It’s raining in Brooklyn as I make my way towards Todd’s. It’s a muggy, humid night, but I couldn’t be more stoked. Tonight I’m on a mission for IGIF, a mission that’s years overdue: I’m interviewing ARMS.
Ever since June of 2006, we have all been keeping tabs on Todd Goldstein. Todd’s work first caught our attention with the self-released (and self-distributed) Shitty Little Disco EP. Barely running over 30 minutes, this seven-track wonder featured a few tracks that were arguably among the best of 2006, from “Tiger Tamer” to “Ana Martha” to the title track itself.
Since then, Todd has been incredibly busy. He’s signed with a label. He’s the guitarist for the Harlem Shakes. Most importantly, he’s put out one of the best albums of the year, this summer’s Kids Aflame.
I caught up with Todd to chat about the past, present, and future of ARMS.
So, where did it all begin for you?
I’ve been playing music in some form or another since I was about eight. My parents made me take piano lessons, but I’m a terrible student, so I’d figure stuff out quickly and then not practice. It’s the same way with all my instruments. I played piano, I played saxophone–and I faked my way through everything. I was enough of a natural to come in and be like “Yeah I practiced!” and then totally fuck around. I faked all the numbers on my practice logs.
I started playing guitar when I was thirteen. A friend who I was in a fake band with (and actually did play guitar) showed me how. Then I was like, “Wow! I really like this!” and ran with it, picking it up really quickly. I started, almost immediately, writing songs. For a number of years there were various different kinds of music I was playing. I played in jazz bands; and jam bands; folky-college-rocky kind of bands; power-poppy things. By the end of college I thought, “This is clearly what I want to be doing.”
What were some of your earliest musical influences?
How do I say this without incriminating myself?
I mean, early influences were things like Phish. I loved that stuff; I learned all the guitar parts, thought they were all great guitarists and musicians. I was totally into it.
I grew up with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, classic-rock radio — I was militant about classic-rock radio. Nerd rock like They Might Be Giants [Todd shows me the birdhouse tattoo inked onto his left forearm--a tribute to "Birdhouse in Your Soul"] and Frank Zappa, a lot of surf rock and lounge rock. Really nerdy, silly rock.
By the end of high school I started to listen to more specifically “indie” stuff. Elliott Smith was like…my world exploded. Rufus Wainwright and Belle & Sebastian towards the end of high school. By the time I got to college I was like, “Indie rock…here we go.” I got into Pavement, Built to Spill, all those “Big Guns” of indie. The Shins came out when I was a freshman in college, and that was great. It all sort of snowballed from there–Elvis Costello, too. A big deal for me then.
How did you get started as ARMS?
Well, it’s weird when I’m talking about early influences because I’ve been through so many different phases. The ARMS thing happened in 2004, once I’d graduated. When I was in college, I was making really spazzy, super ultra-poppy…it sounded like music that a made-up rock band would play on a sitcom: it was almost a parody of itself. It was very influenced by stuff like Ben Folds, Elvis Costello, They Might Be Giants; I was writing the most ultra self-aware, super-crafted, ultra-poppy things I could.
Then I graduated and I was like, “What do I wanna do? What kind of music do I want to make?” So I was terribly writer’s-blocked for about a year. I didn’t write anything. And I got really depressed–just really, really unhappy and confused. This is when I started listening to shoegaze–My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride–and I started listening to Low a lot. Low was like a punk rock moment for me. I remember thinking, “It can be slow?!” It had never occurred to me.
Once I started writing again, the new stuff was completely different from anything I’d written before. It was much more subdued, atmospheric; I started singing differently, writing differently–everything had changed…and that was ARMS. From 2004 on, it’s been ARMS.
Where’d you get “ARMS”?
Remember the Run the Road compilation a few years back? The grime compilation with Dizzee Rascal and the Streets, the British rap stuff. I read about a grime rapper called Ears. Something about that name sort of clicked…I liked the idea of a plural body part as a band name, for some reason. It sort of rings with me.
ARMS has that cheesy double-entendre in it too, which I kind of liked.
And then there was the Shitty Little Disco EP.
