For The Mommyheads, it’s time to unbury a past sonic treasure.
The New York City indie pop quartet of Adam Elk (vocals, guitar), Michael Holt (vocals, keys), Dan Fisherman (drums, percussion, vocals) and Jason McNair (bass) recently excavated and restored their experimental sophomore album, Coming Into Beauty, after nearly three decades.
“It’s a trip reintroducing this lost record. In all honesty, I’ve always been embarrassed by the recording quality and artwork of the original version. Most people who knew about it called it the quietest record in their collection. It was the closest thing to looking at those horrible pictures of yourself in high school before shoving them back into the attic,” said Elk, who co-founded the band in 1987.
“It was such a relief to commission new artwork. Marc Strömberg in Stockholm has done an amazing job coming up with designs for the last batch of records. On this one, he fused five different songs into the cover image. In this day and age, when everything is so accessible, it just didn’t make any sense to keep having this gem off the radar any longer.”
Now available on all streaming platforms, Coming Into Beauty features a refreshing, remastered sound across 15 quirky, inventive tracks from The Mommyheads’ formative years. Originally released in 1992 via Small Machines, Elk co-wrote and recorded the project across two cities with two iterations of the band, including then-bassist Matt Patrick and then-drummer Jan Kotik as well as Fisherman and Holt.
“It’s the closest thing to stepping into a time machine and hitting one of those big brass Victorian H.G. Wells buttons for us. This really is an album about pushing the boundaries. It also helps to know that we were only 18-20 years of age at the time and didn’t know why boundaries and formulas even existed,” Elk said.
The Mommyheads push those creative boundaries through zippy electric guitars, spirited acoustic strums, bouncy bass, pulsating drums and flavorful keys while exploring timeless pop sensibilities and unconventional storytelling.
Originally recorded at New York City’s 6/8 Studios and Cloud 9 Studios in Chico, California, Coming Into Beauty eloquently depicts growth, relationships, self-worth and animal symbolism through the lenses of five eclectic musicians ripe for early adulthood.
“Coming Into Beauty’s whole purpose is about taking chances, and it really makes it a fun listen all these years later. There were so many studios and environments involved that it’s really developed a sonic patchwork of sorts. Even the engineers all had extremely different styles of recording, ranging from experimental to conservative,” Elk said.
“Matt (Patrick) and I had very different approaches to songwriting. Matt was more of an emotionally intuitive writer, where I had a more quirky, mental and angular approach to songsmithing.”
Wedding Days and Existential Crises
Elk beautifully demonstrates his cerebral songsmithing on the jittery nuptial anthem, “Wedding Day,” as glistening acoustic rotations, throaty bass, pounding drums, tranquil electric guitars, shiny cymbals and high-pitched harmonies push him down the aisle. He anxiously sings, “On one hand there’s the baby/If it’s gonna be born it needs a family/On the other hand is my finger/Pointing to a travel brochure.”
“Most of the time when you hear a song for the first time, your ears try desperately to pinpoint influences to help you describe and understand what you’re listening to. These tracks in particular are so weird and original, that looking for references is almost completely impossible,” said Elk, who’s heavily inspired by Queen.
Another Elk-penned favorite includes the unexpected ode to young love, “I Started Breathing,” as shimmying, intermittent percussion, tropical acoustic strums, dancey bass, vibrant ukulele, thumping bass and peppy electric guitars unexpectedly exhale.
Elk reveals, “Burnt up tiny bridges in my hands/And it seems like we will never meet again/You say I am wrong/And I know you are right/All this time you’ve tried to hide your face/‘Cause all your friends say it was out of place.”
“The majority of the record was mostly completed by the time the band moved to San Francisco. Aside from two to three tracks, which were recorded in Chico, I would say this LP has more of a New York City sound – progressive, edgy and filled with mid-’80s subway graffiti. The fact that we were still playing CBGB regularly, sandwiched between hardcore ska and punk bands, still seems baffling,” he said.
Despite playing iconic music clubs, Elk chronicles an existential crisis on “I’m Not Real” as jumpy bass, palpitating drums, erratic electric guitars, smooth sax and restless harmonies question his next move. He quickly sings, “We went to bed signing declarations/Vowing that we will always exist/I did not know who I was at all/How can I say I’m not in love.”
