Cheap Girls: Craig Finn runs marathons

Categories: Last Night
Photo by Kelly Gairrocco

Formed by Brothers Ian and Ben Graham with roommate Adam Aymor during a lull in 2007, Cheap Girls have slowly burned their way up from DIY tours of the home state of Michigan to high profile opening slots for Against Me! and Gaslight Anthem. With Ian Graham's sincere, hear-tugging melodies and Aymor's heroic Mascis by way of Mould guitar, Cheap Girls also won over critics and Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. The Minneapolis-bred frontman lent his vocal talents on their new single "Knock Me Over" from their recently released Famous Graves LP. The album is a perfect shot of catchy, summer-bummer pop-punk reminiscent of Sugar or a cleaned-up Jawbreaker.

Ahead of Saturday's gig opening for the Hold Steady at the Zoo, Gimme Noise caught up with Ian Graham to discuss their time with Finn and their decision to self-produce their recording this time out.

Gimme Noise: I'm familiar with you guys from what I'd like to call the "midwestern melodic punk" circuit, but would you mind giving me a brief history of the group? You guys started around 2007 in Lansing, right?

Ian Graham-Vocals and Bass: We'd all been in bands, you know, the kind of bands that everyone is when they're teenagers. Then that kind of ended, and everyone was in some form of community college...or not in a band for the moment and kind of wondering what they were doing. It was kind of like "oh fuck...I've never not been in a band, you know? So I felt like rather than put a sign on a wall somewhere telling people to join this band, I should write as many songs that I'm happy with as possible, and the kind of have a bit of a foundation. We're not really three guys that got together and jammed and something happened. That being said, one of them is my brother and one of them has been my roommate for the past eight years, so we're pretty close anyway, and that speaks to why we've been able to stick together for a while. I think this is more than we ever set out for, I don't think we necessarily ever felt like touring all the time. My brother had just gotten married literally during the formation of the band, so there was a lot of contradictory things but somehow it has just continued to work. Not much has changed in the core dynamic of how things work since day one.

I've been a fan of you guys for a little while now, and the thing that struck me most about your songwriting is that you have a really unique and consistent sense of melody since those early days. Has your songwriting process changed much as a group?

Yes and no. It's stayed consistent in the sense feels like a stupid thing to say out loud but I'm the "key songwriter." So I write songs on solo acoustic guitar and then Adam is a way way better at guitar than me or most of the people that I know, so I he takes them from there. Obviously with time, I think if anything's changed it's that everbody's gotten a little bit more intentional. So not much has changed, but at the same time everyone has grown really focused on doing what they want to do, and making something that has staying power with themselves, or is reflective of the records that they were listening to heavily. I think it's just making records that we'd want to hear.

Being a songwriting bass player can sometimes be a tricky position to fill in a group. I'm just curious, has it ever crossed your mind to bring on another bass player, or is Cheap Girls firmly just the three of you fellas?

Well, in all honesty, I would rather be a guitar player in this band than the bass player. But the three of of us are very close, and no one has really presented themselves at this point that would be an obvious choice for that, so it would clearly shift the dynamic. Maybe that would be a good thing, but there's a whole lot of maybes with that. It would be my dream for us to be a five-piece, of course I'd love to hear these songs with a sweet organ track, or an extra guitar, but a lot of it is just the fact that the 3 of us are very close people. It would definitely be a weird shift to just add some fourth guy. But if you've heard the new record, on the song "Shortcut Days," the acoustic guitar rhythm thing is as important as the lead line, they both need to be there, we couldn't play it live without both of them. So we've actually never heard that song in a room with all the parts played at the same time, except for in our studio. Plus, playing pretty straightforward rock songs as three people, it was a different story when we played 25 minute sets in basements, but now that we get to play 45 minutes in theaters, I would definitely be up for another guitar to be there.

You guys partnered with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me for the last record, but for the most part you've been self-produced. What approach did you take on Famous Graves?

We did produce this one ourselves. Even as music fans, we didn't really know how to define what a producer really was or wasn't, way bay. Working with one like Laura who has so much experience with Butch Vig, who is a an A-List, very involved, full on producer. But a lot of people in the industry will throw the word "producer" on there when the guy who recorded the record didn't give any advice, he just set up some microphones and they liked his name so they put him as the producer. I felt like with this record, we really did produce it, where as with the previous records it was like "well, we've got this week to go in and play them the way we did in practice." That's what the record has to be, and is going to be.

Working with Laura was the first time where someone asked "should that chorus be there twice, should be there at all? Should the intro be twice as long? Half as long?" So we got a grasp on, not necessarily a formula, but a mindset of analyzing songs, and then learned the beyond that, you eventually have to go and play these songs live. So it really came down to considering the fluency of songs, and even the fluency of a record, while still being able to connect it to simply the way it feels best to be played. Moreso than anything else, it feels like our record, like we did every last thing we could to kind of please ourselves, and we were lucky to have that luxury.

To me, this record shows you guys embracing a cleaner, brighter sound that really works for you. There's a lot of acoustic guitar jangle, compared to Orange's electric-driven vibe.

To be honest, the secretive side of it was that I definitely did try to inch it into a category where the idea of adding that second guitar player was not as out of the question [laughs]. There's a lot more acoustic tracks, things that one guy with an electric guitar can't do, but then again, back to Adam being a really good guitar player, he found a way to get around that.

I think it's more layered, we definitely wanted it to be "studio" record, like "let's hear all of these different sounds" and waste all this fucking time by putting a microphone eight inches further away and stuff [laughs]. Adam of I had a lot of time. Ben was expecting his first child, so he basically did his drum track, some vocal backups and kind of got the fuck out to go hang out with his wife. But at the same time, Ben's a very hardworking dude, he's just not the type that could sit around in a studio for three months and really give a shit what gauge of strings were on the acoustic. So Adam and I really got to have our fun, making sounds, adding parts, adding layers. I think in the way that we learned a lot having Laura as our producer, I think, in our own ways, we learned the same thing this time through for ourselves. Where to save time and where to waste time, next time around, so we still learned something with it. That was kind of our goal with self-producing, to take something key away from it, and I think we got that.

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