Bent Denim: Pontificating on Town & Country

Nashville by New Orleans duo Bent Denim have been making beautifully emotive music for about half a decade now and recently released the gorgeously evocative album Town and Country. The long-distance collaborating duo of Ben Littlejohn and Denis Sager have made an impression on our hearts, spirits & minds ever since 2014's Epistolary and have regularly collaborated with like-minded talents Hovvdy. Elevating the DIY artistry form of bedroom pop toward places of the personal & reflective; Town and Country exhibits inward expressions that are examined in earnest on "Selfish Thoughts", with intimate streams of perceptions that are illustrated on "Downtown El Fenix", "Askance", to the canonical concerns on "St. Augustine", the competitive contemplations "Pageantry", carnal preoccupations on "Song Called Sex", to the maternal meditations of "My Mother Knew". Misgivings and frustrations are shared on songs like "Idiot", "Chasing Cathering", "Admiral of Excuses", courting desire on "My Own Breath", shuffling through conversation topics on the lush "I Digress", before finishing with the bulletin board pop banner "Corkboard". 

Ben Littlejohn took the time to pen the following exclusive editorial with streams of thought pertaining to Town & Country the duo's creative & psychic evolutions, reflections on the dichotomies & disparities that collect & connect on the new album, the keys to creating honest, vulnerable & confessional art, collecting a vast array of unique flea-market found instruments, reflecting on the instruments that helped to develop the sound of Town and Country, meditations on the ups and downs of living in a metropolitan town, versus the rural and bucolic countryside, to the wisdom earned and learned from the duo's creative synergy and life travels.

Pontificating on Town & Country

By Ben Littlejohn

For the most part I think that conversations about gear can be pretty boring. That being said, I don’t think I should underestimate the effect that all of instruments I own have had on making the music I've created. When I think of Town & Country, I definitely think of the instruments that shaped it. Without them, I don’t think Town & Country would exist because so much of the music stems from a sound on a certain instrument or playing something I never would have, but was forced to because of a limitation on a certain instrument. Plugging an instrument directly into a computer and pressing record does nothing for me. Though it’s easy, it’s sterile and banal. At this point, for about $500 and quite a bit of work, anyone can make a completely passable professional-sounding recording. I’d like to think that our sounds translate into something new for a listener and the sounds are as much of the experience as the actual songwriting. I’m gonna aimlessly talk about the making of Town & Country and three of the keyboards that helped make it.

I found my Wurlitzer 200A at a garage sale in Dallas in the neighborhood of White Rock Lake the summer before my freshman year of high school. My mom and I woke up early on a Friday morning to go to a bunch of estate sales. I paid $20 for it after haggling them down from $40. Most all of the keys stuck and there was no power cord. My brother, Chris, took it apart and nursed it for the most part back together. We had to order a power chord for $25 off eBay for it and waiting for it was a nightmare because we had no idea if the keyboard would even power on. Sure enough, it did. I've used this thing in one capacity or another on pretty much every Bent Denim song. Based on what season it is, the keys can get sluggish and sticky due to Southern humidity. The tremolo is also extremely temperamental and on occasion you have to kinda bang on the casing to make it work. All of these things for me lead to a more rewarding and inspiring experience. It’s got a thick smokey sound that not all of them have. Its lower midrange glue that ends up being the thing that sticks so much of our songs together. Or its a melody that winds around without sticking out too much and staying right below the threshold of something that directly calls your attention.

Denis Sager & Ben Littlejohn of Bent Denim; photographed by Benjamin Davis.

Denis Sager & Ben Littlejohn of Bent Denim; photographed by Benjamin Davis.

Another instrument that was integral to this record is my grandmother’s Hammond organ. Most of the time I spent as a kid in her smoke-filled house was spent playing this thing. She purchased it as a way to practice for when she played for her church. There is Littlejohn family folklore of her having a few too many cocktails before the Christmas service and playing a few wrong notes. Nothing that I can’t relate to. At some point after seeing how much we enjoyed it, she gave it to my brother and me. When she passed, the organ got moved to my parents house in Dallas and has since been moved up to Cape Cod. It’s a monster of an instrument. Huge with two rows of keys, bass pedals, and an absurd amount of tubes. Every time I make it up to Cape Cod, I make sure to bring a little bit of recording gear to coax sounds out of this beautiful thing. For the most part, it’s contributions are small and quick but they add a layer of depth and realness to these recordings. They also make me feel close to her because she loved the music we made so much. At most of the early shows I played, she would be at the front of the stage in her walker watching right by the speaker with a smile on her face and tapping her toes. 

My family’s upright player piano has a life story filled with folklore. It’s the piano that my mom grew up with and has played since she was four. My grandfather, Vance, bought it out of a saloon in West Texas in 1957. It has these rolls of music that can be loaded into the front it and they have holes punched into them. Somehow these holes are read mechanically by the piano. You power it pedaling on two pedals next to the sustain pedals and that determines how fast the music is played and the keys physically get pressed internally. I was fascinated as a little kid playing rolls of Beatles songs watching the keys push down and being amazed that someone can do something like that with just ten fingers. The piano itself is definitely out of tune and needs a new set of strings but that is what gives it its charm. This piano also resides in Cape Cod now in the same basement as my grandma’s organ. There’s like an octave and a half of it that is in tune enough to actually be used in the context of a song and not sound like a complete disaster. Having to be aware of these limitations definitely shapes what I play and how I play it leading to a bunch of happy accidents. This is the sound at the very end of “Idiot”. The age of the strings and whatever weird things that have happened to it in its long rough life make it have this very tacky sound. The sound is reminiscent of The Beatles and Elliott Smith where they actually put tacks on the hammers that strike the strings to get more attack on the envelope of the sound. I know at one point it was painted a matte black and I wish it still was.

bent denim keyboards and organs week in pop.jpg

This record was a joy to make but it was also such a drawn-out process. Listening back to the record I hear so many spaces that I was able to track in. I hear so many happy accidents and so many different sounds that I hear nowhere else. If there is a correct way to make a record, I don't think this would be an example of it. I was able to sneak a few close friends on this record also. My friend Sara Beth has some beautiful backing vocals and piano parts on a few songs that are transcendent. Things I never would have thought of that have become my favorite parts of the songs. I am so thankful that over the years I've been able to collect things that make sounds that fulfill and give life to these songs. Thanks for reading and don't be afraid to turn things all the way up and add a million tracks. You can always mute it <3

Bent Denim's Town and Country is available now.