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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012

Paper Holland’s Long-in-the-Making Debut

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Most students go through college faster than it took Milwaukee’s Paper Holland to finish their debut full-length, Happy Belated. In fact, the recording process resembled something like an education for the band. Almost half a decade ago, singer Joe Tomcheck just picked up a guitar and begun crafting spirited power-pop songs with fellow guitarist Andy Kosanke. “The album is the first 10 songs I’ve ever written,” Tomcheck admits. Their friend Brian Szymanski had recently opened the recording space Ashwater Studios with a buddy and offered Paper Holland an undeniable opportunity.

“We said we'd do the record for free,” Szymanski recalls. “We didn't know exactly what we were doing and neither did they.”

Paper Holland certainly milked that deal. The recording process progressed at a snail’s pace, lasting more than four years. Many factors contributed to the longevity, but chief among them were that Tomcheck and Kosanke basically pieced together the songs in the studio. There wasn’t much of a choice—the two didn’t have enough warm bodies to play their songs live. The current four-person lineup wasn’t even solidified until about six months ago. Szymanski filled in as the drummer enough early on that he accepted the request to take the spot permanently. Also, Tomcheck was still figuring out how to play the guitar.

“There’s a lot of two-chord progressions on the album,” he says. “That’s because I would find one chord I really liked and I just didn't really know how to make a more advanced progression out of it. The last song of the album, ‘Before You Go,’ is two chords the entire time. That was the product of me not knowing how to make a more complex composition.”

Even though Happy Belated is a fairly simple record, it’s still charming and enjoyable. If Tomcheck learned anything in the last four years, it was how to write a good hook. They absolutely litter the album, which is a good thing since it does wonders masking the romantic frustration that rumbles underneath the surface. It should be no surprise that Tomcheck cites Death Cab for Cutie as an influence.

“Originally, I envisioned it sounding a lot like Transatlanticism,” he says. “I wanted that ambient, echo-y sound. That's the approach we took going into the studio.”

However, Happy Belated isn’t as meandering and melancholic as the Paper Holland’s major musical forebear. The extended studio time helped the band hone their more up-tempo sound and the final product makes it seem that Tomcheck took more cues from Ben Gibbard’s lyrical themes than anything sonically. “I’m here without my mind / Can’t be contained by state lines / They’re arbitrary manmade divides / Of which I find myself on the wrong side,” Tomcheck broods on “Without My Mind.” That helplessly forlorn and wandering attitude echoes the sentiment heard on countless Death Cab songs.

As with any never-ending project, the repetitiveness that came with fussing over every little detail eventually wore on the group. They ultimately passed on their work for some touching up from Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Recordings, who mixed and mastered the record. “He whipped our album into shape and made it something we were proud to release,” Kosanke says.

Since the tracks from Happy Belated have been circling around their heads for a long time, Paper Holland already seems poised to move onto another project, though they’re not entirely sure what that is—it’ll probably have something to do with the 30-40 new songs written since work on their debut began. What’s definite, however, is that they’re overjoyed that there’s finally a tangible piece of their last four years.

“Those songs represent a certain time period now and because of the overexposure to them in the recording process, I got sick of all of it,” Tomcheck says. “I can listen to it now and it's like reading an old journal entry. It has a nostalgic quality that rekindled my enthusiasm with the songs.”

Paper Holland hosts the record release show for
Happy Belated at the Down and Over Pub (2535 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) Friday, Jan. 4.
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