Stream Bent Denim's Epistolary EP

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The collaborative chain letter form goes multimedia.

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Sjimon Gompers | April 3, 2014

Bent Denim

On Bourbon Street with Bent Denim's Ben Littlejohn and Dennis Sager. (photographed by Benjamin Garrett Davis)

Bent Denim works in the long distance collaborative sound trade between Dallas/Nashville's Ben Littlejohn and New Orleans Dennis Sager's bedroom recordings. In our variety of coverage on the duo's various released tracks, that includes a heart melting holiday song and video —we give you a first advance listen to their April 8 slated, Epistolary EP.

The dialogue between Southern state lines and cities can be heard on the opener, “Southern City”. Through the distances of the creative dialogues between Ben and Dennis, disconnection from the surrounding world is told through the act of unsubscribing to chain e-mails and small town claustrophobia where Dennis sings, “going to cut my ties with this town and head on down to Tupelo”. The organ and sparse production drops to a more solemn key on the minute and a half song about living in the, “Living Room”, where life is lived through sitcom reruns on basic cable. And then “Fuel” throws a pail of petrol on the band's flame with upbeat percussion and memorable keyboard sequences that is full of Bukowskian feelings, anecdotes of bullying with rubber bands and corrupt pill-pushing doctors.

The more sullen but still sentimental side of Bent Denim resounds with it's own calm trademark, on the intimate, and evocative mortal reflective elements of, “Periodic Table”. The songs of tears are strummed through lo-fidelity grainy productions of the guitars and distorted touches that encompass the world's opening of opportunities on, “Windows”. Rippling and waving across the stereo channels is the alleviating flight of keys on, “Nine Years” that reverberate throughout your being. Closing on the somber notes of, “Cavalcade”; Ben's understated keys fall like rain drops all over Dennis' cutting lyrics like, “if you think you can't save me, you won't.” The placement of the closing song, “Cavalcade” at the end gives the listener a moment to reflect on where the seven song EP has taken you, as the two conclude a multidimensional audio experience that takes the letter form to a multimedia platform of honest, and emotional exchanges.

Catching up with Bent Denim's Ben and Dennis since last Christmas, we got another chain of conversation going as we explored further the correspondence that comprised the two's Epistolary EP.

Take us through the back and forth exchange of Ben's keyboards and drum loops and Dennis's vocal parts that gave rise to the Epistolary EP.

Ben: It all began with “Periodic Table”. I had sketched a bunch of things after compiling and chopping up a bunch of drum intros to fit into the grid on ProTools. That one had all the verses on it already and was sent to Dennis to add vocals. We had previously talked about him adding vocals to a now defunct project but it never happened. In the process of getting it to Dennis, it also got into the hands of our now manager, Connor. We never really talked about it much but most of the next tunes were just sent quickly off to Dennis after getting a foundation down. I've always loved everything he's done lyrically and not really loved everything that I've done, so it felt really right. We've known each other since I was in elementary school and we’ve played together in multiple bands, so it's always flowing and organic.

Dennis: Ben sent me “Periodic Table” right in the middle of Mardi Gras, 2013 just being like, “Hey mess around with this when you get the time.” I’m a huge Why? / Yoni Wolf fan, so I was really looking for a project I could use a lot of words with. Connor was an apartment-mate at the time and managed my other band ArchAnimals, so he got his hands on it, loved it and told us not to 'poop it onto Bandcamp.' Like Ben said, we didn’t talk about the tracks we were making much, we just kept going. Ben’s got an amazing work ethic, and I have always just tried to keep up my output as best I can. By the end of March 2013 we’d pretty much finished the first eleven songs, and seven of them make up Epistolary.

I loved that “unsubscribing to emails” line. It somehow really captures this disconnection quality of the lo-fi tape recorded/phone recorded vocals of the twangy arrangement. What's the trick in creating this dissonance over your guy's long distance connection?

B: Dennis has a super nice microphone called an AKG C414. It creates like a perfect clean big picture of his vocals that is the perfect platform for manipulation. The only thing I'm ever fighting is room or AC noise because we both work in our bedrooms. The dissonance it realized by acknowledging that our voices are different and they occupy different sonic space. Trying to treat them the same would be a mistake.

D: I love that line too!

The up late, “watching Nick at Nite” line creates some uber-loneliness on, “Living Room”. How in the hell does Bent Denim manage to encapsulate these areas and aspects of places and moments with visceral, and transportive detail?

