Army Navy still battling as an indie with 'The Last Place'
The chance to collaborate with Morrissey isn't an opportunity most young rock musicians would take lightly. Justin Kennedy of the recently reinvigorated Army Navy justifiably jumped at the opportunity. But the band, having just released the vibrant collection of lovelorn-in-Los Angeles power pop that is "The Last Place," didn't gleam much musical knowledge from the dapper chronicler of strained relationships.
Kennedy, after all, pays the bills as a wardrobe stylist. "I dress people for photo shoots or events, or dress actors for red-carpet events," Kennedy said.
Sometimes these lead to exciting encounters, he said, such as the time he flew in Tom Cruise's private jet, and sometimes helping a man dress to his best can be "a dream come true," such as Kennedy's moment with Morrissey.
"I don't get to work with many musicians, so working with him, someone who has influenced me since I was a child -- and probably a major influence on the way I think -- was amazing," Kennedy said. "I was able to chill with him."
Morrissey even gave Kennedy a nickname. "He called me '80s legs," Kennedy said. "He said, 'What's up with the skinny jeans? Is that a retro thing?' At the end of the day he said to me, 'Thanks, '80s legs.' I was like, 'Holy crap, Morrissey just gave me a nickname!'"
Kennedy these days isn't ashamed to let out his music geek fandom for all to see -- or at least those who were drinking and eating at downtown's Senor Fish in the middle of a recent Friday afternoon. Yet not too long ago Kennedy was enveloped in a level of moroseness that would have made his musical hero proud. Army Navy had an arsenal of songs openly tracking Kennedy's recent gone-bad relationship, but no label, and no funds to record and self-release them.
"We write catchy melodies, and we want people to hear these songs," Kennedy said. "We're not an indie band that doesn't want to be known. We'd love to make this our living. None of us can make a living on this. Every money that comes in from the band goes back into the band."
Luck has no doubt played a part in allowing Army Navy to survive long enough to record two albums, but so has the ever-evolving music business. Twice now, Kennedy's band has been saved by the film industry, once in 2008, when "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" licensed two of the band's songs, and then again in 2010, when a placement in the trailer for "Shrek Forever After" gave Kennedy the funds to underwrite the 11-song chronicle to busted grown-up love that is "The Last Place."
Recording for "The Last Place" was stretched out over a six-month period, in part because each member of the core trio has day jobs, but also to ensure that "The Last Place" had a fuller, bigger sound than their 2008 self-titled debut.
Kennedy may sing that love in Los Angeles is nothing more than "pretend" in "Ode to Janice Melt," but in the grand power-pop traditions of Shoes, Material Issue and the Fountains of Wayne, wallowing here is delivered with buoyancy. Handclaps, keyboards and sharply exuberant guitars abound, as do swooning harmonies ("The Long Goodbye") and big rhythms (the stop-and-start groove of "The Hunter").
"Instead of layering the guitars, we wanted one great guitar," Kennedy said. "That made it sound bigger. There was less clutter, but finding the right tone took a long time."
Kennedy composed closely with guitarist Louie Schultz. His bandmate often writes directly off of the singer's lyric sheet. "He wanted the lyrics in front of him when he was working on a guitar part," Kennedy said. "He wanted his guitar to mimic what I'm saying. Probably no one would ever really know that, but in his mind, he knows it's a reflection of my viewpoint."
"The Last Place" was officially completed in early 2011, and the band went to the annual South by Southwest Festival & Conference in Austin, Texas, to weigh their options. Kennedy said the group met with some labels, but was quick to add that the business smarts of the band, founding member Ben Gaffin, had long ago left to pursue his career (Gaffin now helps oversee the West Coast operation of 4AD).
"The Last Place" was self-funded, and Kennedy said the band didn't come across any offers in which that money would be recouped, as most labels were after 360-like deals, in which all aspects of a band's revenue is shared. "We'd be getting less than we put into the record and giving them so much. We've had good luck with placements, so we feel like we'll have money."
Of course, paydays on the scale of a major DreamWorks animated film are few and far between. The "Shrek" placement was especially notable because the song, a cover of 1975's "Right Back Where We Started From," which was a hit for Maxine Nightingale, saw royalties split between Army Navy and the original songwriters.
"When you do that, you do want the songs placed in the right spot, but it was a cover, so who cares? It's not even a song our to begin with," Kennedy said.
"We are a completely independent band, and that whole thing was really bizarre," he continued. "I went to see 'Avatar' with my dad, and there was our song in the preview. You have to love those opportunities. In this day and age, that's where the money is at."
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Army Navy. Credit: Big Hassle Media