A Little (Dance Dance) Revolution
Burlington's twee heroes The Smittens go global
Greg Comollo, Don Eggert, Ted Olson, Diane Sullivan
Burlington’s The Smittens are known far and wide for their sugary, bubble-gum pop confections. They’ve nuzzled themselves a cozy niche in the coziest of niche genres, twee indie-pop. They have released a trio of globally acclaimed full-length albums, in addition to appearing on scads of national and international comps and splits. They have toured the United States from coast to coast, appearing at virtually every major indie-pop festival in the country — and plenty of minor ones. This summer, The Smittens will travel to the UK, Sweden and other parts of Europe for the third time in support of a star-studded remix EP, Dancing Shoes: The Smittens Remixed, released earlier this week.
Theirs is a remarkable and unlikely success story. It is fraught with perilous obstacles, crushing failures, a bit of romance and, of course, redemption. And cute dolls. And to think it all started with something called the Hot Dog Incident.
Depending on which member of the band you ask, it happened at their third or fourth gig ever — the latter, according to bassist and band archivist David Zacharis, who’s generally acknowledged as the surest source on such matters. To wit, he remembers the show’s exact date, September 19, 2002, and recites it without skipping a beat. Perhaps this is because, by all accounts, it was The Smittens’ Worst Show Ever.
Setting up the now-infamous story, Zacharis provides some necessary historical context.
“You know how sometimes there will be, like, years when there are no shows in Burlington?” he asks. It is not a rhetorical question.
Zacharis is the owner of Dangerfive Records, a local label that dates back to early 2000 and released or co-released The Smittens’ first two full-length albums. Even at the age of 35, he is the very image of an indie fanboy. And he knows his stuff when it comes to Burlington rock.
There has always been an ebb and flow to the local rock scene. The period Zacharis refers to — roughly 2000 to 2002 — represented a particularly low tide. Fabled rock dive Club Toast had recently closed, effectively ending a golden age of Queen City music that had begun in the early 1990s. Most of the bands that would come to define the scene’s next era — The Cush, The Jazz Guys, Swale and others — were either in their infancy or didn’t exist yet. In short, the scene was in a bit of a lull.
“It was, like, ‘I really don’t want to go see Construction Joe again,’” Zacharis says, referring to David Kamm’s celebrated late 1990s Burlington rock outfit. “Nothing against Construction Joe, of course. I loved that band. But around that period of time they were, like, the only band playing.”
Localvore options were so lean, in fact, that Zacharis and his then-new friend Max Andrucki would regularly drive several hours from Burlington to New Hampshire or Massachusetts to see shows. To pass time on the way, they played a game where they would invent band names. When they came up with a good one, they’d call their mutual friend Colin Clary, a veteran of the Burlington rock scene — at that time a member of several bands, perhaps most notably alt-rockers The Madelines.
“They called me one day and said, ‘We’re a band. We’re gonna be called Snowpants,’” Clary says. A few minutes later, they called back.
“‘Fuck Snowpants. We’re The Smittens!’” Clary recalls Zacharis saying. And with that, a band was born. Sort of.
With shrugged-shoulder agreement from Clary, Zacharis and Andrucki booked a show two weeks away without having any real songs to speak of — or a drummer.
Enter Holly Chagnon.
Andrucki had seen Chagnon, now 34, behind the skins at a New Year’s Eve party a few months earlier and assumed, incorrectly, that she played the drums.
“Actually, I was just kinda drunk, banging on instruments,” the slightly built Chagnon confesses. She didn’t let that stop her from accepting an invitation to join the band. “Twenty minutes later I was, like, ‘What did I just agree to? I don’t know how to play the drums.’”
A fortnight later, on March 21, 2002, The Smittens played their inaugural show at Club Metronome. They opened for Burlington’s James Kochalka Superstar, Clary’s band The Magic Is Gone and a Boston-based outfit composed of Burlington expats The Also-Rans. And just how did this brand-new band with almost no experience and barely any repertoire fare?
Brad Searles was the drummer for The Also-Rans. A Burlington fixture during the city’s alt-rock heyday in the 1990s, he’d been a drummer in several bands — including The Four Color Manual with Clary — and was the local-music columnist for the Burlington Free Press. He currently writes the Boston music blog Bradley’s Almanac. “They were certainly, um, loose,” he recalls of The Smittens on their first outing.
Zacharis offers a more blunt assessment. “We were awful,” he says, smiling.
“But we had attitude,” Chagnon interjects. “We were fearless.”
And probably at least a little naïve. Zacharis admits that when they founded the band, neither he nor Andrucki actually played any instruments. In fact, beyond a short-lived experiment called The Archibalds — a duo featuring Andrucki and eventual Smitten Dana Kaplan — neither had ever been in a real band.
