Rubber Chickens, Tricorn Hats: The Slapstick Marriage Of The Boston Rockers Called 'You Won’t'
On a recent Sunday in April, Josh Arnoudse stood in the dazzling sunlight outside a cold press juice bar here trying to figure out where to eat lunch. The lead singer of the Boston indie rock duo You Won’t was dressed in his usual monochromatic ensemble — long sleeves, black pants and a heavy-looking backpack — a smudge of darkness against the cheery springtime backdrop. A moment later his bandmate, the drummer and multi-instrumentalist Raky Sastri, arrived. Like Arnoudse, he wore his house keys dangling from one of his belt loops. When I remarked on their synchronicity, Arnoudse, jingling in step with his comrade, replied wryly, “Well, that’s what happens when you’re married.”
In the strictest legal terms, Arnoudse and Sastri are not actually married, nor are they romantically linked. But from a philosophical perspective (and perhaps even a metaphysical one), their 17-year-long friendship and artistic collaboration, with its ups and downs and shared dreams and struggles, resembles nothing so much as a state of matrimony. It is territory that the two explore with wit and gusto on their sophomore album “Revolutionaries,” which comes out April 29 and which they will mark with a concert May 6 at the Sinclair in Cambridge.
Over pizza that afternoon, Arnoudse and Sastri described an arduous recording process. In January 2013, after the release of their 2012 debut album “Skeptic Goodbye,” they convened at a ramshackle house in Littleton owned by Sastri’s parents to work on their follow-up effort. They planned to spend one month recording the album. “Revolutionaries” ended up taking them more than two years.
The protracted timeline was due partially to the fact that Arnoudse and Sastri were recording and producing the album themselves. “Skeptic Goodbye,” which was also self-produced, had a scrappy, recorded-in-a-barn feel to it. (About half the album was actually recorded in a barn.) Its low-fi whimsy earned the band opening spots on tour with The Lumineers and Lucius and an appearance on “Last Call with Carson Daly.” But with “Revolutionaries” Arnoudse and Sastri were trying for a bigger, more professional sound that would also reflect the evolution of their stage show into the electric, boisterous affair it had become.
“I feel like it was a constant negotiation between trying to make something sound good, but not sound studio-y,” says Sastri. “We both always really love the way demos sound, and so then it's this weird process of trying to make a better-sounding thing that still has the qualities of a demo.”
It didn’t help that both Arnoudse and Sastri are innate perfectionists. On “Skeptic Goodbye,” this eye toward minutiae manifested in a profusion of small, playful details: the whine of a singing saw, a fleet of strange percussion sounds — were those trashcan lids being banged together? — and pretty much every noise you could imagine coming out of a guitar. The guitars, percussion and saw are all present on “Revolutionaries,” but now they sound more confident in their ability to buttress Arnoudse’s sunny melodies, which in turn act as a buoy for his self-effacing, sometimes melancholy lyrics.
“I remember I said to Raky at one point when we were really stuck, 'I'm realizing how when I was 17 I just idolized tortured artists, and now I've made myself into one, and it just sucks,’” says Arnoudse. “’It's not fun, it's not romantic. It's boring and often depressing and frustrating. And right now I feel like slapping my 17-year-old self in the face and being like, “Look up to healthier people,”’ you know?"
The seeds of that idealism were planted in 1999, when Arnoudse was a freshman and Sastri a senior at Lexington High School. Sastri, says Arnoudse, was “one of the alpha theater people. And I was really nervous when we met.” The fateful moment occurred during a school production of the 1992 Broadway musical “My Favorite Year,” in which Sastri played the host of a variety show. “We ended up having this scene where I was the boom operator, and Raky was doing a fencing scene, and at some point chaos broke out, and we were fencing, me with my boom mic,” remembers Arnoudse.
Later, Sastri invited Arnoudse to play in his Jeff Buckley cover band. After Sastri left for college in New York they stayed in touch by sending each other mix CDs and, eventually, MP3s. “I still have a U2 compilation that Josh made,” says Sastri.
If such tales sound like the hazy reminiscences of young love, then what came next can only be described as the dull thud of reality’s arrival.
“Two summers in a row we dedicated the entire summer to making these feature length films on digital video,” says Arnoudse. “And it was very much all-in. We did nothing else and we were convinced this was our ticket to the big time.”
“Yeah,” says Sastri. “Very ambitious, no strategy.”
Though nothing came of their efforts — Sastri says the movies were “roundly rejected” from every film festival they applied to — the relics of those summers have stuck around. In one film, Arnoudse played a mime who was hit by a truck, and the character was later repurposed for the cover of “Skeptic Goodbye,” Arnoudse in a beret and pancake makeup looking morose with his arm in a sling. A rubber chicken-shaped gun from Arnoudse’s Hampshire College thesis film is featured on the cover of “Revolutionaries,” where the two friends stand at attention in tricorn hats — a nod to their Lexington origins — and, naturally, white mime makeup.
The title, says Arnoudse, is also a reference to their shared commitment to “an idea, a cause. In this case, the cause being our 17-year-long collaboration together. Because we've done all these different things, but it's always had the same feeling.”
It was that feeling that carried them through the last five years. In many ways “Revolutionaries” is an examination of the hairline fractures left by the tremors that inevitably disturb any long-term relationship. It is also a eulogy for the naïve ambition that drew Arnoudse and Sastri together, innocence that eroded over time. “What made you strange at 17/ Will make you sad at 33,” Arnoudse wails on “Trampoline.” “It ain’t the same, you said to me/ I don’t know what came between/ I don’t know ‘bout you and me.” A singing saw warbles sorrowfully over the drone of an accordion, but Sastri’s drumming, usually so irrepressible, is absent.
“I just remember early on, if we would have a fight or a disagreement, I would just feel total despair,” says Arnoudse. “Because it just seemed like the whole world was going to fall apart.”
“You have no individuality outside of this thing. You're spending all of your time together,” says Sastri of their musical partnership. “It's tricky to navigate all of that without acting out sometimes. And we've also known each other for over half our lives at this point. So you form ideas about each other over time and some of those are hard to let go of in a new context. It's a marriage. It really, really is.”
In the end, says Arnoudse, it helped to realize that “we're on the same side. Even when we're disagreeing about something.”
His remark is oddly familiar, and I realize I’ve heard it in one of his songs, the optimistically titled “No Divide:” “You’re free to make your choices/ And free to question mine/ But ‘til we split our voices/ Let there be no divide.”
Is he singing to Sastri in that moment? Arnoudse squirms and demurs, saying he doesn’t like to explain his lyrics. But he admits that there are many points on the album at which the two might be talking to each other — sometimes screaming, sometimes crooning over the jagged thrum of their interlocking rhythms.
We say our goodbyes outside the pizza shop, and Arnoudse and Sastri walk off to their separate cars. They’re scheduled to shoot a video for a local music blog in half an hour. They won’t be apart for long.