When Kerry Alexander wants to write a song, she turns on the radio. That’s because Alexander, the lead singer and songwriter of the Minneapolis band Bad Bad Hats, is interested in pop tropes – how to play around with them, why they work the way they do.
Take “Nothing Gets Me High,” the power-pop centerpiece of her band’s new album, Lightning Round. Alexander wrote it after listening to Tove Lo’s 2014 hit “Habits (Stay High)” and figuring how to invert the song’s premise. “I was thinking about how there are so many songs about love and drugs as a metaphor,” she says, before spelling out her uniquely personal premise for the song: “And I was like, ‘I want to write a song like that, but I have never actually been high. I have never done drugs.”
Another new song, “1-800,” came from listening to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and wondering why more songs didn’t play around with toll-free numbers. “I like that phrase, using 1-800 as a metaphor for how you get nothing but junk in your life,” she says, “Or that you feel like people look at you like a 1-800 call, like, ‘No one picks me up. They all let me go.'”
On Lightning Round, the Minnesota quartet refine and polish the blend of indie-pop, folk, and rock that they introduced on their 2015 debut, Psychic Reader, an album that won positive reviews and high-profile opening gigs for Third Eye Blind and Margaret Glaspy.
After alternating between acoustic offerings and revved-up, garage-leaning rock on their debut, the band settles into a comfortable mid-tempo groove on the new LP, whose richly-produced synth-pop sound echoes Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
“Kerry and I were kind of thinking, ‘Yeah, we’ll pretty much just do the same thing again,” says multi-instrumentalist Chris Hoge. “But [producer] Brett Bullion really pushed us to make something different.”
Hoge and Alexander began dating in college, and got married in 2017 in between recording sessions for Lightning Round, which bridges the band’s pop sensibilities with Alexander’s singer-songwriter tendencies. Alexander begins writing most of her songs in a folk mode on an acoustic guitar, before they are shaped and revised in what she calls the “subtle intervention” of the band’s creative input.
Discussing their role in the recording process, the other members of the band are quick to downplay their own influence. “The songs I’m most excited about playing are when we’re emphasizing the core of the song and never getting in the way,” says drummer Connor Davison, who joined the band in 2016.
Bad Bad Hats’ new album is once again grounded in the sharp lyrical perspective of Alexander, whose songs detail miniature crises of vulnerability in otherwise stable personal relationships. “I bought this dress to spite you/I’ll wear it ’cause I hate you/Cause you don’t know what you got,’ she sang on 2015’s “Things We Never Say.” “Then I’ll wear it to your house and I’ll let you take it off.”
Alexander traces similar moments on new songs like “Absolute Worst” and “Makes Me Nervous.” “I scream at the pool and float like a fool,” she sings on the latter, “‘Cause I still want to be whatever you need.”
“For some songs I’ll just come up with a melody and words will come to me as I’m singing,” she says, “and I’ll like a turn of phrase enough that that then becomes the entire song.”
Bad Bad Hats began as the duo of Alexander and Hoge, who met as students at Macalester College in St. Paul. “We had found each other’s demos on Myspace,” Alexander says, “and I had been working on a song that I wanted to be a duet.” As a Macalester undergrad around the same time, I saw Alexander finding her voice as a songwriter and vocalist, testing out her scrappy folk originals and covering Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” at solo-acoustic shows on campus.
The first time she heard Hoge playing drums along to her music, Alexander says she realized they needed to start a band. The earliest days of their collaboration were inauspicious: today they laugh when recalling one quickly-discarded early song from this era, written in the summer of 2010, about the World Cup.
After adding Noah Boswell on bass, the trio spent several years gigging around the Twin Cities and developing their bubbly folk-pop sound before releasing their debut EP, It Hurts, in 2013. Five years later, the band’s sound has become more dense and richly produced while still wholly anchored in Alexander’s singer-songwriter tendencies.
Despite Boswell’s impending departure from the group to attend grad school, the band is upbeat about their future as they prepare for a heavy year of touring, which will include their first-ever headlining show at Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue.
“We always talk about how we just want to make this a living. It doesn’t have to be crazy, but if we’re going to go straight to the top, we’ll the ride the ride,” Alexander says with a half-smile. “If that’s what the people want, we’ll do it.”