Charly Bliss: Fizzy Guitar-Pop That’s Big, Bright, and Full of Feelings

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Charley Bliss. All photos by Tawni Bannister.

It was only two days into their two-week tour with Dan Boeckner’s band Operators that the members of Charly Bliss decided that they needed some candy. They were wandering around Ottawa when they hit on what appeared to be the motherlode: a hulking, warehouse-sized building promisingly named “Sugar Mountain,” which seemed, at first glance, to be just the kind of confectionary wonderland they were looking for. The minute they opened the door, however, everything went Lynchian.

“It was one of the strangest experiences of my life,” says Dan Shure, the band’s bassist. “We opened the door and walked in, and it was totally silent. There was no one behind the counter and—the most unsettling thing—there was no music playing. It was just dead silence.”

Slightly rattled, the band began working their way through the store, when a basket at the end of one of the aisles caught frontwoman Eva Hendricks’s eye. “There was this bucket full of Cyndi Lauper trading cards,” she says. “I was like, ‘Sick! I love Cyndi Lauper!’ and grabbed a bunch of them. I soon realized this huge candy store somehow came into the ultimate inheritance of Cyndi Lauper trading cards, because they were everywhere. There were more Cyndi Lauper cards than there was candy. I’ve never seen so much of anything in my entire life.”

“It was… weird,” says guitarist Spencer Fox. “We kept waiting for steel blinds to slam down over all the windows and for the guy from Saw to come rolling out.”

The band is relaying this story in the slightly-cramped green room at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Records, where they’re killing time before their 40-minute set. In a few weeks, they’ll release their long-gestating debut Guppy, an album they recorded once, scrapped, then recorded again, and whose overall lifespan from concept to completion took roughly the same length of time it takes a newborn to learn how to talk. In its own way, Guppy is not entirely unlike Ottawa’s Sugar Mountain: its day-glo pop-punk guitars and endless-rainbow hooks provide the bait, but the minute you’re deep inside, lured in by the promise of confections, the door slams shut and the knives come out. To wit: “Glitter” is a honeyed, perfectly-constructed pop number that doubles as a barbed kiss-off to an ex, and the giddy, pogoing “DQ” opens with Eva proudly declaring: “I laughed when your dog died.”

When the band finally take the stage at Rough Trade, they open their show the same way they open Guppy, with the giddily rambunctious song “Percolator.” In the canon of great album-opening tracks, it’s somewhere up near the Pixies’ “Debaser” for the way it both establishes the band’s knack for irresistible, off-kilter hooks and efficiently sketches out the thematic blueprint for everything that will follow. It’s a tightly-pulled slingshot made of rubberband guitars and avalanche percussion, and on stage in Brooklyn, the band tears through it with the kind of frenzied, maniacal joy that has become their stock-in-trade. Midway through the song, Eva leans into the microphone, lets out a spine-splitting scream, and launches herself into the air. Soon, the entire band is airborne, and the stage becomes a dizzying blur of color and motion.

When the song ends, Eva, sweating and beaming, grabs the microphone to work the crowd. “Hi, we’re Charly Bliss from New York City!” she announces cheerily. “Who here struggles with crippling anxiety?”

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Before any of this—the weird empty candy stores, the dead dogs, the journey to becoming New York’s best live rock band—Charly Bliss were an unassuming folk outfit hastily thrown together when Eva realized she’d successfully enrolled in NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music without having any actual recorded music to her name. She’d been in a studio before; when she was 16 she worked for a company who wrote jingles for television commercials, and a song she sang for the chain Hair Cuttery briefly went viral. But singing songs about blowouts and having a body of work to discuss with your peers are two vastly different things.

“I was like, ‘I’m a fake! I haven’t done anything!’” she recalls over brunch at the Brooklyn restaurant Enid’s on a brisk February afternoon. She’s here with her brother Sam, the band’s drummer and Eva’s lifelong musical sounding board. Growing up together in Westport, Connecticut, Sam would practice Weezer songs on his drums in the basement while Eva listened, rapt, by the door upstairs. Music was encouraged in the Hendricks household. “Our parents wanted for us so badly to play music together,” Eva says. “Our dad was in a band called Nick Gillette & the Injectors, and our mom loves Weezer and Rilo Kiley. I remember one day I came home from school and she was like, ‘Guess what? I won Jenny Lewis tickets for you!’” Sam started playing drums when his parents hired the fusion band Deep Banana Blackout to play at their mother’s 40th birthday party, and a grade-school Sam sat down confidently behind the band’s kit and started pounding away. “According to my mom, I was really good,” he says, “Which is probably not true.”

