Ask The Explorers Club founder Jason Brewer about his hopes for the band’s sophomore album, Grand Hotel, and he’ll tell you straight up: “We really want this record to make a lot of people smile, to inject some positivity into the world. Let’s stop making things so serious and introspective, and get away on a musical vacation so we can bring a little bit of joy to people.”
That would sound like a pretty ambitious, even audacious mission for any band to undertake, if it weren’t for the fact that the South Carolina sextet had already gone a long way toward accomplishing it on the 2008 debut album Freedom Wind. That set met with a high degree of positivity in its own right. The media wasn’t stingy in slinging about the accolades, calling it “quite remarkable” (USA Today), “pristinely perfect” (the Chicago Reader) and “beautiful: wholly, deeply and truly” (the Onion AV Club). A national tour, and having cuts from Freedom Wind featured on the TV series Bored to Death, The O.C. and How I Met Your Mother, were icing on the cake for “a wonderfully cotton-candy-sweet album of indie-pop gems that [recall] the breezy orchestral pop of years gone by” (Performer magazine).
The genesis of Grand Hotel must seem to the members of The Explorers Club like an event that occurred long ago and far away. Recording commenced in 2009, but the album’s conception, and considerable birth pains, preceded it by several months. “After we toured behind Freedom Wind and got a good response,” explains Brewer, “I went to our label at the time and said, ‘I have a concept for the next record. I want it to be like a musical vacation, a kind of travelogue, like you’re checking into a hotel that’s filled with all these interesting activities, feelings and emotions.’ There’d be three different kinds of sounds: the big machine-pop of the early ’70s, the kind of Latin music a tourist would hear in Mexico—I loved the soundtracks to those terrible Elvis films like Blue Hawaii—and also West Coast jazz of the late ’50s/early-’60s.”
The label picked up the travel brochure but never really boarded the ship for the trip Brewer had planned. A modest recording budget was allotted, which went fast. Sessions bogged down as Grand Hotel turned into a band-financed venture (“We’d go into the studio for a day,” he recalls, “then have to wait to go back for two days till we could afford to pay for more time”). The Explorers Club finally purchased the in-progress project from the label, then contacted respected music-industry veteran Marc Nathan (already a big fan of Freedom Wind), who suggested fixes to songs, helped tighten the album’s programming and put the band together with mixing engineer Mark Linett, best known for his work on the Beach Boys’ Smile and Pet Sounds reissues and recordings with Randy Newman, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction and others.
The album itself is a stunner, a great leap forward from the impressive Freedom Wind, penned once again with FW collaborator Stains, and Mike Williamson. “We weren’t trying to make a cool rock record or a ‘concept’ album,” explains Brewer. “But we wanted it to be musically innovative.” It is that. It’s also a recording that takes many of its cues from cinema.
The big screen plays a role in several Grand Hotel songs, among them the instrumental title track. Describing it as “like Herb Alpert jamming with one of the psychedelic bands from the Nuggets albums,” Brewer makes his point: it’d fit perfectly on the soundtrack of a vintage James Bond flick.
Of the album-closing “Open the Door,” Brewer explains, “I was knocked out by that Robert Downey movie The Soloist” (the 2009 film based on the true story of a schizophrenic cello virtuoso who wound up on L.A.’s skid row). “All these people were trying to love and help this guy, but he just couldn’t grasp that. Troy and I wrote the song about the need to let people in, and we wanted it to have the dramatic, epic feel of those early Roy Orbison records. And Neil Diamond and Ennio Morricone.”
More low-key but no less atmospheric is “Weight of the World,” a marimba-tinged track that urges the listener to take a mental vacation from stress. “Originally,” says Brewer, “it was going to be like one of those things from an Elvis movie, where he’s leaning over to kiss the girl. But the more we got into it, it sounded like my grandma’s Andy Williams records. This is a song I’d wish I’d been able to give to Frank Sinatra.”
Not that anyone should get the idea that Grand Hotel doesn’t accommodate rocking. “Anticipatin’” rips along with the kind of momentum associated with the most upbeat Four Seasons or Grass Roots hits, while “Go For You” layers harmonies and handclaps, horns and electric sitar to create an unstoppable piece of pure pop. Brewer likens the brisk “Run Run Run” to “arriving in the lobby of a Vegas hotel. It’s got all this shiny fancy brass, lots of overtracking.”
Grand Hotel sounds impressive, and it indicates that The Explorers Club has the imagination and abilities to go just about wherever it pleases—and take the rest of us along. Ready to check in?