Who Are…Army Navy
Regardless of its Anglophilic streak, power pop quartet Army Navy could've only formed in Los Angeles: Although singer-songwriter Justin Kennedy once co-lead Bellingham, Washington's Pinwheel — Ben Gibbard's pre-Death Cab For Cutie band — he enlisted the other members of Army Navy while working as a wardrobe stylist to the stars. Guitarist Louie Schultz is a music editor and does ghostwriting for a prominent TV composer. Bassist Ben Gaffin works in A&R at a major label and drummer Doug Randall previously helmed the skins for Greenwheel, a Nickelback-like unit that gave Melissa Etheridge a 2004 hit when she covered its “Breathe.” Most remarkably, Army Navy's debut album features the energetic timekeeping of Elvis Costello & the Attractions' Pete Thomas, who stepped in when the screenwriting career of the band's original drummer Josh Zeturner suddenly skyrocketed. (Zeturner wrote the script for the next Hollywood adaptation of the sci-fi classic Dune.) eMusic's Barry Walters recently chatted with Kennedy about the band's past and present, as well as its extracurricular activities.
On Justin's most memorable client:
I styled Morrissey on the record cover for You Are the Quarry. He gave me the nickname Eighties Legs — that was the best part. (Putting on his Morrissey voice): “So what's the deal with these skinny jeans you wear? Is that a retro thing?” I said, “No.” “All right, Eighties Legs.” He might've wanted to have me.
On being in a band with Ben Gibbard:
Ben had his songs and I had my songs. We would collaborate on guitar parts and harmonies, but pretty much we would come to the band with our songs already done and sit down together and work out the arrangements. I can hear his songs now and they pretty much sound like Pinwheel songs to me. And mine are still kind of poppy, but hopefully better than they were back then.
On the screenwriting career of Army Navy's first drummer Josh Zeturner:
He's a hardworking person. He would bring his laptop to sound check, and between sound check and our show he'd be writing. But that was his main thing. He always wanted to be a screenwriter. He's also a great drummer, but there's millions and millions of dollars in screenwriting. He's been ghostwriting a bunch of big movies.
On recording with Elvis Costello and the Attractions drummer Pete Thomas:
We were in limbo between drummers with recording time booked. I felt like I was losing my mind. We're friends with the Like [a band comprised of daughters of musicians and music industry vets] and Tennessee Thomas is his daughter, so he'd come and see us. And Tennessee said, “You should ask my dad. He loves your band.” And I was like, “Ah, he won't do it, no way. Pete Thomas gets a kajillion dollars to drum.” We couldn't believe it, but he worked his ass off for us. We'd play and record the drums for 12 hours and he'd go home and practice the songs for the next day and get up early and practice again. You can hear the Elvis Costello in there, but he plays for the music, not his own personal style. He wanted all the lyrics, and if you pay close attention, he plays kick drums accenting my vocals.
On avoiding the musically obvious:
I try to not listen to the Beatles, if possible, so I'm not overly influenced by them. I'd rather listen to bands that I grew up on so [the Beatles' influence] is filtered down and not directly related. There are so many bands you tend to hear on the radio and you kind of feel you won't hear them next year. I've tried to stay away from gimmicks and fads. I've wanted to come up with classic songs and a classic sound if possible.
On power-pop's happy music/sad lyrics duality:
Even when I've been lucky in the love it doesn't seem to change the quality of my lyrics. Maybe I dwell on the bad. Even when you're happy in love it's still not perfect. I feel that the songs come in as a sunnier, poppier kind of sound, but I tend to write when I'm in a darker place.
On the drawbacks of having a voice not built for Celine Dion ballads:
The other day I was singing karaoke and I was thinking, “Man, I have a crappy voice for karaoke.” There are very few songs that I think my voice lends itself to. I think I've sort of figured it out by this point how to write for my own voice and my own style of melody writing and what key to put the songs in. I've always sounded this way, kind of nasally. Lots of sinus infections.
On Army Navy's astounding cover of Maxine Nightingale's 1975 pop smash “Right Back Where We Started From”:
We were talking about doing a cover for a long time and everything seemed wrong. I was just listening to it at home one day and I was like, “Oh my god.” I think I e-mailed Ben that instant. It's a boy singing a girl's song, and it's a disco-meets-Motown kind of jam. I think we have kind of a Motown thing in our rhythm section generally, but we don't have giant string sections or that kind of vibe going on. After we played it, it sort of felt like us already.