Charles D’Ardenne of Comprador on the Secret to a Less Self-Conscious Sound

Charles D’Ardenne spent the better part of the last decade living in Cincinnati and making music as Comprador, but 2019 marked the beginning of a new chapter for the indie rocker as he released his third full-length album, Important, and relocated to his hometown of Philadelphia.

Though not as ambitious in scope as his last album, Downstream, Important sees D’Ardenne stretching out into a wide range of new sounds, phasing into heady synths and vocoder on “Bike Rack On” and opening the floor to vulnerable acoustic vibes on “Voice Coil Unwound.” Between those poles, the album boasts expanses of flat-out riff-driven rock–some of his most direct, propulsive music yet.

As a companion to Important, D’Ardenne also released Go To Sleep, a compilation of 16 tracks from the live shows and limited edition EPs that have come between full-length releases. Part rarities collection and part retrospective, it’s a treat for long-time fans and new listeners alike, showcasing the depth and breadth of the Comprador catalog, as well as D’Ardenne’s growth as a performer and a writer of memorable melodies.

As he continues to get settled in the Philadelphia scene–and make arrangements for the release of another album–D’Ardenne spoke to The All Scene Eye about the future of Comprador and his changing musical process.

You released Important about a year after your last album, Downstream. When did you start working on the songs that became Important?

I was initially planning on doing an EP just in GarageBand on my iPad, and I started working on that probably the same week Downstream came out. That would have been in May of 2018. [laughs] I guess I felt compelled to keep working rather than sit on that one for a minute. Three of the songs that ended up on Important–the two acoustic tracks, “Get Our Hopes Up” and “Voice Coil Unwound,” and then the first track, “Bike Rack On”–I did almost entirely on my iPad in May of 2018, and I had some other songs kicking around. I think I did “When It’s Over” a little earlier than the rest of the album sessions.

Toward the end of summer 2018, I had accumulated a bunch more material, so at that point, I did the drum tracking for the rest of the album and put all that stuff together. I had written a lot of Downstream on piano after a year or so of writer’s block on guitar, which is my primary instrument, but after working on all that piano-driven stuff, I had a bunch of guitar riffs lying around again. Most of the stuff on Important I wrote primarily on guitar, other than “Bike Rack On,” which is a synth experiment I did in GarageBand.

Downstream was also a double album with a lot of intentional theming and structure. On the whole, how did the experience of making that album influence what you wanted to do with the follow-up?

In some ways, Important was a step away from doing a more thematically cohesive work because Downstream is pretty ambitious. It was sort of a concept album, so I wanted to do something more along the lines of a straightforward rock album rather than a big [laughs] pretentious art rock thing with a bunch of overdubs and whatnot. Obviously, there’s still a ton of overdubs on Important, but I wanted to write more direct, satisfying rock songs instead of the kind of oblique things that ended up on Downstream.

You released “Bike Rack On” as a single before the album came out, and it’s really different from not only stuff you’ve put out before, but other stuff on the same album. What led you to that style with the synth, vocoder, and electronic drums? Was it just sitting down with an iPad in GarageBand and seeing what you could do?

Yeah, I’ve tried to mess around a little bit more in that style, but I don’t know if that’s going to be the only thing I’ll be able to do like that. [laughs] I guess if I really worked on it for a while, I might come up with other stuff along those lines. I’d been listening to Kraftwerk around that time. I don’t think it ended up sounding a whole lot like them, but I was trying to write something that sounded like a Kraftwerk song. Also, I had a lot of free time in the office, and I could do all that stuff through headphones without anybody picking up on what I was doing because it obviously wasn’t work-related. [laughs] That influenced the style of that song as well. The original version I think was just the stock drums in GarageBand, but the drums in the album version are sampled from the live drums I played later on the record in “Keep It Real.” I looped a couple bars of that, changed the tempo, and put it under the “Bike Rack On” project file.

How did you pick “Bike Rack On” as a single? 

Part of it was because it felt so different from other stuff I had released. There were some synths on Downstream, but typically, I’ve stuck to the guitar, bass, and drums foundation, and this wasn’t relying on that at all. And I thought it would be funny to release something that doesn’t sound anything like the rest of the album [laughs] to get potential listeners’ hopes up that it was going to sound like this, and then, no, the rest is guitar-driven.

Lyrically, what’s the story of that song? What got you thinking about the image of driving the autobahn with your bike rack on?

That was kind of along the lines of the Kraftwerk thing too–thinking about the highways in Germany. I don’t do this very often, but the lyrics for that song were kind of stream of consciousness. I essentially freestyled them into my iPad while I was listening to the instrumental track. I tend to try to be higher-minded and more poetic and shit, but with that one, it’s very simple AABB rhyme structures, and the vocabulary is not as elevated as I tend to go for when I’m being more serious about lyrics, but I thought it worked for that song.

