By Jack Firneno
Eric Krewson writes pop songs — sort of.
Take a song like last year’s Dance to the Neighbor’s Stereo. Krewson, fronting the band Chairman Dances, leads a small army of chiming guitar chords, stomping drums and the occasionally funky bass.
“Dance to the neighbor’s stereo,” he sings in a deep, elegant voice on the shimmering chorus. “Dance to that trash they play.”
On its own, the track could almost be heard as a punk rock lamentation of bland music, or maybe an enticement for teenyboppers to tap their toes.
But it’s actually just one part of The Death of Samuel Miller, a song cycle that explores an old man reminiscing about his life and the loss of his wife decades prior.
“I always associate getting old with having lots of time to remember,” explained Krewson. “This person is dying, and it’s a difficult time. You start losing memories, but then you have great days.”
Despite the weighty subject matter, it still rocks. That’s the band’s stock-in-trade.
Starting with their 2011 debut, the Philadelphia band has been crafting alternatively catchy, propulsive rock songs and tender ballads that back up Krewson’s efforts to “stretch the language of pop music” as far as he can.
“I’m interested in using long form, like if you read a big book or collection of short stories, they interact together,” he said. “Even if you have run-of-the-mill tween bands with records full of love songs or unrequited love, there are always themes through the records. I try to be consciously aware of them.”
The music itself and the band’s delivery draw strongly from indie bands like Magnetic Fields or even the post-punk of The Weakerthans. Over the last few records, Krewson’s writing has evolved into self-contained meditations on the characters he creates and the situations they inevitably find themselves in.
“You want to get in the skin of your character. If you build a town or a character and situations around him, the story itself happens. You just have to record it,” he said. “It’s like an experiment in chemistry class. If you have a very meek character and the people around him are selfish and pugnacious, he’s gonna get stepped on.”
And, Krewson’s gotten pretty good with his experiments. His knack for combining people and places, and then the songs to sing about them, have garnered the band a strong following in Philadelphia, where they play nearly every week, and in the growing number of east coast towns they visit every time they release a new record.
“Any time someone wants to hear your music, it has a positive influence,” said Krewson. “It gives you confidence to try new things.”
That’s just what the band did when recording their upcoming EP, Samantha Says, due out tentatively in the summer. But, they took steps forward by pulling back.
While it’ll be another suite of interconnected songs, Krewson said the music is more stripped down than the increasingly dense and sophisticated instrumentation of the last few releases.
“It’s more moving in the direction of pop. Maybe not radio pop, but more like a New Pornographers record,” he offered.
He credits producer Daniel Smith, who often performs under the band name Danielson. Chairman Dances recorded in five songs in two days in Smith’s New Jersey studio, after which Smith surprised them: “We listened to the songs, and he asked, ‘What do you need?’” recalled Krewson.
The band ended up stripping away about a third of the extra instrumentation and arrangement ideas they’d recorded. The result, said Krewson, gave them a more streamlined, stripped-down sound for their storytelling.
“We’ve always been critical, but we’d never sculpted like that before,” he said. “There are moments where it builds, but the instrumentation is more varied. The songs themselves breathe more.”