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On “I’m Selfish And So Is My Cat,” The August Teens make generous power-pop

The Madison band’s members discuss their long-delayed second album.

The Madison band’s members discuss their long-delayed second album.

Image: Detail from the album cover, by David Esmond.

The August Teens spent 10 years finishing their second album, I’m Selfish And So Is My Cat, released in May. Like the Madison power-pop band’s 2010 debut album A Kiss In Wisconsin, the new record puts vulnerability and humor in the foreground. In between the two albums, singer/guitarist/songwriter Dan Hardgrove dealt with some voice problems, and bassist Kyle Urban (also known as Kyle Motor, and known for his work in Rocket Bureau, The Motorz, and as a studio engineer) gradually refined the mix in his home studio. Guitarist David Esmond and drummer Josh Labbus worked with Hardgrove and Urban to flesh out the arrangements around Hardgrove’s self-aware but guileless songwriting. They also took a seasonal detour to make 2013’s Sleigher, an instrumental Christmas record that accompanies the band’s tradition of annual holiday shows.

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I’m Selfish… fits in right alongside A Kiss In Wisconsin: On both, Hardgrove sings about people chronically stricken with loneliness and self-doubt. To pull off a song like “Dear Diary” (hell, even with the title “Dear Diary”), a person has to be comfortable having their heart on their sleeve, confident enough to embrace the tropes of confessional songwriting while staying grounded in a distinctive voice. The band’s sound strikes a corresponding balance: Hardgrove and Esmond’s guitar arrangements have their share of punch and volume but above all have a resourceful melodic flow. Labbus’ drums and Urban’s bass provide the songs with plenty of rousing buildups and feisty fills, but never overpower or distract—just listen to the way “Oh, Emily” moves from its burst of an opening to its bittersweet first verse. Another big constant with The August Teens’ songs is that they’re able to laugh at sad situations, but never in a bitter or mean way. On “Boo-Hoo Birthday,” for instance, Hardgrove makes himself (or at least the song’s shiftless narrator) the butt of the joke while leaving room for a genuine twinge of heartache: “I’ve worked so hard to get this cool / Why doesn’t everybody simply love me?” That said, there’s certainly nothing as gloriously silly here as A Kiss In Wisconsin‘s “Pizza In Your Heart” (on which Hardgrove sings, among other things: “Is there a donut in your soul / Or is there just a hole?”). 

The songs that really set I’m Selfish… apart from the previous album are the ones that focus on aging and the way our perspectives change with time. “Ten Years Older” looks back on what might have been a missed opportunity or just a younger man’s passing interest in an older woman, but it cuts a little deeper than the average game of what-if: “These days lots of people pass me by, the going’s getting tough / I work late feeling like I’m wasting time, and though I’m young enough / I’m feeling old and overgrown with nobody to call my own.” Over the sharply executed jangle of “Strum Echoes,” Hardgrove intertwines his dashed romantic hopes with a bit of local-music fatigue: “No one even cares, I shouldn’t feel so down / It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, it’s only one small town.” 

The most striking and restrained song here is “Old Friend,” which takes us care from the carefree joys of youth to a tangle of regrets: “I failed as a warrior / All discretion, no valor.” Usually an element of power-pop fun makes it into even the saddest August Teens songs, but here the band ventures a little further into darkness with a subtly clever chord progression. Hearing that baleful waltz puts everything else on the record in a slightly different light, even the flirtatious “You’re Not Like Me, Baby” and the giddy album closer “I’m In Love With Rock & Roll.”

Hardgrove, Urban, Labbus, and Esmond all talked with me via email recently about making the album and how The August Teens have both changed and stayed the same over the last decade.

Tone Madison: How do you think Dan’s songwriting and the band’s approach in general changed over the years you spent recording the album? From my point of view it builds nicely on what you did with A Kiss In Wisconsin, but I’m curious what jumps out at you now that it’s done.

Dan Hardgrove: Some of these songs were written a very long time ago. I wrote “Crestfallen” over 20 years ago, before I had even met the guys in The August Teens, and back then I wasn’t leaving much room for arrangement; every part was written. As I got to know this band, I tried to write towards everybody’s individual strengths and interests and to leave Dave, Josh, and Kyle space to embellish. These guys have better ideas than I have about how to round out a song. I think everyone in this band has a penchant for continuous improvement, and a couple of times we rejected a recording because we had already started playing it differently or wanted to play it better.

Josh Labbus: Dan knows actual music theory and talks about modes and stuff. He also mentioned writing a vocal part in a particular way because it allowed for using fourth intervals as “nobody uses those!” 