The central image was just the hypocrisy or contradiction inherent in having the rack to hold your man-powered vehicle, but driving around in a car and contributing to climate change. I thought that was a funny image.

The other track that found its way outside the album was “Voice Coil Unwound,” and that song actually made its way to an indie folk playlist on Spotify. Were you surprised by that genre crossover?

Not that surprised, I guess. I mean, I’ve found it daunting to put out recordings that are just solo acoustic guitar–and this one’s got a little piano, too. A lot of times, personally, I like my songs when I put them together because the arrangement is interesting to me. It’s intimidating to have an idea that gets across just on the basis of a vocal melody and one or two instruments.

There’s a kind of vulnerability there.

Yeah, and I felt like that vulnerability suited the lyrical content of the song, to some extent. I’ve done a live electric arrangement of it a handful of times, mostly because you can’t hear my low vocal register in a live setting, so I just belt it an octave up, and there’s drums and stuff. But on a recording, I thought that worked well to convey that sense of trepidation about a potential new romance.

Do you listen to playlists? Is that a paradigm that interests you at all?

No, not really. [laughs] I’m pretty old-fashioned. I’ll burn mix CDs for myself and listen to them in the car, but that’s generally how I’ll digest stuff. I mean, I’ll take recommendations from people and stuff like that. I’ve gotten a lot of playlists, and I never [laughs] do anything with them. Sorry to anybody who’s sent me a playlist previously because I probably won’t listen to it. I feel like I get overwhelmed when there’s that much content floating around. I guess you’ve got to make arbitrary decisions about what you’re going to listen to because there’s no real clear way to navigate it, if that makes sense.

How do you discover new music, then? Recommendations from people you trust?

Yeah, friends will suggest stuff. Occasionally I’ll see reviews that’ll pique my interest. Every once in a while, I’ll see a band live or I’ll play with a band, and I’ll listen to them. There are a few different avenues.

You also released a compilation, Go To Sleep, as a companion to Important. How did that project come about?

That was more influenced by knowing I was going to get out of Cincinnati and move back to the Philadelphia area. I had a ton of unreleased, or previously released but in limited editions–just a bunch of loose ends that I had never really done anything with, so I wanted to centralize those in one place. To some extent, just to ensure those tracks were out somewhere and I didn’t lose the project files [laughs] and end up looking for them in five years.

I think there’s a demo of one of the first album tracks on there and a couple other things I unearthed on my laptop while I was getting ready to move. A couple of the recordings are from the first few years of the band when it was more like a live trio. I was playing with a drummer in Cincinnati named Aaron Collins, so he’s drumming on probably two-thirds of the tracks on that compilation, and it’s me playing on the other third or so. It was a side of the band where if you hadn’t seen us live in Cincinnati, that might not be evident from the last couple batches of recordings, so I wanted to have that out there.

What was it like revisiting those old recordings?

It made me reevaluate some aspects of the sound. It’s interesting listening to the really early songs and thinking about what I would do differently, versus what I thought was impressive and maybe had underrated at the time. It’s weird listening to our first EP–generally, my vocal takes sound awful. [laughs] Hopefully I’ve developed as a singer since then. I think if you compare the most recent stuff to the very first recordings we did back in 2013, there’s a pretty dramatic difference.

You had a release show for Important on May 31st, which was also your last Ohio show before the move. How did it feel to play that show and see the end of that phase of Comprador?

It wasn’t that big of a dramatic finale, in some ways. A couple of my friends and I pretty much put that show together at the last minute, so there wasn’t a lot of time to brood over the artistic significance of it. [laughs] It was just like, “I might as well play another show before I move.” I had trouble finding a stable lineup for a while, and I did get a couple of musicians who I was comfortable playing with the last couple of months I was there, but we really hadn’t been performing for too long as a group. It was our second show playing Comprador stuff.

Now that you’re in Philadelphia, how does the music scene compare? Do you have a local live band put together?

I don’t have a local ensemble yet. I’ve been pursuing leads, and hopefully something will come together, but I’m playing in another band here. We don’t have a name yet, but we’ve been working on some material, so that might help as well, once we’re out and gigging, to run into other musicians in this area. 

I’ve had a great time at the handful of shows I’ve attended since I moved down here. It’s a bigger city, so maybe a little more spread out. You’re not just seeing the same dozen faces at every show that you go to, which is nice, to have that kind of diversity in the scene.

