Early in the autumn of 2014, Paper Route’s JT Daly, Chad Howat, and Nick Aranda moved into a cabin deep in the hills of Middle Tennessee, set up a makeshift studio, and spent a month dreaming up material for their third album and first for Kemosabe Records. Just as they did for the making of The Peace Of Wild Things (a 2012 release created in a creaky plantation house called Joy Mansion), the Nashville-based trio purposely chose a remote and ramshackle space that promised retreat from the rest of the world. “We like to work within the limitations that come with being far away from everything,” says Daly, Paper Route’s singer and main lyricist. “It keeps us uncomfortable in a way that ends up being really inspiring.” Called the North House, Paper Route’s temporary home brought contact solely with non-human life forms: bats whizzing past their heads during band meetings, snakes slithering into the house in the middle of the night, a tarantula-sized spider creeping into their piano — only to be coaxed out by Howat’s 1930s-horror-flick-inspired improv on the keys
“We felt like we were living in a parable,” says Aranda, “where all these crazy crawling things would suddenly appear out of nowhere, often in twos”.
But in a band that thrives equally on intense collaboration and solo experimentalism — a dynamic that’s shaped their lavishly textured, beat-heavy alt-rock for more than a decade — those isolated quarters provided a perfect breeding ground for Paper Route’s ever-evolving creativity. “Living in the North House, there was an intimacy that isn’t possible in real life,” says Howat. “I could be working on a song and hear something through the walls, and that would give me a whole new idea about what I’m doing. We were able to hunker down and just completely immerse ourselves in this shared experience.” As a result, Paper Route carved out a vital new sound that closely reflects their purity of intention.
“Making this album, we really chased the feeling we all had back when we were just beginning to discover the wonder of music,” says Daly. “That feeling I can still remember from taping ‘Champagne Supernova’ on my boombox when it debuted on the radio — that’s what we wanted to get into these songs.”
Charged with the raw energy that Paper Route has revealed in touring the world with bands like Imagine Dragons and Passion Pit, the as-yet-untitled album achieves that feeling in part by making guitars central to its intricately crafted arrangements. On “Balconies,” for instance, a blistering guitar solo cuts through the song’s airy atmospherics, building a brilliant tension against shimmering synth and Daly’s soulful vocals. “On the last record, the guitar was kind of the cherry on top — an afterthought. For this one we wanted to go somewhere new, but also channel the spirit of the guitarists we loved as teenagers,” says Howat, who names George Harrison’s solo efforts and Blur’s Graham Coxon as key inspirations. For help in sharpening that guitar-centric sound, Paper Route made use of the production and mixing skills Howat has honed in his work with artists like Paramore and Brooke Waggoner, and also enlisted the expertise of Darrell Thorp (an engineer who’s previously worked with Beck, Radiohead, Air and Paul McCartney.
Paper Route first conjured up their melody-driven take on electronic-leaning alt-rock back in 2004, when Howat began using music as a means of battling insomnia. “When I couldn’t sleep I’d make tracks on my laptop, and after a while I showed those tracks to JT and asked if he wanted to start a project together,” says Howat. An old friend from college and former bandmate, Daly was then working as a painter and graphic designer (an ongoing endeavor that includes creating artwork for Paper Route as well as artists like Sufjan Stevens and Wilco Building off their powerful chemistry, Daly and Howat put out their first two EPs in 2006: a self-titled release and the three-song Thrill of Hope, whose closing track “The Music” later appeared in 500 Days of Summer. Over the next few years, Paper Route split their time between touring with arena-filling acts like Paramore and sharing smaller stages with the likes of Thurston Moore and Mark Kozelek (their fellow performers at SXSW 2008’s Lou Reed tribute show). Releasing their full-length debut Absence in 2009, the band continued to straddle the pop and indie worlds, heading out on the road with Imagine Dragons in 2013 and embarking on their own headlining tour in 2014. When it came time for the follow-up to The Peace Of Wild Things, Paper Route shook up their process with an experiment they named Band Camp.
“We’d just come off the road and we were exhausted but starving to create again, so we made up a series of exercises to try to kickstart everything,”
says Daly. For one week, Paper Route invited various musician-friends into their Nashville studio to try out those exercises (example: “Play the heaviest song you can, as quietly as possible”). While the band ended up scrapping most of the material born from Band Camp, they found themselves re-energized and refreshed by the time they headed to the North House. And though the album marks Daly and Howat’s first time writing with Aranda, the longtime touring guitarist gelled instantly with his new full-time bandmates. “The three of us being in the same space, where there’s this wide-open soundboard and anyone can sing a melody as soon as it comes to them — it created something fully collaborative and just felt really great,” Aranda says. One factor that fostered that collaboration: Paper Route’s unified vision of tapping into a deep-seated need for connection and transformation.
“We love the idea of being a voice someone else might cling to, the same way we did when we found those bands that changed our lives, who made us want to lock ourselves in our rooms and play their records over and over,” says Howat.
At the same time, Paper Route aspire to protect and preserve what Daly refers to as “the sacredness of the musical language”.
“With music, you can make people feel like they’re having a better day than they are, you can make them remember that they’re in love or not in love, you can make them mourn or make them celebrate,” he says. “It’s a very powerful thing, and I’m pretty positive that we’ve served that sacredness with much honesty.”