by Zack “Ziggy” Merritt
I know next to nothing about the amount of work it takes to write an album start to finish. I have an idea of the work involved having watched Kate Bush and David Bowie documentaries more times than I care to admit. Each band, each performer, has their own special process that gets analyzed and deconstructed in an interview after interview, but to live that experience is something different altogether and one that is hard to necessarily translate into words.
That visceral experience, something internal and intangible, comes out in the music itself. For Don Babylon, former Richmond natives, now newly transplanted to Philadelphia, that music that is raw, unkempt, and subject to change on a whim. Strutting around a grey area between genre-bound and genre-less, their initial offering/debut, 2017’s Babe, was a whirl of sonic flavors. With a base layer of back-to-basics rock and roll mixed with a touch of humorous nihilism, each successive layer felt new yet familiar.
It’s an album careful not to wear itself out. Now close to starting up a new tour and eager for the release of their follow-up, Foul, I had the chance to hear from vocalist, Aubrey Neeley, who spoke openly about the procession of the past few years, as well as their upcoming album and tour.
It all started off with a brief account of how the three principal members (Aubrey Neeley, Leland Bickford, and David Gaither of Don Babylon came together. “Me and David were random roommates in college – our respective high school bands unknowingly played a show together so we ended up meeting a few weeks before move in,” wrote Neeley. “We felt obligated to start a band after jamming a bit. Leland joined a bit later but we really started coming into our own when he did.”
With a trio in tow, it would be four years and a smattering of shows and EPs before their first full-length, Babe, would be released. You could lodge either criticism or praise at their decision to record a 10-track album of songs that run the gamut from a pastiche of outlaw country to a winding epic built up brick by precarious brick to a satisfying conclusion.
“On Babe, I think the songs were kind of all over the place which makes sense – most of the record just consisted of songs we didn’t hate yet when we were recording,” admits Neeley, before divulging a bit more into Don Babylon’s sophomore release. “With Foul, when we were writing, we kept reminding each other to sort of reel it in – we tried to say a lot on Babe and I think, at points, it felt like we were over explaining the point. We tried to keep Foul more succinct and maybe uniform to a degree.”
With its release date set for September 28, there’s an expectation that Neeley’s words will hint at something more cohesive and stitched together, but hopefully not lacking in the charm or their frankness that makes them so endearing. I’m not the only one to think so as one of their earliest superfans, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest fame, has given them justly deserved attention, even before his own signing to Matador in 2015.
“One night, I drunkenly sent a very professional Facebook message to the Car Seat band page that read something to the effect of “‘Hey come play in Richmond it’ll be a good show [sic]’,” wrote Neeley of his first brush with the band 3 years ago. “The next day or so there was a post from the Band Page saying they were booking a show and for those who ‘knew who they were’ should contact them. We set up a show that turned out surprisingly well and we’ve been in touch every now and then since.”
That relationship has also given them the odd luck of having that same mentioned epic from Babe, “Ow, My Tiny Heart” featured on the season finale to the Showtime series, Billions. Perhaps more crucial to their recent success and heavy touring, it also led to them signing with the London and New York-based indie label, Medical Records.
I wanted, however, to revisit “Ow, My Tiny Heart” as it goes beyond just being background set dressing for whatever the hell Paul Giamatti is up to these days. It’s 10 minutes in length, yet unlike some of the more conceptually adventurous songs by 70s prog rock auteurs, Yes, it doesn’t sag in the middle or become bloated with a slog of noise. Instead, it’s a rambling venture through the frustration, anxiety, and depression that comes in the wake of a breakup.
“I got dumped and spent a summer trying to write a breakup song that said everything I felt or could possibly feel about breakups so that I never have to do that again,” wrote Neeley on how the track came together. “We kept adding on here and there when I’d write more lyrics. I hit a wall with the ending – I was originally trying to end the song on a note of like ‘Hey, it’s time to move on’ and I spent so much time trying to do that until ‘why the hell am I even still writing this’ seemed more appropriate.”
With a few tours, a few singles, and a few friends made along the way, Neeley and the rest of Don Babylon are poised to keep the flame of reinvention going with a new album and a new city to call home.
“We moved to Philadelphia in February,” wrote Neeley on the recent relocation from Richmond to Philly. “The move was more symbolic for us than anything – we’d been playing together for a while and figured if we were serious about trying to make a living out of this band we’d have to go all in. Philadelphia itself has a much higher ceiling than Richmond, as well as proximity to other big cities where we could tour. It’s also cheaper than New York.”
Practicality and purposefulness can be tacked on to a new and bold direction for a band that has spent the past five years making music that they don’t hate, music that they want to make.
Don Babylon is on tour now with Car Seat Headrest. They will come back through their new hometown of Philadelphia on September 18 at Union Transfer. Their new album, Foul, comes out September 28 on Medical Records.