There are things in life that we always seem to return to. Whether it’s old habits, a toxic relationship, or even the same order at your favorite restaurant, there’s something comforting about not giving up the past. But for Brooklyn musician Todd Goldstein, his past isn’t just about feeling safe and warm; it’s his ticket into all sorts of notoriety.
Goldstein moved to Brooklyn in 2004, making music under the moniker ARMS. That project released a small collection of singles before Goldstein joined the beloved Harlem Shakes in 2006. While busy with the band, ARMS released just one solo album, 2008’s Kids Aflame. Although well received for its intricate and heart-wrenching themes, Goldstein all but left his side project at that. Cue the Harlem Shakes disbanding back in September 2009, and now, some two years later, Goldstein returns to ARMS.
This time around, though, it’s different. The band is now a four-piece, with Goldstein tapping drummer Tlacael Esparza, bassist Matty Fasano, and keyboardist Dave Harrington to complete the line-up. Their sound as well is different; the complicated, layered indie rock sensibility has matured, grown, and fleshed itself out. Years of work toward a return will commence when ARMS releases its sophomore album, Summer Skills, on November 8th.
For a taste of what to expect, CoS is premiering album track “Heat & Hot Water”. With a bubbly beat and a crazy distorted bassline, the track actually lives and breathes a fairly joyous existence. Yet despite the simplicity of the track’s roar, the cut tells a decidedly unique tale. ” ‘Heat & Hot Water’ is in the center of the album, when a beast appears in the couple’s basement,” Goldstein said in an email interview. “They need to feed it to keep it from harming them, and though they’re safe for now, it starts to wear on their relationship. As they fight, the beast gets stronger. They start telling it secrets about the other, trying to get it on their side. The song is when shit starts getting weird, pretty much.” Check it out below.
Goldstein illuminates the entire album’s creation and concept in the remainder of our interview. Other topics covered include the transition from the Harlem Shakes back to ARMS, Goldtsein’s favorite bands, and his folk duo The Sea & The Gulls. Read the entire exchange below.
What made you want to come back to the ARMS project/moniker in the first place?
I’d been working on ARMS material the entire time I was playing in Harlem Shakes — I began the project even before I joined the band, actually. When Harlem Shakes broke up, it was a real now-or-never moment. I basically thought, “Well, time to do this for real,” and I immediately started looking for bandmates. Within a few months, I’d found a bunch of incredible guys to play with, and ARMS, the band, was born.
How do you think the sound of the band has developed since Kids Aflame?
ARMS is a completely different animal now. I started the project playing more or less everything myself, writing, arranging, and producing the whole thing. Now, ARMS is four distinct minds working hard to make the most interesting, beautiful pop music we can. The sound is bigger, deeper, more emotionally complex… lots more noise, synthesizers, tight interlocking arrangements, harmonies. More of everything, basically.
How did your time in Harlem Shakes influence the kind of artist/musician you are now and the projects you choose to tackle from here on out?
I think the tightness of Harlem Shakes really influenced the direction ARMS has taken since the band broke up. In the Shakes, every musical move was scrutinized — often over-scrutinized — and it taught me a lot about arranging. In this version of ARMS, I definitely tried to bring something of that carefulness to the way the music was put together, but tried to balance it with looseness and spontaneity wherever possible. Other than that, though, ARMS is a way moodier, atmosphere-ier beast than the Shakes were. Which maybe is a reaction against my old band? I don’t know; psychoanalyze at your own risk.
What’s it like going from a solo project to working with a full-band? Did being in the Shakes make that an easier transition?
I definitely welcomed the chance to get some other minds working on the ARMS project — writing by yourself is lonely, difficult work, and I was more than a little sick of it by the time I got the ARMS band together. I have to say, the Shakes had our problems and differences, but it definitely taught me a lot about how to collaborate. I love working with the guys in ARMS — they’re incredibly creative players and interesting minds, and though I’m still nominally the bandleader, I try to let everyone’s individual voices come out in the final product.
Kids Aflame was all about the search for identity and authenticity; what are you attempting to explore within the confines of Summer Skills?
Summer Skills is a concept album, actually — it charts the dissolution of a relationship and has elements of sci-fi and supernatural horror. It’s kind of a magical-realist break-up album. The title is a good thematic summing-up of the main character’s mindset: He hates the summer. “Summer skills” are the skills required to make it through the summer alive.
I think one of the things that struck me most with Summer Skills is how amazingly well you can set a really complicated mood. For instance, “Emily Sue, Cont’d” has a interesting vibe that sounds worried and yet totally overjoyed simultaneously. How important are the emotional settings for you in songs? How do you go about creating these kinds of landscapes, lyrically or sonically?
That’s awesome that you caught on to that — worried and overjoyed is totally the vibe we were going for there. Emotional settings are everything for me. I work really hard to write lyrics that play off the moods of the songs in particular ways — intimate lyrics for grandiose songs, scary lyrics for happy songs, etc. And sonically, it’s a lot of trial and error. There’s a thing that happens in ARMS, when we all know we’ve hit on something that’s unique to us… and it usually takes a long time.
After the album’s release, what’s next for ARMS? Touring plans, future releases already in the works, etc.?
We’re playing the Summer Skills record-release show on November 11th at Glasslands in Williamsburg — we’re going to play the record live from start to finish, which is something I’ve always wanted to do and am monumentally psyched about. We’re working on a small tour for December after the record’s out, and a whole bunch more touring in the new year. Making a music video. We’re also working up an EP for mid-next year.
What was the last concert you got to see? How’d it go?
Man, I almost never go to shows these days, which is unfortunate. One of the best things I’ve seen in the last year, though, was a show at Union Pool in Brooklyn by Glass Ghost. They’re one of the most beautiful, strange bands in the city, hands down.
What albums/bands have you been listening to lately? Are there any newer bands that you’ve been into that deserve some exposure?
Let’s see… I think Luke Temple (singer from Here We Go Magic)’s new solo album Don’t Act Like You Don’t Care is amazing, perfectly written weird folk songs… the new Robag Wruhme album Thora Vukk is great, definitely my favorite minimal-techno thing recently… I’m really into Sandro Perri’s Impossible Spaces, too. Other than that, I just listen to ELO and Sunny Day Real Estate these days. As for local bands, the aforementioned Glass Ghost is definitely No. 1 for me. Look them up now.
In the past, you’ve toured with everyone from The Walkmen to Japandroids. Are there any bands you’d love to tour with and why?
I think everyone in ARMS agrees that Bear in Heaven is the best band in Brooklyn. We share a practice space with them — they’re wonderful, hilarious guys and just incredible musicians. We’d love to tour with them, for sure. I also harbor a not-so-secret dream of touring with my hero Mark Kozelek, but I think that guy is too much of a loner to ever make that dream a reality.
Back in February, you had that residency at Pianos. What spurred that on, and do you have another great showcase like that in the works?
We’ve been friends with the guys who book Pianos for a while. They asked us, and we accepted. It was tons of fun — a show a week for four weeks, all our best band-friends playing and DJing each night. No more residencies for now… but we’ll be touring a good bit in the new year, which is like a residency where the venue is America… so, yeah.
Any chance of The Sea & The Gulls making a comeback too?
Leah and I are always talking about making more Sea & Gulls songs, but unfortunately we’re both too busy with our own projects. Leah did sing a bit on Summer Skills though, and she did the lettering on the cover art as well. I love everything she gets her hands on, and I just wanted a little of that magic on our record somewhere.