Since the 2009 break-up of his old band, former Harlem Shakes guitarist Todd Goldstein has focused full-time on his solo work under the name ARMS. He recruited a full band and released an excellent EP last year for free, which you can (and should) still download here. The band has since been working on their new full-length album, Summer Skills, out later this year. I caught up with Todd on the phone this afternoon before he went to work.
There are many opportunities to catch the quartet live in the next month, starting with a free show next week at Union Pool in Williamsburg and culminating with a residency at Pianos every Wednesday in February. Upcoming ARMS shows will be listed in full at the bottom of the post.
Tell me about how ARMS started.
I’ve pretty much been writing songs since my adolescent life. I was writing songs that had a real bedroom character. I got friends to play drums but I played all the instruments. Then I kind of got sidetracked by playing in the Harlem Shakes. While all of that was happening, though, I was still writing and recording. I released Kids Aflame, but it was still sort of a back burner thing. Then Harlem Shakes broke up in 2009, for many reasons, but one of which was that I individually just wanted to get serious about this project and wanted to have my own band. Maybe that week, I started talking to people about putting a lasting ARMS band together. Around then I put this band together and found the right guys. Now we’re actually most of the way done with our first full band record.
It seems like your project’s first full-length was kind of unheralded — you even describe it as being released “quietly” on your site. Was that discouraging or more by design?
More by design. In the UK, weirdly enough, it was less quietly released. The label, Melodic, did a great job promoting it and I got to go over there and do a tour, I played solo in London to about 50 people and it was really surprising and pleasing. It was never more than I expected it to be because I knew it couldn’t be more than I could give it. I put it out how it made sense at the time. There was a little blog attention here and there, but I was really happy playing in Harlem Shakes. To have a moderately known solo project was fine at the time. If all goes according to plan nothing will be quietly released this time around.
When Kids Aflame was released, were you aware that the Harlem Shakes were on unstable ground?
Not particularly. The way bands fall apart is slow, kind of the way relationships do. I think in the back of my mind I always knew that if/when Harlem Shakes disbands, this will be my focus. When the Shakes broke up it was like, “Well, this isn’t what I was planning for, but lets do this.”
When Harlem Shakes disbanded, was it hard to refocus or did you have a clear picture of what you wanted to do with ARMS?
I was ready to jump right in. I’ve had bands for most of my life, and this is something I was really ready for. I’ve gotten unbelievably lucky by finding the right people to play with, from the get-go it’s really been like, “This is it.” It’s been a joy, easy to work with these guys. We’ve all been in a lot of bands and just know how to do it. There’s an art to the people aspect of being in a band and they just know what they’re doing. I’m periodically uncomfortable with it, but I like leading the band and calling the aesthetic shots. It’s very satisfying.
How did your bandmates come into the fold?
The bass player [Matty Fasano] emailed me out of the blue right when the Shakes were breaking up. We had friends in common. The drummer [Tlacael Esparza] plays in a band called Frances. I tempted him into playing with ARMS because Frances was a part-time band, and he gave in. The keyboard player [Dave Harrington] popped up a few months ago and offered his services. He’s a great bass player, but he has this amazing rig of keyboards and effects and I’ve never really seen anyone do what he does. He’s like our Eno, he knows how to make the weird noises and craft the vibe.
You released an EP last year for free on your own. Why did you decide to go that route?
I feel like the way the industry is now, free stuff is the direction its going in anyway. I don’t like paying for music particularly, so if a band I like put out a free EP, I’d be psyched about it. Also, we didn’t pay any money to make it, we’re making enough from the few gigs we were playing to pay for our practice space, so we didn’t need to get greedy. I also think it was just a good entry point, ARMS has been a bedroom, solo thing for such a long time that I thought this would be a really good way to reintroduce it. No barriers to entry.
Do you think this kind of technology makes it harder or easier to be in a band these days?