While Sam spent his high school years performing in jazz band and banging out alt-rock covers with his friends in the basement, Eva took up musical theater. Her career is well-documented online—to uncover one video is to be treated to a vast archive of her high school performances. But what’s most striking about those videos is not the opportunity to catch a glimpse at a pre-Bliss Eva, but to see the way her roles seem to overlap with her future lyrical themes. She played Miss Adelaide in Guys & Dolls, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and Sandy in Grease, all  emotionally in-touch women subject to the vagaries of men they’re too good for. (If Guppy had a subtitle, it could well be “Adelaide’s Revenge.”) Even as a teenager, her voice was a marvel; her take on “Hopelessly Devoted” is big and proud and full-throated, boosted by a formidable vibrato and Eva’s already canny grasp of nuance and tone. And while her ease onstage is evident even in a string of blurry YouTube clips, her passion for theater started waning as the years wore on. “I think I knew that I didn’t love musical theater the way you have to love musical theater if you want to pursue it,” she says. “Everyone around me was listening to Broadway soundtracks—you have to be obsessed. You’re going to be with the same 10 kids for four years, singing the same things.”

One upside of Eva’s time spent in theatre was a friendship with classmate Dan Shure, who also acted in the productions, and would become Charly Bliss’s bass player after original member Kevin Copeland left to pursue other interests. Like Eva and Sam, Dan’s father also played in bands, and was so encouraging of his son’s interests that he sent him to Long Lake Camp for the Arts in upstate New York, where he met Spencer Fox. “We first met when we were 10 years old,” says Spencer. “We’ve been playing together for almost a decade. We started with Green Day and made our way through Jimi Hendrix, Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘The Sweater Song’ by Weezer. When we were at camp one year we decided that we wanted to write ska covers of nursery rhymes, and our instructors were so stoked. We had these unbelievable, classically-trained trumpet, sax, and trombone players arranging horn charts for these ska songs. I’m sure if we listened back now we would think they were garbage, but as a seventh grader, it was the coolest thing in the world.”

When Spencer moved to Westport from Westchester, New York, it was Dan who helped ease his transition, introducing him to a group of friends that included Eva and Sam. In a story that has now been repeated as many times as Michael Stipe’s famed trip to Wuxtry Records, Eva and Spencer first met when they were 15 at a Tokyo Police Club show that Spencer was trying to smuggle alcohol into. It was Spencer who first suggested Eva try her hand at writing music. “At some point she showed me a little inkling of a song that she and Dan had worked on, and I could tell her voice wasn’t just for musicals,” he says. “I knew it could exist in a different environment.”

The two began writing songs together and recording them in Eva’s bedroom and the results, like Eva’s high school performances, are documented on YouTube for posterity. Looking back on them now, they feel like the work of entirely different songwriters; where the manic guitar-pop of Guppy goes off like a fistful of Pixy Stix dumped into a soda bottle, the band’s first songs were tender and subdued and built mostly around acoustic instruments. It was this version of Charly Bliss that convened in 2011 to record an EP for Eva’s stint at Clive Davis, and while early songs like “April” and “Some Girls” have a gentle, breezy tunefulness, they’re more “Rocky Mountain High” than “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”

Still, the collection was strong enough to attract the attention of producer Johnny Montagnese, whose Carriage House Studios in Connecticut had hosted everyone from The Pixies to Beyonce. “We were all really blindsided by that,” Spencer says. “Here’s this dude who’s been around the block who says we have a future. So we started practicing and ended up doing this horrendous six-month stint gigging around Connecticut, playing for our friends from high school and a few drunk townies. At a certain point, I think we all realized that we weren’t playing music that sounded like the music we liked to listen to.”

