Angelenos think of California's Highway 10 as a traffic-snarled black hole that sucks hours out of their lives, but for Dexter Tortoriello and Megan Messina, the east/west roadway represents something else. The real-life couple who makes music as Houses and return on April 16 with "A Quiet Darkness," an album made in and inspired by abandoned homes along the highway's sparser stretches.
If that sounds like a slightly unusual place to draw inspiration for an album, keep in mind that they recorded their first record on a self-sustainable farm in Hawaii. But "A Quiet Darkness," which tells the story of a couple searching for each other in a post-nuclear apocalypse and debuts above exclusively on HuffPost Entertainment, is really a product of movement.
"I wrote all of the songs while living in Chicago, and the samples for the record were taken mostly in Desert Center, Calif. and also in a bunch of other ghost towns around there closer to Arizona," Tortoriello said in an email to HuffPost. "We finished the record at Sonic Ranch studios, which is a beautifully isolated studio on a pecan farm in El Paso, Texas, and then afterwards moved to L.A. The album from start to finish travelled quite a bit and saw many different incarnations in each location, each of which brought the songs into new directions."
The finished product is something that works beautifully at the office but is much more than just mood music. Spare in places and ornamented with electronic bleeps and bold drums in others, the album smacks of a certain richness that isn't often duplicated. A number of songs (particularly more chime-y tracks like "What We Lost") recall the work of indie bands like Stars, engaging without ever overreaching or jarring the listener. It's a smooth ride, but not one without feeling.
We asked Messina and Tortoriello about the creation of the album and whether recent news on the nuclear front have galvanized the project in any way.
How important were the actual houses you used to record in to the end product?
The locations were extremely important in shaping the sound of the album. It's occurring to me now that there is something funny to be said about how we recorded this album and how that ties into our band name, but it was absolutely a coincidence. I hate to be that literal, it just sort of happened I guess. I recorded a lot of the percussion samples inside these places from light switches and stomping out the floors and sweeping dust around, and of course when you record those things in an uncontrolled environment you also get a LOT of background noise. When I got home and started editing the samples and pitching them into drum kits, I sort of embraced the swells of ambient room noise that came after the initial intended sounds. That lent a lot of feeling to the record I believe and it shaped the overall sound we ended up achieving with it.
Is there any winking acknowledgement that the 10 is a real-life dose of post-apocalyptic hell every single rush hour?
Ha! Now that we live in Los Angeles I understand that around 5pm every day, Highway 10 turns into a scene from Contagion and I steer clear. The only part of the highway I knew of before was the desolate stretch that unfurls after the Salton Sea heading towards Phoenix. It feels like one of the last true unexplored frontiers of America. People are out there living by their own rules completely unbothered by almost anyone.
Which of your go-to inspirations do you think found their way into this album? How did you find the abandoned houses?
I found all of the locations while on tour a few years ago. We had played our last show in Los Angeles and were driving back to Salt Lake with some friends and had the time to stop at every strange place we saw and explore it a little bit. There's a lot to think about while driving through the desert and every once in a while a small abandoned city would just pop up on the horizon and we'd pull off. Musically the album was inspired by a lot of different things, most of which have nothing to do with music. We had wanted to do something cinematic, but not in the obvious 'score' way where you use a ton of string arrangements and epic chords. We wanted to create a world out of nothing that you could live in for an hour while the album plays.
Has news of North Korea flexing its nuclear muscles been odd to see for you as artists? Does it lend any urgency to your record in any way?
North Koreas culture is insanely interesting to me. I have wanted to go see their mass games and do the guided tour you always hear about. It's like a massive version of sneaking into an abandoned house. Obviously there's a ton of scary news coverage about NKs threats and uncertainty about how serious any of it is, but I don't think it adds too much urgency to our story. Most people who don't read our interviews are going to think that this is a record about love, heartbreak and death. They won't be wrong, we just framed it in a way where it can exist as something more than that.