TEEEL has been making compelling music for most of the 2010s, unleashing catchy new wave and dreamy, nostalgic synth-pop, along with killer instrumental synthwave and darker-edged electronic rock. But Overtime, which releases Feb. 22, marks a new high-point for the project and one that came about after overcoming some hurdles.
Albums like University Heights and Hydrostatic solidified TEEEL — mostly made up of Jim Smith but also Steve Chladnicek as of late — as a high-quality musical outfit. The songwriting is tight, the musicality often intricate and always memorable, and the vocal stylings quick to tap into wistful, introspective sentiments without suffering from Uncle Rico syndrome. Along the way, TEEEL has graced SXSW and played with artists like Com Truise and Magic Sword.
But it took three years for TEEEL’s magnum opus, Overtime, to manifest, because, well, life is busy and complicated and there are only so many hours in a day. And, sometimes, you need to step back and allow your creative spirit to just breathe. Here, Smith elaborates on all of this in an email Q&A he recently did with Vehlinggo.
Vehlinggo: Can you paint a picture of the backdrop of the creation of your new album, Overtime?
Jim Smith: This album took about three years. I was involved in a lot of side projects, so I just kept writing ideas for the album.
I was working on a sample pack for Loopmasters entitled “TEEEL – Retrowave,” which turned into a instrumental electrowave album Montage Scene that I posted up on Bandcamp for a couple bucks last year. It was a couple years since the last album and I was eager to share something with my fans.
I also created music for a 14-part video series for Canon Solutions, music for a few apps and video games, a couple commercials and a movie score for an upcoming film, Hi-Death. I was also working on my cars and remixes here and there.
“I was literally working overtime and only sleeping about three to five hours a night.”
I was pretty distracted to the point I ended up take a month off of my day job as an art supervisor at a busy pharmaceutical advertising agency to finally record the vocals and mix down the entire album. It was time for a new LP. The theme, “overtime,” sort of represented what I was going through at the time. I was working ungodly hours in an office, involved with too many side projects, traveling when I was off from work while trying to complete this album. I was literally working overtime and only sleeping about three to five hours a night.
Let’s build off that. What high points and challenges were there along the way?
I took a month sabbatical from my busy day job to solely focus on the album. I’ve always worked a lot of hours since I was a young teenager, and with 15 years in advertising I’m always busy.
This was the first time I’ve ever taken off from my job to work on a passion. It wasn’t a vacation and running around. It was waking up early and putting in non-stop hours in the studio. It was a life changing experience and I’m so fortunate to have taken the time off. There was no way the album would have been finished if I didn’t do that. I recorded, edited, mixed and mastered all of the music.
Which songs were easiest and hardest to write and record, and why?
The easiest songs don’t have lyrics. It’s easy for me to write tracks, but the challenge comes when I want to add a theme to a song — write and record the lyrics and record everything. I’m much more comfortable writing music than recording vocals in a bedroom and making them sound professional. Because I don’t record in a studio, I put a lot of time re-doing vocals to get the right vibe.
Overtime features collaborations with vocalist Suzanne Miller Farrell on “Synth City” and lyricist and vocalist Erika Leigh on “Good Enough.” In general, how did you choose those collaborations? (Steve Chladnicek is back on guitars and bass guitar from previous TEEEL outings, I’ve noticed, too.)
Steve has been writing with me since [2014 album Hydrostatic]. We started playing live together and he joined in the writing process. He’d come over for full Sundays and we would record as many guitar parts as possible. It took a lot of time for me to go through different takes and do the editing. This time around, he started recording at his place and sending his parts to incorporate into the tracks. He’s sat with me long enough to learn the recording process and it’s been amazing to send him demos and get back perfect guitar parts for the song.
It’s become a very fluid and efficient process. Steve is very technical, knows music, and has a ton of groove. He’s played for a few metal bands, including Nora, so it’s so much fun to see what he can add to the TEEEL sound on the album and stage. We’ve actually been playing music and in bands together since the late 1990s, so I know we can roll up to a venue and rock out together. He recently moved to Arizona, so we’ll probably continue working this way. We’ve actually never practiced together as TEEEL. We do our own thing and show up and jam out. It’s exciting because we both work off each other so well, every show is surprising and fun, even for us. He’ll add his flare and I can focus on the synths and vocals to really give a special performance. I love it.
