Craig Prentice's Hermit Convention plays the Crepe Place on Wednesday, Feb. 6.
The latest album by Craig Prentice’s one-man-band Hermit Convention, Cough Syrup Coffins, is his most experimental record to date—which is to say that it was recorded in an actual studio, with drums, guitar and backing vocals. For a guy whose previous low-fi recordings had him singing to bass guitar loops in his bedroom, this is wacky stuff.
The decision to incorporate more instruments on Cough Syrup Coffins wasn’t something he planned on. He recorded the songs in a friend’s studio because he happened to owe Prentice a favor, and he let him record for free. Once there, his suggested Prentice experiment a little bit.
“He was like, ‘dude we have a whole studio. Let’s do what we can. Let’s put layers on it.’ I was kind of reluctant. He handed me a guitar after we laid down the bass. He pushed me to create new parts. He was kind of my producer,” Prentice says.
Much like the new record’s fuller sound, Prentice’s initial decision to start the one-man bass-driven Hermit Convention was something that he stumbled upon.
Back in 2008, while still playing guitar in local indie rock band Depth Charge Revolt, he decided to try out a looping pedal, because other members of his band had been using them. He tried constructing little songs at home by building loops with his guitar, but he never really cared for any of it. Once he plugged in his bass, though, he fell in love.
He started to write songs by building two or three bass loops and singing over it. He was always concerned with giving these ditties a pop structure.
“It was kind of like a challenge to write a complete song like that. It was like this confining thing that actually helped me be more creative. With looping, it forces you to keep it minimal. Giving yourself limitations can be liberating,” Prentice says.
The outcome of these limitations resulted in very simple catchy songs. But they had a raw, offbeat sound about them that was uniquely weird. It was familiar, but totally alien.
“I appreciate things that are different and push the envelope of what’s acceptable, but at the same time I definitely like it to retain that core, some semblance of making sense,” Prentice says.
As a pop-songwriter, Prentice took greatest influence from bands like Guided by Voices and Mountain Goats (both of whose early work were also very much lo-fi). Not only did he write melodies in a similar vein, but like these artists, he took great pains to write thoughtful, interesting lyrics.
“I just thought that for this to work, the lyrics would have to be something people could latch on to. If it was boring, it just wasn’t going to fly. The music’s already kind of boring,” Prentice says.
He spent the lion’s share of his songwriting time crafting lyrics, the outcome of which are abstract stanzas that contain powerful, emotive sentences—yet don’t necessarily make logical sense.
“It’s definitely stream of consciousness and full of imagery. I don’t really know what they mean sometimes. They’re kind of like interpreting a dream,” Prentice says.
“DK Hoodie,” a song off of Cough Syrup Coffins is a good example of his strong surreal punch.
“What rhymes with ironic/strung out hippie headband iconic/with the ipod on shuffle/in a camouflage duffel/earphones hiding behind a DK hoodie/the weaker-thans play/her silhouette burns away/with the sunrise.”
As those lines demonstrate, the songs on Cough Syrup Coffins have not lost their weird character, even if the instrumentation is closer to standard. In fact, he’s arguably made a more unusual album by the way he’s added instruments. The guitars are like twinkling gentle notes that bounce off the steady deep bass loops, with the drums grounding it into a solid rhythm. Raya
Heffernan provides backing vocals on some of the tracks, adding a trance-like beauty to the melodies in how her voice contrasts with that of Prentice.
The reaction Prentice’s friends and fans have had thus far is mixed. There are of course those die-hard lo-fi fanatics that would prefer Prentice’s recordings always have hiss and pops on it.
“Some people are like, ‘when are you going to make something like your old stuff?’ Other people tell me I should get a band. I’m kind of in the middle,” Prentice says. “I think it’s enhanced the songs, in my eyes.”
Hermit Convention plays the Crepe Place on Feb. 6.