THE VELVET TEEN was famously restless in the mid-2000s. The Northern California indie-rock band released three albums in four years, none of which seemed particularly related to the others, stylistically.
Guitars ruled on the band's debut, 2002's sparkling Out of the Fierce Parade. Two years later, they went chamber pop, replacing six-stringed crunch with elegant strings and pianos on Elysium. And two years after that, Cum Laude! found the band exploring an aggressive blend of prog rock and staticky electronics.
And then... nothing. Or at least not much. For nine years—from 2006 to 2015—the Velvet Teen toured regularly and put out a four-song EP, but their steady stream of full-length albums dried up until the release of the band's excellent fourth album, All Is Illusory, on June 30 this year.
"Time is a crazy thing," says founder and frontman Judah Nagler. "It feels like nine years and it doesn't."
To be fair, the band went through some stuff. Original drummer Logan Whitehurst tragically passed away after a battle with cancer. Bassist Josh Staples took a temporary break from the band. And the band's label, Portland-based Slowdance Records, closed up shop.
Life got in the way, as it tends to do.
"We all have day jobs. We all work," Nagler says. "But also, [All Is Illusory] took longer than I would've liked."
The Velvet Teen recorded the bulk of their new album a few years ago, then spent the past couple of years finishing it up, letting the art guide the process, Nagler says. "I tend to go with the approach of, 'What does the song want?' That ends up being a better result in general for me, rather than trying to force things."
You can hear what he's talking about throughout All Is Illusory, which touches on the Velvet Teen's genre-flouting past without sounding disjointed. "Sonreo" and "Eclipses" are soaring pop songs played with punk instinct and math-rock rhythmic shifts. (It should be noted here that Casey Deitz, the band's drummer, is a beast behind the kit.) "Manifest" builds slowly into a spacey crescendo, its sweet melody delivered under heavy vocal distortion. "Pecos" is a manic collision of synth pop and Sunny Day Real Estate. The title track is a beautiful, sleepy piano ballad. And the lush "Taken Over" yawns for 11 minutes, its final half a repeated, wordless, descending melody that burrows its way into your brain. After a few listens, All Is Illusory begins to reveal itself as a record spilling over with sneaky hooks.
A decade after using each new album as an opportunity to try out new things, Nagler and his mates seem to have figured out how to incorporate all their interests into one tidy package.
"[Our previous] records were explorations in a particular direction. Part of that is due to my own wanting to check out various instruments," he says. "For this one, we had all the colors in the palette, so it just naturally ended up that we drew from each of them. We knew a little bit more of what we were doing."
With that knowledge, the support of new label Topshelf Records, and a solid lineup—Portland residents Jacy McIntosh (of Themes) and Ephriam Nagler (Judah's brother) are touring members—the Velvet Teen hopes to keep the momentum going.
"Things feel a lot easier right now, and a lot more natural and less forced," Judah says. "It feels pretty solid right now, so I'm just going with it."