Kyle Urban: A couple of the songs are actually older than the stuff on A Kiss In Wisconsin. It’s a testament to how good Dan is at writing that he can continue to mine this stuff in such an approachable way—earnest without being cloying, very clever but never pretentious. Of the “newer” songs, a lot of them have really struck me lyrically. While mixing everything, so many of these songs have resonated with me more than ever before; even after many hours over multiple years mixing and listening to these songs, I never get sick of them. “Dear Diary,” “Summer Is On” and a few others have grown to the point that they feel very personal to me, even though I didn’t write them. 

As far as band approach, I don’t think much has changed except maybe Dan’s songs have expanded stylistically. There’s more range on this album. Dan usually has a solid idea of what he wants musically, and we play to that. Other times he has us run wild, or if somebody has a cool idea, it usually fits and we go with it. That’s Dave’s forte, he comes up with great parts the rest of us would never think of. Josh will come up with good rhythmic accents that keep us all tight, and I’ll shoehorn a harmony in wherever I can.

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Some of the older songs we saved for this album on purpose because of recording restrictions on A Kiss In Wisconsin. We did that album on my 8-track reel-to-reel, and although we were able to get some fairly layered stuff on there (I remember “Headstrong Girl” had some track bouncing to fit in everything we wanted), I wanted to wait with some songs to have different tracking capabilities. That worked two-fold, in that by the time we started recording this album, I had a real studio space with a great-sounding live room, and a nice 2″ 16-track tape machine at my disposal. The extra tracks gave us more control and ability to layer, especially on “(The Girl With The) Candy Heart.” Conversely, the wonderful live room allowed us to track some songs live in the studio (except vocals) to get the energy we felt they needed (“This Time” and “I’m In Love With Rock & Roll”). 

Recording to analog 2″ ended up becoming a bit of a liability when I had to leave the studio space and didn’t have a tape machine at the ready to work with. That was a major cause of delay for this album. The tape machine was loaned to me by my friend Kevin Peckham, and we later finished the overdubs on the same machine at his home studio. We tried mixing at Kevin’s, but I was never fully happy with the results, and that’s on me. Mixing on unfamiliar speakers combined with some lack of skills on my part led to mixes that sounded OK, but not as great as I knew they could. Several years later I purchased my own 2″ machine (thanks, Kevin!). Constantly recording other bands sharpened my skills, so I’m much better equipped to get what I want to hear out of a mix. I hate that it took so long, but I’m really happy with the results. 

Tone Madison: Were there any particular things you did here that felt like a stretch or a challenge? What do you think you managed to pull off here that you couldn’t have around the time you made A Kiss In Wisconsin?

Dan Hardgrove: “Backup Man” was a tough one for me personally. I am sort of country-music-challenged, and it shows, especially in my guitar solo. “(The Girl With The) Candy Heart” and “Strum Echoes” were difficult to mix because we wanted them to sound big, and we had a lot of guitar tracks to manage—more tracks than we had even imagined when working on A Kiss In Wisconsin.

Kyle Urban: I think “Old Friend” is probably the biggest stretch; Josh and I really had to make the rhythm section less busy than how we naturally play. “Backup Man” was a fun challenge; making a good country song. By the time we were recording the guitars for that, I’d been gigging with [Madison country band] The Brown Derby for a while, and had some clear ideas on how I thought the guitars should fit. I ended up playing the call-and-response leads during the verses, Dave played the first half of the solo, and Dan played the second half. You can really hear how their playing styles contrast, but mesh. 

Tone Madison: “Old Friend” does stand out to me, both because of the way the lyrics reflect on the past and because the song structure takes a lot of interesting turns. What were the origins of that song lyrically, and what was it like arranging it? 

David Esmond: As far as the arrangement of “Old Friend,” part of that comes out my weakness as a blues guitar player. Writing the parts in the verses came pretty naturally to me but the chorus was pretty much all Dan. I think as a band we each mesh very easily with each other, but that one is a good example of how each of us brings something a little different to the whole. On that one we just kinda each get a section by ourselves, unlike the other songs where we pretty naturally just mesh really easily and quickly.

Dan Hardgrove: “Old Friend” is the true story of a former roommate and friend. When I wrote it, I had lost touch with him, and I was feeling nostalgic. I can’t take credit for the arrangement; that was the work of the other August Teens.

Kyle Urban: Josh and I probably made it a little more of a dirge with our playing. I think some of the harmony vocals started with Josh and I just singing the lines we really liked off-mic at practice and it stuck. Dave’s got multiple guitar tracks doing really subtle things—like pedal and amp noise—that added a great ethereal quality to the recording.

Josh Labbus: I hope we decide to release a mix of it just with the guitar and vocals since it’s more stark and lonely and personal that way, which would max out the mopey-wopey vibe.

