The exact difference between Get Him Eat Him’s first album and our second album can be traced to a hotel room in Los Angeles, California. There, during a rare moment of solitude halfway through our first national tour, I had my first brush with writing music to fulfill my own emotional needs. Homesick and exhausted, I conjured a song to keep me company; I picked up a guitar, started strumming an open G chord, and formed my mouth to make the exact sounds and notes that somehow seemed most comforting to me. It was the first time I had ever experienced my own music as if it were someone else’s, the first time I had ever written something and not thought, “This is good,” but rather, “I like this.”
I’ve sometimes wondered if all musicians are doomed to forever recreate the music they loved most as children and teenagers. When I started Get Him Eat Him in my sophomore year of college, I envisioned a relentlessly high-energy post-punk band in the vein of Brainiac or the Dismemberment Plan. But when I opened my mouth in Los Angeles, the sounds that came out were more like the Sebadoh and Promise Ring records I adored as a teenager, or the folk music I once played with my father (from whom I was estranged at the time). Suddenly, the gap between the music I felt compelled to write and the music I thought it would be cool to write became annoyingly huge and obvious.
In retrospect, that gap was always annoyingly huge and obvious. Get Him Eat Him’s debut album Geography Cones is several ballparks away from the grandiose spaz-rock epic I thought we were making at the time. As I suspect is often the case, our first record was a bizarro misimagining of the music we wanted to make, our second record a grudging acceptance of the music we had actually been making all along. The anxiety of coming to that acceptance is all over Arms Down, in both its content and its execution. The album’s opening line is, “It’s a familiar sound,” a hilariously ineffectual nod to my fear that our stripped-down sound would be considered unoriginal or derivative. (The album’s closing line is “I want you to stop me,” which, frankly just seemed like a great closing line.)
When we went in to make Arms Down, I still hoped to assuage this anxiety by exploding my very personal writing into huge, ornate recordings overflowing with sonic baubles and trinkets. We recorded a lot of tracks for the record. Horn tracks, synth tracks, noise tracks, noisier noise tracks. When we went in to mix the record with Chad Clark, he took one listen to this overstuffed grab bag and told us very matter-of-factly, “You didn’t make the record you thought you made.” When I balked at Chad’s swift and thorough dismissal of my grandiose vision, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “this album is going to be around after you’re dead. Be smart.”
…Which is kind of a totally ridiculous thing to say. Our goal wasn’t to create a timeless gift to the world; we wanted to make a cool record that people would like. But, in that irresistible way that some people have of being both completely honest and completely manipulative, Chad got us thinking big. “Indie rock” is riddled with calculating self-effacement and short-term strategizing, but Chad made us think like Serious Goddamn Artists. Miraculously, he got we five overeager twentysomethings to be totally okay with abandoning our own ideas if they didn’t serve the greater good.
Many of the tracks we omitted were the very ones that had once made our sound seem unique and exciting: the monophonic synthesizers, the pointy guitars, the harmonized vocoders. In turn, we made room for the gestures that most deeply engaged with the blood and guts of our songs: the shuffling drumbeat in “Get Down,” the “Just What I Needed”-style rhythmic shift in “Present Tenses,” the sly melodic climbs in “2×2.” These were products of the closest collaboration between the five of us, little flourishes and conversations that emerged organically from playing together. “The Coronation Show,” the song I had begun to write in that Los Angeles hotel room nearly two years prior, had long stopped making sense to me as I struggled to make it “more interesting.” Once I stopped trying to make an altogether different record, I could finally hear the song again.
At my most unsympathetically self-serious, I like to think that we chose “the path of good” over “the path of evil.” But in truth, these decisions are rarely so clear-cut, and never so consciously made. Musicians generally crave both the validation of praise and the satisfaction of self-expression, even though the pursuit of one often comes at the expense of the other. The most well-received songs on Arms Down were the ones that I had the least invested in personally, the ones that were the most contrived and detached. Ironically, they’re also the closest we ever came to realizing my very first notion of what Get Him Eat Him should be, owing largely to the energy we were able to project after playing together for several years.
And therein lies my very favorite thing about this record; for all the angst, uncertainty and doubt that marked its creation, Arms Down came out sounding like an honest-to-goodness album by an honest-to-goodness band. I can imagine somebody hearing in Arms Down some of the things that I’ve heard in the albums I’ve loved over the years. I’m proud that we made an album you might need to listen to three or four times for it to really sink in. I’m proud that we let the songs speak for themselves, even when we weren’t entirely sure what they were trying to say. I’m proud that, four years later, I can listen to Arms Down and still think, “I like this.”