Christo Bowman was on tour with the indie rock band last year when he visited London’s Tate Modern Museum of Art and saw a 1967 Bruce Nauman neon and glass tubing work. It sported circular text reading “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”
The front man felt the phrase tied into the songs’ overall theme of finding the extraordinary in simple things and staying optimistic about life. “Away We Go,” the buoyant piano-driven opening track, finds Bowman singing about growing up, making adult decisions and searching for some kind of mystic truth. On the moody “Starjumper,” he references Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s controversial 1967 novel, The Master and Margarita.
These days, Bowman feels more engaged by culture.
“Being at this point [with the band] where there’s some security frees us up to allow inspiration to come in from other places where we might not have had it happen before in the past,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
“One of the things we’re talking about with Mystic Truth is finding resonance in something. That tends to be art for us. Those moments of connection is when you feel like somebody else has felt what you’re currently experiencing. It’s all about uncovering this marked territory where you know someone else has stepped before—like a revelation.”
The ingenious black and white album cover was patterned after an advertisement for the Thomas Edison Light-O-Matic Radio displayed at the 1926 Radio World’s Fair inside Madison Square Garden.
Bowman and bassist Gavin Bennett met in junior high and later formed the L.A.-based band in 2012 while they were still teenagers. Lead guitarist Ray Libby and drummer Miles Morris joined soon after. The young musicians’ big break came when alternative rock tastemaker KROQ/106.7 FM played their tune “Cardiac Arrest” on the station’s Locals Only program (the guys had previously submitted a demo recording) and added it to the regular playlist.
Vagrant Records put out the group’s Transpose EP and debut full-length effort Language and Perspective in 2014. “Cardiac Arrest” went top 20 in three rock radio formats. Tours with The 1975, The Neighbourhood and Halsey, plus a Coachella Festival appearance followed.
Early writing sessions for Mystic Truth—Bad Suns’ debut album for Epitaph Records—found the musicians living together in the same house. At one point, they took an excursion to the Palm Springs area.
“For whatever reason, being somewhere out of my normal comfort zone is really crucial for me as a writer,” admitted Bowman. “Lyrically and musically, it’s always good. We were all writing music and taking trips on our own. I’d hop on a plane, bring my guitar with me and write songs. I found doing that was leading to great results and new experiences. I wanted to bring that back to the band and have it be something we could take advantage of so we could finish the record as quickly as possible.”
While in the desert, Bad Suns stayed in a mid-century dome house with a view of the region’s famous wind farm.
“That was amazing,” he recalls. “We were there to record the song ‘Starjumper’ and ended up writing the song ‘Hold Your Fire,’ too. Listening to that song gives a perfect sense of where it came from, given the scenery. It was really special being able to capture the magic of those real-life moments.”
When the quartet writes songs, its shared experiences from school and early bands result in an unspoken musical shorthand.
Yet Bowman acknowledged such intuitiveness can be hard to access and “requires a lot of digging for that to happen. After we made our first record and toured for a couple of years, it was really clear: The wheels were continuously turning and we were becoming a stronger unit. We needed to take advantage of that as much as we could and continue growing. That’s been our musical relationship with each other since the beginning. We’ve always tried to progress beyond a certain point.”
The atmospheric-meets-tropical pop/rock of “A Miracle, A Mile Away,” striking cello-accented “Darkness Arrives and Departs” and bird tweeting effects on the breezy “Love by Mistake” to a skittering synthesizer on “Hold Your Fire,” the Edge-styled guitar tones during the ebullient “One Magic Moment” and an accordion heard in “The World and I,” all show a subtle evolution in the band’s sound throughout the excellent Mystic Truth.
“To make it onto the record, the songs had to fight to be there,” the singer/guitarist explained. “Maybe we had tried playing with some old tropes from the past, but at this point, it felt stale. We weren’t really gravitating toward that sort of thing. The songs that were really speaking to us were the ones where something fresh was happening, which we found to be really appealing and important.”
Producer Dave Sardy (Oasis, Spoon, Dandy Warhols, the Airborne Toxic Event) deserved credit for many of the sonic tweaks. He “loved the demos” and “hit it off right away” with the band, said Bowman. “It ended up being perfect.”
Sardy didn’t have a problem coaxing new noises out of Bad Suns.
“We knew we were edging into slightly different territory in terms of sound and the guitars. We really limited ourselves in the past by just using certain equipment. For instance, we would just use Fender Stratocasters and Vox AC30 guitar amps on pretty much everything that we’d done up to this point. We knew we were ready to expand. That was something we’d intentionally done in the past. Now, we were confident to move around more and explore different textures. Dave was really helpful and a master at procuring certain things we delved into even further, like on the electronics side.”
The recording was quicker than other albums and the musicians had a real blast making this record.
“Honestly, it could have gone on forever,” Bowman continued. “Just being at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, which is a legendary studio, meant we were in the room where the Doors and Rolling Stones recorded, and Prince made Purple Rain. There’s so much history to that place. So many of the records we grew up loving.”
Interestingly, while working at Sunset Sound, Bad Suns nursed an injured baby bat back to health with the help of Morrissey’s group, also recording nearby. The “bonding experience set the tone of healing, both physically and emotionally” for the album.
“Having Morrissey next door making a record was pretty cool,” said Bowman. “We met his band and became friends. Then being at [Dave’s] home studio in the Hollywood Hills was incredible. Every room is full of gear and you’re plugged into the mainframe. There’s even a swimming pool. It was like heaven making the album.”
Bad Suns curated a Spotify playlist of songs they listened to during the writing and recording process, including R.E.M., the Smiths, the Police, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen (clearly evident in “Away We Go”), the Cocteau Twins and the Blue Nile.
Bowman confirmed the latter, a sophisticated pop duo from Scotland that was most active in the '80s, influenced the ethereal start of “A Miracle, A Mile Away.”
“There’s a nod to the Blue Nile in it. That was born out of a jam. We were swapping instruments. Miles was playing the drums, Gavin was on the piano and I was playing the bass guitar. We landed on that first groove. It felt really unique. I remember thinking, ‘OK, that song is making the record.’ You just know sometimes.”
George A. Paul is a Southern California-based writer. Follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeAPaul. Photo credit: Rowan Daly.