Q&A with The Charming Youngsters’ Nolan Smock

By Rebekah Todd

T he Charming Youngsters, a self-proclaimed “jangle noise-pop” band out of Raleigh/Durham got their start during their time in Greenville. As the gang of friends began to grow, so did the band. One by one, each member filled their assumed role into what is now a full and well accomplished group of seasoned musicians. Their most recent undertaking has been their sophomore album, “Middleweights,” which was recently released to their fans on vinyl. We spoke with lead singer, Nolan Smock, about “Middleweights,” Spazz Fest and vinyl versus everything else.

Q: Where did you record the new album? Who produced/engineered?

A: We’ve (almost) always recorded ourselves. We took all the equipment we could round up and spent about a week in an AirBnB cabin in Sugar Mountain. We were able to track most of the album live with the way the rooms were set up. Then we did additional recording afterwards at our homes in Raleigh and Durham. It’s the first time someone outside the band mixed the record, and that made a big difference. I used to play music with Randy (Cochran, mixing) back in Texas and we have a lot of similar ideas about music. Having the outside perspective for the first time was refreshing too.

Q: Who wrote the songs? Was it a band effort? Did you write all the lyrics?

A: I had half the songs finished before we went to the cabin. Home recordings with Casio keyboards and drums, plus guitars and voice. We kept those arrangements and performed live along with them, whereas maybe before we would’ve tried to re-record everything. The other half were songs we’d worked out in rehearsal and at shows. They were still fresh so we finished those arrangements in the studio together. It was very collaborative. I also usually save the lyrics until the last minute, changing words and phrasings, so Kathryn and I worked on what wasn’t finished so she’d actually have something to sing. There’s still a few parts where we’re singing different words though, which I’ve always liked and done on previous records.

Q: How is this album different from the last?

A: There’s almost no full-band live performance on the other recordings, it’s mostly overdubs and stuff recorded over time. But after we lost our original drummer Eric, our guitarist Lloyd took over on drums and we had to reimagine our sound as a four-piece. Everyone’s parts were more in focus with one less instrument in the mix, so we had to figure out how to best fill our own space. There was also almost zero second-guessing because of time constraints. For better or worse, the first album is almost all second guesses. I think recording things written over a shorter period helped tie everything together more too.

Q: You guys have always put your music out in unique ways. Your last album was available on electric blue cassette tapes. What made you choose the vinyl? Why the clear?

A: I love unique physical media! Tapes are cheap and we thought they’d would be great for selling at shows since it came with mp3s, like a download card that you can actually play. But almost no one has a tape player and the download cards never got used. But when you put a recording onto tape, there’s wow and flutter, you can hear piano notes warble. And I love big, distorted guitars on tape. So much fuzz. But everyone asks, “What’s up with the tapes?” and they don’t sell. So we’re diversifying with the vinyl, which I guess was a good idea since we’re almost sold out! I’ve been dealing records for a long time, so on a personal level I’m stoked to have this album on record. Since we only pressed a small amount, the clear vinyl was a way to differentiate the vinyl the Kickstarters and early buyers get from a second pressing that’ll just be on black vinyl, or maybe just on CD.

Q: How is vinyl a part of your life and why do you feel that it was important to put your album out in this form?

A: Records sound the best out of any physical media with the right equipment. They’re also a very long-lasting format. I come across records over 60 years old that are beat up that still sound incredible. You can’t say that about all CDs, and definitely not tapes or 8-tracks. It’s almost permanent. So Chris Schwing (Greenville native and ECU grad) and I made sure the record looked and felt right. I see dozens of new releases every Friday that look like the vinyl was an afterthought, either in the packaging design or the sequencing. “Middleweights” is a record sequenced for two sides and maximum enjoyment in your home forever.

Q: Why should other people buy more music on vinyl?

A: I have a hard time answering that question right now, because I’m in the middle of the corporate industry bonanza known as Record Store Day. As much as I love records, they’ve become a “lifestyle” product in the last few years, mostly bought by an affluent crowd now that prices have doubled and tripled. The kids can’t afford it, I don’t know how indie artists afford it. Ours was funded by Kickstarter donors, fortunately. But despite all that, it still sounds great. I like the way records forces me to slow down. I still use the internet to listen to music, but instead of switching between an infinite number of songs until I’m happy, when I pick a record at home it’s one in my little world of music I’ve bought over the years. I see the numbers of how much people listen to whole songs online and it’s depressing. I sweat so much so someone can listen to 20 seconds of a track and skip it when they decide they don’t like it. Maybe that’s more convenient and helps people find what they like quicker, but when you sit down with a record I like to think you’re connecting with it more. I’ve grown to love records I might not otherwise simply because one day it just hit me right, even if I didn’t like it when I bought it years or a week ago.

Q: Why is coke bottle vinyl better than regular (you’re so eco-friendly)-

A: HA! I hadn’t thought about how that could be misunderstood but the color of the vinyl is called “coke bottle clear,” and it’s not actually made out of recycled coke bottles. That would definitely break, right? But clear vinyl is better than black because you can see through it.

Q: Tell us more about the album art!

A: The photo of Tommi, half-draped in sunlight, gazing at the viewer, is both an homage to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and a parody of album covers that just lazily put a dreamy picture of a woman on them. It’s mindless objectification and the woman always seems to have an absent look in her face. I’d like to think Tommi’s very Baroque figure plays against that idea too. But I did a mock up for it and everyone thought it was hilarious, which is how we decide to do everything in the band. I think we even had the art before we had anything else.

Q: How do you feel that your music has grown as a band from the last album?

A: It’s our second album in two years, and we’ve been doing this for a long time, so I think we’re just more confident that our small group has something to offer ourselves and the rest the world. Our first album sounds like a band struggling to find itself. The music comes easier now. Instead of writing relatable music maybe I was trying to be clever before. I’m getting back to singing what I know and writing to my strengths while having an open mind for different ideas. The band’s been through a lot while making the last two records and it’s like family at this point. I think that’s the best part of any long-running band, when the camaraderie and growth comes through in the music.

Q: Any special stories from your recent performance at Spazz Fest? Any fun stories from your return to Greenville?

A: My first Spazz Fest without a Youngsters show was weird. I played a short solo set debuting some new songs after The Snails (members of Future Islands) played an amazing set. But my biggest takeaway, unfortunately, was that Friday’s lineups were almost all white guys, and at the end of the night things took an aggressive turn. It was an unsettling mix for me. It’s not necessarily the Spazz, just Greenville. I think some people have a mindset of what Spazz is and interpret it in different ways or don’t understand it, and if you mix that with the sort of drunken, chauvinistic mentality in downtown Greenville on a weekend, it’s not the best vibe.

Q: Any plans to return to Greenville any time soon or big shows coming up in the Triangle?

A: We’re taking a break from performing until Lloyd gets back from California. We announce everything on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, though, so you can follow us there for gig updates!

While The Charming Youngsters currently work under their own label, fans and readers can purchase all the tapes and vinyl they need from www.thecharmingyoungsters.com. There are links available to buy the album directly from the band on Bandcamp.com or a link to iTunes. Their music is also available for streaming on most streaming services.

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