Keep It Like a Secret: Towner's new album basks in mystery and melodies


Towner illustration by Yoko Molotov

Towner illustration by Yoko Molotov

On “ANFR,” the opening song of Towner’s third album, songwriter Kris Ehrig sings, “I’ll keep my secrets to the tomb.”

The statement isn’t a manifesto, but after interviewing Ehrig about the fuzz-soaked indie-rock trio’s new record, The Importance of Having a Good Time, he does keep things close to his chest. 

For the two previous Towner LPs, 2020’s This Is Entertainment and 2022’s The Lever, Ehrig shared songwriting duties with fellow guitarist CT James, who moved from Ann Arbor to Los Angeles and has since released two singles. Jason Horvath has played bass on all the albums, and drummer Eric Van Wormer joined the group for The Lever. (The first album featured programmed drums.)

With James gone, The Importance of Having a Good Time comes entirely from Ehrig’s point of view, and his songs mix self-deprecation and angst with numerous lyrical references to other songs and bands. For musical trainspotters of a certain age and sonic disposition, puzzling out all the indie-, atl-, and punk-rock references feels like a game. 

The name of Towner’s first album is a jesting reference to The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment,” and The Lever has a tune, “This Is (an) Entertainment,” that nods to it again while copying the cadence of The Jam song’s chorus. The Importance of Having a Good Time may or may not also include allusions to the Descendents’ “Suburban Home” on “Common Sense” and Icicle Works’ “Whisper to a Scream” on “Burnt Red Hands,” while the closing song, “Take This Job and Shovel It (Close Enough),” tips a cowboy hat to the 1977 country classic by David Allan Coe. 

Just don’t look for easy confirmations from Ehrig about all this nerdy conjecture.

“Not one person has commented on my extremely obvious 'Demolition Man' reference,” he jokes about the 1981 Grace Jones single penned by Sting and later recorded by The Police (or perhaps about the 1993 Sylvester Stallone sci-fi film). “There’s lots of other stuff. Off the top of my head, for this album specifically, I think we hit on solo Mick Jagger, The Who, Twilight Singers, Lexo and the Leapers. I’m sure there’s others. I sometimes have difficulty with original thought.”

“TKO,” one of the most powerful pieces on The Importance of Having a Good Time also has a reference to the band Superdrag when Ehrig sings, “You know that I’m no good,” soon followed by a high-pitched wail that made me sit up in my seat. When asked if the song's distressed lyrics are about himself or aimed at a person such as an absent father, Ehrig says, "I don’t necessarily want to get too deep with it, but I’m too navel-gazey in general to rip other people in my life like that."

Towner’s record-collection rock also makes sonic references to those who have come before, especially the melodicism-dripping-in-distortion of Dinosaur Jr., Guided by Voices, and Superchunk. Strip away the noise from any of those bands and their songs would sound great on acoustic guitar, and the same is true of Towner's tunes.

But what also helps define all those bands, as it does Towner, is having a vocalist who can cut through the din by having a distinctive vocal style and timbre. Ehrig’s voice has the nasal snottiness of punk but filtered through a yearning and earnestness that feels distinctly of the Midwest (albeit via Kentucky, where the current Ann Arborite went to high school).

While Ehrig’s voice is frequently caked in reverb and pushing into the red—it can sound like he's singing through a megaphone—it’s also double-tracked and placed high enough in the mix that you can hear him sufficiently to sing along—and there are many singalongs in the Towner catalog. Ehrig consistently writes grainy vocal melodies that are instantly appealing without being florid. There’s dirt under these flowers.

Producer Hugh Wyman, Jason Horvath (Bass), Kris Ehrig (Guitar, Vox), Eric VanWormer (Drums, Percussion, Keyboards) at Willis Sound 2023

Producer Hugh Wyman, Jason Horvath (bass), Kris Ehrig (guitar, vocals), Eric VanWormer (drums, percussion, keyboards) at Willis Sound, 2023. Photo courtesy of Towner.

There are no credits listed for The Importance of Having a Good Time, but Ehrig did spill the details about why the trio decided not to record the third album at home like it did the first two, opting instead to make it at Willis Sound, a converted a church in a tiny township in south Washtenaw County.

“I liked this process of recording [the new album] a lot more than previous records,” he says. “The first one was almost a lark because we had time on our hands. And The Lever we bit off more than we can chew. It’s nice to all be in the room and playing together and being able to switch things up in the moment. Plus getting instant feedback from [producer] Hugh [Wyman] and [engineer] Joe [Sleep] was a huge help. It challenged us to learn and play the songs better. And to actually finish them before recording rather than during, I think.”

While This Is Entertainment and The Lever sound really good despite being home-recorded, the songs were pieced together with everyone recording separately. The live-band interplay is readily apparent on The Importance of Having a Good Time, especially on the song “Get Gone.” There’s a swing and swagger to the upbeat tune that comes directly from the drums and moves on up through all the other instruments, including the vocals.

“What’s been really awesome,” Ehrig says, “is that I’m bringing [songs] to Jay and Eric way earlier in the process than I used to. Their input is so valuable and really turns this stuff into actual listenable songs and we finish them together. And ‘Get Gone’ is the perfect example. Jay came up with the middle part on the spot and we finished from there.”

Ehrig’s songs allow a lot of space for Horvath to play countermelodies that create tension and groove, making the songs less linear, more swirling, and the singer-songwriter praised Van Wormer’s contributions as being among his favorite moments on The Importance of Having a Good Time.

“If I had to pick individual moments on the album, the top three would all be things Eric came up with,” Ehrig says.

But which three moments? 

Ehrig didn’t say.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Towner celebrates the release of "The Importance of Having a Good Time" with a concert on Thursday, June 26, at 8 pm at Ziggy's, 206 West Michigan Avenue, Ypsilanti. Jim Cherewick, West of Windsor, and Modus Operandi will also perform.

➥ "Ann Arbor trio Towner created the terrific power-pop album 'This Is Entertainment' during quarantine" [Pulp, September 4, 2020]