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Grooms laid down the skeleton tracks for Exit Index, the Brooklyn band’s first album since 2015’s Comb the Feelings Through Your Hair, at the storied New York recording studio The Magic Shop. “It was the end,” recalls Johnson. “We ended up bashing out 13 or 14 songs—of which we kept 10—in about six hours, because it was the last day. The engineer was like, ‘I can’t believe it. This is like working on a record in the ’60s, where the band comes in and they know everything super well, because they have to.’” Johnson, drummer Steve Levine, and bassist Jay Heiselmann had battened down in a Brooklyn recording studio for a month to write Exit Index, figuring out the bones of tracks like the pummeling “Magistrate Seeks Romance” and the tensely amorphous “Turn Your Body.” “This was the first time we had the same lineup for two records in a row,” says Johnson, “and you can hear how locked in we are. The songs are better after we all have a say in them, too—’Turn Your Body’ has no bass, but Jay came up with the chord change for the chorus.”
The lyrics on Exit Index combine honest expressions of anxiety with heady imagery that elicits icy, barren landscapes and dead-end streets. (“There’s so few things we can talk about/Our endless words, overheard/We’re not dead, we’re being straightened out/We’re semi-tough, it’s not enough,” he sings on the swirling “Softer Now.”) “It’s a heavier record than I’ve ever written lyrics for,” says Johnson. “I was writing it while I watched every single debate last year—I don’t know why I did that to myself—and after my wife would go to sleep, I would stay up with headphones on, recording and making samples—synths and quiet guitar, stuff like that. While I was doing that, I would also be zoning in and out of YouTube, and I was just so freaked out by how the debates were absurd, terrifying things to watch.”
The samples and synth bits—some of which were scraps of tape from the Magic Shop sessions, others compositions that he worked on late at night—that Johnson added to the trio’s sessions are inspired by those late-night viewing sessions. “A lot of them are hidden, but there are a lot of samples on the record,” says Johnson. “That was inspired by this idea of so many people talking constantly. There’s so much information constantly—how do we sift through it? I didn’t want the record to sound as unpleasant and abrasive as four people yelling over each other about how to take things away from poor people, but I wanted to elicit that vaguely terrifying feeling of, ‘What’s going on?’” The heavy processing on the group’s guitars helps add to the gloom as well; Johnson, who has co-owned the Brooklyn pedal company Death By Audio Effects since 2008, made a limited-edition distortion pedal to celebrate the album’s release. “There’s a lot of tremolo on Exit Index,” he says, “so I made a fucked-up-sounding trem. I designed it to be dense and possibly confusing at first, where all the controls affect what the other controls do, like a synth. It can tremolo, or it can degrade things like they’re on worn-out cassette tapes.” Collin Dupuis (Angel Olsen, Lana Del Rey) mixed the album, adding a few finishing touches to intros and song structures while also making the structures Grooms constructs sound even more massive and imposing.
Exit Index is a portrait of unease, its abstracted poetry and sonic murk giving rise to a catchy, dense disquiet. “In a way, I feel like it’s a really appropriate record for this time,” says Johnson. “It feels unintentional, though—I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to soundtrack 2017,’ or anything like that. It’s hard for me to listen to it now, because I’ll listen to it and I’ll be like, ‘God, I wish that this were a fever dream, but it’s not.’ But that lines up with what’s going on in the world, too.”