Ben Louisiana and Tom Crystal – the founding members of the Philadelphia-based band Work Drugs – aren’t setting out to make nostalgia music with Louisa – their latest record, which is awash in the smooth, saxy, synthed-out, yacht-rock sounds of the ’80s. But if the album makes you want to break out your acid-washed jeans and re-watch your The Karate Kid VHS, that’s fine with them.
“It’s just what we like,” says Louisiana. “If I can get my drums to sound a little bit like Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, then I’m doing my job.”
It’s not a gimmick. Louisiana and Crystal – who met in kindergarten and formed a songwriting partnership about five years ago – create their retro sounds from a place of love and authenticity. They write, record, and mix their own music. In 2012, they won Bon Iver’s remix contest with their ’80s-tinged version of “Beth/Rest” (dedicated to Peter Cetera). And they are yacht rockers that actually sail.
“I grew up on the water,” says Louisiana. “On a 36-foot. It influenced a lot of my musical taste, too.”
Sailing with his father down the Chesapeake Bay, to Cape May, up through the Delaware River and on the Sassafras River, Louisiana absorbed the smooth sounds of Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. And, years later, when Louisiana and Crystal began to record songs under the name Work Drugs, those solid gold A.M. radio sounds began to flow out.
Work Drugs makes an appearance – as a four-piece band featuring Crystal on guitar, Louisiana on keyboards and their friends Nero Catalano aka Mr. Kansas City (maybe the coolest nickname in music) on bass and Jonas Oesterle on drums – at HMAC on October 15. I spoke with Louisiana in advance of the show and we reminisced about the ’80s and talked about pop, sailing and Louisa.
Mike Andrelczyk: Work Drugs’ music has been labeled yacht rock, retro pop, chillwave and smooth lo-fi – what do you call it?
Ben Louisiana: It’s pop music. There’s nothing chillwave about it. Everybody makes pop music. Jack White makes pop music. His singles are pop music. “Seven Nation Army” is a pop song. Not pop in a bad or negative way. Pop is all about structure. Country music, rock, pop, all these things follow a very distinctive structure. I still love a three-minute pop song. I love a song where the first minute grabs you, the second minute you’re humming along, the third minute you’re singing the chorus.
MA: When did Louisa go from a collection of songs to an album?
BL: We wrote probably close to 40 songs for this record. Then we looked and said “What fits together?” I really got excited about the idea of some of these ’70s acts that were making music into, like, ’85-’86 – like Todd Rundgren or ELO – and seeing how they adjusted to some of the tendencies of the newer acts like Duran Duran, a-ha or Tears for Fears. And how they were, like, trying to assimilate to the new production styles, while still realizing that their day in the sun had kind of passed. That was some of the production we were trying to channel. The songs that fit that mold the most were the ones that ended up making the record.
MA: Where did the name of the album come from?
BL: I spent some time in New Orleans at the end of last year. One of the things about New Orleans, all the street signs are embedded into the ground in tile at the corner. I was just taking some random photos [of them] and the one I took said “Louisa.” One of my favorite Steely Dan songs is “Pearl of the Quarter” and they make a lot of references to this girl named Louisa. And I liked this idea of that being the character of the record. A lot of the songs are dealing with relationships or break-ups and it’s always better to personify it.
MA: What is it about the early ’80s sound that draws you to it?
BL: It was the pinnacle of production. The ’80s were the height of excess as it relates to working on a record. It was as big a business as you could get. More money was being created through records than any other time. There was so much effort going in to the production. The ’80s sound is big drums, big keyboards, and the guitars and the bass are a little bit smaller in the mix. I do most of the mixing, so it speaks to my sensibility. It’s music that I grew up on, but it’s also music that I can wrap my head around how to make.
MA: A couple of the song titles –“Hey Nineteen” and “My Billie Jean” – on Louisa are taken from some pretty huge early ’80s songs.
BL: “Hey Nineteen” was just the idea of reappropriating a title. Obviously it’s associated with the Steely Dan song, but it’s not a cover. I liked the idea of taking the title, changing the context and seeing what you come up with. With ”My Billie Jean” it was more that I like the music video treatment of that song where he’s stepping on the sidewalk and the sidewalk lights up. In that song Billie Jean is a bad person that’s telling lies about Michael Jackson. I wanted the idea of, like, when you’re in love and everything feels better. So, what if you made it, like, everything is lighting up because you’re just so into that relationship.
MA: You guys gained some attention with your remix of Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest” and you recently held a contest for fans to remix your track “Minor Flaws” from Louisa. What’s the key to making a good remix?
BL: Make it original. Make it new. Take the melodies and make a new song out of it. The remixes I hate are the ones that just take the song and put a house beat on it. We’ve done remixes for Tegan and Sara and Bon Iver and with both of those songs we took the original song structure and turned it on its ear and said, “We’re going to find new hooks in here. I’m going to take the pre-chorus of their song and make that the chorus of our song.”
MA: What’s your best advice on how to stay smooth?
BL: Own your own weirdness. I like Spotify, where, like, 20 new releases come out and I can decide what I like. Don’t wait around for some tastemaker to tell you. You’ll have a better life experience if you form the values about yourself instead of co-opting someone else’s values.
Work Drugs play H*MAC (1110 N. 3rd Street, Harrisburg) on October 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10.