"We didn't want any outside influences or input," singer and guitarist James Duft explains. "We're trying to let it be fresh for ourselves."
By the time this story runs, Conner will have spilled its secrets at the Jackpot Saloon on May 14, so it's no spoiler to report that Hello Graphic Missile pays smart tribute to '70s disco-rock. "Overflow" fuses a funk pulse onto a gritty blues-shuffle structure, "Independent Woman" bottles the unique dance-prog lightning of Golden Earring's "Twilight Zone," and "Anyway" simmers like a slow-burning Sly Stone ballad. Era-appropriate analog production (complete with subtle tape hum) preserves the throwback feel, though Duft and Wagner briefly interrupt the grooves with anachronistically discordant guitar solos.
"We write catchy songs, but sometimes they get crazy on us," Duft says. "Our rhythm section is very Rolling Stones, but our guitars are more Sonic Youth."
Missing in that equation is any trace of the Strokes. Primarily because of both bands' use of vocal-fogging effects, Conner endured ceaseless comparisons to that hyped New York act when both bands started popping up on local radio in 2001. Conner dropped the distortion before releasing 2003's full-length debut, The White Cube; the Strokes, however, much to the stagnation of their sound, still use this crutch.
At early shows, Conner encountered its share of hecklers, all of whom believed themselves the first to publicly point out the group's sonic similarities to the Strokes. Duft fired back, shocking most of his antagonists into silence. Occasionally, he'd aim pre-emptive strikes at audiences he found insufficiently energetic. Now, though, such outbursts are uncommon. Local crowds have grown to adore Conner -- and even if doubters remain, they don't get a chance to complain during the group's streamlined sets.
"We want our shows to have a continuous, dance-party feel," Duft says. "We don't chat with each other or stop to tune our guitars. There's never a dull moment."
Conner's concerts are not only coherent but also linear, building to an explosive closing number that appears in Graphic Missile's track listing as "__-__." Conner previewed this near instrumental (the scattered vocals are unintelligible) at several shows, using different obscured phrases and improvisational twists each time. On Graphic Missile, the tune trails into Spanish guitar and back-masked conversations, elements that might not make it to the stage.
"We start with a standard riff, and we make everything else up on the spot," Duft says.
Such spontaneity is refreshing given that the dance-rock genre thrives on cold calculation. Unlike the new-wave revivalists (the Killers, Bloc Party) with whom it shares a cymbal-crash fetish, Conner takes no interest in style. Its members sport barbershop haircuts, wear unassuming outfits and don't appear in album artwork. The only affectation Duft allows himself is an exaggerated British accent. Through his filter, sweetheart comes out sounding like swayed hand, darling becomes dahhhling, and movie ends in an improbable long-i sound.
"The singers I liked had that accent, and I copied it," he admits. "Robert Pollard [of Guided by Voices] sang like that, even though they're from Ohio. I saw in a video that he said he felt hickish singing in his normal voice, and I agree with that. Plus, it adds a little charm."
Duft's delivery has always been engaging, but his disdain for enunciation made his lyrics difficult to decipher on Conner's previous recordings. Here, phrases such as Pearly gates and pearly white/But nothing that I love is here inside add emotional weight to the choruses. When Duft's words were shrouded in mystery, Conner's music could only suggest moods -- now it enhances them.
Though the album will be available in area stores, Conner plans to hibernate for the next few months while Duft completes his summer semester at the University of Kansas, his last obstacle before graduating with an art history degree. Conner won't begin distributing the disc nationally until the band starts touring in August, so concertgoers in cities from Denver to San Francisco won't hear Graphic Missile until they hear its songs live.
That means more than a month of CD-release parties that genuinely surprise spectators, a reward that more than justifies Conner's disciplined, delayed-gratification approach.