“I didn’t quite know, exactly, just how bad we were,” says Chagnon with a giggle.
Still, the seeds of the traits that would eventually make the band popular on several continents were evident. As Searles puts it, “Even when The Smittens play a loose set, they’re still charming as all get-out.”
“The songs were catchy, and the lyrics were punchy and clever,” says Chagnon.
“It was exciting to have something different,” says Chagnon. “And danceable, in a weird kind of way.”
Six months after that ill-fated first show, the band members found themselves on the bill of a benefit show at The Annex, an all-ages venue in the basement of Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium. The lineup featured The Smittens in all their awkward, bubble-gum glory and roughly a dozen snarling hardcore bands. This would become the Hot Dog Incident.
Exact recollections vary slightly from Smitten to Smitten. But the gist is the same. The band was woefully out of its element, eliciting audience reactions ranging from confusion to outright animosity.
“Everyone’s aghast, jaws dropped and can’t quite understand what we’re doing,” says Zacharis.
“Probably not our target audience,” adds Chagnon.
One thing they do agree on is that Andrucki was the antagonist. Intro-ducing their song “Nate Is Straight” — along with “I Hate Vermont,” one of the two original Archibalds songs — the lanky front man sneered into the microphone, “This song is about our friend Nate. He’s straight. Are there any straight people in the audience?” And then, following a pregnant pause, “Didn’t think so.”
It was a recipe for disaster: Take one utterly out-of-place, cutesy-but-churlish twee band, mix with a dozen or so hardcore bands and their teenage fans, and add free hot dogs.
“It flew right by my head,” recalls Chagnon. “This hot dog just came out of nowhere.”
“I don’t know who it may have been aimed at,” Kaplan, 32, says of the processed-meat projectile. “But there was definitely a hot dog thrown.” Still in the bun, too.
The show was Kaplan’s first with the band. What’s mildly surprising is that it wasn’t her last. “It wasn’t traumatizing enough to dissuade me from wanting to be a part of the group,” she says.
If anything, that show had a galvanizing effect. Now, at least, The Smittens had a baseline: It couldn’t get any worse. Kaplan would officially join the band soon after. And, slowly but surely, they improved.
But in 2004, roughly one year after the release of the band’s charming lo-fi debut Gentlefication Now!, Andrucki made a startling announcement: He was moving to State College, Penn., to pursue a PhD in geography at Penn State.
That’s exactly the sort of responsible, grown-up decision that has broken up rock bands since, well, the advent of rock music. Only The Smittens didn’t break up. Instead, they came to an agreement that would shape the course of the band for years to come.
“We didn’t want to stop being The Smittens,” says Clary. “So we told Max, ‘You can go wherever you want to. But you’re not allowed to not allow us to do stuff.’”
Andrucki would leave for State College and return to Burlington as often as he could. Meanwhile, the remaining Smittens would continue writing and performing as a four-piece. It was the indie-pop equivalent of an open relationship.
“It was actually quite a relief to me,” says Andrucki, now 32. “It took some of the pressure off. I could still be in the band, but didn’t have to feel guilty that I wasn’t around.”
But State College didn’t agree with Andrucki. He returned to Burlington the following summer with another potentially crippling announcement: He was moving to England to continue his studies at the University of Leeds.
“By that time, we couldn’t really consider it a crisis, because we had already dealt with Max not being around,” says Clary.
Still, an ocean apart is an ocean apart. How can you be a band when you have to go through customs just to practice?
The Smittens did what they always seem to do: They adjusted. Instead of viewing Andrucki’s absence as a challenge to be overcome, they saw it as an asset to be embraced. Eventually, that’s exactly what it became. Andrucki would return home several times per year. The band used those occasions to hold intensive practices and recording sessions, sometimes lasting several days at a time.
“It forces us to be more efficient with our time, for sure,” says Kaplan, who often hosts the marathon practices at her parents’ Connecticut home — aka “Twee Valley Manor.”
That efficiency manifests in their personal lives, too. Two Smittens weddings — Kaplan’s to Katie Dyer, and Chagnon and Zacharis’ to each other — were planned around a recent Andrucki return so he wouldn’t have to fly home twice.
Across the pond, Andrucki immersed himself in England’s vibrant indie-pop scene. Generally speaking, the genre, and particularly The Smittens’ brand, traces its roots to the UK, with influences ranging from early Brit pop of the 1960s to the C86 movement of the mid-1980s. (The latter is often cited as a major root of indie-rock itself.) Indie-pop remains much more vital in the UK than it is in America. Andrucki understood that, as long as the band could continue producing new music, it could remain relevant, especially abroad.
“He was like, ‘I figured out how to be really successful. We just don’t break up,’” says Clary.
