July 18 2012 09:00 AM

Now based in New York City, indie-rock band continues to hone its sound

James (left) and Andy Ralph moved to New York City in January.
Photo by Tommy McAdams

For months, WRITER has been a band without a practice space.

The indie-rock duo—who moved to New York City from San Diego in January— has instead been working on the fly. Before live shows, they’ll get some practice in during sound-check. Then, they’ll try out new songs in front of the audience. They’ll set up microphones to record the shows, and later they’ll listen back to generate ideas.

The experience has been somewhat positive, pushing them to be looser and more experimental. But it’s been nervewracking, as well.

“I don’t know if I recommend it,” says Andy Ralph, who started the duo with his brother, James. “It puts us both on edge a little bit. It’s this kind of unsettling quality that I think both of us thrive off of, but I don’t know if it’s totally healthy.”

Thankfully, the brothers Ralph have finally decided on a space. It sits in the middle of a cavernous, eight-story building in Brooklyn that used to be a manufacturing plant for Pfizer. It closed in 2008, and a new owner is refurbishing the complex as a mixed-use space for retail, light manufacturing and more. But it’s still littered with abandoned equipment, giving it a zombiemovie-like vibe.

“Literally, it looks like everyone just got up and left,” Andy says. “Everyone’s stuff is still there—tools laying around. The cafeteria still has the menu from the last day they were there. It’s creepy as hell, dude.”

Totally ordinary yet richly evocative, the Pfizer building is just the kind of thing one could imagine WRITER writing a song about. For years, the duo—who’re back on the West Coast this week to play a couple of shows, record a music video and get away from New York’s crippling summer heat—has been honing its own kind of rusted-out urban folk.

Though they’re just two guys, they fill rooms with Andy’s lilting guitars, James’ rumbling drums and their blown-out, bass heavy vintage keyboards. But vivid lyrics reveal a lighthearted attitude: “The fan’s been on and humming,” Andy sings over the scorching guitar of “Hot Days,” a song that’s simply about getting sweaty on a hot day.

“Like all people, we have our darker days and time when we’re off our tits with joy,” James says in an email. “The sound is just a product of that see-saw.”

This year, they plan to release a full-length album tentatively titled Brotherface. Recorded in their North Park rehearsal space in 2010, the album’s 10 tracks are full of indelible melodies, stripped-down arrangements and nuanced lyrics. In the quirky ballad “North Park Fairies”—about the impact of bar True North on the duo’s neighborhood—they delve into universal themes of disenchantment and hostility. “I used to know everyone’s name / and now they’re throwing rocks at me,” Andy sings over light percussion punctuated by thudding drums.

“It’s like the batch of songs that basically represent me and [James],” Andy says. “We did stuff before that, but none of that stuff matters. [Brotherface] is like the starting point.”

As they’ve lived in New York and toured the region, they’ve been scouring craigslist, eBay and music shops to add more equipment to their arsenal. Partly, they want to avoid onstage malfunctions—they insist on using cheap, ’80s-era Yamaha keyboards. But they’re also hunting for a heavier, fuzzier tone: “The most fucked-up digital fuzz I can find,” Andy says.

In a tour video they recently posted on their Vimeo page, a sample of a new demo hints at the sound to come: Bashing drums, squealing drone tones and a harsh little keyboard motif contrast with acoustic-guitar strums and soft, sustained keyboards. 

“We always go with our gut and what feels right; the contrasting layers keep it interesting and make it hard to play a live show,” James says. “We live in a harsher environment now, and our new songs reflect that.”

They’re enjoying their new digs in New York. Andy, who’s also an artist and sculptor, pays the bills as a freelance art handler, installing multimillion-dollar paintings in Manhattan homes, often with his brother’s help. They’re working with booking giant The Agency Group to get bigger shows. In April, they toured nationally in support of popular Indianapolis alt-rockers Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s.

Of course, New York has a lot more going on than San Diego. Artists have more opportunities to fund projects, bands have more venues to play and it’s easier and more profitable to tour because many major cities are a relatively short drive away.

But while New York is often considered a more competitive environment, Andy doesn’t feel it.

“The truth is, dude, everybody out there is hot and sweaty, and everyone’s working hard,” he says. “You can be a rich person and you’re still going to be sweaty. You’re on the same level as some scumbag artist. No one’s different. It doesn’t matter. You’re in the same city, and you’re all walking on the same streets.”

WRITER plays with Beaters, Little Deadman and DJ Keith Sweaty at Soda Bar on Saturday, July 21. writertheband.com

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.