Two years ago, musicians Paul Sprangers and Scott Wells found themselves without a band. Hockey Night — their much-beloved, indie rock group — had split. Their manager was gone. Their then-record label, Lookout Records, was falling under after several big-name acts like Green Day rescinded their master rights and went to other labels.
But Sprangers and Wells kept plucking along, hanging around Minneapolis (the duo are both Minnesota natives) and continued to write songs together, demo-ing for about a year. Eventually, a fairy godmother from DFA Records stepped in.
“We didn’t think we were gonna be recording with James,” says guitarist Scott Wells, referring to producer and modern-electronica pioneer James Murphy. “We were stupid enough to think we could do it ourselves. It just didn’t sound as good as we wanted to, and eventually James was like, ‘I have to do it. It’s not gonna work unless I do it.'”
Under Murphy’s tutelage, a ten-song album was recorded, three musicians were added to the live show and Free Energy was ready to, well, rock. Rock is the key word here. Despite being produced by electronica royalty, the result is surprisingly un-DFA, a label and production team known for bombastic melodies, heavy beats and trademark synths.
Free Energy’s sound is classic, clean, and retro guitar-driven. Lyrically, lead singer and guitarist Paul Sprangers describes it as “dream imagery…there’s this idea of a picture painted of this really rad plce you’d want to be and ideally kind of exists now, like future nostalgia.” Musically, it’s garnered numerous references to Thin Lizzy. Think more ELO as opposed to LCD.
“We’re really trying to write the simplest pop songs possible,” Wells notes. “We take a lot from Fleetwood Mac, it’s encouraging to see how they contruct songs.”
Before Hockey Night had split, the band — sans label during Lookout Record’s implosion — had been sending their last album around indiscriminately in hopes of finding another label with which to work. DFA had taken an interest in it, but at the time (around 2005) was too busy with other projects to get together. Hockey Night kept doggedly sending them material and keeping in touch. When they split, Sprangers and Well kept sending them material.
“When DFA and James heard our demos, they understood what we were trying to do,” Sprangers says. “James has this vast amount of vintage gear. He knows how to make drums sound like they’re recorded in the late ’70’s. We can’t do that by ourselves with Pro Tools. He understands that we might not be confident enough yet to make big, almost cheesy choices. He would encourage us to just go for it and streamline things.”
“He was really good at keeping us ridiculous and encouraging us to do stuff that we thought was stupid at first,” adds Paul, “like really dorky harmony stuff or dropping the drums off for a second or doing an a capella — just doing super-ridiculous pop clichés that we were too inside of. But after you do it, you see it’s a good idea.”
There’s another important technique the two adopted with their new band.
“We practice more with Free Energy,” Spranger says. “We didn’t practice [with Hockey Night], we’d just get together and jam and try to tour. All we’ve done with Free Energy is practice.”
The group will be putting that practice to good use before embarking on a fall tour. Their album is set to be released in January. Until then, they’ll doing a few one-off shows this summer in Chicago, New York, Boston and D.C.