Let Civil Twilight’s Steven McKellar tell it, and the worst thing a band can do is let things get too complicated. Unfortunately, midway through recording their third studio album that was exactly where the South African band was. Cutting track after track, they couldn’t find a sound suited for sculpting a record around.
“You should hear the other demos that we’ve made, you’ll have a five-minute song that’s like six different musical styles,” McKellar joked. “You’ll go to the bridge and it’ll be a jazz-fusion breakdown and then the chorus is a slash metal thing, it’s all over the place.”
As the writing process wore on, the band, comprised of McKellar, his brother Andrew, Richard Wouters and Kevin Dailey, found themselves consistently circling back to one rough, soulful track that began with skittering hand drums and flashes of guitar, before opening up to sweeping synths and guitars that gleamed like an unobstructed horizon.
That record, “Story of an Immigrant,” wound up being not only the title track for their third full-length, which was released by Wind-Up Records in July, but also the project’s inspiration.
That a South African band now living in Nashville (humorously McKellar described as a “…land of milk and honey where the rents are cheap and the beers are cheap”) would make an album called Story of an Immigrant might seem almost too on the nose, but the meaning is not as literal as appears.
“[It’s about] where we’ve came from, the journey that we’ve taken to get here, what it means to be an immigrant. Not just within borders or physically, but just people when you’re trying to discover a home or a place of comfort and peace,” McKellar explained.
It’s been three years since Civil Twilight released Holy Weather, a solid album that is much darker than the rest of the band’s discography. It’s very of-the-moment, fitting in perfectly with other strong, yet sullen indie rock releases like Local Natives’ Hummingbird or Half Moon Run’s Dark Eyes.
“The second record’s got this feel of vagrancy, and timelessness to it. Like we’re vagabonds roaming, this one’s a bit more stable,” McKellar explained.
A lot of that, he says, came from the writing process. Where Holy Weather was written on the road out of necessity, the band made a concerted effort to get back to their roots on the new album, composing and recording as a unit in a stationary location. That openness is felt throughout the album, and is a major reason why Story of an Immigrant is Technicolor to its predecessor’s grayscale.
According to McKellar, a lot of the cohesion can be chocked up to the addition of Dailey, who they’d played with in the past. Dailey wrote a lot of what ended up on the album, and also brought a self-awareness that was instrumental.
“On a social level he brought in a sense of humor, reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously and just to have fun,” said McKellar. “…The style of his writing is from a place that I felt like I couldn’t get back to anymore, and it helped me as a songwriter get back there. That’s sort of the theme, is getting back to the old thing.”
One of the tracks that Dailey contributed is “Love Was All That Mattered,” the album’s ghostly acoustic closer. It’s the furthest sonic left turn on Story of an Immigrant, as synths sweep across the soundscape like a stiff breeze while McKellar reflects wistfully on a past relationship gone awry.
“It’s a sad song, but it’s got elements of hope to it,” said McKellar, who noted that it was the first song he’d recorded without writing the lyrics. “I think we wanted to end with that song because it wasn’t like going out with a bang, it was like leaving a little question mark.”
While “Love Was All That Mattered” is a solemn exit note, the rest of Story of an Immigrant beams with joy and a welcome sense of relief. “When, When” has shades of Vampire Weekend’s “Everlasting Arms,” and with its frenetic production and scratchy guitar showcases Civil Twilight at their freewheeling best.
Elsewhere, “Holy Dove” harnesses some of the harsher energy of Holy Weather into a hard-driving anthem, and the hook bursts to life in a way that practically forces you to stomp your feet and nod your head.
Front to back, Story of an Immigrant is a confident, infectious record that showcases Civil Twilight’s comfort with not only their place in music, but also as artists themselves. The album is a testament to the power of cohesion and simplicity, which McKellar believes are two of the most fundamental aspects of keeping your head above water in the music world.
“For me a band’s not anything if the members aren’t loving each other, it doesn’t mean anything. I hate seeing bands like that, that get up on stage and don’t even want to acknowledge each other,” he said. “[It] shouldn’t get any more complex than four dudes playing music together.”