The music they liked to listen to spanned a wide range—Spencer grew up on punk bands like the Circle Jerks and praises the iconoclasm of the Germs; Eva, whose middle name is Grace, earned the affectionate nickname “Emo Grace” for her teenage love of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance; Dan has a soft spot for blink-182, and Sam gravitated toward Weezer. But all of those bands cohere around a single simple premise, a premise that Guppy pursues to perfection: bright, bruising songs that are driven by unabashed pop hooks, and surrounded by deafening guitars.

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If Guppy has a thesis statement it arrives early, just seconds into “Percolator”: “I cry all the time/ I think that it’s cool/ I’m in touch with my feelings.” Those three lines serve a savvy dual purpose, setting out the album’s subject matter while also displaying Eva’s knack for sly, double-edged writing. Throughout the album, she swings between poles, offering candy hearts one minute and shoving razor blades into Twix bars the next. “‘Percolator’ was a huge song for me,” Eva says. “I felt for so long that songs had to be about boys and being sad. With ‘Percolator,’ I’m being declarative: ‘I am this, and this is what I am.’”

The song itself is a rapier-sharp collection of kiss-offs, but rather than simply disparage an ex, Eva uses winking self-deprecation as a way to underscore how lousy her partner truly is. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but she does it over and over, line after line: “I’m not scared to lick the floor,” she sings, then follows with, “‘Cause I have sucked on something worse.” As the song barrels toward its whirling-dervish conclusion, Eva uses a backhanded compliment to explode her partner’s narcissism and objectification: “All my friends never understand/ You say that I make you feel like a man.” She fucks with her own image throughout the song, but the net effect always makes her pursuers—justifiably—look worse. “Don’t you know I aim to please?” she sings with deceptive sweetness, “I’m everybody’s favorite tease/ put your hand on my knee/ that’s what friends are for.” To miss the lyric’s sinister subtext would be like calling Humbert Humbert one of literature’s most romantic lovers.

“My whole life, I’ve had to hear ‘Eva, you’re being too nice, everyone is going to think you’re flirting with them,’” she says. “Those lyrics—that’s me taking all those things people have said about me and spitting them back out and saying, ‘Fuck you.’” Barbed bon mots like that turn up throughout Guppy. The appropriately-sparkling “Glitter” is built around the chorus, “Am I the best?/ Or just the first person to say yes?” and ends with Eva seething, “Every day and every night/ milk my brain and take my life.” And in “DQ,” the song with the dead dog, she volleys through emotions like someone rifling through a magazine: “I’m with stupid, find me with this guy/ Best is when he stays with me all night, all mine, big fight, soft side.”

“All the songs are extensions of me,” she says. “It’s me, with the saturation turned up all the way. On songs like ‘DQ,’ I’m creating a version of myself that’s me to the extreme, so that I can separate myself from it. And sometimes that’s a bad thing—it becomes the worst of how I see myself, which I know is not true. But it’s all me.”

But to characterize Guppy’s lyrics as a collection of pithy jabs would be missing the point. Because for all of its salt and shade, Guppy is also full of joy: a few verses later in “DQ,” Eva pees herself while bouncing giddily and drunkenly on a trampoline with the band (an event that really happened, after a disastrous show at a sorority.) “Ruby” is a sincere tribute to Eva’s therapist. All of these exist comfortably alongside one another because they all spring from the same place.

“I do really struggle with anxiety and struggle with depression,” Eva says, “But I think, too, that there’s this side of me that everyone’s always described as bubbly and outgoing. It makes sense that the music would sound like that, because I’m both ways. I love teen movies, I love feelings and relationships. Those opening lines, ‘I cry all the time, I’m in touch with my feelings’—I don’t feel anything halfway. I feel everything 110%.”

And that, in a nutshell, is what Guppy is about. Rock history is crammed to bursting with records about emotions, but Guppy isn’t about emotions—it’s about feelings, those big, sudden, inchoate rushes that hijack the logic function and make everything seem urgent. It’s the kind of breathless, heart-on-sleeve compulsion that drives a person to ask their audience if they struggle with crippling anxiety, and Eva pulls it off because she’s perfected delivery and tone. Gone is the big-throated voice that buoyed “Suddenly Seymour” in high school; in its place is a voice that sounds like Kim Deal’s malevolent younger sister, feeling everything, all at once, all the time, at maximum volume. It is Emo Grace, to the extreme.

