Burnt Ones Battle Second-Album Expectations

After spending fifteen months recording its sophomore album, garage trio Burnt Ones can't listen to another note of it.

On January 6, with the New Year barely under way, Indiana-born, Bay Area-based garage outfit Burnt Ones updated its Facebook page: “OUR NEW RECORD IS FINALLY FINISHED/MIXED/MASTERED,” followed by an almost breezy “Time to start on the third one.” It may seem odd that Burnt Ones spent only half a breath reporting the completion of its first record in almost three years, the first it made as a three-piece, and the first since its members left Indianapolis and settled in San Francisco. You’ll Never Walk Alone is set for release in late March on Burger Records; we’ve yet to hear the album, but the band will start playing new material at upcoming gigs, the next on Friday, January 25, at The Night Light. Burnt Ones’ nonchalance is somewhat deliberate: Overhyping an album is a slippery slope when a band is working to avoid the sophomore slump.

To understand the significance of Burnt Ones’ understated announcement, it may be useful to return to the band’s debut, Black Teeth, Golden Tongues. The tracks — fuzzy, ooh-ahh-laden, glam rock-gilded garage numbers — are only slightly more refined than their demo versions, which vocalist and guitarist Mark Tester said he “kind of threw together” on his laptop at home. Drummer Amy Crouch and bassist Brian Allen joined the band to record the debut and, not long afterward, the trio moved to the Bay Area. Black Teeth, Golden Tongues quickly opened doors for the band in the local garage-rock scene, and bonds formed with acts like Wax Idols, The Mallard, Warm Soda, Thee Oh Sees, and Blasted Canyons (whose guitarist will join the band on upcoming tours in March and May). The total recording time for Burnt Ones’ debut? A week. And the response? NME basically called the band the second coming of T. Rex; The Fader wrote, “we’re rooting for them”; and the album ended up on a few blogs’ Best of 2010 lists.

In contrast, the band took fifteen months to write and record You’ll Never Walk Alone, spending long nights in its $200-a-month rehearsal space and fighting off bouts of cabin fever and Tester’s at-times frustrating self-doubt — the kind that comes with listening to the same isolated parts over and over again, and trying to figure out what could be better, even if no one else can tell the difference.

“That’s the thing about recording vocals by yourself. Standing next to a tape machine with a microphone and being like ‘I can do that better,'” said Tester, who is largely the driving creative force behind the band. “Next thing you know, it’s four in the morning and you haven’t even gotten the song done.”

Strawberry Tomb by Burnt Ones

Even though You’ll Never Walk Alone is technically Burnt Ones’ second album, it’s the first the band conceived of as a group — three musicians working toward one cohesive work with a beginning, middle, and end. Tester admitted that while still recording as a bedroom project, he went for the over-the-top, wall-of-noise feel on Black Teeth — “maybe to make up for the shortcomings of not being able to play the instruments too well,” he said. But now, after a few years of touring, Crouch and Allen play their instruments far better than Tester could, moving the band’s focus away the technical aspect of playing music and more toward songwriting. Before recording You’ll Never Walk Alone, Burnt Ones had written an album’s worth of songs, but tossed them out after deciding they weren’t good enough.

“It’s not a concept record, but every song was written with every other song in mind. Every song I wrote was meant to be on this one specific record,” Tester said, adding that they wanted to ditch the simplistic verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern of the previous record. The band also scaled back the trademark heavy layers of reverb that dominated its debut, allowing the rhythm and bass to shine a little more.

Tester said he still can’t listen to You’ll Never Walk Alone without only hearing its individual, pre-mixed parts and, in some ways, reliving the whole creative process. “I’m not even sure I’m really detached enough from [the record] to even have an opinion on what I hope happens with it. I’m just excited,” he said. “If we put out our record and everyone thought it sucked, I mean, my feelings would be hurt, but we wouldn’t break up or anything.”

Burnt Ones isn’t alone: Local buzz bands Wax Idols and The Mallard are also releasing highly anticipated second albums this year. Tester said he’s tried to keep his perspective, whether critics like the band or not. “I would rather have someone write a really thoughtful article about why my record is terrible than have some fucking blog put up something my record label sent them with an MP3 of a song. That means nothing,” Tester said. So would a thoughtful article panning Burnt Ones’ second record potentially change how it approached the next record, already in its embryonic stages? Without hesitation, Tester replied “No.”

Update: A previous version of this article implied that Crouch and Allen joined the band after Black Teeth was recorded; in fact, they joined after the demo was recorded and appear on the finished album. That version of the story also incorrectly stated that You’ll Never Walk Alone took fifteen months to record; that time period also included writing the album.


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