"I said 'pop music for cannibals' for a while," recalls the If You Wannas Ryan Cox. "Then I called it 'minimalist pop mayhem.' I also said 'green apples in mud' to someone once."
Surprisingly, these off-the-wall descriptions are somehow fitting of the If You Wannas dreamy soundscapes, poppy hooks and often-bizarre lyrics. Built around Cox's gleefully melancholy vocals and guitarist Gavin Conner's meandering riffs, the band's catalog is an experiment in stylistic schizophrenia. Drawing from elements of ska, roots rock, grunge and indie pop, listening to an If You Wannas album is like playing a carefully constructed mix tape, cohesive yet capable of dramatic stylistic leaps from one track to the next.
Cox has credited that diversity to the varying tastes and influences of the band's four members (Cox and Conner, along with Trevor Stoia and Jacob Baumann), but on its latest effort, Island Diplomacy, the recording process itself became a major factor in keeping listeners guessing.
The album, self-recorded in various houses over the course of an entire year, was as much an experimental process as the songs themselves. From miking stairways and singing in showers to playing guitar parts through cassette tapes and incorporating random objects as instruments, the recording was anything but typical. And that, says Cox, was the point.
"We did our first album entirely live, so it was nice to focus on overdubs and layering and textures and smells more this time," he explains. "It was great to take risks and climb out on branches that didn't always pan out and not worry about being rushed or pressed for time. We would get together for one full day, morning to night, and start off with coffee, pick a song, talk about arrangements, mics and instruments, then layer things one at a time as the day rolled on.
"No two songs were approached the same way. Different houses, different instruments and different seasons. I think all the changes in weather and moods and relationships over a year gave it a really eclectic feel. But we still wanted a cohesive flow, so more than a year would've been dangerous. We even had the luxury of cutting out songs because they didn't fit the overall mood."
Now, having successfully navigated their new approach to recording, the If You Wannas, known for engaging live shows, are focusing on translating the new material into performances. Cox thinks the latest recording experience has given the band a new perspective.
"We've started treating shows and recording as two completely different things," he says. "Both are fulfilling. Ants and oranges."
On Saturday, the band will appear at BoBo Gallery to celebrate the official release of Island Diplomacy with an unusual set of both electric and acoustic performances which Cox promises to be a "cozy connection" between band and audience. The choice to go acoustic, he says, was simply a matter of capitalizing on the space, which provides the rare opportunity to showcase tracks that usually fall to the wayside live.
"We have lots of acousticky songs that we don't get to play in electric rooms," he explains. "Some are on the new CD. Then there's that Violent Femmes acoustic-with-attitude-and-pulse thing too. We like that as well. Acoustic instruments can have a very cutting sound to them."
But Cox, who laments the "sterile" sound of digital recordings, goes on to reveal his musical purist side.
"It's got real sounds that aren't sent through electrical components," he adds. "They leave your body or instrument and go straight through the air to ears. Every piece of electrical equipment leaves a certain stamp on the sound—that can be desired sometimes; not always, though. It's rare that we listen to music 100 percent acoustically anymore."
[Dane Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
who: If You Wannas, with McGowan
what: CD-release show for Island Diplomacy
where: BoBo Gallery
when: Saturday, Nov. 21 (9 p.m. bobogallery.com or ifyouwannas.com)