Actually, I self-released a shorter EP before that, but I just shared it with friends. So then I made Shitty Little Disco. It hadn’t occurred to me that blogs were a viable way of distributing music, of posting your music on the internet. So, I sent out a physical CD for free to anybody who wanted to hear it. It was an investment. I thought, “I’m gonna invest X dollars in this, and I’m just gonna get it out there, no matter what.” If anyone friended me on myspace, I’d be like, “Hey! Want a CD?” I was just hoping it would get somewhere.
And then, Connor somehow got it. Wait…from you, right?
Yeah! And then there was this one morning where Connor contacted me out of the blue and was like, “Hey! My friend Will gave me this CD. I posted on it on my blog.” And then I saw this HUGE post, and I literally got five hundred emails in a weekend! I was sitting there, checking my inbox. Anytime I’d hit refresh, there would be five new emails.
From there, everything sort of fell into place.
And you signed with a label.
Yeah. Melodic UK found me on myspace and contacted me. So now I have UK distribution. The record is out everywhere in the UK, and a very, very limited basis in the US and elsewhere. It’s also all UK press, which is the biggest thing. All the magazines and websites I’ve been on for this record are mostly based in the UK. I really need a US label now, since it seems like people are liking it–and I guess I wouldn’t mind having a record out in my home country.
Melodic is awesome though. Windmill just released an album through them, and we sort of have mutual musical appreciation for one another. He’s a super nice guy, and we write each other all the time about music. We still haven’t actually met, though we do email each other frequently.
What was going on in the years between Shitty Little Disco and Kids Aflame? Where did the new album come from?
The songs that Shitty Little Disco and Kids Aflame share are probably 70 percent the same recorded material from the Shitty Little Disco versions. Same drums, mostly the same guitar and bass…redid the keyboards, redid the vocals, and remixed the shit out of them. So this album’s been three years in the making, when you consider a lot of the stuff on there’s been worked on since 2005.
Some time after Shitty Little Disco I wrote the song “Kids Aflame,” and that was sort of a game-changer. It pushed what I was used to writing, and then “Eyeball” took it even further. Sort of an old-timey, creepy, sing-song thing. Once I wrote “Eyeball” I decided, for this album, I’d have two poles: “Shitty Little Disco” and “Eyeball”, with “Kids Aflame” in the middle. The job was to fill the rest out. To have those two really different sounds–80’s new-wavy Echo and the Bunnymen pop; and crazy forest-dwelling whacko folk–and get them to peacefully coexist on the same record. To fill that space in. I started writing songs with that in mind. That’s where “Pocket” and “Frozen Lake” and “Construction” come from.
You play the majority of instruments on this album.
Most of them, yeah.
So how does that come into play with the songwriting? Do you write out all the parts beforehand?
In a lot of cases, it’s almost entirely improvised. It’s just the way I’ve always worked. When I record it’s just like, “Okay. Now I will put this into the machine.” And in doing that, the majority of what ends up on the record is a first or second take, where a lot of it was done on the spot. I just throw things in as they come to me, like “I think this needs a keyboard drone here” or “This should have a second guitar part.” And I really like how messy it all ends up. I don’t know if it’s my neurotic avoidance of being overly professional, but I really like that kind of sound. Stuff that sounds like someone made it up on the spot.
Was there a high point in making Kids Aflame?
When I wrote the song “Kids Aflame”, it was an awesome moment. That song basically came to me fully-formed, music and lyrics.
There’s actually a song by the Knife off their newest album, and I was like “I love those chords! Those chords are awesome! I can do a song like that! And…and I just got a ukulele! I could do it on ukulele!” I was on a plane at the time, and by the end of the trip I was like, “And it will sound like…this!” There it was. I got back home and cranked out the music. The lyrics just popped out. It was like a whole other kind of song. It was one of the more joyous, pleasant songwriting experiences I’ve ever had.
Well, it’s a high that’s come out of a low.
When the album was probably 75, 80 percent finished, I had a couple of demos of newer songs: “Pocket” and “Construction”. I sent the album in sort of a demo form to the label. The head of the label, David Cooper, is a fantastic guy. But I didn’t know him terribly well at the time. He was like, “Everything sounds great, but these two…you might wanna, y’know…make those B-sides.”
