Chicago ensemble Kids These Days have already logged several claims to buzz status – a hit video ("Don't Harsh My Mellow"), a major festival spot (Lollapalooza in 2011) and tons of good press (including for a performance on Conan). But the group has one thing that differentiates them from their peers: Seven songs on their upcoming debut album, Traphouse Rock, were produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
Tweedy became involved with Kids These Days through the group's Liam Cunningham, who is a longtime family friend. "I've known Jeff most of my life. I went to grade school with both his sons, and I'm really good friends with his older son," Cunningham told Rolling Stone. "I developed a relationship more on a musical level though when Kids These Days started getting some attention. He was always open to giving me two cents about being careful who you work with, which was really helpful."
It was after the group recorded their first EP, Hard Times, that the relationship moved onto a more professional level. "He heard that and then he was like, 'I'd love to bring you guys up to the loft and help you develop your approach in the studio,'" Cunningham said. "I don't know if he initially thought of producing an album – that's just sort of what ended up happening. We did three days last November, and then we had, like, two weeks off from touring, and we decided to do two more weeks with him. It was life-changing."
Kids These Days' Vic Mensa agrees that spending those two weeks in the studio with Tweedy was revelatory for the group. "Jeff effectively did serve as the producer, because he kind of gave us the new perspective on things," he said. "Jeff really showed us a different side of forming songs inside of the studio that have already been formed outside of the studio. Past producing over half of the songs [the rest were produced by the band with Mario C], he also just gave us the angle to do the other joints that he wasn't around for."
According to Cunningham, Tweedy brought more than just guidance – he directly impacted the sound. "One of the main things that he helped us with were a lot of the grooves for the album," he said. "We used this old drum machine that was a totally different way for us to play with each other. All the grooves for the album come from really being able to play along with that. And one of the songs, called 'L'Afrique,' which is probably one of Jeff's greatest songs – with us, at least – there are a lot of really cool sounds, especially in the drums and bass department."
Another standout track on the album is "Doo-Wah," a potential single. "It's got a sample of the Pixies' song called 'Where Is My Mind?' I think that's one [in which] lyrics came together to sort of create a broad but interwoven feeling of emotion," Mensa said.
"Don't Harsh My Mellow" has attracted a lot of attention for its social consciousness. The song was crafted around the recent Chicago teachers' strike, and the video finds students engaging in a walk-out, which is based on a real event the band was involved in while in school. "We organized with friends a lot of kids to leave school and march downtown," Mensa said, "because of some budget cuts that were erasing some of our favorite teachers from the school."
Kids These Days bring a strong political message to their music. Our conversation took place the day after the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. While an Obama supporter, Mensa wasn't impressed with either side.
"I don't try to get into political banter, because I just don't believe that shit," he said. "No one really says much, when it comes down to it."
However, he does believe in supporting the political system, a message the band want to deliver to their peers. "To get completely cold and cynical to the entire process leads you to believe that non-action is somehow removal from the situation," he said. "You can't just turn away from it like that, because all you're doing is helping the other side."
Ultimately, though, they don't view Traphouse Rock as a political album. "I think the messages that we convey are more of an expression of human emotion than they are social issues," Mensa said. "It's more expressive of what's going on around us, and then the common human emotions that tie us all together – love, doubt, belonging and need, things like that."