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While the final product might be big, bright, and effervescent, the journey to the creation of Guppy was anything but easy. The group first recorded the album in 2015, but the sessions were rushed and the band was suffering a musical identity crisis. “The biggest thing we have going for us is a sense of fun,” says Sam. “We like to have fun. The way we recorded it the first time, we lost all the fun. It was just this dense collection of songs. We kind of went into it like, ‘OK, we have 10 songs, let’s record all 10.’ Which is not the greatest strategy.”

Dan agrees. “We felt our live show was really strong, and those recordings just weren’t doing them justice,” he says. “We’re a pop band. We weren’t sounding as accessible as we thought our music could be.”

Looking back at the track listing to the first iteration of Guppy, it’s hard to disagree. Album highlights like “Glitter,” “Westermarck,” and “Scare U” are nowhere to be found. And while the original version of Guppy satisfies, the reconfiguration is a better representation of Charly Bliss circa 2017—a band that is practically vibrating with energy and, as Sam puts it, “fun.”

Part of that is a natural outgrowth of the band’s manic, full-bodied, Gravitron-of-joy live show. “Our expectations got higher once we toured,” says Dan. “When we first recorded it, we were like, ‘We want to make a good indie record.’ But once we started seeing the response we were getting at shows, we were like ‘No. We want our first album to be as strong as possible.’”

There’s a subtle but important demarcation in the way Dan describes the two versions of Guppy that are crucial to understanding Charly Bliss. Though it has changed drastically since its inception, indie rock was founded on the principles of not caring too much, not trying too hard, stringing together four loose chords and calling it a day. All of this is in direct opposition to Charly Bliss’s core DNA. They study tapes of their live shows in order to perfect them. They care deeply about arrangements and song construction. The bulk of Guppy thrives on an innate understanding of dynamics, and feels specifically designed to overload human pleasure centers. None of this is accidental. “Sam has such an incredible ear for arranging,” Eva says. “I remember playing those early songs for him, and he would say, ‘Take this part out, move this part, do this part again.’” And though the final product may agitate stodgy vinyl collectors who go to sleep cradling their first pressing of Tago Mago, that’s got more to do with them than with the band.

“I think somewhere along the line, the idea of good songwriting got confused with a lack of integrity,” Spencer says. “It’s not like we’re sitting around going, ‘This song is good, but is it good enough to be in a Honda commercial?’ We just write songs that fulfill our idea of what a good song should be. I think the reason that comes off as ‘mainstream’ is because the idea of a polished, well-written song that has a hook and has pop sensibilities gets confused with a song that’s written by some bald white dude in a studio because he’s getting a commission from Apple.”

“There’s a standard of quality that’s set,” says Dan.”And when we’re all in a room writing together, there’s this energy of, ‘Oh, this is why we’re good at being Charly Bliss.’”

In the end, “being good at being Charly Bliss” encompasses two extremes—the meticulous attention to detail and the full-on, unchecked emotional bleed. And all of them come roaring out at once. “I feel like Charly Bliss has forced me to grow up at hyperspeed,” says Eva. “It’s made me more emotional than I ever thought possible. Whenever I’m feeling something, I can’t help but think about it 30 different ways. Therapy and songwriting are so similar. So much of it is taking your experiences, picking them, apart and mining them for stuff that’s useful to you.” She pauses and smiles. “I guess you could say I’m more ‘In touch with my feelings’ than ever.”

J. Edward Keyes

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] pausing every so often to introduce her demons (“Who here struggles with crippling anxiety?”, she chirped at a show earlier this year). The bandleader’s emotional bluntness is the band’s greatest asset, with her distinct squeal […]

  2. By Charly Bliss – Guppy | Album Reviews on April 28, 2017 at 1:35 am

    […] pausing every so often to introduce her demons (“Who here struggles with crippling anxiety?”, she chirped at a show earlier this year). The bandleader’s emotional bluntness is the band’s greatest asset, with her distinct squeal […]

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