“There’s no point thinking how good it used to be,” Tom Robinson of southern California’s Wits End cries out on the band’s song “Play it by Ear”. In a way, he’s correct. Everything, at one point, was better than it is now, whether it’s Pacman, the films of Kevin Smith, episodes of Weeds, or the economy. Wits End accepts the fact that the public perception of what makes for good music is always changing. They know that things can only sound fresh for so long. “A truly good song is like a pearl within an oyster,” Robinson tells me over the phone. “That’s what’s missing, nobody knows how to craft a good pop song anymore.”
Robinson is right. Pop music has been on the decline for some time now. I’m not sure how this is possible. There was a time when pop music was exciting and actually broke a lot of new ground. If you think Akon will be discussed and analyzed in the years to come, think again. Pop music of yesteryear is something we talk about all the time, and Tom and his songwriting partner in crime, Joe Peters, (along with his other two bandmates) have an appreciation for all this music. “I would spin tons of singles when I was 11 or 12,” Robinson explains, “stuff like the Beatles and the Kinks, that’s the roots of how I write.” When Peters talks about his influences, he expresses a similar story. “I grew up with my brother and sister listening to the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, etc., but a lot of my influences were from the 80s and early 90s: The Replacements, Husker Du, the Pixies. That’s where I got my influence in being a tunesmith.”
Judging by the bands that the two chief songwriters of Wits End rattle off as influences, they clearly have a great concept of pop sensibility, and they try to tap into this during the songwriting process. Robinson thinks the sound of each song is the most important element of the composition. “Sometimes I come across interesting chords, and then the vocal melody comes into play. Once that’s done, I phrase it all a certain way, and that’s when the lyrics come into play. But we try not to repeat ourselves,” he explains. “We’re pretty fanatical about making it sound as good as it can, having hooks right up front so it sounds like a classic right off the bat. The song should come on and people think, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”
“That’s how good songs are written anyways,” Peters continues. “All the parts I write are out of nowhere. The last few things I’ve written, though, were vocal melodies before music. That’s just recently, though. I’ve gotten burnt out on the other method.” The songs that they have crafted are little gems that sound familiar but also fresh at the same time. There’s that sense of catchiness. Tracks like “Play it by Ear” and “Wait Around for Mason” contain smooth- and clean-sounding riffs over down-to-earth lyrics. But then there are tracks like “Someone’s Knocking” and “I’ll Call You Back” that contain the indie crunch that Peters describes as one of his prime influences. None of the songs go down-tempo, though. They’re all made to sound quirky, upbeat, and, most importantly, to really stick in your head.
While the band has recorded a couple albums and has a large catalog of songs, they enjoy the live show more than anything. “Live – we’re a bit more in your face and raw,” Robinson gladly admits. “It’s great to have that chemistry. We love playing live. It’s one of our strengths.” Peters even acknowledges that the people who know them don’t understand how ruthless they are live, referring to their friends who enjoy their records but have yet to catch their show. And that’s all the band wants, to deliver quality tunes to an audience of people who care.
“We do it because we love it,” Robinson tells me at the end of our chat. “We don’t necessarily want to change the world, but we’d like to just make some good pop singles. We never did this with the intention of getting famous and getting laid. We just wanted to play good music. It’s a simple fact.” It certainly seems like Wits End’s witty songs could become decent pop singles. Their songs are super-catchy and really fun in that bounce around kind of way. Their album Play it by Ear is a fantastic listen, full of catchy numbers that will surely pop into your head while idling or socializing amongst peers. Because that’s what pop music is supposed to do: stick in our heads.