Suzanne, on “Synth City,” is another long-time friend and one of my wife’s best friends. A couple years back we were all at our house and I recorded some vocal takes for fun in my bedroom studio. She has a gorgeous voice and we’ve always talked about recording her. I’ve remixed other female vocalists in the past, but never featured anyone on any TEEEL songs. I loved what we recorded and was so inspired to compose a fun and dance-y track from it. She says “take me there” and I reply “away we go” to “Synth City.”
I met Erika Leigh through a friend in the Detroit area. He sent me a cover she performed on and I loved her voice. She had that perfect ‘80s Madonna vibe. I sent a couple demos to her to try some things on. She wrote lyrics for “Good Enough,” recorded them, and emailed me a couple weeks later. It was perfect for the song and we had a great time collaborating. It was a great experience and I’ll be writing some music for her upcoming solo project this year.
“I imagined a future world filled with neon-lit buildings and the world working ‘overtime’.”
The artwork was done by one of my favorite designers, Beeple. As a graphic designer by day, I initially wanted to do the artwork. I was inspired so much by Beeple’s work and thought, “He’s the best at what he does. Why not just contact him?”
I was beyond thrilled that he agreed and sent me his layered art files. I made a few subtle tweaks and set it up as album art. It was exactly what I envisioned and I’m so grateful to have his work grace my album. He’s a true master and I’m honored to have worked with him. It certainly elevated the concept of the album’s theme. I imagined a future world filled with neon-lit buildings and the world working “overtime.”
Going back in time, how did TEEEL come about? What’s the back story?
I’ve been passionate about music for as long as I can remember. Slightly obsessed with MTV, ‘80s shows and movies, old school video games, I began writing music in the mid ‘90s. Playing in metal bands and my interest in drum and bass led me to writing music on the computer.
“With a name like James Smith, I wanted to stand out…”
I tried writing everything from dark drum and bass to chill ‘80s electronica, and finally landed on my sound. I still draw inspiration from those things and try to incorporate a little of everything on an album. I took the name from my studio’s wall color. My recording studio is painted teal. It’s my favorite color and very calming. With a name like James Smith, I wanted to stand out a little so I changed the spelling.
I know for a fact you enjoy New Order: Not only because your music is clearly inspired by their sound, but also because I’ve seen you (as a spectator) at one of their Radio City gigs in recent years. What is it about New Order that makes them such an enduring and popular band?
I’ve always loved their music since I was a young kid and watching their videos on MTV. Later in my teens, when movies like Trainspotting came out, I was reunited with their sound and was obsessed with that soundtrack. As I got older I’ve grown to love their music even more. In the past couple years I was lucky enough to relive my childhood when I saw New Order, Depeche Mode, OMD, Flock of Seagulls, and The Cult. It’s amazing to see these guys still out there kicking ass and rocking out.
“Bernard Sumner of New Order flicked a guitar pick into the crowd and I ran over and snagged it.”
Actually, the night I saw you, Bernard [Sumner of New Order] flicked a guitar pick into the crowd and I ran over and snagged it. It’s in my studio now on display. It was a surreal experience. I love being a superfan of these guys.
You perform live on occasion. Which show has been your favorite and why? Any shows lined up for the future?
We’ve played a couple times with Magic Sword at Knitting Factory in Brooklyn and it’s always been an awesome show. They’re a fun band that know how to put on a killer show. I love the sound in there and the crowd has been always incredible. I also loved playing shows at SXSW and in Texas. I have a large fan base out there and the shows are always so much fun.
Anytime I get to play with my buddy Seth [Haley], aka Com Truise, is always an epic night of music, hanging out and reminiscing about good times: Great music, drinks, late-night food, and lots of laughs.
You can pre-order Overtime today in various forms, along with some sweet merch, via Synth Records. Head over to Bandcamp pronto.
Feature Photo Credit: Time’s Arrow Photography and QXT’s Human Music Festival in 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.