The evolution of Ladyfinger can be heard from the first track of the band’s new Saddle Creek Records release, Errant Forms.
“Renew” opens with brittle, electric guitar chords before the rhythm section of drummer Pat Oakes and bassist Dan Brennan slides beneath warm keyboards, Jamie Massey’s smokey, twirling guitar and frontman Chris Machmuller’s cool growl.
You could say Machmuller also sang on the band’s 2006 debut, Heavy Hands, but not like this. These days Machmuller really sings, confident on the ghostly, glowing high notes that follow the song’s prophetic line, “I will grow old.”
If it sounds “pretty” compared to the howling noise of Ladyfinger’s early years that’s because it is. Still, the music is no less bracing or powerful, just easier to grasp in its clarity.
Or as Machmuller put it, “There’s more space between the parts on this record.”
A brief history: Ladyfinger (also known by the legal restriction Ladyfinger (ne)) formed in 2004 out of three other bands: Massey from Race for Titles, Machmuller from Bleeders for Treats, and Oakes and bassist Ethan Jones from Putrescine The original foursome produced two albums, Heavy Hands and the 2009 followup, Dusk. After that, Jones left Ladyfinger to be replaced with “new guy” Brennan, formerly of rock band The ’89 Cubs.
Back to the present: Better singing means understandable lyrics. Good thing Machmuller knows how to tell a story. On Errant Forms‘ first single, “Dark Horse,” he spins a non-autobiographical yarn about a wild, irresponsible party hound who’s “looking for a road I ain’t ever gonna find” but finds it when he discovers his wife or girlfriend is carrying his baby. Coincidentally, Machmuller discovered his wife was in a “family way” shortly after writing the song.
Then there’s “Galactic” — also not auto-biographical…probably. The brutal rocker describes a guy who picks up signals in his head — numbers and images — obviously messages about an alien coup, which he explains with the line: “I’m a space invader and I think I can save this planet from galactic destroyers from space.” Rush’s 2112 has nothing on these guys.
Like their previous albums, Errant Forms was recorded by their old pal Matt Bayles, whose track record includes working with Mastodon, Minus the Bear, Pearl Jam and fellow Saddle Creekers Cursive.
Working with such an accomplished producer puts pressure on the band, Oakes said, especially when the band isn’t sure it’s ready to enter the studio.
“This record seemed like it was pieced together out of random parts more than the last ones,” Oakes said. “When we went in for Heavy Hands, we knew exactly what we wanted to do, and had played those songs a million times, but for this one, we asked ourselves, ‘Are we ready to record? What if this whole thing falls apart?’”
When it comes to working with Bayles, uncertainty could spell trouble. “Matt does not indulge you,” Machmuller said. “He refers to our sessions as ‘abridged.’ He’s used to having six to 12 weeks in the studio. We only had two weeks (at Omaha’s ARC Studio) to track 13 or 14 songs.”
“He’s very thorough, very meticulous, and that’s what makes him a good producer and engineer,” Oakes said. “If you push back, Matt will stand his ground and be a dick about it. He knows that time is of the essence, and he’s not going to negotiate with you.”
Good thing he likes these guys.
“He doesn’t do our records to make money” Massey added. “He’s been good to us when he didn’t have to be. He bends for us and we appreciate it.”
While the way they make records hasn’t changed much, the way the band and label sells them has. In the old days bands simply released records and hit the road, hoping college radio and good reviews piqued people’s interest.
These days marketing is all about online placement and social media. “The social network sphere is completely different than when Dusk came out,” Oakes said. “As a result, we’re seeing things happen with this record that have never happened before.”
Things like first single “Dark Horse” being selected as the “Daily Download” at rollingstone.com, where readers can listen to and download the track for free. Massey credited Saddle Creek’s Jeff Tafolla, in charge of licensing and new media, for the increased exposure, including Errant Forms being available as a digital stream from taste-making music blog AbsolutePunk.net.
But these new-fangled sales methods go beyond blogs. Tafolla suggested Ladyfinger launch a Twitter account (@ladyfingerne) as well as a Facebook page (@facebook.com/ladyfingerne).
“All four of us have access to these accounts and can do what we want with them,” Oakes said, “but it gets complicated.”
“I’ve been signed up to six brand new things that I have to figure out,” Machmuller said. “I’m worried about keeping all the passwords straight.”
With fans now able to hear the entire album from their computers for free, some of the “specialness” that comes with buying an album has faded. That’s one reason Errant Forms is being offered on vinyl in addition to digital download. “We considered going the vinyl route with Dusk,” Machmuller said. “Vinyl has become less of a novelty and more of a collectible. We saw the trend even back then.”
Saddle Creek says Ladyfinger’s combined sales for their past two releases was somewhere north of 1,200 units, far from what’s needed to make a living. All four band members have day jobs. Brennan, 34, is a sound engineer at The Slowdown when he isn’t on the road working sound for bands like Cursive. Massey, 37, is an art director at Turnpost Creative Group and proprietor of The Sydney in Benson. Machmuller, 32, launched Workers Take Out and now runs O’Leaver’s Pub, while Oakes, 35, is a production manager at Ink Tank Merch, a custom screen printing company owned by Saddle Creek.
With families to support and a music industry in decline, why keep putting out records?
“At the end of the day, for me, it’s all about playing shows,” Oakes said. “And if we sell more albums, that could mean playing bigger shows.”
“None of us have never not been in a band,” Machmuller said. “I love hearing things in my head and hearing them become recorded music. That’s the best part.”
Ladyfinger plays with The Seen and Hussies this Friday, Feb. 1, at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St. Tickets are $8. Show starts at 9 p.m. For more information and tickets, go to onepercentproductions.com.