For their sixth album and first since 2006, Early Day Miners took a more experimental approach and ended up with a surprisingly accessible collection of songs.
The Treatment, released in September, continues the Bloomington band's long, gradual evolution on the respected Secretly Canadian label. Following the example of their record-producer heroes Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the quartet made a point of composing and arranging in the studio rather than arriving with finished material, and in some cases they edited long jams into concentrated pop statements.
Bandleader Dan Burton, who studied recording engineering at Indiana University, said the value of spontaneity came home to him after he interned briefly under Lanois, known for his work with U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, et al.
"I used to think there was a perfectionist sort of process that you had to go through to make those kinds of records, that it had to be an absolutely perfect performance," says Burton, the Miners' chief vocalist, writer, guitarist and keyboardist. "He approaches recording like, 'This is a live show, roll tape, let's go.' And then you just kind of listen back and pick out what you like.
"It keeps a lot of the excitement that can happen when you're creating music. You hear artists saying all the time, 'Well, the demos were so much cooler.'"
The band also used their guitars, keyboards and gadgetry to conjure up a thunderstorm's worth of pleasantly gloomy atmosphere in the manner of their favorite '80s bands. If a listener hears familiar traces in the new album, Burton won't argue.
"I'm a product of the '80s, so I think it's inevitable," says the 34-year-old. "Certainly, the Cure, that record Disintegration, was a huge influence, sonically, for The Treatment, as well as Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets — I think that band gets a really bad rap, and they were awesome."
Early Day Miners have been winning critical praise and building a transatlantic fan base for a decade, with a steady stream of recordings and a fluid performing lineup that has ranged from two to nine members, often including strings. Being based in a college town, the band has always had "porous borders," Burton jokes.
"No one ever lives here for longer than a few years," he says.
One career highlight so far was opening shows for Wilco in 2006, and Burton has continued that association with his studio work on albums by On Fillmore, a side project of Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.
That same era, however, saw the Miners pause for reflection and lose some longtime members. To tour behind the fifth album, Offshore, Burton and bassist Jonathan Richardson enlisted guitarist John Dawson and drummer Marty Sprowles. Now, with a few years and a full album under their collective belts, Burton says the group has gelled.
"It's the standard rock band lineup, and it's really fun," he says. "And I'm excited for them, because finally they're not playing other people's parts."
The new album - assembled from recordings made at home, at a New Orleans studio and at Bloomington's Echo Park - sees Burton taking a different approach with his lyrics and vocals as well. He threw his voice into the mix early in the process, rather than treating it as an afterthought.
"There was a real priority put on singing as we were creating music — on the floor, headphones on, singing while we were improvising and writing," he says. "With a lot of our past albums, the approach was: write the music, then write the lyrics, and then write the vocal melodies. It was almost the opposite with The Treatment. The vocal was treated as just as important as the guitar, and that's something that should have happened a long time ago, but that's part of learning how to write music, I guess."
More typical of the band's previous work, the lyrics tend toward fragmented images that play like hazy slideshows, conveying moods rather than linear narratives.
"I've tried the storytelling thing, but it never works out for me. It's too obvious, and not in a good way," says Burton, who insists he bears no familial or political connection to the esteemed Indiana congressman of the same name. "To write lyrics like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, you've got to be spot on. I've just never felt comfortable with that approach."
After hitting the East Coast this fall to promote the new record, and before proceeding to Europe and the West Coast over the winter and spring, Early Day Miners will stop in Saturday night at Locals Only to join in the Broad Ripple Music Festival. And the evolution continues.
"We have half of the next record already written," Burton says.