Some bands go through protracted courtships before they ever play a note of music together. Mackintosh Braun was not one of those. “We started writing and recording together the first day we met,” recalls Ian Mackintosh, one-half of the indie/electro-pop duo from Portland, OR. “We couldn’t stop it.” Their musical ideas and beliefs were too simpatico not to.
“We were so on the same page it was kind of stupid,” concurs Ben. “We met at the perfect time in our creative journeys.” Together they compose perfect pop songs, succinct and compelling enough to stand alone on piano or acoustic guitar, yet animated by artful production that brings out every little sonic nuance. Songs that transcend trends.
While the band’s popularity is still ascending, their music has already been warmly received. Since they met eight years ago, Mackintosh Braun’s songs have appeared on TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl, Chuck, Rubicon, and How to Make It in America. Earlier this year, “Never Give In” was featured in the film and on the soundtrack of Veronica Mars. They have also released two previous albums, The Sound (2007) and Where We Are (2010).
With their third full-length, Arcadia, Mackintosh Braun takes a giant step forward, building on the pair’s proven strengths as songwriters and producers, while expanding their sound in subtle yet profound new ways. “I hope people hear this record and go ‘Wow, they’re trying new things,’” says Ben.
In the beginning, Ian and Ben shared more than an aesthetic; they were also roommates, and wrote and recorded everything in their studio loft. Making music together was part of their daily routine. “On the first two records, we sat in the same room and wrote together,” says Ian. Nowadays, they actually live a block apart—and by the same token, allowed a some distance between themselves while writing Arcadia.
“We gave ourselves a little bit of room, some time and space to come up with ideas and parts on our own,” explains Ben. “Then we’d come back to each other and say ‘what do you think of this?’ and riff off of one another.”
Another significant change was the equipment they used, specifically analog keyboards including a Prophet 08 and a Juno 106. “We don’t have a plethora of synths in our studio, but we tried to use what we did have really well,” says Ben. “Instead of making everything sound perfect, we wanted it to sound natural.” To enhance that organic vibe, they used live drums on most of the eleven tracks.
Enlisting a third set of ears pushed them further outside their comfort zone. “We knew there could be another level to the music, and we’d never worked with a producer,” says Ian. Lars Stalfors (Mars Volta, Cold War Kids, Matt & Kim) proved a perfect foil for the pair. From the outset, Ben recalls, “he really understood where we were trying to take the record and the chemistry just felt right.”
Stalfors shared Mackintosh Braun’s attention to detail, and brought out more details in each of the songs. He helped the band enhance its already polished songs with dozens of simple but thoughtful techniques: thinner guitar strings, miking amplifiers in a particular way to get a grittier tone, using old-school analog delay effects like Roland Space Echo.
“Lars would just look at us and say ‘trust me,’” recalls Ben. “He was confident, and even if it was a situation Ian and I weren’t used to, he made us feel at ease. It was almost like he was the third member of the group—and that’s what Ian and I were looking for.”
From the seductive opener “The City Below” to the dark and woozy climax of “We Ran Faster Then,” each of the eleven tracks boasts a distinctive character. Yet scrutinize any single song and what leaps out is how Mackintosh Braun integrate myriad hooks—melodies, rhythms, timbres, and lyrics—into each original composition. On “Never Give In,” fist-pumping cheers punctuate a simple, insistent keyboard line reminiscent of Orchestral Manoeuvres in Dark. Vapor trail guitars augment the urgency pulsations of “Outline,” while “Another Place” opens with intricate little riffs that dart around each other like fighting fish, then gradually swells into a majestic, arms-wide-open chorus.
The end result is Mackintosh Braun’s most fully-realized album. “We wanted to expand what we do and appeal to a large audience, but stay true to our sound,” says Ben. While newcomers may find themselves asking why they haven’t heard this band before, older fans will marvel at the musical evolution displayed on Arcadia. And that’s exactly what the band wanted to create, concludes Ian: “An experience that lasts after you hear it, so you want to hear it again.”