The backing band turned main event – Lionlimb’s fresh take on nostalgia

Lionlimb matured before we had a chance to see their version of immature. Perhaps that is why they offer something different to many other new musicians who, contending with the opportunity and pitfalls of immediate recording and online broadcast to whoever will listen, leave less to the imagination. Lo-fi recordings have their own value and beauty, of course, and the chance for unmediated musical mutations and innovations instantly shared worldwide is exciting, but it leaves music fans without something that was taken for granted a generation or two ago. The generations before that had money, space and time. Lionlimb’s new album ‘Shoo’ is a throwback to what we might have missed.

The album’s textures are filtered through warm tape and the songs are composed with care and attention to detail. It evokes an American tradition that encompasses The Band and Big Star amongst others. Both of those bands put in a sizable amount of practice and had the time to craft songs in a way that is no longer commonplace. Lionlimb have played together for years, honed their technique and developed something that draws ideas and sounds from that canon.

Under questioning, Stewart Bronaugh and Joshua Jaeger resist the idea of imposing a narrative on their music-making. They tell a story though. They met at University, or to use the American vernacular, College. Jaeger saw Bronaugh returning to their dormitory building in Chicago from a trip home to Nashville. Bronaugh had made a wooden cabinet with wheels on it to transport a drum kit and assorted recording devices on his flight – which must have made for an interesting check-in. Jaeger saw Bronaugh wheeling his recording set up down the street and decided to get involved. Their first musical appearance was an improvised performance at an open mic night. After that they attempted a number of recording projects that did not reach a wide audience. They ascribe this prior lack of attention to their own inertia and working without the luxury of having someone to organise record releases and tours.

They ‘matured’ or, to be precise, became aware of what it takes to be a band playing in a conventionally proficient, perhaps commercially acceptable way, backing Angel Olsen. Lionlimb contributed to Olsen’s 2015 album ‘Burn Your Fire’ and provided a washed-out overdriven chug that is pleasantly Breeders-ish. Then, while touring with Olsen, they wrote ‘Shoo’, which has just been released on Bayonet Records (run by Dustin Payseur of Beach Fossils, and Katie Garcia, who managed Captured Tracks).

Despite their wish not to have their history warped into a classic rock music narrative, their story is reminiscent of American musicians up to the 1980s who learnt their chops on the road with established artists and then broke away to do it on their own, from John Coltrane to Iggy Pop. This process was a hangover from American music before recorded sound and record labels, but it endured to cultivate jazz greats, garage rock and the sounds of the 1960s and 1970s before going further underground. Through ‘Shoo’, elements of this way of making music and the myths that surrounded it are reincarnated.

‘Shoo’ is not a testosterone-fuelled road trip album, though. It explores the way touring can leave you estranged from the normal rhythms and relationships of everyday life. Bronough says: “I wrote the album when I was touring with Angel and I’d never done that. The experience was kind of non-stop, pretty much. ‘Shoo’ is like two and a half years of touring. Doing that and then, I guess, just trying to function, figure out what you imagine is in and outside of life.” He quickly dismisses the idea that the album, which is introspective and sometimes downbeat, represents a spoilt musician reacting negatively about fulfilling their dreams. “I don’t want this to sound like I’m complaining about having these opportunities and to travel across the country,” he says. That sentiment is sincere, and Jeager clarifies: “We’re just two guys with a good relationship who are just really excited by the opportunity to get our music out there.” The relationship between them is endearingly fraternal.

As with many albums that deal with feelings and broken relationships it can be a slightly uncomfortable listen. It’s not without its imperfections, but few are. Embracing slight hiccups fits in with the notion of authenticity that informs Lionlimb’s music. Recording “pretty much the whole thing” to a quarter-inch tape recorder, they decided to keep some slight errors and attempt to create something evocative rather than pristine. Jaeger explains: “I think tape’s cool because it brings a bit more uncertainty into recording. You have to be more decisive in a way that other recording programs don’t force you to be with infinite patches and infinite possibilities of the way that you can do things – rather than just recording one take, you’re recording a bunch of takes.”

They are proud of the record because it is not mediated through recording software; they feel that this gives a more personal impression, unlike other albums where the music has been sampled and edited or, as they put it, “may or may not have actually happened.” This as an idea might be debatable – it is possible to make highly personal music using computers without playing a note ‘live’ – but the way Lionlimb approach making music fits into their broader aesthetic, songwriting and sound so neatly. Rather than rely on gimmicks or tricks, it is clear on listening that they have composed their music thoroughly. Their approach is nostalgic, but done well. They aren’t preachy or didactic when explaining their musical choices but they are invested in the method that they have used.

Working within these technical constraints might have contributed to how the album pulls off a clever trick. The first few tracks are traditional rock/pop songs that aren’t far removed from Elliot Smith, but then, like a cricket player with their eye in (that’s for you American readers), it becomes more expansive. ‘Wide Bed’, one of the later songs on the album, is a loose slow-burner bringing ‘Sister Lover’ Big Star to mind with a kind of synesthetic evening feeling. It fades in sax that feels like a subdued call from John Coltrane. Bronaugh and Jaeger tell me how, after recording multiple tracks on each song, they worked hard to strip-back anything that seemed unnecessary: that process adds a lot of subtlety to the songs. The space this makes, again notable in ‘Wide Bed,’ pulls you in as a listener, and it bodes well for the music that Lionlimb might go on to make.

Lionlimb are notably enthusiastic about their new collaborators and the situation that they find themselves in. Expanding their line-up to a five piece for an upcoming tour could contribute to revising their style, which is an exciting prospect. They have begun to alter their songs while playing live, Jaeger explains, as he tells me: “In some ways I think it’s boring for a band to play an album front to back, note-perfect, so what we’re excited about is putting together a really good team of musicians who are all more than capable of making the music their own and probably taking the music in a different direction.” The new members have obviously earned their respect. Jaeger rates their new sax player as “the most talented person that I’ve probably ever played with.” It’s something different to their formative experiences of touring. He’s keen to be exposed to this new environment, speaking after a show at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right, and before heading to the The Hideout in Chicago. “It’s cool to [tour] at this level too because obviously Angel, who we play with, has had a certain level of success and it’s nice to get out on the road again and have a different level of attention.”

Maturity creates a type of possibility and poses a problem. Music is generally less mature because, in some respects, the twentieth century version of maturity was a stifling mix of wage drive and heterosexual nuclear families, gender roles and whiteness. This was hardwired into the music industry. There are people who are alienated from mature music: the proliferation of music that is not conventionally mature helped to destabilise these assumptions. The stability that maturing affords does, however, for those who can derive solace or meaning from it, provide a creative space. Lionlimb’s music is nurtured, worked over and they aspire to have it listened to by a larger audience. Rather than being music industry shills or hiding their aims, however, they are honest about wanting to connect with people in a down-to-earth and relaxed way. It goes back to a nostalgic type of ‘authenticity’ which, considering the better characteristics of the term as they understand it, proscribes an openness of expression and honesty.