To paraphrase Jay-Z: if Chad Serhal has 99 problems, most of them are women. The ones he lost, the ones he crushes on, and the one whose therapist convinced her to leave him. Serhal wears all these wounds on his sleeve on She Does Is Magic's sophomore LP, Strangers – a succinct, jaunty batch of rock n' roll tunes.
"It's a little embarrassing these days," Serhal says of his creative infatuation with the opposite sex. "I feel like I'm getting a little too old. Like, at what point do you stop writing about girls? Somehow, people like Lou Reed do it into their 40s and 50s."
Strangers, by She Does Is Magic
His band's new album kicks off with "'Til the Ship Comes In," which Serhal launches into like someone shot out of a canon, "Here I come / Like a broken drum in a slow parade / Watch me march while I'm faking it." He credits the song's title and hook with a phrase his father often employed when encouraging Serhal to reach for his dreams. Serhal even has a tattoo of the lyric on his chest accompanying a "big-ass ship." The track functions as a sort of rebuke to his father's rallying cry and the notion that quality work requires self-promotion.
"I'll work on something, and then when it's done I'll work on something else. There's never a period of time where I'm promoting what I've just done. It's just a problem I have. I really think it goes back to some sort of ego or something," Serhal says. "There's things out there that are good enough to stand on their own without any help."
The bulk of Strangers was recorded in a Bloomington halfway house for recovering substance abusers – a location that doubles as Serhal's home and place of employment. He receives free room and board as part of his payment. Serhal believes Strangers benefited from the lack of time constraints associated with home recording.
"There was no pressure at all to get it done," he says of the six-month recording process. "There was no release date. There was no clock ticking at all. So, yeah, I felt better about the whole process, because we had all the time in the world."
For personnel, Serhal tapped Steve Marino (Rodeo Ruby Love, Moor Hound) on lead guitar and background vocals, Mark Walker on bass, Nathan Dynak on drums, and Sean McClure (The Bangs) on saxophone. Dynak and Walker played on SDIM's debut LP, My Height in Heels.
"[Dynak will] come up with something and I'll tweak it," Serhal says. "We really hawked it to death. We really analyzed every little moment until it was exactly the way we wanted it. He's very meticulous and very serious about playing the drums. ... [Walker] was a new bass player around the time we recorded the first one, and he's been playing for three years now.
McClure and Marino were new additions.
"Through a connection, I found out that Sean played the sax," Serhal says. "I saw The Bangs play once and he was the guitar/lead singer guy. I guess his main axe is saxophone."
On tracks like "Feelin' that Feelin'", "The Underground" and "WR/GH" McClure's contributions help SDIM reach Exile on Main Street territory, if you stripped away the keyboard and whiskey. These songs are barroom burners on the surface, and should prove every bit as accessible and infectious as the descriptor implies.
Speaking of accessibility, it can be a double-edged sword, a subject that Serhal addresses brilliantly on the track "The Underground." Here, he plays with a strange inversion that has taken place within Indiana's rock scene over the last few years: bands associated with traditionally subversive musical movements like punk or hardcore have grown in popularity while more straightforward rock and roll and R&B acts have moved into the fringe.
Well, you know, I'm not in on
I'm not in on the underground
I don't have that certain sound
Or the hippest friends around
You know when I play
I'm out in the day
Cause I'm not in the underground
— "The Underground"
Between Serhal's tongue-in-cheek musings on Indiana's rock scene and honest assessments of his successes (or lack thereof) as a musician, the singer returns repeatedly to his primary source of inspiration: girls. On, "Went, Saw" he recounts running into an ex at a tribute show for The Smiths. On "Katheryn," he pens a scathing letter to an ex's therapist. On "Beginning of Everything" he borrows a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald to reflect on the personality traits that led him to fall so hard in the first place. Like we said, women are everywhere on Strangers.
"I feel like I have muses for other things like art, but as far as music goes it's like girls and music go hand-in-hand," Serhal says. "I have songs every once in a while about other things, but I feel like guys just start bands to impress girls. I don't think I've figured out another reason even to do it."
Valentine's Day is a fitting release date for Strangers. After all, it's heartache, not love, which often defines the annual Public Display of Affection Fest. Offering an alternative to the typical dinner-and-a-movie fare, She Does Is Magic will play at Grove Haus alongside Memory Foam and Jon Autry and The Naval Avionics on the evening of Stranger's release.