Thanks for the great write-up Lori - we had a blast doing this interview!
Business Casual: Crossword Smiles Fashions Classic and Experimental Sounds on “Pressed & Ironed” Album
For their debut album, Crossword Smiles brings a “business-casual” sensibility to the indie-pop world.
The Grand Blanc-Dexter duo of Tom Curless (vocals, guitars, drums, keys) and Chip Saam (vocals, bass, guitars) strikes an optimal balance between classic pop-rock song structures and experimental college-rock textures on Pressed & Ironed.
“We want to show the duality of our lives,” Curless said. “We work day jobs, and then we put the pressed shirts away and put on our Converse [sneakers] and play rock ‘n’ roll.”
With button-up shirts cast aside and well-worn sneakers in place, Crossword Smiles fashions 10 artful, melodic tracks on Pressed & Ironed that remove the wrinkles of the past and provide a smooth outlook for the future.
“Tom and I both take our lyrics somewhat seriously, and I don’t think either of us writes something just to write something because it sounds good,” Saam said. “We both put some thought and work into our lyrics, and it’s awesome when people really pay attention, especially if it makes some kind of impact.”
Released via Big Stir Records, the album’s compelling assortment of semi-autobiographical and character-driven tracks instantly connects with listeners.
“I put parts of my life in there, but I always try to hide it a little bit if I can or make it more poetic,” said Curless, who co-wrote the album’s tracks with Saam. “It’s something that I would like to be or it’s something I’d like to say.”
Along with Curless, Saam makes an impactful statement about life experiences and possibilities on Pressed & Ironed.
“For me, it’s more story-driven … and maybe some observational stuff. Tom and I share a love for Freedy Johnston, and he’s a guy who can just kill it writing a song,” he said. “The characters he can get into a song, they’re really something. I would certainly consider that an influence on the songs that I brought here.”
Crossword Smiles illustrates their storied approach on the reflective opener, “Feet on the Ground,” as rich harmonies and hopeful electric guitars encourage positive life changes.
Curless sings, “He was only sixteen when he thought he saw the light / The local newsmen hailed him as a star, and they were right / The hometown hero / Added up to zero / Seven scotch and sodas help him make it through the night.”
“When things get rough in your life, you have to start living in the moment again and putting your feet on the ground even though you’re feeling like your soul is lost and found,” Curless said. “It’s a poetic way of saying get centered and take it one day at a time.”
Rustling waves of forlorn electric guitar and drums surround Curless as he sings, “I remember when you took me by the hand / A cold wind blew, you were hard to understand / Daylight turned to nighttime, the last time I saw you / Forever seemed a short time, the nights that we’d been through.”
“There’s something about summer turning into fall … it always feels very significant to me. When fall hits, the cool weather starts coming in, and the leaves start falling, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is great. I can put on a sweater and go to football games,’” said Curless, whose other shared influences with Saam include Joe Jackson and The Go-Betweens.
“But there’s also something about when fall hits when you’re growing up, that it’s like, ‘Back to business.’ It feels like a big passage of time.”
Next, Crossword Smiles addresses the lack of romantic convergence on “Parallel Lines,” a melancholic ode to unrequited love.
Somber keys and hesitant electric guitars reveal the painful truth as Curless and Saam sing, “From flat as a tabletop / To lakes in a mitten / Covered in snow / The girl’s landlocked / Still she leaves me smitten.”
“The relationship never got to that point. It was headed in that direction, but then it went [elsewhere]. It was one of those ‘what-if’ things,” said Saam about the duo’s latest single from Pressed & Ironed.
“In a sense, it was a make-believe thing. I was trying to put myself into … not somebody I knew in real life … but just put myself in somebody’s shoes that was in that possible relationship.”
Saam and Curless also bring their “Parallel Lines” story to life in the ‘80s-inspired video. Directed by Curless’ daughter, Madeline Curless, it features the duo acting as meteorologists during a newscast and later jamming in an MTV performance recorded on VHS.
“She’s always the first person I let listen to my music because she’s pretty into music, and I gave her the album,” Curless said. “She was like, ‘Parallel Lines,’ that’s the one, and I got an idea for the video.’ We just let her run with it, and she loved the lyric, ‘Weatherman tells me,’ and when we do those asides.”
Unrequited love aside, Crossword Smiles shifts to promising relationships and life experiences on “Walk Softly.” Tranquil pedal steel and acoustic guitar reassure Curless as he sings, “Our hands are together / This we can treasure / Our hearts are as one tonight.”
“I was driving up north, and I was listening to Freedy Johnston,” said Saam, who also plays with Curless in the 46% and The Hangabouts. “I heard ‘Arriving on a Train,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that pedal steel would be perfect for ‘Walk Softly.’”
Once they agreed on adding pedal steel, the duo continued to hone “Walk Softly’s” lyrics, which spotlight being cautious in love and life.
“It could be a relationship or anything in life where you just take it nice and slow,” Curless said. “This is a delicate situation; take it easy, and that’s where I went with the theme of the lyrics. The music kind of led me there, too.”
Curless and Saam started writing tracks for Pressed & Ironed in winter 2020 and recorded six with Joel Boyea that spring at Marshall’s Dungeon Studios.
“We have a shared love for The Go-Betweens, and we’ve always talked about making a record that has that kind of vibe and feel to it,” said Saam, who formed Crossword Smiles with Curless in 2017 and named the duo after a lyric from The Cars’ “Dangerous Type.”
“Fortunately, we knocked the six basic tracks out pretty quickly [before the pandemic hit]. Tom sang vocals at his place, Meccanic Studios, and we would go back there occasionally and add a guitar and something else.”
The duo continued to add vocals and instruments remotely to those six tracks before returning to in-person recording sessions at Whitmore Lake’s Earth Studio. There, they cut additional tracks with The Hangabouts’ John Lowry and Greg Addington.
“We did a pretty good job of working on a song and getting it pretty far along before we moved along,” Saam said. “We were both like, ‘Let’s keep the line moving, let’s keep adding stuff, let’s get together, and let’s make the time.’”
Crossword Smiles also features several collaborators on Pressed & Ironed, including Boyea (keys), Addington (keys, guitar), Lowry (keys, effects), Rod Capps (violin, viola), and Dave Feeny (pedal steel).
“Dave Feeny did two passes of pedal steel on ‘Walk Softly,’ and they were both great,” Curless said. “We were both excited, and when that got on there, it was like the icing on the cake.”
With Pressed & Ironed completed, the duo approached Big Stir Records, a Burbank, California-based independent record label, about releasing their album in early 2021. Due to a predetermined schedule, it would be another 18 months before the label could release the album.
“Big Stir had what it took, and we thought, ‘We’re just gonna wait; it’s fine, we’ll be patient. We’ll put this on the shelf, and we’ll work on other stuff,’” Curless said. “They kept us involved during the whole thing … they were very communicative and very open to things we had to add to it.”
Since partnering with Big Stir Records to release Pressed & Ironed on September 16, Crossword Smiles is preparing to share a new video for “The Girl with a Penchant for Yellow” soon. They’re also considering an album release show and working on the next batch of new material.
“When we’re writing certain things, we’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds more like a Crossword Smiles song than a Hangabouts song or a 46% song,’” Saam said. “Part of our goal with this was to make a record we love and have it be influenced by bands and musicians we admire, but to also make it noticeably different than a 46% or a Hangabouts record.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.
You're welcome, Chip. That was a lot of fun!