Boston quartet One Happy Island make simple but very addictive indiepop tunes, made even more irresistible with injections of ukelele, kazoo, harmonicas and handclaps. Fun? Fun! They released two great EPs on WeePOP! this year (one of them the label's first 7"), joining the impressive group of 2008's nice new surprises. I talked with Rebecca Mitchell and Brad San Martin about the band's past, future and more.
One Happy Island started after Brad posted an ad on craigslist, asking: "Was anyone at the Lucksmiths show? Wanna start a band like that?" What exactly happened? Did you all come to audition for Brad? How did this group of strangers transform to the band you are now?
Brad: As far as what happened, that's pretty much it, but with a twist. I posted the ad in May of 2005, and before long a band called Okay Thursday emerged, consisting of me, Rebecca, Clint, and a singer named Sarah Korval. There weren't really auditions or anything – we just hung out a bit to make sure we liked each other! Okay Thursday played for almost two years, but the music that we were making and the music we heard in our heads were growing farther apart. So Clint, Rebecca, and I took some time off in spring of 2007, rehearsed acoustically in Clint's apartment, and the smaller, more colorful sound that is One Happy Island started then. The split from Okay Thursday was very difficult, as we had all put a lot into it, but it brought us closer together as friends and collaborators. The addition of Shannon in December of 2007 elevated the sound immensely, and made even more things possible.
How did you decide on your name?
Rebecca: We didn't really dwell on naming the band too much at first, but when we were asked to play the Cream of the Pop Festival, that set a deadline. My girlfriend Brynn and I were walking through a grocery store parking lot when she pointed out a license plate for Aruba that said 'One happy island', and somehow it stuck. Now Aruba has a new campaign: '90,000 friends you haven't met yet' – which would've been a better band name, I think.
It says on your website that "...it is the intention of Shannon, Rebecca, Clint and Brad to take their songcraft and melodies to new levels of fun, fun, and fun." Still, some of your lyrics cut quite a bit deeper than that quote might make us believe. It's mainly the extremely eclectic instrumentation that provides the fun part. Is this contrast intentional? Can you give us an insight in how you usually put a song together?
Rebecca: A lot of our lyrics are about some real emotional stuff, but I think it's presented in a way that makes it more accessible. It's easier to laugh at ourselves when we're playing dinky little instruments than it is to be all serious and dramatic. I wouldn't want to watch a band, especially a new band, perform one slow, dramatic song after another.
Brad: As far as putting songs together goes, it’s a process that is still evolving. It has become more and more collaborative over time. It used to start with one of us bringing in a nearly-completed song – and that still happens now and then – but now a lot of times someone will come up with a melody, and send it around, and someone will suggest a lyric or a theme, and it goes from there. An idea will evolve in practice, as we decide on the tone of the song and the instrumentation. We really do sweat over every element of a song. It takes a long time sometimes, but it makes for really exciting and interesting performances – not just guitar-bass-drums bashing.
Rebecca: I, personally, write happy songs because I only like/know a handful of chord arrangements. I also have a hard time writing anything longer than 60 seconds, so it helps to pass things around.
Your latest EP, Secret Party That The Other Party Doesn't Know About, was produced by Colin Clary (and also Steve Williams). As a songwriter, Colin seems to write at an incredible speed, writing enough to release even a couple of albums a year. How about you? Do you ever get writer's block?
Rebecca: I can't answer this question because I have writers block. Sorry.
Brad: Ha ha... I try to write every day, even if it is just a little musical or lyrical phrase. But yes, there are times when I just feel stuck. It helps to take a step back, go for a bike ride, maybe listen to some music or watch a movie. You can't force it. I think it is worth mentioning that this band discards a great deal of material. We are very picky about what we choose to undertake, and a lot of songs crash into the ocean on their way to One Happy Island.
The wide range of instruments must be fun to handle at live shows. It seems you are a very democratic band, with all members doing everything all the time, including vocal duties. What do you think makes a really good show? What are some shows you remember that you really enjoyed?
