There's nothing inherently strange about seeing the four members of the Architects hanging out on the couches in the cigar room at McCoy's in Westport on a Tuesday night. But after listening to the band's upcoming album, Vice, it's hard to believe that the only thing in the room that's leather-clad is the furniture.
"There's definitely a Sunset Strip vibe to this album," says lead singer and guitarist Brandon Phillips. "It rocks like the Sunset Strip used to rock."
Phillips' pants, much like the rest of the band members' — his brothers, bassist Zach Phillips and drummer Adam Phillips, and guitarist Keenan Nichols — are decidedly denim. A few different shades of blue and black, maybe, but nothing skintight or made of tanned animal hides.
That's not to say the Architects have suddenly decided to trade their credibility for a shot at the title of World's Greatest Poison Cover Band. Underneath it all, Vice still has the gritty, punk-infused sound that has made the band — and its previous iteration, the Gadjits — a Kansas City mainstay.
But Vice's glitz and polish are going to catch more than a few fans off guard — in a good way, the band hopes.
"The last album [2006's Revenge] was right-off-the-floor punk rock," Zach says. "This time around, we took the time to sing a few harmonies and shake a few tambourines."
Clearly, there's more to it than some extraneous percussion fills. At more than a few key moments, the songs on Vice rise above the garage-rock norm and come close to the glory days of the arena-rock anthem — before arena and anthem became dirty words.
Like multiflavored popsicles, Vice's distinct flavors depend on where you dive in — the AC/DC guitars of "New Boots & Truncheons," the Van Halen vocal hooks of "Pills," the Thin Lizzy inspirations of "Jersey Shore." Regardless of these nods, though, it's a noticeably more accessible record than the band's past efforts. And despite the influences, the band members aren't interested in genre labels.
"Sonically, I get where some people might hear that arena-rock vibe in this, but there's a lot more substance here than your standard arena-rock song," Adam says. "The trick is to write a song, like 'You Shook Me All Night Long,' with the profundity of the best Dead Kennedys or Bad Brains song. I'm not sure if we've achieved that with this album, but that's what we were going for."
At least part of the sound change-up may have more to do with the musicians than the music. In October 2007, just as the band began writing material for the album, Nichols replaced longtime member Mike Alexander on guitar.
"Mike is a badass guitar player, but with more of a country style," Nichols says.
"Keenan has definitely brought a new kind of toughness to the band," Brandon says. "There's a leaner, more economical sound on guitar now."
Throughout the album, Brandon's dirty, crunchy Telecaster sound bashes out rhythm riffs and chord hooks in the left speaker, and Nichols' warmer, darker Gibson fills out the mix with rhythm, leads and metal-influenced squeals in the right speaker. The twin, distorted guitars play off each other on measured terms so that neither hogs the spotlight or distracts from the song.
The band members say the new trimmed-down, song-oriented approach isn't just a product of musicianship; it has a lot to do with the album's production. The album — 11 tracks that loosely follow the theme of people's vices as viewed from different perspectives — was recorded in 11 days at Cypher Studios at 36th Street and Main by producer Aaron Connor, who's best-known for his work with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and other hip-hop acts.
"He's a total pro," Zach says. "One day, I watched him work for 15 hours straight, and he only stopped to take a piss twice."
Connor's hip-hop background gave the band a fresh perspective on recording and its sound in general. Still, the Architects weren't with Connor in the studio for very long.
"We take great pride in not taking a long time to record an album," Zach says. "We definitely went into the studio with a punk ethic, not a six-months-at-Abbey Road ethic."
"Don't get me wrong — a lot of great records were made that way," Brandon adds. "But the more time you give yourself in the studio, the more up your own ass you're going to get. If I recorded like that, I'd be divorced, addicted to drugs, and my music would start to sound terrible."
With those kinds of vices, the Architects wouldn't be all that different from the characters they sing and play about. And leather pants would surely follow.