Red Pens' Howard Hamilton reflects on his band's 'Limitations'

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Photo by Stacy Schwartz
The fuzzed-out rumbling you hear emanating from the local music scene these days is the sound of the triumphant, thunderous return of Red Pens (as if they ever left), who are back with a blistering new six-song EP, Limitations, that is simply brimming with both fury and finesse. Instead of releasing a straight follow-up LP to their intense debut Reasons, Howard Hamilton and Laura Bennett have chosen to release two EPs that can better capture the immediacy and force of their incredible live shows as well as their current state of mind.

The band has managed to shrug off any type of expectations or pressure placed on them by the success of their debut (and being Picked To Click winners in '09), crafting a dynamic, propulsive collection of songs that are every bit as incendiary as their earlier work, if not more so. The fiery tracks fly by in a flash, with Hamilton's fierce guitars set ablaze against Bennett's relentless drums. It's a breathless, resonant batch of new songs that will certainly keep the buzzing in our ears going right along with the buzz on the street for this highly combustible band.

The deafening duo are playing a record release show at the Entry this Saturday night, and ahead of their big night, we were fortunate enough to be able to ask Hamilton a few questions about the direction of these new songs, how the recording went, and what 'limitations' he's specifically referring to in the title of the EP.

Was there a distinct, seething sound that you were aiming to capture on Limitations that you felt didn't come across as clearly on Reasons? Because the new EP just sounds so raw and intense by comparison.

I think we knew it couldn't be as lo-fi, so we decided to kick the drums up a few notches and have the songs be less blurry, which gives it a raw sound when you are dealing with the way we write.

I think the unrefined, natural production featured on your recordings goes a long way towards imbuing the songs with the potency and spirit of your live show. Is that something that you are intentionally after when you head into the studio, or does that energy occur instinctively whenever you and Laura play in the same room together?

I think we both live in fear of click-track style recording and always intend on playing the songs live in the studio and adding to them. This time around we recorded the basic live tracks with Neil Weir at Old Blackberry Way, and then took most of the tracks home and manipulated them, added vocals and overdubs, then I mixed it myself. A few of the tracks Neil and I mixed together, which was a really positive experience; it takes a lot of trust to do that for me, since I am such a home recording enthusiast. The songs are all very close to how we play them live, so yes it sounds like the show on purpose.

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Photo by Stacy Schwartz
Other than having fewer songs to record, how does your mindset and focus change when you are recording an EP as opposed to a full-length? Is it more liberating to have a smaller batch of songs to record, as opposed to thinking of gathering together an albums worth of material?

I think the batch of songs I wrote didn't flow like a full length, and since EP's are super popular right now we decided to do two EP's instead of a 2nd record. I really like to have records have a flow to them, and this EP flows nicely and makes you want to hit play again, and that is my ultimate goal.

How do you balance having the catchy, indelible melodies buried within your music shine through amidst the wall of discord you two generate? There's always just the right amount of fuzz piled on top of these inherently hummable melodies of yours.

I really take pride in the layers of hidden stuff that only I know about buried in the recordings. Sometimes when we play the songs live it feels a little thin to me, but people always tell me how full we sound--I have to believe them, I guess. I have always been super inspired by walls of feedback, and I think we have an original way of doing it so it doesn't distract from the actual songs, and adds to them and covers up flaws even.

Can you expand a bit on the lyrical theme of the EP's title track of "our limitations make us feel surrounded/seem annoying?"

Limitations is the first song I ever wrote for Red Pens; we back-burnered it for a while and then brought it back. Laura and I are sort of weird people; we have limitations that define us. The song is seriously about the trade-off of being creative with having other areas that don't work like normal folks. For instance, I hate crowds and Laura talks a lot; that's kinda what it's about at least.

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Photo by Stacy Schwartz
Red Pens performing at "4 Nights in Loring" in August
How has playing numerous gigs around the city with other great local bands, and the warm support you've received from the Twin Cities music community, informed or influenced your new songs, if at all? Does it give you more confidence to take risks and experiment with your sound now that you've managed to get a strong foothold in the local scene?

Yes, a few of our songs have free form structures and we just kind of improvise around the parts. This makes it more exciting to kind of either go totally nuts or keep it mellow and short, depending on the energy of the crowd. I don't think we have a foothold just yet. I think we have a nice comfy spot to grow off of and elaborate on for the people who choose to stick with us as fans.

I really liked the variety of shows we got to do this summer; all the outdoor block parties and events where kids got to see us. I love sparking the brains of kids who might only think there is one way to play guitar or drums, and see their eyes light up and that little freak light come on.

RED PENS play an EP-release show with Zombie Season, Fauna, and the debut of Indian Style (members of France Has the Bomb, Gospel Gossip, the Chambermaids) on SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 6, at the 7th ST. ENTRY. 18+. $7. 9 p.m.

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