By Bryne Yancey
When Elway stopped being 10-4 Eleanor, they burst onto the punk scene armed with a deal with Red Scare that began with 2011’s Delusions. There was already a built-in audience for their style of anthemic, melodic, endearingly flawed Fest-punk. Though the band’s writing shared a certain well-read lyrical sensibility with their heroes, The Lawrence Arms, these were songs fans were meant to enthusiastically shout along to while accidentally spilling cheap beer on and rubbing spotty beards with fellow showgoers. There wasn’t necessarily anything new about Elway’s music, but that wasn’t really the point: it was a well-worn style of punk, competently performed.
Four years later, the tide has changed. Elway are a little older, a little wiser, and seem less cognizant of fan expectations. After 2013’s Leavetaking, that well-worn melodic punk sound had overextended its shelf life and something had to give. Vocalist and guitarist Tim Browne spent the next two and a half years writing the songs that would become Better Whenever, the band’s third LP and by far their most mature and unconventional work to date. Elway eschewed the gloss of Chicago’s Atlas Studios where they’d recorded Delusions and Leavetaking and returned home to Fort Collins, Colo., to track Better Whenever more or less live, in the same space where they were born as a band. The result is a raw recording full of small mistakes and brimming with beautiful character.
“In a way, we wanted to do something a little more lo-fi, and get a more earnest, live representation of what our band sounds like,” Browne says. “Atlas is really good at crafting a really pretty, glossy product and I like the way that sounds, but these songs are a little more earnest than our previous ones. We wanted to record at a more leisurely pace with our friends and get something that sounds more like our band, as opposed to something that’s just the best our band could possibly sound.”
That vast shift in the vibe and feel of Better Whenever was due in large part to the recording techniques and philosophies used, explains Browne. “We decided to do it so we would keep an entire take that goes all the way through, so there’s some moments where the guitars aren’t necessarily in tune or we’re off-pitch. We were just looking for something that sounds raw and more like we sound live than something that sounds wrung through a series of production and post-production. I think it’s more ‘correct’ [as] what actually comes out of the speakers, cabs, drums, and straight into the mix, rather than being chopped up, compressed, or manipulated in any way. It’s just a different approach than the Atlas approach which was [to] go over lines and sing them; this one I wanted to just shout, and if it sounded right we kept it, even if it was a little off-pitch.”
The writing for Better Whenever can be traced all the way back to before Elway’s genesis; Browne wrote “Albuquerque Low” in 2003, he says, and “we weren’t really doing much with it [before].” The rest of the record was written during a long process that stopped and started throughout 2013 and 2014, and into the first days of 2015. “I was living in Chicago with [bassist] Joe [Henderer]. [Guitarist] Brian [Van Proyen] and [drummer] Garrett [Carr] were back in Fort Collins. We were touring, and in between touring, I was sitting around in the filthiest basement I’ve ever lived in. I was living with the Typesetter guys in their gross, unfinished basement over the winter, and I wrote the bulk of the record—at least on acoustic guitar and the lyrics—between November 2013 and January 2014. I moved back to Colorado in May 2014 after we got back from Europe, and we all kind of coalesced. Garrett and I primarily got together and worked on the structure of the songs and fleshed [them] out, and it was all done and ready by January 2015. We went into the studio shortly thereafter. So, like the recording process, the writing process was slow and spotty and incremental.”
“We did a lot of touring in 2013 and 2014, and it was sort of tough to just sit down and write a record,” Browne continues. “Leavetaking was [written when] we were all living in the same town, had taken some time off together from touring, and wrote it really quickly.” He says that Leavetaking “was a record about running away, something I constantly fight the impulse to do,” but that Better Whenever’s themes are far less transitory. “We’re a lot more comfortable now,” he concludes. “This record is about what we want and how comfortable we are. We’re trying to avoid some of the Fest-punk posturing that’s followed us in our eight years as a band. This is us writing the songs we want to, playing them how we want to, and worrying about the rest of that other shit later.