I got so mad. I mean, I’d never made a record before, and was like, “Are you serious? Fuck you, I’ll make it awesome!” So I went back and did a lot of work on those two. Now I think they’re two of the best tracks on the album.
But I’d never dealt with someone telling me something like that before. I literally lost sleep over it.
Do you have a favorite song you’ve written?
“Kids Aflame.” It almost feels like I didn’t write it. It feels like it’s just someone else’s song that I love, and I feel really lucky to get to play it.
I’ve also written a few new songs that I’m really proud of. They’ll get out there eventually.
Where did you get the name “Kids Aflame”?
Right here actually! [Todd laughs and points to a large tome sitting on the table in front of him] Black Hole is a graphic novel by Charles Burns, and I had just finished it a short while before writing the song. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I guess the story had sort of seeped into my sub-conscious, where it was twisted slightly.
In the book, there’s a weird sexually-transmitted disease called “The Bug,” and if you get it you’re given a really weird deformity. Like, one kid has a mouth on his neck and there’s a girl whose skin keeps falling off. People grow second heads and stuff. I just love that sort of desperate teenage sexuality parbale.
“Kids Aflame” comes from that idea, that there’s a kind of infection going around where a group of kids is literally on fire. And they’re separated from everyone else–the other kids end up both afraid of and fascinated by them.
How do the reviews affect you? Do you keep track of them?
I feel like most artists read their own press, unless they’re kind of pretentious or willfully sequestering themselves in a way…”keeping their shit pure” or something.
I really like reading reviews for myself, ’cause I’m a journalist. I write record reviews and spend so much time reviewing other artists that all I want is to be reviewed! I like it a lot. It’s nice to get feedback.
The iTunes reviews are really funny, because some of them are from jerks who troll iTunes and grab whatever iTunes tells them to grab. But I guess they didn’t like it, and were really mad! They felt like my record was an affront, because it’s kind of lo-fi…not even that lo-fi…but they were like, “WHAT IS THIS?! HOW DARE YOU! WHAT A DISASTER THIS ALBUM IS!” I sort of love that; it’s kind of gratifying when people completely hate what you’ve made.
One of those reviews did come from someone who gave the High School Musical 2 soundtrack five stars.
[Laughing] Really?! That’s amazing.
I mean, overall the album seems to be getting excellent press. Is it weird for you to be at that place where your stuff is out there and being noticed and talked about?
I’ve been wanting to do this for so long, and it’s sort of like I’ve envisioned how it’s gonna happen. The weird stuff is when it’s in magazines I read! I mean, Harlem Shakes just had a track review in Spin, and it was like, “Holy shit!” Then we had a thing in Playboy, which is not a magazine I read on a regular basis, but it’s totally neat to see. You know, the places and websites where you actually go…that’s when it gets surreal.
What’s next for ARMS?
Finding an American label. Doing some touring. I’m going to Europe in November to do a brief tour. Play a festival in Spain, a couple of shows in the UK. The start of 2009 is going to be all Shakes, because the record comes out in January. From there, we’re on tour until…we’re not on tour anymore. And that could be like 8 months or some ridiculous amount of time. And ideally during that time, people will still be talking about ARMS. Ideally.
Right now, though, I’m so happy–it’s all ARMS time, because we’re taking a breather from the Shakes after touring with Vampire Weekend. The Shakes are my “Band”, with a capital B; ARMS is my “side project,” so I kind of have to treat them that way. It’s a nice balance.
Tell me about the record release party, because it sounds totally bad ass.
It will be awesome. The ARMS band will be the first full band to play my songs since I recorded Shitty Little Disco three years ago. It’s the rhythm section–bass and drums–from Get Him, Eat Him; guitarist from a band called Frances; and Kendrick, the keyboardist from the Shakes. They’re all great guys, incredible musicians. Everything will sound a little bit different from the record. We’ll play a few new songs, some new arrangements of old songs. I can’t wait; I get butterflies just thinking about it. I love playing my own songs with a band, and I cannot wait to make a record with these guys. And that, hopefully, should be pretty soon.
We hope so too, Todd. We hope so too. Until then, check out ARMS at Union Pool in Williamsburg tomorrow night, July 29th, at 9pm.