Photo by Jesse Vasquez

Exquisite Corps Release Their Sophomore Album, Vignettes

Exquisite Corps’ debut, self-titled album hits like an orchestral tidal wave, then sweeps you up with an unconquerable undertow. I had no idea who they were when I stumbled into a show they played last summer at the now-defunct Luigi’s Fungarden, but by the time the show ended, I was happily overtaken by cello and violin crescendos swirling above the swelling pulse of melodic and melodramatic rock. 

So when I heard that they had ditched the strings on their sophomore album, Vignettes, I shook my fists at the sky and deplored, “WHY?!” as their symphonic rock quality set them apart in our local live music scene. Then I took a listen and quit tripping. 

A major departure from their first record, Vignettes has a stripped-down, pounding and sometimes psychedelic pure rock ‘n’ roll sound that is more than welcome to invade my eardrums anytime. It’s more laidback, and could make a great driving or party time soundtrack—whereas Exquisite Corps was intense, passionate and dark. The impressive versatility of Exquisite Corps, coupled with their synchronous, enveloping live performances, makes this band one of my favorites out of Sacramento. 

I met up with Bryan Valenzuela (vocals/guitar) and Robby Dean (drums/vocals) of Exquisite Corps to talk about their new album and their plans for its release show—taking place at the Witch Room on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. 

For those readers out there that don’t already know, can you give us a brief history of the band? 
Bryan Valenzuela: We’ve all been in other bands for years, but this band started out as a duo, with a cello and just me singing. We quickly went from that to a quartet with a rotating cast. Then we went from that to a full-blown sextet with a cellist and violinist. And then, sort of pared that down, and are falling back into the rock ‘n’ roll life. 

I’ve seen you play live before and loved the string element. It was rad having a cellist and violinist. So why did you forego the strings on the new record?
BV: So when we put that record out, almost two years ago now, right after that we started touring a lot; and like, you know, you start touring, and certain people aren’t able to go on the road for long, and people start being able to come and do certain shows but not be able to go for a longer stint, so I think it was just a pragmatic thing. At that point, we started maneuvering the songs we had and writing new songs based on the lineup that we could take on the road. 
Robby Dean: It kind of just evolved.

So are the string sounds on the new record now achieved via the organist?
BV: Kind of, a lot of that full sound that you can get from a string section comes from the organ. 
RD: We still bring the string players to some of the big shows.
BV: We’re doing a show for our record release at the Witch Room on Sept. 20, so we’ll have the full strings for that show. But writing a new record, you want to actually represent what you can take to L.A., San Francisco…
RD: Yeah, this record is more of what we’ve been doing as a four piece. Our band goes anywhere from a trio up to a sextet. This new album was more of a collaborative process. On the first record, Bryan wrote the songs and the other parts including the strings were written around that, but this record we wrote the songs together collaboratively more.
BV: Since we started being more of a rock ‘n’ roll band rather than this very orchestrated band, it sort of evolved into everyone contributing to arranging the songs. It started from this more rhythmic, more raw sound. We tried to focus a lot on the drums and capture that rawness, rather than a refined thing. 

It has this psychedelic, rock sound to it for sure. You’ve also gone with a different recording studio—it was Scott McChane on the first record, and the new one was Ira Skinner, so is there a specific quality in Ira’s work that helped capture the new sound you were going for? 
BV: It sounds more of like, a live thing. There were only a couple takes on vocals, for example. We went to Ira basically because of how he makes drums sound really good. He’s a drummer, and a great drummer sound engineer. 
RD: The album still sounds tight because we’ve already been playing these songs for a year on the road, so we just went in there and laid it down.
BV: I think that’s just kind of where our tastes evolved to after playing out of town a lot and not having the strings all the time…
RD: Yeah, you kind of start carving out how you’re going to approach things. We’re really inspired by people like Beck and Badly Drawn Boy where every album is different and you never know what’s going to come up.
BV: The awesome element of Beck is that he’s able to be pretty eclectic—he’s not pigeonholed. 
RD: We’re always going to be a rock band, with elements of rock ‘n’ roll, but it could go anywhere from more grandiose, to more stripped down, to acoustic, to electric,
to psychedelic…
BV: Unpredictability is kind of nice.

How are you guys making a living selling records and touring?
BV: We’re super DIY. We sell records out of the back of our cars. Right now, we signed a contract with a licensing company, and that’s a step in really trying to make a living. The licensing company is trying to place our songs in commercials, all that kind of stuff. We have all our stuff up on iTunes, Bandcamp… We definitely sell physical copies. A lot of people still like that. But that’s not necessarily the way the world is going. 

Are you planning on doing a tour with the release of the new album?
BV: We’re still finalizing details, but we are planning on carving a route out down the coast…
RD: We’re always playing around California, you know… from San Diego to the Bay, to Nevada City, Sacramento, Chico and coastal towns in-between. 

Do you have a favorite local venue, these days? 
BV: We haven’t played Witch Room yet, but it’s really cool. We’re excited to play there. We have a residency every first Thursday of the month at LowBrau, too. We’re not doing it this month because of our release show, but next month, we’re doing it and it’s kind of the TBD kick-off party, it’s the night before the festival starts. The guys that run LowBrau are such good guys.

How would you guys describe the sound of the new album?
Pistol Pete (a close homie of the band who came along with Valenzuela and Dean to the interview): Cashmere.
RD: It’s very silky, but edgy, and empty… 
BV: Silky smooth…
RD: Silky, smooth and badass. 

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