So they didn’t. Andrucki made inroads with UK concert promoters and London-based DIY labels such as Make Do and Mend Records and WeePOP! Records. For their efforts, The Smittens are perhaps better known in the UK than in the U.S.
“We probably have more die-hard, non-friends-first Smittens fans outside the country,” says Kaplan.
Clary offers a more personal take on the band’s unlikely longevity. “I’m addicted to making records,” he says. The bubbly, seemingly ageless guitarist — he’s actually 38 — has been in more Burlington bands than he cares to count — or perhaps even can. And he has certainly made his share of records. “I really like the idea of a band’s story being told through the albums they make,” he explains. “And I got tired of the story always being so short.”
On Monday, July 12, 2010, the story of The Smittens grew one chapter longer, as London’s Odd Box Records released Dancing Shoes: The Smittens Remixed. The eight-song EP features dance remixes of Smittens tunes culled from across their discography. To curate the project, the band tapped a handful of local musicians, as well as a few national and international figures such as Mark Robinson, the founder of legendary indie label Teenbeat, and Swedish indie-pop star Nixon (aka Roger Gunnarsson). Kaplan and Clary also added remixes to the project.
The result is an album that reflects both where The Smittens are and, just as importantly, where they’ve come from. While unlike anything the band has previously released, it manages to feel decidedly, well, Smittens-y.
For example, listen to Gunnarsson’s take on the band’s classic song “Sapphire” from their 2005 album A Little Revolution. His version pays tribute to the Swedish hit-making team of Stock Aitken Waterman, better known as the folks who gave the world Rick Astley, among others.
Using a technology similar to Auto-Tune, Gunnarsson physically altered Andrucki’s original melody, cheering up what was a melancholic song. It now boasts a bright, synthy aesthetic deeply evocative of hypercommercial 1980s pop. In other words, Gunnarsson Rick-rolled The Smittens.
“I was a bit afraid initially that the band would consider my remix a joke rather than an experimental way of doing it,” he says. “But in the end, I think they liked it.”
They did. “I love that joyful synth sound,” gushes Andrucki.
Burlington’s Greg Davis applied his well-known experimental way of doing things to “The Garden” — his version appears as “Mesclun Mix” in the album’s liner notes. The original song, like so many Smittens tunes, was light and gentle. Davis stripped away most of the existing tracking and rebuilt it around electronic sounds. “I wanted to make it a little more stark,” he says. “I wanted to add a little depth or heaviness.” He deliberately manipulated the song to resemble the hazy early work of The Magnetic Fields.
“Max’s voice instantly reminds you of Stephin Merritt,” says Davis. “So that became my reference point.”
Ryan Power played up The Smittens’ affinity for — and intentionally ironic resemblance to — classic manufactured pop bands such as The Monkees and The Archies. He sped up the tempo on “Momus, Where Are You?” which pitched up the entire track, giving the song a distinct Chipmunks bent. Or, as Clary describes it, “Munchkins-esque.”
James Kochalka’s take on “Baby, Don’t You Know” is less a remix than a straight-up cover. He couldn’t use the song’s original tracks from 2008’s The Coolest Thing About Love, because they wouldn’t jive with the Game Boy sound processor he used to create the song — and his most recent album, Digital Elf. So Kochalka rerecorded the entire song, prominently laying his always-distinctive vocals over blocky eight-bit beats. “Surprisingly, it sounds much sadder than I thought it would,” he muses.
That probably didn’t surprise Steve Williams. Williams (My First Days on Junk, Rough Francis) mixed each of The Smittens’ first two albums. His remix of “Twitterpated” is actually one of three times he has reimagined the song, which first appeared on A Little Revolution. Williams’ cut, a mastered version of a 2005 remix for an online comp put out by A Bunch of Beatniks Riding a Rocket, is the most overtly clubby of the EP’s eight songs. It is also the furthest removed from sounding like The Smittens. Williams has completely deconstructed the song, turning it into a druggy, downtempo house anthem. But in doing so, he may have struck on a mix that generates the most philosophically Smittens song of the bunch.
Despite their cuddly Super Friends exterior, The Smittens have always had a dark side. Beneath those feel-good licks, their music often bears a subtle undercurrent of sadness. It is precisely that contrast that elevates the band above cutesy novelty. Or, as Clary puts it, “Hey! They don’t look like cute dolls! That guy looks like my uncle.”
Williams, more familiar with The Smittens’ music than anyone outside the band, offers a more succinct — and serious — assessment.
“One of the reasons I like The Smittens’ music is that mix of fun and darkness,” he explains.
And then he provides an insight that cuts to the heart of the project, and perhaps of The Smittens themselves. “And really, doesn’t everyone dance to get rid of their dark?”