By Mike Hilleary; photo by Whitney Summer on January 9, 2013
“I’m, like, blushing,” says Cassie Ramone. “I’m turning red about stuff that I can’t handle. But it’s cool.” The reason for her rosiness is the onslaught of compliments being thrown her way by Woods bassist Kevin Morby, who has spent the last several minutes hailing everything from the Vivian Girls songwriter’s positive energy to the nasty guitar leads and artwork she provides for their joint musical project, The Babies. Ramone, reacting as you might expect to such earnest flattery, laughs and stumbles over herself when she tries to reciprocate. “Um, well, I…I think that I… OK, fuck.”
Despite never taking their relationship to a romantic level, it’s evident Morby and Ramone are incredibly fond of one another and of their work together. The title of the garage pop outfit’s latest album, Our House on the Hill, alludes to their level of crushing guy-girl sweetness. Even the album’s cover, a diorama made by Ramone herself, depicts a just-married couple interlocking arms outside a Chapel of Love.
Six years ago, Morby was just a guy in need of a place to crash when he met Ramone. Recently transplanted from his home in Kansas City and living in New York, the aspiring musician had found himself without a place to sleep when his apartment was invaded by bedbugs. After a bit of couch surfing, he was fortuitously introduced to Ramone, who kindly offered him a place to stay until he could find a more permanent setup.
“Basically, my best friend and I had this apartment when we both went to [Brooklyn’s] Pratt [Institute] and it had this gigantic living room,” says Ramone. “Seriously, so big. And we decided that to cut down on rent we could have people living in the corner of the living room in a fort. We had a friend from Oakland do it first and that worked out really well. So then Kevin was looking for a place and I was like, ‘Oh you should come to my living room! It’s fun.’”
Designating his space with a deflated air mattress and plastic tablemats tacked to the ceiling, Morby inevitably bonded with Ramone through music. At the time, Ramone was just starting up with Vivian Girls. “She’d play me songs she was writing and ask what I thought,” says Morby. “We’d listen to records together, cook food and play music.”
When Morby eventually moved out, he and Ramone lost touch for a while. “I didn’t see her for a long time and didn’t talk to her or anything,” he says. Going their separate ways, Vivian Girls became a breakout band, and Morby found a new home living in Brooklyn’s Rear House recording studio with songwriter Jeremy Earl and his lo-fi folk band Woods. A year and a half had passed when Morby ran into Ramone by chance one night on his way to a party. As the two caught up, reminiscing about their less-than-traditional living situation, the conversation turned to the possibility of working together.
Developed to be something off-the-cuff—more or less a means for Morby and Ramone to play house parties as they no longer could with their respective, other bands—The Babies staked out time to record their lo-fi garage pop whenever the duo’s individual schedules allowed for it, adding Justin Sullivan on drums and eventually releasing a self-titled debut in 2011. A year after the LP’s February release, the band was back in the studio for their sophomore follow-up, with Brian Schleyer on bass. Recorded in LA with producer Rob Barbato (Cass McCombs, La Sera, The Soft Pack) during a two-week period—with some additional time set aside for mixing—Our House on the Hill gives the band’s premised casualness a feel of something more deliberate and honed.
Mixing jangly guitars and teenage pop sugariness, Morby believes there’s something to be said for The Babies’ brand of fun, simple songs. “From a songwriter standpoint, some of my favorite songs can affect a child the same way they can affect an adult,” says Morby. Not surprisingly, he also says it’s the back-and-forth dynamic between himself and Ramone that really makes the band worth listening to.
“I really like the contrast between male and female vocals,” says Morby. “My favorite music comes from that sound, like The Velvet Underground and Nico, and the album Desire that Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris did together. I just think a male voice ends up becoming boring after too much of it or something. I like the female presence in the music.” F
3 ALBUMS THAT INSPIRED THE BABIES TO MAKE OUR HOUSE ON THE HILL
LOU REED, JOHN CALE & NICO
Le Bataclan ’72
The Velvets hadn’t played in a long time but Nico, Lou Reed and John Cale joined back up for this. I’m a big Velvets and Lou Reed fan, and the sparseness of this live performance is a notable influence, especially on “Mean.” KEVIN MORBY
NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Neil is the best, OK? He is one of my biggest all-around inspirations. I love everything about him, but on [Our House on the Hill] I was especially trying to channel his guitar solos and how raw and insane they are. CASSIE RAMONE
On the flipside of our quieter moments, I commonly used this album as a reference point for our louder songs. I kept saying, “Make it sound nastier...like a Stooges record.” KEVIN MORBY
This article is from FILTER Issue 50