In many ways, it’s easy to be a psych rock band. Errors can be masked in nontraditional samples, guitar skills can be faked through effect pedals, and precision is lost in the exasperated path a song travels down. But within the first few minutes of us talking, Boston four-piece Bat House, unintentionally, make it clear how rigid they’ve been in crafting their music. Bat House isn’t just another psych rock band with trippy material. They’re one of our city’s most invigorating listens, and it all stems from how they work themselves to the bone to create it.
We meet close to midnight on a Monday. Holed up in the basement of Allston staple The Avenue, our conversation plays out while a bunch of bands they couldn’t sound more different than—Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, Michael Jackson—play through the speakers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t singing along. Bat House’s members are easygoing as hell. By appearance, all four members—guitarist Shane Blank, vocalist and bassist Emmet Hayes, guitarist Ally Juleen, and drummer Pompy—seem like your typical Allston resident: laid-back college students who are slightly musically inclined but lacking the drive to hurl themselves into the spotlight. But when you listen to them, both when they play music and when they talk about music, their passions surface instantly. Bat House build a dizzying concoction of psych rock, layering odd-metered rhythms with spacious field recordings and spirited guitars. This isn’t the type of psych rock where members wait their turn to bust out a sick lick. If anything, Bat House spend more time trimming fat, deciding where not to play rather than what they can add into the mix, which makes their blend of instruments more inviting. Case and point: there’s two guitarists, but neither takes the role of a traditional lead guitarist. Instead, the two bring a dynamic depth to their sound. Bat House has always been scattered, and because of that, it’s hard to place them — especially when they can’t label themselves either.
The band’s debut album, Bat House, is a blissful blend of psych, math rock, funk, and (sometimes) prog. Expect your mood to increase by the thousands immediately after putting it on. There’s the unexpected instrumental ending of “Chemical X,” the intense production warping on “Viridian City (Party),” and the brief dual singing between Hayes and Juleen on “Twist.” Bat House is a sugar rush without the annoying headache. Perhaps that comes from how it was recorded, half of which was done by Blank and Hayes in their basement and the other half of which was recorded at Converse’s Rubber Tracks studio.
“It was the longest gestation period ever, so putting it out there is a really big relief, like we’ve just given birth to a masterpiece,” says Pompy. “A lot of stuff happened in the time the album was being made and releasing it closes that chapter in our career as a band,” adds Blank. “We’re able to move on from these songs and understand that they’re in their finished form.”
That’s not a grumpy answer. Bat House seems to grin with relief at the completion of their album. They aren’t like most bands. They didn’t form with an immediate idea of what sound they wanted to create, nevertheless genre. They just knew they wanted to play together when they met at Berklee, and now that they’ve graduated, they’re only just finding out who they are as a single unit. Part of that comes from living together in Allston. All four members have been roommates for a few years and briefly ran a show house known as Banana Hammock. “We’re like a family and our relationships have grown as such,” says Pompy. “If one of us wasn’t here, the checks and balances of this band wouldn’t be here. We’ve had too many important life experiences together to stop being this weird little family.”
It wasn’t until they took their band on the road that they began to see how Bat House should be. Mere days after graduating, they went on a five week tour. Originally, they planned on completing the album before leaving for tour. Looking back, it’s fate that they failed to do so. “By the time we came back from playing every night, Emmet and I, since we mixed the album together, realized how much the songs had altered,” says Blank. “It became very clear what the songs were. We finally knew what direction we wanted to take the record in.”
Blank and the rest of the band cite numerous changes. First came the drive itself. When touring, they listened to a handful of albums on repeat because their van only has a CD player. Listening to full albums made them realize what it meant to make one. They listened to everything from Dots and Loops by Stereolab to Plastic Beach by Gorillaz to Blue by Joni Mitchell, but the two albums which impacted their view of writing a full-length the most were Rumors by Fleetwood Mac and Wincing the Night Away by The Shins. Suddenly, the improvisational parts in their music worked itself out through live experimentation. The flat tapping on “Twist” energized itself into new chaos. Random field recordings taken in tunnels or mid-conversation provided shoe-in variants to segue songs. Listening to those LPs for 40 days in a row gave them motivation to mimic the larger scope of an album, whereas before they focused on individual track songwriting.
