Throughout its first album, 2007's Law, and its recently released second album, Patriot, certain constants make Cougar what it is: clean-toned guitars, intricate-yet-catchy songwriting, and an open-ended, clear-headed approach to drumming and production that lets left-field elements (a sample from a law-school professor's lecture, or perhaps a choir) slip in without creating chaos. Beyond that, Cougar fancies itself a band that's averse to getting stuck on formulas.
As the band's five members spread out to five different cities and began recording Patriot via e-mailed tracks—with drummer David Henzie-Skogen staying in Madison and tying all together from home—the songs ventured away from the entrancingly repetitive guitar hooks of Law. Patriot's opening track, "Stay Famous," begins with a burst of guitar noise channeled through effects until it's almost unrecognizable, in sharp contrast to the gentle chords that open Law's first song, "Atlatl." Many of the key elements that made Law successful (and refreshingly hard to stick with the usual instrumental-post-rock comparisons) are still key on Patriot, but a process Skogen describes as "kind of like conference-calling an album" puts them in a more volatile light, and encourages the band members to embrace their electronic influences.
Before the band's Nov. 18 show at Subterranean, Henzie-Skogen sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about how a few of the new album's tracks came to be.
The A.V. Club: When you played a lot of the new songs live in 2007, it sounded like the band was getting heavier, and that comes through pretty early in this track as well.
David Henzie-Skogen: It's more aggressive of a record, and even though this record was made with five people in five different cities, that aspect of the record did have to do with playing live. When we made the first record, we hadn't actually played a lot of shows. We realized after touring the first record that we played a lot harder live, and we kind of amped everything up. We also realized that those were some of the times we had to most fun playing live. We didn't really realize until we finished making the record that there were just considerably more loud or rock moments than on the last record.
AVC: How did this song's choir part come about?
DH: The choir is just two people. James Murray does all the male voices, and Amelia Royko does all the female voices. We recorded James first and he recorded five or six parts, and then we had Amelia record four or five parts, and then we mashed them all together and made them sound like they were in a church. The impetus for that song was when Dan had this really short guitar idea, and we were on tour in England, I think we were in Durham. We were just kind of dicking around before the show and went down to the cathedral and a boys' choir was practicing. We were like, "Oh, we really need to do a song with a boys' choir." But yeah, people do boys' choir and it's really hard not to get kinda Pink Floyd-y about it or kind of Rolling Stones about it, Björk-y. We had Amelia improvise a lot, and we'd just lace those parts in there as variations on everything.
AVC: This starts with a guitar-oriented part, then builds into something more abstract.
DH: Sleator wrote the acoustic-guitar melody that happens when the beat comes in. Then Dan wrote this keyboard part that he tried on harp, and though it sounded really good, and then we remembered that this band that had opened for us in Dublin had a harp player who was really cool and really good. They were this interesting post-rock band [Halfset], but they had a legitimate, serious harp player [Sinead Nic Gearailt]. She was really keen on doing the song, so then she sent us all these different takes of a harp parts. I just took all these different little harp parts of hers and chopped them up. It's weird, the song just goes A, B, C, D, and no part repeats. It's just kind of a weird way to write a song... When I hear a harp in a rock or a pop setting, it's impossible for me not to think of [Björk's 2001 album] Vespertine, and I was trying to find ways to not make it feel like that record. Maybe it's just me, but there are certain sounds that are so distinctive that I can't hear them and not that record. It's like that keyboard sound at the beginning of [Radiohead's] Kid A on "Everything In Its Right Place." Dan has got this really interesting way of playing guitar since he's classically trained. He's got these weird ways of playing chords—he plays with all five fingers. We wanted to expose the fact that he plays finger-style, and the only way to do that is to make the guitars clean.
AVC: On the other hand, this track gets into the noisier side of the guitar.
DH: We just kept being like, "You know, we could go harder on it. We could still go harder on it." Not only is it a lot of fun to play live, I feel like it's a nice distillation of what Cougar tries to do: Here's a riff, here's a vehicle for building tension in that riff, and here's a hook. There's this divide between people that really genuinely enjoy hearing whatever the most brand-new thing in the world is, and whatever's the avant-garde, and whoever's pushing the boundaries, and there's also this whole massive group of people that want to be able to remember and sing along and hum. I don't see any reason why those two things have to be mutually exclusive.
AVC: This feels like the most straightforward song on the album. Was that the idea?
DH: It's written by Jeff Snyder, an electronic guy who used to live in Madison and now lives in New York, he builds all his own analog-synth instruments. The entire piece is a 32-bar chord progression, and then he just messes with it and does this kinda Squarepusher-y thing to it. We interpreted it as one big crescendo... Instead of doing our typical kind of rock-out on it, the rock-out section is much more Bill And Ted-ish.
"Duarte V. Armada"
AVC: Here's the other big left-field element on the album—a drumline.
DH: I wrote a score of the drumline parts and recorded five snare drums, four of what we call the quads or the tenors, and then five different bass-drum parts. So I did record 20 drum tracks on that. Drumline's a huge part of my life. It's what I teach when I'm not on tour. This particular song was epic in a way that sounded to me both more classical and also more, like Bon Jovi. This kind of thing where you're stomping your foot and shaking your first but kind of smiling. It's this unabashedly triumphant song, and I wanted to just see if I could go over the top on it. The guys were just initially like, "Really? That's a terrible idea." For me, the cool little tidbit in there is there's this almost chronology of drumline playing that happens in the song, where it starts out s a single snare drummer, little drummer boy or whatever, it becomes the trap set, then it became modern drumline madness, where the rhythms are all crazy and weird.