurbs they wrote about the music. There were a lot of nice things said and some so-so things said, but the last one just read “Good, not great.” So I held on to that line for a long time.
When you work with a label or PR company or any of that, naturally people bring up ideas about what you need to be doing. And then X, Y, Z you have a career or whatever. But when you are cleaning apartments and selling your guitar to keep afloat and MTV wants your material but doesn’t have a budget for music, you’re kinda like what the f**k bull***t business is this? Why did I follow my dreams? They’ve led me to financial ruin. But it’s not a choice. It’s what you do.
The bridge lyric is a reference to “Carry Me Back To Ol Virginy” by James B Bland, a songwriter who penned hundreds of songs and died penniless. The chorus lyrics are another nod to my buddy Scott who died — “All of your bad jokes no one will ever know.” It’s a song for songwriters. It’s an ode to the songwriters who passed before they had any recognition.
Walker: Has this experience hammered home any of those feelings?
London: Never trust anyone ever and don’t spend money you won’t make back. I’ll make records for free in my apartment and carve them into wax cylinders and break them in the street before I invest in another PR company to get a premiere in some distant European blog. “Oh yeah, that’ll be $2,000.” It’s bull***t. Don’t do it.
Walker: One final question. The cover image for “Little Darkness” is a portrait of you two by the artist Susan Sage. It’s a beautiful piece of art — she caught a lot of vulnerability. Why did you choose this?
Finn: Susan is one of my oldest friends from Portland and I love her dearly. Years ago at The Thing in Alsea (a festival thrown by Old Age in Alsea, Oregon) she helped me through a particularly unfortunate evening. This led to the idea of her painting a portrait of me holding my own severed head by the curls and laughing maniacally, to be titled “own worst enemy.” That one never worked out, but I’ve always wanted her to paint me and the cover felt like the perfect opportunity. She is not one for the sentimental but I’m sending her out a digital hug. Check out her work.