When you listen to Brooklyn-by-way-of-Colorado indie band Plates of Cake, probably the one thing that sticks out from their music is Jonathan Byerley’s vocals. They have a world-weary rasp and tone, along the lines of Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler and Warren Zevon. Even Jonathan himself will tell you that his singing is not natural, but it goes back to his first live show when he was having trouble projecting his voice over some really loud guitar.
“So I did this really guttural, back of the throat–almost like Ian Curtis of Joy Division–this weird growl,” he tells me, “and that was how I was able to project over a band. It sounded terrible and I wished someone would have told me how bad.”
Byerley does not sound like he sings. In conversation, he speaks like a normal, affable and gregarious person. But Jonathan’s “bark” is an important part of the band’s trippy and punkish guitar-based sound. Having released their self-titled debut three years ago, Plates of Cake–whose members are Byerley, Ian Burns, Gann Matthews and Josh Carrafa–are back with an excellent new record, Teenage Evil. It came out on March 26; later this week, on March 30, the band will be performing a show at New York City’s Cake Shop.
In comparing Teenage Evil with the band’s debut record, Byerley tells me: “Our first record especially is really steeped in a ’60s, kind of a sort of a folk rock thing, but also kind of a psychedelic/garage kind of thing. And I think with the first record, especially with the lo-fi production and everything, it really sounds in some ways more retro. I would say with the new record [Teenage Evil]–it has more of a late ’70s/’80s kind of punk/post-punk thing to it. To me, it seems like steeped in more of a ’70s thing, like Richard Hell and Voidoids or Television–a little bit more aggressive.”
“Late Last London” leads off the record. Byerley admits he wasn’t sure whether it should have been the first single released from the new album, but was outvoted by the other members. “I liked the phrase “late last London,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what it means. I realized later it might have been a subconscious nod or or subconscious rip-off, depending on how you look at it, to John Cale’s song called “Half Past France,” kind of that blurring of time and a place. Each lyric kind of paints a weird little picture…I’m not quite sure how they all they tie together. I try to make the lyrics kind of image heavy.”
Listen to Jonathan Byerley’s playlist of songs that influenced Plates of Cake’s latest record.
The inspiration behind Byerley’s lyrics can come unlikely sources. “Transit Trials” was based on a poster that he saw. “Back in the day, you had to use a different card [to ride from MTA to PATH],” he says. “But now you can ride the PATH train on a Metrocard. So that was the pilot program–it was called the ‘New York-New Jersey Transit Trials.’ A lot of times when I write melodies, I’ll just read something out of a magazine or a book or a poster and I’ll say it back to myself, I’ll come up with the melodies. I was actually reading that poster about how you can ride both trains on the same card. I like the phrase ‘transit trials,’ I thought it had a cool sound to it.”
A cover of the Soft Boys’ “Underwater Moonlight,” from their classic 1980 album of the same name sits amidst the original songs on Teenage Evil. “It seems like maybe we should be trying to just present our own songs,” says Byerley. “But that song is such a blast and it’s so fun to play. We did it in the studio and it came out well. I love Robyn Hitchcock–he’s one of my favorite songwriters, [and] the Soft Boys–one of my favorite bands of all time.”
If the songs on Teenage Evil sound tight, it’s because they were recorded in one day at The Seaside Lounge studios in Brooklyn. It was the first time the band had ever used an actual professional studio. “On the one hand that was really cool and exciting,” JByerley says. “On the other, it was really scary to pay that amount of money. So we recorded the album in a single day because that was the only thing we could afford. We got in there 10 in the morning and we went about 13 or 14 hours…and then I overdubbed the vocals and that was it.”
Plates of Cake have officially been a band since 2009—the members’ friendship dates back to high school and college back in Colorado. One by one, each person came to New York to pursue music. “Josh actually came here to go to school,” says Byerley. “He went to law school and I went to Denver and spent a couple of years there just doing music. He offered basically all of us the opportunity to come crash on his couch. I came out first and lived on his couch for two months until I found a job and an apartment. And then about a year later Ian did the exact same thing. Gann came out separately, he came out here purely to do music as well.”
With the exception of Gann, who lives in Clinton Hill, all the other members of Plates of Cake reside in Greenpoint. The band has performed the local venue circuit including Union Pool, Union Hall, Cake Shop and Glasslands. “We used to play at Brewer Falls a lot,” says Byerley. “We really liked that but they closed. And there are more spaces out in Bushwick that are cool, like Don Pedro’s. So yeah, we play all around Brooklyn. We need to branch out—I’m really excited to go play Philadelphia and Boston and towns like that.”
Concluding our interview, I mention to Byerley how much I liked the band’s guitar sound, which also stands out from the new record. “This album is like a lush guitar album as it is a vocals album or a lyrics album,” says Byerley. “Maybe people who would be less forgiving with the voice would like the record because of the crazy aggressive guitars. Josh, the guitar player, put a real serious stamp on this record, it’s got his signature all over it, which is awesome. I don’t even think of it like a vocal record. There’s a lot of people that sing really well…I’m gonna sing really shitty and see how far that gets us.”