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Walking The Walk

The Talk's Justin Williams strips songwriting down to basics


When Justin Williams set about forging The Talk, he did so with Occam's Razor in hand, shaving his musical language down to the most basic terms. The result is a rush of pure adrenaline, a hopped-up concoction of machine gun rhythms, buzzing guitars and punk rock urgency whose hell-bent-for-leather spirit harks back to UK bands like the Buzzcocks, Vapors and Vibrators circa 1977.

"I kind of stripped down the way I was writing songs, and just wanted to do something a little more simple," says Charlotte native Williams. "A lot of bands end up doing a little more guitar work, or a Sonic Youth type of thing where it's not so much chords as it is you're writing to separate guitar parts that go together and singing on top of that. I love that but for us, I'd rather just play some chords and sing to it and let (guitarist) Scott (Werner) riff over it."

Growing up in the area, Williams felt the influence of the region's early 90s indie rock reign when acts such as Polvo, Superchunk, and Archers of Loaf were darlings of college and alternative rock.

"I was definitely more like NC indie rock before. I was playing a lot more detailed guitar parts, and I kinda wanted to get away from that for a while. So we started The Talk where we basically play fast punk songs," Williams says from his Charlotte home. "They're fun to play in a band because it makes you feel young to play fast rock like that. It's where my heart lies, though my heart lies more with slower, little poppier type of stuff. I'm a big Big Star fan."

That Williams favors the ringing melodies of Alex Chilton's old band should come as no surprise to anyone who's heard The Talk's new album, It's Like Magic in Reverse. Chock full of enough hooks to open its own bait & tackle shop, the songs bounce like a wall-rattling two-year-old on a serious sugar buzz, plunging forward like a brakeless semi on a mountain road: there's no stopping their momentum.

Equal to the furious pace is Williams' downcast lyrical ken, expressing that "as far as I can see/Our lives here are diseased and all should feel ashamed and plagued/Your deaths won't be enough" on "Imaginary Lines," or "I take a look around and I see all your faces/You just remind me how much I fucking hate this place," on "I Don't Need a Lot of Things Around the World." Williams even pens a pair of songs -- "My Isolation Drills" and "The Ties Everlasting" -- in which suicide plays a prominent lyrical role. Who does he think he is, Nick Cave?

"At least one of the songs suggested (suicide) wasn't such a good idea," Williams says, chafing a bit at the characterization. "They're just the way I feel. I'm a bit of a nihilist I guess. But you could call me a recovering nihilist. I'm on a twelve-step program."

While definitely bearing the imprint of the aforementioned UK punk pioneers, the new album also has Mike Mogis' fingerprints all over it. A part of the Saddle Creek collective in Omaha, Nebraska, Mogis is the label's in-house producer working with everyone from Rilo Kiley and Desaparecidos to Cursive and Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes.

A genius when it comes to rich sonorous arrangements, Mogis complements the punchy, high-paced songs with a humming wall of noise -- the guitars and drums sharing the same level in the mix as the churn of off-beat organ and synth sounds. This adds texture to the songs and a fullness to the straight-forward, throttling attack.

"My ex-girlfriend knew Conor and Mike (Mogis) and all of them, and so I met those guys at a show in Cleveland, and partied with them," says Williams. "So I called Mike when it was time to do this record. I really wanted to get out of NC. That was kind of the main thing. Not even that I didn't want to work with (Chapel Hill Producer Brian) Paulson, because I think Paulson is going to do our next record."

"We went out of town for close to a month, so it was great. It was what I needed, and I think the record wouldn't be the record it is without Mike," Williams says. "I told him I basically wanted to approach it like a punk rock Grandaddy record. That's why it's got the keyboards all over it. I was like, "I want to have those noises that they use, but incorporate them into, like, punk rock songs,' because I hadn't really heard a lot of bands doing that."

It's a cool sound and helps distinguish the album, but to Williams' thinking it would be far too limiting to sit on this rather novel approach.

"I think you can't tie yourself down to one thing because you'll eventually get -- not bored so much as you want to do other stuff," Williams suggests.

The Talk's already written and demoed their next album, and Williams says they hope to go into the studio when school starts back up in September, as part of the band's plan to record (though not necessarily release) a new album every eight months, "so we're on top of the game."

Part of the problem is that Williams writes songs like some people eat snack cakes -- daily and voraciously since he was in 4th grade. He means it when he says that if he wasn't a songwriter he doesn't know what else he'd be doing.

"Instead of going out and fighting someone or joining kickboxing, or whatever people do to let their stress out -- songs are the only thing I do. I write about a song a day because I need to. It's the way for me to release what I feel. They're not all good, but they do their job in my life," says Williams. "That's why I need to record. If I'm in the studio I'm happy as shit, because it's like closure with the song, and it makes me feel lighter, instead of carrying all those songs around with me."

If the new album is any indication, it's a burden the world will be glad to share.

The Talk play the Room on Saturday, July 21.