I went to a house show this last weekend that was a Slavic women’s choir. A guy involved in the civil rights movement did a spoken-word piece, and then there was a mariachi-style band. I think you see a lot of eclectic bills here, if you look for them. There was that in Cincinnati too, to some extent, but probably a little harder to find than it is here.

How do you see that scene changing what Comprador is going forward?

[laughs] Well, specifically with the Slavic choir, I was thinking, “I should have these folks sing on an intro or an outro of something that I write.” More generally, I think having people around in the community, all these different styles and sounds, it’d be really cool not only to see those people perform, but to interact with them and get a feel for how they approach their art–maybe collaborate with them, or just pay attention to what they’re doing and let that inform how I’m writing.

You committed to donating any proceeds from Go To Sleep to the ACLU. Was there a particular case or issue that prompted you to do that?

There might have been at the time. I can’t remember what it was specifically. I’d have to go back through my Facebook posts. I feel like there’s a new outrage and a new affront to people’s ability to live their lives–every week and every day now, you see news about it. It’s so easy to feel completely overwhelmed and exhausted by that, so I guess that was in some way a response to that. At least we do have some groups and institutions that are there to help. I don’t know if anybody actually downloaded it, so. [laughs] I’ll have to check and make that donation, but I think I have a monthly debit set up anyway, so I don’t know if it really matters. It wasn’t like I sold, you know, 34,000 copies of the compilation.

Tell me about the song “Nauseating Sight” from Important. It’s a lot of intense imagery. What was going on for you in that track?

Maybe that’s as close as I can get, with my lazy poetic mind, to a protest song. It’s essentially an anti-Trump song, but I don’t think that’s really evident at all [laughs] from the lyrics. Like, the “white hooded eagle” and the “ivory fangs,” I was thinking of reactionary political groups and the animalistic nature and the violence of the ideologies that they’re espousing. I think the lyrics in that song are all images coming out of that state of mind.

Are there any artists who inspire you in that mode of thinking or writing?

I might have to think about that and see if I can come up with a good example. I’m sure there are. Some of it’s not even so much their artistic work as having conversations with other artists and seeing how they express themselves on social media. There are a lot of very smart people in this field who are good at reading about stuff and expressing their opinions. I feel like that might be more influential than drawing stuff from the lyrics themselves.

I’m not much of a lyrics guy. Even on my favorite records, there’s words I don’t know. [laughs] I’m really moved more by the melodic content and the arrangements, and the lyrics tend to be–unless they’re terrible, and then I notice them, but if they’re just medium or abstract or whatever, it’s fine. Sometimes a really solid lyric can make an impression on me, but as far as political stuff, I don’t know if the artistic work itself influences that as much as just seeing what artists say about their views. 

I don’t think you have to be great at writing protest songs to be a politically effective artist. In your interviews and stuff like this, you can express those more objective thoughts in a clearer way than you might be able to in a song where there’s going to be some artistic distance.

What is it that you hope people will take away from Comprador as a project?

I used to have really lofty ideas about music being a way to communicate feelings that you couldn’t express via other means, but I feel like I’ve abandoned that, to some extent. I would just hope people think it sounds cool and is interesting, and they want to listen to it. I don’t think I have much more in mind beyond that. I mostly write stuff that I want to hear as a listener–I don’t know what that means as far as writing to an audience.

I hadn’t done this to this extent previously, but there are a couple of tracks on here–I’ve been hoping The Jesus Lizard are going to do a reunion album because they keep playing reunion tours, but they haven’t put any new recordings out, so track four on here, “You’ll Notice Soon,” that’s just me trying to write a new Jesus Lizard song. “Keep It Real” is kind of like me trying to write a Dinosaur Jr. song. Sometimes I’ll want to achieve the specific effect of a band or an artist that I like, but sometimes it’s not that specific. Sometimes it’s a sound that I don’t think has been expressed previously, or it’s been played in a certain way, but there are still ideas that could be developed in that style.

Stylistically, how have your tastes and goals changed since you started Comprador?

I think when I was starting out, the very first EP was trying to, one, develop a unique guitar style, and two, write songs that didn’t resemble what other people were doing. I think the early stuff is a little more ostentatious and less direct, and as I’ve written more songs, I’ve gotten more comfortable with being able to write stuff that sounds unique without needing to be that flashy on the surface.

I’ve also gotten more comfortable playing around with trying to sound like other people because even if I get pretty good at it, I’ll still sound like myself. But it’s fun to step into these roles in certain songs and still get my ideas across utilizing stylistic things that other people have come up with. Rather than starting out with one very narrow sonic focus, the Comprador stuff has gotten more diverse and less self-conscious.

It’s that paradox of trying to create something original, but in doing so, limiting yourself. Those stylistic exercises expand the things you’re capable of and give you a better understanding of how other people work.

