April Smith and the Great Picture Show Release Stunning 'Songs for a Sinking Ship'
It's hard to translate the energy and fun of a live show into a polished studio recording, but April Smith and the Great Picture Show have done just that. Their fan-funded debut album, Songs for a Sinking Ship, is chock full of toe-tapping retro pop with a decidedly modern spin. Smith's voice is a force to be reckoned with, and comparisons have already been made with everyone from Ann Wilson to Gwen Stefani.
As of late, the Brooklyn-based quintet has been everywhere—from winning A Prairie Home Companion's Battle of the Bands to having their music featured in Paste Magazine and on Showtime.
LAist caught up with Smith earlier this week to learn about some of the band's unique instruments, their history of cursed tour buses, and their gig Thursday night at the Hotel Cafe.
LAist: According to your website, you've been soliciting auditions for people to "play the suitcase" on this tour. How long have you personally been playing the Samsonite?
April Smith: A couple years ago, I'd just written "Colors" and really wanted to record it—just so I could capture the idea of the song and let people hear it. Unfortunately, I didn't have a drum set or any other percussion, so I just looked around my apartment and saw the suitcase. It sounded surprisingly good, and I really liked the tone. In addition to the demo, we ended up using it as the kick beat on the studio version of "Colors."
April Smith and the Great Picture Show - "Colors"
Did you use any other unconventional instruments in that song? I heard there was a saucepan somewhere in the mix.
Yeah, there's a "saucepan in the key of D" on the album. At the time of the recording, we were at our producer Dan Romer's house and he asked, "What kinds of sounds do you want?"
I said, "I really like the sound of a saucepan with a wooden spoon." So we used one he had in his kitchen.
How did your music style evolve the day you wrote the song "Wow and Flutter"?
It changed everything. I was more pop-rock before, then I wrote "Wow and Flutter" a couple years back, and it just spiraled into a new writing style.
When I wrote the song, it definitely didn't fit with what I'd written before. I sidelined it for a while because I didn't want to confuse people, but then I really wanted to start introducing it into my sets. So instead of being so self-conscious, I just started writing, and most of the songs on this album came out of that.
I guess—subconsciously at first—I evolved as a writer and started taking a different turn. I'm pretty excited about it and I think a lot of it is just due to the fact that I've always been influenced by big band and swing.
As soon as you finished writing "Stop Wondering" did you immediately know that you wanted to end the album with that "Bitch, please" line?
I didn't—it was just a funny comic interlude. I didn't realize it would get as big as it did. That's a really popular song in the live set. Once we play that song, people are generally with us.
As you were putting the album together, were there any last-minute surprises?
The song "What'll I Do" was a last-minute addition. I'd written it years before and didn't think I'd ever record it. I sent it to a couple people and asked what they thought of it, and the feedback was really positive. So we went for it. It turned out even better than I'd hoped, so I'm really glad we included that track.
Weeds promo featuring "Terrible Things"
"Terrible Things" has been used in both Californication and Weeds promos, and you've said that the inspiration for the song was the show Dexter. Any chance it may be used on Dexter so you can get a Showtime hat trick?
I don't know. That would be really cool though. I'm a big fan of all those shows—Californication, Weeds, Dexter—and a couple more such as Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara. I almost feel like Showtime is in my head a little bit.
Because their characters have such good and evil sides to them. They do some really unsavory things, but you can't help but root for them. That speaks to me because I like to write with a little bit of dichotomy, and I think their characters speak to that part of me.
Your music seems to translate well to TV—and I imagine that'd also be the case with films. Given your band name and songs such as "Movie Loves a Screen," are you a film buff?
Definitely. I love TV, I love film and I love literature. I'm very much inspired by all different forms of art. I think I watch too much, but I'm OK with that, because it often inspires me. Being a TV junkie has its benefits.
Who's your favorite movie director?
I'm especially a fan of Wes Anderson. I love his work. Just his use of color is really inspiring and it's so important in his work. Plus it's easy to fall in love with his characters and his stories. It would be so amazing to someday have a song in one of his films.
"Bright White Jackets"—the bonus track for those who buy the iTunes version of the album—is very cinematic.
That was inspired by the Michel Gondry movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combined with a bunch of other references. It was a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon perfect for putzing around the house with the TV on in the background. That day I saw Eternal Sunshine, Girl, Interrupted and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and they all spurred that song.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I love Edgar Allan Poe. That's probably a little obvious. I love writers such as Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris and Dave Eggers for their sarcasm and outrageous stories.
In reading through your tweets from the past year, it seems you could've written a book about the band's many tour bus adventures and frustrations. How many buses have you had and what did you name them?
I think we went wrong when we started naming them and giving them their own personalities. I think they took on lives of their own and started sabotaging us.
Back in 2006 or 2007, we had Mrs. Garrett. She was the tour van, and she eventually broke down.