B: I just have a huge collection of iPhone notes that are little lines that give off a mood or a tone and these can write whole songs. “Living Room” started with the first line and immediately transformed into the loneliness that’s on it. They’re just fleeting images but those are my favorite in others songs, especially when the images knock you on your ass.

D: Yeah definitely writing a little bit all the time, in all states of being / moods, is key. I did most of my vocal tracks in the middle of the night, so they’re kinda whispery because I tried not to wake up my roommate. Sometimes I’d record these terribly morbid vocal tracks during night, and the next morning just be horrified by the darkness of the previous nights work.

“Fuel” is such an understated wiz of a single, keep feeling like all the radios of America should be blaring this. How is that you all can mine so personal territories and then just strike with everything you got, with juxtapositions like the mellow “Periodic Table” placed right next to it on the EP?

B: Ha ha, thanks. “Fuel” was actually the first song to begin with Dennis' lyrics, if I remember correctly. It was such an invigorating and intense feeling to get something back that I couldn't even begin to put words or melody down to. All of sudden here were these verses with words that I loved and melodies that were perfect. That feeling was so new and intense that I think it definitely came out as I finished the instrumentation and arrangement of the song. Dennis' friend, Lisa, also added some ridiculously good harmonies to it that I would of never thought of which definitely heightened said feeling.

D: Thank you for the kind words! The drums and riff are so in your face, so I felt the subject matter had to be on par with that feeling. I read all of J. M. Coetzee’s fiction in an unhealthy short amount of time. It’s all really heavy stuff that shakes you to your core, definitely not meant to be binge read, or rather it takes a certain type of person to binge read it and actually enjoy it. Chaim Potok’s The Book of Lights is one of my mother’s favorite books, and it too has huge influence on the song’s content as well. I definitely wrote the first verse of “Fuel” in pen on the inside cover of Elizabeth Costello during class one day. “Fuel” ended up being such a vector of catharsis for some anxieties I had that come with being an American. We are the only nation that has used nuclear weaponry on another nation's civilian population, not only once but twice. I digress. We the living must be students of history always. The transition to the next song really worked out well. That’s kinda one of the things I’m really focused on for the next release- the last lines of the song leading into the first lyrics of the next song.

“Windows” has such a gap opening into escapist interlude genius that takes you into the wonder worlds and wonder works of, “Nine Years”. What is the story behind the making and inception of, “Years”?

B: Initially it had a lot more cheesy riffs going on and was much more kitschy. That pulsing synth line started it all. It's literally just a 145 blues progression but with synths and clean delayed guitars. I had both my verses down when it went off to Dennis, and when I got it back, it seemed like it spoke on its own without the need of excessive riffing. Most of this album hopefully lacks excessive riffing.

D: I like to think of it as a back and forth conversation. In the end it’s something of a backhanded metaphysical love song along the lines of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and/or Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes”.

Bringing it all back home, tell us about closing it up with emotion drifting key-chords of “Cavalcade”.

B: “Cavalcade” is one of my favorite examples of the way Dennis and my lyrics interplay. We don't talk about lyrics together, its just taking what the other person gives you and working off it. Any conversations about lyrics are after everything is laid down or just to mention how much we like the other’s verse. I also just love the word ‘cavalcade.'

D: I could never imagine asking Ben to change his lyrics, and I’m sure that sentiment is reciprocated. The lyrics are never rearranged, so the listener actually experiences the back-and-forth-ness that we too go through. It’s definitely one of the more personal songs on the record for me. I was a full time student finishing up undergrad and touring on the majority of weekends, just wearing myself thin. “Cavalcade” is such a beautiful word; so eerily close to ‘cadaver.’

What other recordings are you guys working on?

B: There is a playlist on my iTunes that is too big to admit of new things. Hopefully that will formulate into a debut LP.

D: Yeah hopefully something interesting enough to where we get another interview on Impose.

What should we expect next?

B: Ideally a video our friend Will made, but we'll see where this impending summer takes us. Hopefully a tour. We played our first show with a live drummer in New Orleans at BUKU Music + Art Festival a few weekends ago and I hope that he becomes a mainstay in our live shows. My brother, Chris, played and killed it after one three-hour practice the night before the show.

D: I really want a projector showing footage during our live show. And hopefully a bad ass summer tour that ends profitably.

Bent Denim's Epistolary EP will be available April 8 via Bandcamp.

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