Aug. 27 2014 11:17 AM

Trio’s latest EP focuses on pop hooks

Terry  Malts
From left: Nathan Sweatt, Corey Cunningham and Phil Benson
Photo by Gina Clyne

The promotional blurb that accompanies Terry Malts’ new Insides EP floats the idea that this might be the band’s most “pop” effort yet. That may be true, just as it’s true that August is warmer than July in San Diego. Which is to say: not by much.

During the past three years, San Francisco’s Terry Malts—bassist Phil Benson, guitarist Corey Cunningham, drummer Nathan Sweatt and no one actually named Terry—made a splash with their gritty take on pop, punk and new wave, first on their outstanding 2012 debut album, Killing Time, and then with a solid follow-up, 2013’s Nobody Realizes This is Nowhere.

There was no massive leap between the two, no major stylistic shift. Killing Time is a sonic speedball of Devo-style weirdo-punk and disaffected, Ramones-style scuzz-pop cut with Benson’s smooth, deadpan croon. It’s fast, fuzzy and, above all, catchier than a snaggle-toothed zipper, as is Nobody Realizes This is Nowhere. The albums are a couple of lo-fi peas in a pod, which is both a blessing— in that they established Terry Malts as up-and-comers in modern garage-rock—and a curse.

“That’s one of the frustrating things about being in a band. You’ll get reviews and it’ll be, like, ‘More of the same from these guys.’” Cunningham says, using his best nerdy-critic voice. “It’s, like, we’ve barely put out two albums! The Ramones had, like, 10 albums and nobody was, like, ‘More of the same from these guys’ after the first two. People don’t sit with things like they use to. They don’t spend time appreciating stuff.”

Which brings us back to the Insides EP, Terry Malts’ alleged grab at pop glory, which will be released by venerable Slumberland Records next month. Its four songs were recorded by Monte Vallier, a Bay Area studio vet who’s worked with artists like Weekend, Mark Eitzel and Young Prisms. Vallier also mixed the first two Terry Malts albums, both self-recorded monuments to DIY ideals and punk muck, not to mention budgetary constraints.

“Originally, we were only [recording ourselves] just out of economy, to save money,” Cunningham says. With Vallier, “we didn’t know if it was going to come out too-produced-sounding or if it was going to be too slick and not feel like Terry Malts. So we just kind of went in as an experiment to see if we could do the studio thing as opposed to recording it ourselves. I think it turned out really good. It doesn’t sound that different from the stuff that we recorded on our own.”

Benson chimes in: “That Monte, he has such a refined ear that he can make a studio recording sound like it was recorded at home. He’s just that good.”

Insides is proof that Vallier wasn’t the only person in the studio who knew what he was doing. The first track, “Let Me In,” is classic Terry Malts, with a roller-coaster Benson melody layered atop a simple, serrated riff. The airy tune of “Grumpiest Old Men” is Cunningham’s contribution to the record; it provides a nice contrast to the band’s ever-present buzz. The third track, “Don’t,” sneers and slithers while the glistening, 90-second closer, “Hidden Bay,” sounds like a close cousin of Killing Time standout “Tumble Down” despite the fact that it’s a Chills cover; both songs would soundtrack Target commercials in an infinitely cooler alternate universe.

Terry Malts are putting out Insides because the songs have been ready for public consumption for a while, Benson says. But he and Cunningham are currently writing their third LP, which is tentatively planned for an early 2015 release. They won’t hesitate to work with Vallier again, Benson says, and they’re ready to follow the fidelity highway to at least somewhat clearer sounds.

“It’s definitely something we’re interested in doing. I think the first two albums that we did… we were just trying to discover ourselves a little bit, which any artist should do,” he says, recalling his Ramones rant. “I think you just want to grow within that mold a little bit. Now we’re trying to push a little bit in a more melodic direction, or at least evolving.”

Terry Malts play Aug. 30 at The Hideout

As the music evolves, however, and expectations—of fans, of Slumberland Records or whomever—grow, the three men in Terry Malts will work to maintain their approach. This is, after all, a trio that, in a 2012 interview on the blog Delayed Gratification, acknowledged playing together in a bunch of bands over the years, “some rather serious and some jokey,” and declaring Terry Malts “a little bit of both.”

That balance has no doubt shifted in recent years, but perhaps not as much as you’d think.

“We try to keep it lighthearted, I guess, in our attitudes toward making the music, not necessarily in the song themes,” Benson says. “I guess what it all comes down to is [we’re] just making the music for ourselves anyway. Like, I’m not trying to fill any demands or anything.

“So as long as we’re having fun doing it, I’ll keep doing it.”

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