Crossword Smiles – Pressed & Ironed (Q&A)

CROSSWORD SMILES is a new band, and it’s a new sound even for the the deeply respected Michigan-based guitar-pop stalwarts at its core. The band was quietly formed two years ago by TOM CURLESS, formerly of Your Gracious Host and currently enjoying solo success, and CHIP SAAM, best known as the bassist for The Hangabouts and Curless’s backing band The 46%.

PRESSED & IRONED, release date September 16, is the band’s beautiful debut. No frills, just ten beautiful songs, with sharp lyrics, for example about how gossip and backbiting can shape relationships in small-town America.

The message of This Little Town is clear. I was curious if there was a specific reason to write the lyrics like this?

Tom Curless:  The lyrics were written by Chip so I will let him take this one. My favorite line is “where people talk behind the back of their hands”, as this represents all the gossip that often flies in every town across the USA, I am sure we have all experienced that, and I believe there is a lot of “Keeping up with the Joneses” in the lyric as well. The darker side of apparent idyllic suburban town life, that was my take on it, but Chip can expand further.

Chip Saam: The lyrics for this one were inspired by real life experiences with a town here in Michigan, although obviously it could be applied to places everywhere. It’s a commentary on the tried-and-true idea that just because things look great on the surface, it doesn’t mean there aren’t some awful things going on behind the scenes. According to some bandmates, I seem to be good for at least one story song for every record I’m involved in.

Perhaps, because there are musical similarities, I thought, it’s a little sneer at John Mellencamp’s glorification of little America. Nonsense?

TC: There was no sneer at John Mellencamp to my knowledge, musically we were going more for later era Go-Betweens on this one. However I never thought of it, but you are right at times it also sounds a little like something that could have been on Lonesome Jubilee!

CS: There was no intentional sneer at anyone, we are just not that sinister, Ha Ha! – I will say that fiddle part, which definitely has a John Mellencamp vibe, is something that both of us heard in our heads while writing the song – but it was an Amanda Brown thing from The Go-Betweens and not a Lisa Germano bit from a Mellencamp song.

I find the wonderful summery, almost mellow, atmosphere striking. Were you looking for a specific sound?

TC: We did have some intention of making a very direct, simple and “clean” record, and we started the majority of songs on acoustic guitar, so that had some influence. Let’s put it this way, the distortion pedals did not come out much on this record. Ha! We just wanted a very streamlined, direct and clean record as much as possible and I think we achieved that to an extent.

CS: First off, thank you for noticing! There was a deliberate attempt to make this a more direct sounding record. We had some specific ideas about keeping things relatively clean and uncomplicated. Some of the more atmospheric parts of the record are my favorite parts and the three main outside participants on the record – Joel Boyea, Greg Addington, and John Lowry – are responsible for some of them.

After I had heard the album ‘normally’ a few times, I listened to it through headphones during a walk through Utrecht. Then an extra world opens up with beautiful guitar melodies, soft harmony vocals and sharp lyrics. Is that a compliment or not?

TC:  I would say that is a compliment. There are a lot of layers of vocals and various things that slide in and out of the mix and I think you hear more of that when you immerse yourself in it with headphones. I would recommend that to everyone, headphone listens are the best!

CS: Definitely a compliment. While we wanted the record to be more direct, we also wanted listeners to discover things after 10 listens that they hadn’t heard before. Tom is an incredible singer – his layers of vocals with doubling and harmonizing are something magical to witness in the studio. The handful of guest guitar spots from Greg Addington and Joel Boyea were exactly what we asked of them – they’re real pros. Finally, anytime anyone notices lyrics, well, let’s just say that’s a songwriter’s dream listener.

How did the two of you collaborate to get the result that makes both of you happy?

TC: Making this record was easy and fun. Chip and I collaborated a lot on the writing, we would get together with guitars and either he would have the idea or it would be mine and we just chipped in here and there on each others songs. We were not too precious about it, whatever was best for the song. In the end we just called all of it co-writes because the majority of it was true collaboration. I want to say we had a lot of great “other” friends, musicians and collaborators who helped to make this record what it is: Joel Boyea recorded and mixed it beautifully, we recorded most of it in his living room! He also contributed some beautiful guitar work. Greg Addington also was a key contributor on a few tracks, acting as an engineer and helping us to record a few tracks. He jumped in and added some very key elements. Making this record was a great experience and I hope that comes out in the songs. Finally, we are so grateful to be part of the Big Stir label, Rex and Christina there work hard and are doing an excellent job with this record…it is in good hands. We are glad you are enjoying it!

CS: While each of the songs on the album started as an idea that one of us brought to the table, after that it was true collaboration. Musically especially, we bounced different song structures and ideas off each other in multiple songwriting sessions – this continued while we were in the studio recording the songs. For the most part, lyrics were left to the initial songwriter. Fortunately, we both checked our egos at the door and, I’d like to think, had the song’s best interest at heart. We’re both proud of these 10-songs and are glad that Big Stir Records is behind getting the music out to people.

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