When Slow Runner announced their hiatus in 2013, it was a little hard for us to wrap our heads around. Since singer/songwriter and keyboardist Michael Flynn and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaler first paired up in 2002, the draw of the band was apparent. The balance of pop-rock acumen and art-rock aspirations always felt precariously yet gorgeously balanced as beautiful melodies got pushed and pulled by the band's nuanced tinkering and love of old keyboards and new effects. Flynn's aching, weary vocals always managed to convey both resigned wisdom and yearning romanticism, something often matched in the heartbroken subject matter of his crafty lyrics. Kaler, who would build a reputation as one of the area's premiere studio whizzes, proved an enviable instrumental foil. This was a band clearly going places.
And over the course of four full-lengths and a scattering of EPs and one-offs, they kind of did. The group would tour nationally and even internationally numerous times with the likes of Josh Ritter, the Avett Brothers, and Built to Spill; land record and publishing deals; garner critical praise from the blogosphere; and get numerous songs placed on television shows (most notably in Grey's Anatomy and Showtime's Shameless) and commercials.
So why did they pull the plug?
"We were just sort of at the point where we were thinking about the follow-up, and it all felt like heavy-lifting," says Flynn of the decision to split. "The songs just weren't falling out of me. At the same time, Kaler was sort of, I think, feeling a little burned-out on Charleston and the Charleston music scene as far as producing and stuff. All signs pointed to taking a hiatus and mixing things up."
The group had already slowed their pace since 2011's Damage Points, so Flynn recalls feeling the hiatus was a natural way of demarcating one era of the band from the next.
"We had done a lot of music together at that point," he says. "It was just time to take a step back and try some other things."
For Kaler, that meant moving to Nashville and strengthening his pedigree as a recording engineer and producer, as well as touring in Butch Walker's backing band. For Flynn, that meant making video game soundtracks and recording a more loop-based and "hypnotic" solo record, 2014's Face in the Cloud.
When a causal reunion in Nashville to see a live performance of The Legend of Zelda soundtrack resulted in "almost a third of a record" being written, though, it became clear that another Slow Runner record was in the works.
"It was purely a social visit, but I had brought along five or six song fragments I was playing around with," Flynn admits. "We spent a few days in his studio just making noise and playing together in the same room, which is kind of how we used to do it long, long ago."
That long weekend was the beginning of New Monsters, which was released on March 25, with a brief tour kicking off at the Pour House this weekend.
According to Flynn, New Monsters is in some ways a throwback, but it's a result of their brief hiatus as well.
"Slow Runner had always been my 'one thing,' so I always felt like I had to cram all of my creativity into that one thing," he explains. "So I had never really thought about making a solo record. It wasn't like I was creatively stifled in the band — it was pretty much my songs and everything. But Slow Runner had always been a balance between our two sensibilities. There's a lot of overlap, but there are still differences. He's a little more grounded and organic. I'm a little more sort of pushing into uncomfortable directions or trying something different."
After all of the experimentation of Faces in the Cloud, where Flynn composed more with a drum machine and deliberately eschewed more traditional approaches, the Slow Runner approach felt fresh.
"Having immersed myself in the way I did with Face in the Cloud, suddenly simplifying and sitting at the piano and not getting a drum loop going, all of the things I did for those songs, it felt different, just because I hadn't done it that way in a few years," he says. "And now that I have the solo outlet, I don't feel as much pressure to cram everything into this one act and have it be the sum total of my output."
The result is an album that sounds every bit like a Slow Runner album but also like a band that feels a bit more energized and a bit less experimental. Think more The Bends-era Radiohead rather than Kid A.
"I wanted it to be more of a straight-ahead rock thing, where we just kind of revel in the things that we do best together," says Flynn. "It's way less conceptually ambitious, I guess, because it's the first one where I feel like we aren't pushing ourselves into radical new territory. I don't feel I have to do that anymore. So that's a big weight lifted off of us. It was like, 'Let's just make a Slow Runner record.'"