Then we had Mr. Belvedere. He was a diesel bus that was converted to run on vegetable oil. But the thing is, certain engines and injection pumps are really temperamental, so you have to really do your research. Going into it, I thought that his particular engine and injection pump were going to be good for the conversion, but it ended up being exactly the opposite. So we sold him to a farm.
After that, we inherited Norman the RV from another band. He was old, worn out and evil.
I've just recently bought a Wanderlodge and it's a bigger tour bus. We've decided not to name it and I think that'll help, though we've already encountered some issues. You always have to work out the gremlins during an initial run with a bus like this, and I think taking it on a 3,000-mile tour—and not really breaking it in—was probably not the best idea. But I've always jumped into things.
I think this one might be OK, though I do feel like maybe in a past life, I did something really awful to one of the auto inventors. Maybe I pushed Rudolf Diesel off a ship, because I'm paying for it in this life with all of these car problems.
Is it true that a priest offered to perform an exorcism on Norman? And that the new bus was blessed with holy water?
Yes, but even though the new one was blessed, it still broke down, so I don't know. I just have really bad luck. Maybe it's me. Perhaps on the next tour, we should just go the horse and buggy route.
What's one thing you've learned about each of the guys in the band as you've traveled around the country?
Marty O'Kane [lead guitar]: I've learned that Marty is incredibly well-spoken and extremely polite. He's our most eloquent member. He's also a writer and the king of one-liners—always making us laugh.
Stevens [bass]: When it comes to Stevens, nothing can light up his face like a really fine beef jerky. He may look serious, but when you watch him discover a new brand of beef jerky, he's in heaven. That's the way to Stevens' heart.
Nick D'Agostino [drums]: Nick is probably one of the most intelligent guys I know. He's always reading. If we're soundchecking and there's a lull, he's always reading a book. He soaks everything up like a sponge, and if he recommends something, it's great.
Ray Malo [keys]: Ray is our newest member. This is his first tour with us and I've learned that he's really funny. I didn't expect him to be this funny and I didn't expect to get to know him so quickly, but it feels like he's been with us a long time.
I did. That very night, I met a fan who was looking to adopt another cat, so she now has a new home in New Jersey.
How many animals do you have at home?
I have two cats and a dog, all rescues. My two cats live with my mom because my man is allergic to cats, so they can't live with us. But I visit them all the time and my parents absolutely love them. My dog, a border collie mix, lives with me in Brooklyn and she's the most wonderful dog ever.
I miss her so much on tour. She stays with my parents when I go on the road, and my mom sends me little videos and pictures of the animals.
Although you're touring a ton, have you already started working on your next album?
Yeah, absolutely. I've been writing and I think I have a good batch of songs, though I'd like to do a live album before we record another full one.
Your fans funded Songs for a Sinking Ship through the Kickstarter.com website. Do you think you'll go that route for the next one?
I don't know. The Kickstarter experience for me was the best thing that could have happened. I love the website and I love the company. I think they know exactly what they're doing and they really try to give each project equal attention and support. So if I were going to do something like that again, I'd absolutely go through Kickstarter.
Your fans really showed a lot of love, to the point that you even exceeded your goal!
Absolutely. And even when people couldn't give money—which was, of course, understandable—they helped spread the word, and that was just as valuable as a pledge.
They helped us get so many new fans, and you can't put a price tag on stuff like that. You may make 10 fans for life through one person, and that's really a generous thing when a person reaches out to their friends to say, "I believe in this artist and think you should check them out."
Your songs have been everywhere from TV promos and a Macy's commercial to the Paste sampler CD—all without the backing of a record label. Do you have any advice for up-and-coming bands?
I would say to meet as many people as you can and prepare yourself to work hard. We were able to get the support of some really great people and organizations—like NPR, which gave us "song of the day" earlier this year. Plus were on the Paste sampler in February.
Then we did A Prairie Home Companion's Battle of the Bands back in April and we ended up winning. That was a huge launch for us, because public radio listeners in general have very discerning taste, so it's nice to be accepted and supported by that crowd.
You just need to tour as much as you can and keep building your audiences and making friends with bands you enjoy playing with. It's all about relationships and you have to respect everyone from the booking agent to the venue owner to the sound guy.
April Smith and the Great Picture Show - Tour video featuring "Movie Loves a Screen"
You'll return to Los Angeles this week to play the Hotel Cafe for the first time. What's one of your favorite places to visit when you're in town?
I love to visit McCabe's. I've played there twice and I love that place. There's something about playing among all those beautiful guitars and instruments that makes for a good show. The first time I played there, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were at the show. I got to meet them and they were really nice and supportive—they even bought a CD!
I'm also really looking forward to the Hotel Cafe gig, because I've heard so may incredible things about that venue.
Thanks for speaking with LAist, April!
Don't miss April Smith and the Great Picture Show at the Hotel Cafe this Thursday night (June 17) at 8 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door. Hear more of April Smith and the Great Picture Show's music at www.aprilsmithmusic.com.