“Jan Kotik’s drumming is such a formidable force on the record. He was the kid in high school that everyone wanted in their band. They knew their music would be instantly elevated to another level. He had a way of playing the perfect part for the song, but in the most musical way possible. Dan and Mike came as a package deal after their band, the Connotations, broke up in 1989. I absolutely love playing with these guys still,” Elk said.
The Mommyheads entrusted Avatar Studios’ engineer Fred Kavorkian with remastering and rebuilding Coming Into Beauty. He meticulously reworked all 15 tracks to fit across analog and digital formats for the album’s reissue, along with four bonus songs for the deluxe Bandcamp version. These additional tracks lived on a digital audio tape from the album’s original sessions and needed to see the light of day.
“Remastering Coming Into Beauty was like asking Fred to sonically climb a mountain for us. The album was a collection of very progressive recordings from different studios, which probably made Fred insane,” Elk said.
“If anyone reading this wonders what the value of ‘mastering’ is, then just listen. This music went from quietly awkward and quirky sounding to full and balanced with just another set of really good ears.”
New Kings of Pop
Before resurrecting Coming Into Beauty, The Mommyheads released their latest proggy, melodic pop masterpiece, New Kings of Pop, in 2020. The majestic 10-track album features lush Queen-inspired harmonies, swirling electric guitars, cinematic soundscapes and thoughtful lyrics celebrating the creative reign of middle-aged men discreetly rocking out in suburbia.
“When my kids were little, I pulled up in my minivan, and I looked over, and there was another dad in a minivan with two kids. We looked at each other like, ‘Do I look like that?’ Meanwhile, I’m shuffling for a sippy cup on the floor, and I’ve got The Flaming Lips blasting. I’m wondering, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ And he’s listening to gangster rap,” Elk said.
“We’re holding on to who we once were, and yet we’re this new thing. What if the next Michael Jackson isn’t skinny and beautiful and dances incredibly, but is a roly-poly person who drives a minivan, drops a sippy cup underneath the gas and can’t even go forward because he’s so discombobulated. Yet that guy can write a song like that with great melodies and knows how Queen did it all.”
Elk and his Mommyheads bandmates relish the beauty of being sonic outliers in the music world on “Speakerheart.” Deep acoustic strums, coarse electric guitars, kazoo-like synths, throbbing drums and crashing cymbals place the band outside the normal distribution curve.
Elk proudly reflects, “You hang up there with Picasso and Dali/Showing you our human folly/Punching holes in our paradigms/Disobeying space and time/Until you feel a spark down in your speaker/That beating blood of human nature/Watching your fingers slowly unfurl/As you strum a chord in the song that could save this world.”
“‘Speakerheart’ is about feeling like an outsider, being in the freak part of the museum with the crazy art and hanging there when no one knows what to do with you,” he said.
The Mommyheads also shine on “Out from Under the Glass,” a cautionary tale about youth’s growing addiction to smartphones and their propensity to live in an isolated, digital world. Churning, glistening acoustic strums, calm drums, delicate bass, soft cymbals and forceful electric guitars fight to keep sons and daughters from falling beneath the surface.
Elk warns, “This is an open letter to her loneliness/I hold her tight against my chest/But I’m losing touch of knowing what’s best/And all at once we don’t feel numb.”
“It’s close to home, and it’s tough being a parent with phones. There are so many distractions,” said Elk, who also developed a Rotoscope black and white animated video for the track.
After becoming the New Kings of Pop, The Mommyheads will release a new full-length album, Age of Isolation, this summer. They also will reissue Swiss Army Knife, which was previously released on cassette through Simple Machines in 1991.
“We’re hoping Sweden is fully vaccinated so we can tour Scandinavia in August and September. We also have enough material recorded for an LP in 2022. At this point, we really don’t care if we have any success in the marketplace. Our records sell enough directly to our fans to cover the costs,” Elk said.
“We always love when people do listen to our music. We’ve just kinda agreed that the music has to be made regardless of its success, and that approach has actually freed us up to be our better selves musically. I wonder if those kids back in 1989 had any idea they would still be doing this in 2021.”