Sept. 22 2010 10:21 AM

What Laura Says come from Phoenix, but they’re all over the indie map

James Mulhern (second from left) says Laura doesn’t exist
Admitting you’re from Arizona these days doesn’t exactly ensure a warm reception. The state, after all, wants to throw human rights to the desert wind, where they can float away to a more liberal land like California.

“We try to joke about it,” says James Mulhern, frontman for the Phoenix-based band What Laura Says.

“We’ll tell people that we’re from Arizona, the most tolerant state in the union. We may be from there, but [what you hear] doesn’t represent half the people there.”

(Well, maybe not half. Arizona is one of the most solidly red states in America, according to a Gallup poll earlier this year.)

Mulhern, who grew up there, swears there’s much to love about his home state. “My favorite thing is the contrast of climates,” he says. “We have every climate zone from the lowest desert, Death Valley-style, to the tundra where it’s basically rocks and lichen.”

You can hear this landscape in some Arizona bands—Calexico, for example, who are from Tucson and capture the cinematically dusty sprawl of the desert. But What Laura Says are city-dwellers, and their catchy indie-pop pulls from all stylistic directions, from blues and jazz to roots and retro psychedelia.

“Phoenix is an eclectic musical hub,” Mulheexplains. “You have these old blues players and kids with no musical background playing punk and metal. Our sound is as eclectic as the area.”

On the band’s second full-length, this year’s Bloom Cheek, you find five guys still trying to nail down their own sound. You hear some of the usual suspects: Pet Sounds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, freak-folk drum circles and even a bit of Ben Folds in the rollicking piano riffs. It’s a really good listen all the way through. What it lacks in cohesiveness and originality it makes up for with enthusiasm and talent.

When asked what they were listening to while writing Bloom Cheek, Mulhesays What Laura Says, mostly. “You end up thinking about your own music too much when you’re recording an album, and not enough other new music.”

He then betrays what must be a frequent point of comparison. “We were listening to the stuff that was coming out at the time: Band of Horses, Animal Collective, and, um, uh, what’s that band’s name?”—long, deliberate-sounding pause—“I’m totally blanking. Oh yeah, Grizzly Bear.” Adding quickly: “Not that we’re trying to be influenced by them!” (Let’s face it—nobody wants to intentionally ape indie rock’s Ursus arctos horribilis.)

“We’re basically all over the indie map,” he concludes. And all over the U.S. map, as well. What Laura Says have crossed the country “like a big pretzel” this year, leaving the comfort of Phoenix to hit both coasts and everything in the middle.

The band keeps a tour blog, which recently featured snapshots of lean-and-limber members—all 20-something but seemingly transported straight from the ’70s—in various yoga poses.

“We’re definitely into stretching,” Mulhesays.

“We need to keep everybody moving and on their toes.”

Peals of laughter break out from his van-bound bandmates in the background. “Man,” Mulhejokes, “we look like a bunch of hippies doing their yoga out there on the roadside.”

They do have a hippie vibe going, which must make it even more exciting that Devendra Banhart gave them a shout-out, calling them (according to their press page) “amazing” musicians with “zero boundaries, and their music is full of so many surprises, not just from song to song, but within a single song.”

High praise from the high priest of hip hippies. Perhaps to repay the favor, the band named their first tour van, a GMC VanDura, in homage: Devendura Vanhart.

Funny, right? Too bad they weren’t quite as clever with their own name, which originally was an emo disaster—What Laura Says Thinks and Feels—but was thankfully trimmed. It’s been described as “tongue-in-cheek,” but what’s the joke?

“It’s based around the old adage ‘Think before you speak, and feel before you think,’” says Mulhern. “Laura is the inoperative platform. She doesn’t exist. I’m Laura, you’re Laura, the guy who just changed our tire is Laura.”

Unfortunate name aside, do pay attention to What Laura Says. You might really dig what you hear.

What Laura Says play with Skybox and Jamuel Saxon at Soda Bar on Thursday, Sept. 23.