"I think it's a record that my parents like and other parents like," Suggs says in hushed tones. He's taking a break from practicing with his current bandmates in Chico, California, and it seems as if he'd rather they didn't hear that particular description. Not that it's a bad thing. "I mean, my parents probably like Velvet Underground's third record too because it has nice songs," he continues. "Just because your parents like it doesn't mean it's not cutting edge or anything. It's just not noisy."
Then again, Suggs has never been accused of being noisy. With Lawrence-based Butterglory, Suggs and his partner, Debby Vander Wall, constructed songs that fused the worlds of high-minded college rock and delicious guitar pop, miraculously doing so without being too obtuse or syrupy. However, as Suggs admits, they did often go for "that quick hook" and perhaps in the process sacrificed a song or two. Fans quickly forgave any such missteps with the release of the group's stellar 1996 swan song, Rat Tat Tat, which featured an expanded lineup and the breezy college-radio classic "Carmen Cross." Unfortunately, lurking behind that record's shiny veneer were internal conflicts that would eventually break up the band.
After three years of relative rock seclusion in his sleepy hometown of Visalia, California, Suggs says he feels liberated, and he's not using the word in the same manner as would a thirty-something divorcé. Rather, he's referring to the kind of artistic liberation that inspired Dylan's electric sessions with the Band, or better yet, Ray Davies' Kink-less solo efforts. "When I think back to Butterglory and all our records, I'm not necessarily happy with all of it," says Suggs. "You grow as an artist, and I think I'm doing my best work right now. That's a good position to be in, rather than thinking that your best work was five years ago.
"On this record, I was able to approach and do anything I wanted to do, and I could fool around with ideas and songs without having to worry about anyone's input but mine," he adds, though a full band backs him on Golden Days. "So this record could have been done during Butterglory times, but, see, that was a band, and you gotta make sure all the other band members are into the songs, and blah, blah, blah."
Far removed from all the blah, blah, blahs of formal band life, Suggs concentrated on incorporating an array of instruments (mandolin, accordion, and violin) into songs that cut a swath across a vast landscape of songwriters. Of course, critics have picked up on this, and a few have called Suggs on it, one in particular saying Golden Days was a replica of Davies' X-Ray. Suggs blows that review off as "one man's opinion," but behind this tough talk, he's as jittery as a virgin karaoke singer when it comes to supporting his solo debut. Even during his Butterglory years, Suggs played more out-of-town gigs than Lawrence shows, and that wasn't by accident. "Usually you know everyone in the audience when you play a hometown show," he says, "everyone from your brother to your mom to your friend from fifth grade. I just don't like to be scrutinized like that by people I just want to pal around with. I like playing in front of strangers." In an attempt to maintain such anonymity, Suggs even contemplated concocting a band name to hide his solo status, à la Bill Callahan's Smog.
"I was really frightened to do it," admits Suggs. "Just using my name for the title of the record instead of a band name made me feel really vulnerable. Just reading my name in print freaks me out. When I started this, I was asking Merge what I should call it, and they told me it would be sort of ridiculous to call it a band name." That, and it's cheating, like driving with a dummy in the diamond lane. So he went with his name, which makes sense given that Golden Days features songs that are intensely personal. They're also often melancholy, though all this is hidden behind upbeat melodies and a deadpan delivery that belies the tragedy underneath. Suggs isn't exactly comfortable talking about the songs, beyond asking one's opinion. Like many other liberated, mature songwriters, he'd rather ruminate (and write) than chase validation.
"It's funny," says Suggs, "songwriting is kind of an evolving process, and the older you get and the more you do it, it just changes. I've never been much of a rocker anyway. Maybe in my younger years I tried, but I try to do what comes naturally. If I try to write, like, total rock songs, it just sounds forced. I just write the songs more organically that just sound like me, and that's what the record is."