Tone Madison: “You’re Not Like Me, Baby” is another one here that really sticks out to me. There’s kind of this dynamic in the song where two people are maybe interested in each other, but also kind of pushing each other way a bit (it made me think a bit of The Magnetic Fields’ “I Don’t Believe You“). It’s interesting to capture those sorts of in-between feelings in a pop song.

Dan Hardgrove: I have certainly had the experience of not being sure whether somebody liked me. Is it exciting, or is it aggravating? A little of both, I guess. I wanted to express that unresolved tension both musically and lyrically, but I think everyone in the band really likes this song, so we end up making it sound exuberant despite the themes of frustration and dejection. A lot of our songs are like that, and honestly I really love that about the August Teens. When you’re writing a song, sometimes you are in the worst of moods, but when you deliver that message in the context of a good band—a band with a shared love of the music—then you can make that misery into fun.

Tone Madison: Your songs build on these familiar themes of love and heartache, but in this way that’s very frank and unembellished and not scrunched down to archetypes—I’m thinking of “10 Years Older,” where you sing about being an office drone. The songs are romantic, but not over-romanticized, if that makes any sense. Why do you think you write that way?

Dan Hardgrove: “Write what you know,” right? I would like to think that there is some integrity in what we do as a band. We have done all of the craft on our own, from all the instrumental parts to the audio recording right down to the album cover art, and I think that the songwriting for this band should measure up with honesty of its own. If the lyrics come across as matter-of-fact, I suppose that’s just the way that I think: Why would I write a song if not to lay out exactly how I feel about a subject or a situation? is my attitude. Maybe professional musicians don’t write like that, but I am proud to call myself “amateur.” I loved bringing all of these songs to the band.

Tone Madison: Across both albums, the songs strike a balance between genuine vulnerability and a self-aware, sometimes humorous touch. What do you want people to take away from this music on an emotional level?

Dan Hardgrove: All I can hope is that a song grabs somebody’s attention. I’ve learned not to care so much what people get out of a song, so long as they get something out of it.

Josh Labbus: I think the ATs style celebrates aspects of rock and pop music that have never really been en vogue nor fully out of style during the lifespan of the band, and I feel like the kind of person that digs these songs would probably also identify with that sense of being out of place or somewhat of a misfit in their own way, and not apologizing for it but celebrating and goofing around with it.

Kyle Urban: I personally would love for these songs to resonate with people the way they do with me. Take “Strum Echoes,” for example; it may be a bit of an esoteric subject, but Dan really lays out a common experience of people that play in a local band. Speaking for myself, it can be a mixture of fun and elation with frustration and futility. The balance of taking great pride in what you create tempered with the realistic likelihood that very few people will listen or care. To me, that song nails it. 

It’s more than just catchy rock music, even though it can be enjoyed on that level. Look at “Ten Years Older.” That’s a very mature song, both in subject matter and songwriting skill, but it’s not dour or dull. It’s still fun rock’n’roll. That’s either really difficult to pull off, or it’s assumed to make something sophisticated it has to be overly-serious, stodgy or stoic. 

Tone Madison: What inspired “Strum Echoes?”

Dan Hardgrove: I had sketched out the chords and melody for this way back when the August Teens was still just a dream of mine. After playing in bands for some years, I found the right topic for the old tune: the great romance of playing in a local rock band. It’s been a truly bittersweet experience. I think I came of age just in time for rock music to gasp its mortal breath. By the time I posted my first ad looking for musicians, the only people interested in rock music anymore were a small but diehard group of musicians themselves. If not for this particular bunch of guys—the current August Teens—I might have sold my musical equipment over 15 years ago.

Tone Madison: Where did the album title originate? 

David Esmond: I found that hand-painted framed photo of a cat in a sweater years ago at a thrift store and took a photo of it. Someone said it would make a good album cover and Dan came up with the title from there.

Dan Hardgrove: My father and I were wondering why people with particularly self-absorbed, asocial cats love their cats. My theory was that selfish people identify with selfish cats.

Tone Madison: What do you think is next for the band?

David Esmond: I’d love to play some shows of August Teens songs this year. I’m super proud of and happy with how the album came out. While I also love playing our annual holiday/surf rock show every year I’d really like to play these songs live again. I’m super lucky to be able to get to play with a bunch of really, really talented people and I look forward to sharing that love of playing with these guys with others.

Kyle Urban: If and when live music is safely possible again, I’d love to play out a bit. There are a couple of newer songs that I’d love to record. We’ve got pretty hectic lives, it’s hard to get us all together in the same room (pandemic aside). 

Dan Hardgrove: There are some songs that we haven’t recorded, and it would be nice to do that.

Josh Labbus: I’ve wanted to do a Christmas in July show for years but so far we have NO TAKERS, so maybe we’ll do the KISS thing and each release a solo album.

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