I think money-wise it’s a lot harder to make your living as a musician, but the attitude has opened up a lot of creative alleys. Because it is less explicitly money driven, people open themselves up creatively to more outside-sounding stuff. Things are less single-driven, more and more people are making album albums, and returning to the elemental qualities of great pop music because they can. They’re not trying to sell it so much as just get people to like it.
The new full-length, Summer Skills, is supposed to come out this year. What can you tell us about that?
We’re most of the way through. We’ve got a little more tracking to do and then we’re going to mix it. We want to have it done, but our producer [Shane Stoneback] is very busy. He’s just an awesome, incredibly creative guy. The stuff we’re working on is bigger and more fleshed out than the EP. It’s kind of a concept album, a sci fi break-up album. It’s an album. We’re making a complete piece that tells a story with a narrative. It’s a bunch of pop songs, but we work a lot to keep it coherent. There’s repeating sections and themes, but it’s a pop album.
Do you have a label?
Working on that right now.
Are you tempted to self-release?
It’s possible, but I like labels. I like having a family, and having the territorial brand of having a label. I think it’s the way for us to go.
Any idea when we can expect it?
It’ll probably be out by the middle of this year.
Are you a native New Yorker?
I’m from Boston. I moved here after college. It seemed like if I wanted to be doing music it was the place I needed to be. So far it has confirmed that completely.
How long have you been here?
6 years. I started writing ARMS stuff in 2004 when I got here.
I’m trying to get a sense from people who live and work here of what the music community is like. What is your take on that?
I think in a city this size there’s no one thing going on, there’s a million different cells and they kind of group together in their own way. You have friends, people you have musical kinship with or personal connections with. New York is really fragmented. ARMS has our family of bands that we’re familiar with, which I think is really supportive. Something I have seen that I don’t like seeing is that people forget that we’re all sort of in the same sinking ship together. It’s hard to be in a band and take it seriously and do it for a living. To me, everybody is…there’s a lot of unspoken support, even if you don’t necessarily play together or you have no connection, there’s a sense that we’re all together that’s built in. It’s helpful.
How did you get to have the residency at Pianos?
If you happen to meet the right person, things can happen. We play Pianos all the time because it’s just a solid venue in Manhattan. One of the guys who books there had been keeping an eye on us and thought we got to the level where we could do a residency. He just emailed us and asked us. This residency is about 50% or more bands that we are close friends with or that our members play in. This is definitely family. It’s family night. Outside of that, we’ve found 1 or 2 acts that we respect but that we’ve never played with. They’ve agreed to play out of I hope mutual respect.
What are some of your favorite NYC bands?
I know there’s probably a lot that people have heard of. Bear in Heaven shares our practice space and I’m just crazy about them. I really like Suckers. They’re really creative and interesting. I’m a big fan of Antlers as well. I actually just met a friend of a friend who just moved here name Bryn Bellamy. I heard his music randomly and it completely blew me away. It’s like the new Sufjan but maybe better and more soulful. Ambitious and interesting. It’s really been turning me on.
Anything else we should know about ARMS or about you?
I don’t know. We’ll be playing a lot of new material at the residency. I’m really proud of the new record, it’s the best thing I’ve done for sure.
What was the best thing to happen to you in 2010?
We played our third gig opening for Passion Pit at Terminal 5. It was crazy, we barely had our shit together and it was bizarre. Just getting started working on the new album was definitely a highlight.
What are you most looking forward to in 2011?
Finishing the record that we started in 2010.
Upcoming ARMS shows
Thursday, January 27 :: Union Pool :: w/ Liturgy, Naam, Your Youth, and DJ Shy Child :: 8pm doors :: FREE
Saturday, January 29 :: Glasslands :: More info TBA
Wednesday, February 2, 9, 16, 23 :: Pianos :: All shows 8pm, $6 in advance, $8 day of :: Full line-up info here
Photo taken from the band’s Facebook page.
Byrds of Paradise
Miracles of Modern Science
My Teenage Stride
Pillars and Tongues
The House Floor
The Poison Control Center