Rebecca: I love the democratic aspect of the band. We all have very different styles of playing, and I like to see that come through. Some of us are better at certain instruments, so we divide up duties for those songs. Or, sometimes we divide up instruments just to stay sloppy. None of us wanted to be lead singers coming into this, and I think it makes it easier on all of us if no one accepts that responsibility! But also, I'd hope that the variety makes it more interesting to watch or listen to. I'd like to start rotating vocals even more for our next batch of songs. We gotta get Shannon and Clint to sing more!
Brad: It's really fun to subvert the time-honored lead-singer-plus-band dynamic. It always takes folks by surprise when there is more than one singer... and when I was a kid listening to tons of records, I was always interested in when someone other than a band's lead singer sang – like when Chris Difford would take a vocal in Squeeze, Keith Richard’s occasional lead vocals on Rolling Stones albums, Marty Donald’s lead vocals on Lucksmiths albums, et cetera.
Rebecca: It's not really pop, but The Gossip has been my favorite live band for... like, ever. The energy is unreal and I feel like they support the audience more than any other band I've seen. I think I'm too shy to get that sort of energy on stage, but Beth Ditto, in particular, has been my inspiration for getting the courage to go up there in the first place. Basically every band that Rachel Carns has been in, too. As for pop music, The Besties are always awesome. I love watching The Smittens. The 500s are great. All those bands let nothing hold them back, and I admire their ability to just enjoy performing and get the audience going, no matter how many people are in the crowd. I should also mention that I admire Dolly Parton's stage banter... or, just Dolly Parton in general.
Brad: The first time I saw The Lucksmiths, I basically quit the garage-punk band I was in, in order to see what I could do with the notebook full of songs I had written that no one had heard. I think they are riveting, yet so basic. They take simple tools, and with a lot of wit and character, produce so much energy and emotion.
Does Boston have a pop scene that you feel part of?
Rebecca: There's a handful of bands within a reasonable radius, but not a ton of them in Boston. I think most of the indiepop stuff that happened here happened before we all moved to Boston. It's hard to get people interested sometimes, since Boston is always sort of an 'in between' city for people waiting to move to San Francisco or Austin or New York City. In the short time that we've been playing together, we've seen a lot of great bands break up or move! I do feel part of a pop community in a broader sense. Popfests have been great, cause all these people from all over the world come together. We're never sure where they're hiding during the rest of the year, but everyone resurfaces for popfests!
Terms like 'indiepop' or 'twee' always seem pretty vague. What does the term 'indiepop' mean to you, and can you describe if or how it fits you?
Brad: To me, the word 'indiepop' suggests possibilities. So many genres – whether it's bluegrass or jazz or garage-punk or power pop – are defined by rules and limitations. With indiepop, there are no limitations...
Rebecca: Indiepop is pretty broad, but I also think it's a forgiving genre in that no one is going to come down on us if we mess up, don't look the part, or are motivated purely by fun. I like the term indiepop, because when I tell people I play pop music, they often think of Britney Spears or Green Day or something. The twee label makes me kind of uncomfortable, because while I love a lot of twee bands, I also see how it'd be easy to be stuck with that label forever. We're still pretty new, and there's a lot that we want to try that's not all cute and fluffy.
Brad: Yeah, the word twee has specific implications that can box you in – as much as we like a lot of bands who are described as twee.
Will we get a chance to catch you live in Europe on day?
Rebecca: Hopefully! I don't have a passport yet, though. I need to get my eyebrows waxed before I can go get my picture taken. And maybe even a haircut.
Brad: I just had a passport photo taken a few days ago. I strongly recommend a haircut – I regret not getting one.
What can we expect next? An album? International mainstream fame?
Rebecca: We're working on a full-length album, which will hopefully be out in the spring. We're discussing a southwest US tour around that same time.
Brad: This record will be really interesting – more expansive with a lot of different instruments, some new rhythms and themes, but also a lot of hooks. We’ll see what happens from there...
I'm looking forward to hearing more! Please work on getting those passports, we'll be waiting impatiently here in Europe...
Original band photo (in colour) by Brynn Dizack.
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1. One Happy Island - Temporary tattoo
2. One Happy Island - Potential