Smile Machine, “Why Pretend”

Sjimon Gompers

Smile Machine

Smile Machine's Sam Miller, Kirt Debique, and Gus Johnson. (photograph by Will Miller)

Celebrating the release of his album Dream On this week with his group Mayors of Liberty, Seattle's Kirt Debique is already readying an EP with his three piece, Smile Machine. Joined by fellow songwriter Sam Miller and percussionist Gus Johnson, Kirt and his crew write and develop songs that find inspiration in the late evening hours, and in the creative and personal dialogues shared between good friends over beers in pubs, diners, and studios. Following up their first EP The New Normal, Smile Machine premieres “Why Pretend” off the forthcoming Maybe Tomorrow EP for Brick Lane Records.

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Where Mayors of Liberty convey personal territories like a folk choir, Smile Machine takes an even closer look behind the facades of congenial gestures. On the Maybe Tomorrow EP, Kirt examines the clock hands and hour glass sands of time in a ballad to falling out of love. On the opener “All These Years”, Kirt shrugs off not being a “master of time” and embraces life's onward marching processional in the affirmation of, “passage of the present never seemed so clear to me.” The rock trio joy cooked up with Sam and Gus, expresses cycles of life's births and passings on the same plane with the natural optimism of, “close my eyes and await the final dream.”

The next song, and subject of our debut, “Why Pretend” is possibly the most heavy affair. The pace of “All These Years” is traded for a slower, singer-songwriter focus on what happens to a former bond after there is, “nothin' left to burn.” Both songs highlight Debique's voice in a way like the honest reckoning found in the 70s ouvre of 60s psych rock gods, circa solo Arthur Lee's Vindicator era. Smile Machine arranges the emotions in tune to the keys, with additions of guitars that takes the “victims of a kind of apathy” to the reality of, “end the years, callin' in the tears.” Kirt's delivery and appeal creates an instantaneous and universal identification to the discontinuity of relationships in a metaphor that finds no more logs or kindling to contribute to the fireplace of the heart. Honest observations of what happens when two people grow “too far gone to care” is exhibited with all the pain of fallen dreams. It is the final confrontational verse of, “floatin' out of above the signs of apathy”, initiative is taken, and moves on to discover what new chances and new dreams may bring.

Kirt Debique joins us again to discuss the collaborative fusion that occurs in the Smile Machine trio, invitational titles for conversation, the variations of differences between writing for Mayors of Liberty and Smile Machine, and more.

First, what feels different for you in the songwriting approaches and sensibilities that you apply to Smile Machine, versus Mayors of Liberty?

The songwriting approach in Smile Machine is quite different. With Smile Machine, I focus primarily on lyrics and melody, and then I take those ideas to my songwriting partner Sam Miller. We spend some intense, improvisational time getting the song to a structure we both like, and then bring in the extremely talented Gus Johnson to think about percussion. I love the way Gus internalizes the feeling of a song, and then expresses it in drum tracks. In addition to the differences in approach, I find myself able to explore different emotional territory with Smile Machine. It’s a bit darker lyrically, and gives me a different way to express ideas and emotions.

What possibilities does the EP's appointed title of Maybe Tomorrow hold for you and Smile Machine?

Maybe Tomorrow primarily implies a certain wistfulness that matches the tone of songs like “All These Years”, confronting the fear of getting older, and “Why Pretend”, confronting the end of a relationship. The phrase can mean whatever you want it to mean – hopeful, dismissive, intense, or sorrowful. The title is an invitation to a conversation.

I like how these vast orchestrations and arrangements works their way into your music, like the subtle undertones that bloom by the end of “All These Years”. How do these aspects of production consideration impact the songwriting for you?

Sam and I are both really into big arrangements, so it’s pretty natural for the production of the songs to go in that direction. Additionally, we had the great fortune to mix with Ephriam Nagler, the amazing producer behind records from Iska Dhaaf and You Are Plural. He really took our mix to our next level. While working on All These Years, I asked him if we could create a feeling of rising up from the depths like a Loch Ness monster — that’s the blooming that happens by the end of the song. He is great at bringing a concept to life.

There is a quest and push for some realness on “Why Pretend”, moving from the “dreams that fall apart” with subtle progressive rock touches in power pop ballad mode. I'm totally imagining this song coming to life during a late night, Crybaby Studios session.

That song was all about late night sessions! It evolved in bars, restaurants, studios, everywhere, and the music has an aggressive late night feel that’s quite appropriate to the lyrical content of the song.

Other things should we expect from Smile Machine down the road?

Maybe Tomorrow is our second EP The New Normal was our first back in September 2013, so we’re going to take some time and focus on a full length for early next year.

Smile Machine's Maybe Tomorrow EP will be available February 25 from Brick Lane Records.

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