I think that’s an important point to bring up because that’s kind of been my musical progress all along. I had some theory knowledge from taking clarinet lessons up through high school, but most of my musical ability is just from figuring out by ear how to play other people’s guitar parts and stuff. I mean, I can read music, but I’m super slow at it. At least personally, I’ve found that’s the most helpful way to get better at stuff–figure out how other people are doing it and then replicate it. That grows your vocabulary, so to speak, and then you can implement that into your own ideas.

You play a lot of different instruments on these albums. What was your first instrument?

I didn’t start playing guitar seriously until the end of middle school or high school maybe, and even then, I didn’t get much technical proficiency until I was in college. I started playing clarinet around age 10, but I never got that good at it. You’re supposed to develop a callus inside your lower lip, and mine never healed over properly. I’ll use the clarinet occasionally on recordings, but I can’t shred on it, really. 

End of middle school, I started playing guitar and bass and ended up liking those a lot. I think maybe the end of high school, my parents got me a drum kit, so those three I’ve been playing for a while, but drums are–you can’t practice them silently, so a little more limited on those than guitar and bass, which you can kind of practice wherever. 

Piano I didn’t really pick up until I was working on Downstream and I got a piano for my house, so I was essentially teaching myself how to play it while I was writing those songs. I’m not very technically skilled at that either, but I can use it in ways that I like. There’s some flute on here in “Get Our Hopes Up,” which is me. I kind of also taught myself to play that at the tail end of recording Downstream.

Is there an instrument you’d still like to try to incorporate? At least as a texture, or a different way of writing?

[laughs] Maybe I’ll get into a ska mode eventually and start getting the brass instruments, but more seriously, I’ve always kind of regretted not doing slide guitar stuff since I first started playing guitar. I can kind of fudge it bending notes and doing overdubs, but–especially, like, I’m not a big radio country guy, but some of the lead guitar work in those songs is gorgeous, and I wish that was something I had committed myself to at the beginning. 

It’s also in very high demand. If you look at professional pedal steel guitar players’ Wikipedia pages, they’ll have, like, hundreds of albums listed because it’s hard to do. You need good muscle memory and a good sense of pitch to be able to play it so it sounds musical enough.

At what point in all of these different stages did you first start writing songs?

I think it was in college. There’s sort of a formula I use–I refined it while I was in college and then figured out how to play around with it after that. There are one or two Comprador songs that I wrote while I was still in college, and when I moved to Cincinnati, I figured out full band arrangements of those. I don’t think there’s really anything older than 2008, but one of the songs on Go To Sleep I probably wrote around 2008. That’s maybe the oldest Comprador tune.

What was the formula? How did you find your way into that?

For a while I would pick a certain scale and meter and try to come up with ideas within that. That’s still basically the formula. I’ll probably mess around with the scales or the key of a song a little more, but typically, I’ll have a groove that I like and figure out a chord progression that works over that. Stuff will start to suggest itself as I keep messing around in that feel, and I can construct a song from there.

You’ve released two different projects this year and you’ve made this move back to Pennsylvania. What’s the future of Comprador?

Ideally, I’ll get another ensemble together and we’ll start playing shows again around here. I did a solo show earlier this summer that was fine, but I don’t really like playing solo. I feel like it’s kind of boring. Maybe if the lyrical content felt more like the center of each song to me, but I feel like the arrangements are really the draw, and I’m always missing out on that when I play solo. So, yeah, slowly but surely finding people to work with and getting some kind of live ensemble together again. 

There’s a fourth album, and it’s probably done being recorded now. I’ve been talking to Pete Donnelly from The Figgs about mixing that–we just started corresponding–so that’ll probably be out some time next year.

You released Downstream with a label, but you did Important independently. What made you want to go the independent route?

[laughs] I couldn’t find anybody in time because I wanted to get it out before I moved. Sometimes it takes a while to find somebody who’s interested, so I just self-released it.

More expedient.

For sure. There’s a label here in Philadelphia called Super Wimpy Punch who printed some cassette copies of Important, so I do have those for whenever I actually get out to shows. Whenever I manage to get a live ensemble together, we’ll have merch available.

I notice you can get the Important cassette for $1,000 on Bandcamp.

Oh, yeah. [laughs] I should probably set that to a more reasonable price.

Hey, know what your work is worth, man. If that’s what it is, then that’s you.

I’d like to think so, yeah, but I think I was just in a bad mood, and I figured nobody’s ordering these anyway, so I might as well. You always hope that maybe there will be some eccentric person who hates having their money, and they’ll be like, “Give me 50 copies!”

I think the world would be a better place if we had more eccentric people who hated having their money.

[laughs] I agree.


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