Arguably the strongest undercurrent in Bat House’s debut LP is a nod to math rock, or rather Pompy’s love of it. Hearing Maps & Atlases in high school “changed [her] musical life.” She followed Sargent House devotedly, fell in love acts like Tera Melos and toe., and became determined to learn the trade. “Math rock is a huge part of my musical identity and I never knew anyone in high school who could tap,” she says. “That was my mission coming to Boston — getting people to tap to play in a band with me.” It’s clear Bat House aren’t trying to inject their music with math rock sensationalism—they keep one foot in the psych realm and another in the classic construction of indie rock—yet they bring enough to their sound to draw a distinct line in the sand between them and fellow psych rock locals.
“There aren’t a lot of women instrumentalists in Boston, so when Pompy and I met each other she was like, ‘We have to play together! You have to tap!’ and I just remember thinking, ‘What on earth is tapping?!’” laughs Juleen. “She sent me a tab to a Maps & Atlases song, she got me a tap book, and she just cheered me on throughout it. Pretty soon it became a comfortable style of playing.”
That’s an important distinction to make: Bat House were open to learning from the get-go. Instead of faulting themselves for not being familiar with a certain genre or gluing themselves to the styles they already knew, all four members let the moniker bring them where it may. Because they like opposing music, they write opposing songs, but they find a way to make the ends meet comfortably. “It’s a discovery process. We came together as four humans to make music without a set plan, so hearing [the songs] come together in recorded form lets you recognize this sense of identity. You see who you are as a unit,” says Juleen. “I think that’s part of what made it take so long,” adds Hayes, “that we were looking for our identity.”
If you ask any member of Bat House what motivated them to kick things into high gear, chances are they will all give the same answer: Boston’s basement scene. Not only did it inspire them, but it gave the a place in which to experiment, the key to how they found their identity.
“There was a show at the Pigeon Coop in winter of 2014 where we saw Dent. This would have been right when we started forming as a band and I don’t think we had anything written yet. Seeing them perform blew all of our minds, but all separately,” says Hayes. “We all came together after the show and were like, ‘That was insane.’ The frontwoman is an insanely talented vocalist and her performances are so intense, inspiring, and in your face. She commands a crowd. It motivated us to start playing music in basements regularly.”
“The community is the biggest reason for staying, for sure,” says Blank “A lot of music that’s changed me comes from it and now I will always appreciate it. A band that might exist for a month could put out an album that hits you hard.”
Now, Bat House contribute to that environment just like the bands they looked up to do: Dent, Hit Home, Skinny Pigeons, Palehound, Elizabeth Colour Wheel, Gamma Pope, Quarrels. In most cases, they’ve gone on to become friends with the bands they idolized. “We became a band and the community was willing to acknowledge us and encourage us to do what we do,” says Juleen. “It’s an endless cycle of support.”
Like anyone who’s lived in Boston for a while, the members of Bat House can easily point out the downsides of living here, like skyrocketing rent and a drastically young demographic. But immediately after they do, they remind themselves how much they love it and smiles spread across their faces: it’s big but not too big, it’s clean throughout, the rock scene continues to flourish, it’s overwhelmingly supportive, and you can visit New York City or Philly in mere hours. Not a single member hails from here originally, but all of them consider it home, especially through the eyes of the band.
“None of us anticipated staying in Boston, but starting this band, touring around, playing in the basements, meeting the people that we have met proved that Boston has been so good to us,” says Juleen. “I think Boston is the reason why we’re still doing this. Most bands start here and then move to Los Angeles or New York, but when you go, you fizzle away. You have to start over. We were lucky to build this community around us and be fostered by it. Why would you want to leave that?”
BAT HOUSE (RECORD RELEASE SHOW), BLACK BEACH, TWEN. SUN 4.23. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 9PM/18+/$10. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM