It is a bit hard to reconcile Raindeer’s Charlie Hughes in person with the persona conjured by the group’s second full-length, Tattoo, out now on Friends Records. Sitting in a Remington coffee shop, he is soft-spoken and sleepy-eyed. Hughes, a Montgomery County native, seems a bit nervous, and it’s hard to tell if his mussed hair and collection of fading show-admittance wristbands is intentional style or a byproduct of neglect.
Unlike Hughes’ demeanor, Raindeer’s music is gregarious and not afraid to prance about.
The band uses a lush and glitzy array of buzzing and modulating synths, accompanied by acoustic and electric guitars, adding up to what can sound like a space-age lounge act. You can hear bits of several different pop eccentrics in Raindeer’s music. A dash of Elvis Costello, a little Ariel Pink, and a helping of Buddy Holly’s awkward geek-chic. But the band also has its sunny Balearic techno side, with gurgling arpeggiated synths and thumping drums.
“Most songs, they’re not really thought out, they just kind of happen,” Hughes says. “I don’t know how they happen. All of a sudden I have something, then I work with it. If I think about a song, then it’s not going to get written. Once I get the general idea [for a song], then I automatically hear a million parts, like I physically hear them. But in general, when a song gets started, I hit the wrong key or something; it’s always an accident.”
The most time-consuming part, he says, are the lyrics. “I’ve done a few surf albums, instrumental albums,” he says. “I record those in a week, and they’re done, and actually I had the music for [Tattoo] a long time ago, I just hadn’t finished the vocals, which takes a lot of time for me.”
He admits to not being the greatest singer, but his vocals suit the music well, going from pinched whine to jubilant shout to soft coo. “I always look at lyrics as secondary,” he adds. “I’m more about how a general song sounds. I kinda like having the lyrics and vocals mixed in with everything so it’s not the focus.”
Yet for all the warm, breezy vibes, there’s also stranger, more nefarious moments. “I always think of it as two extremes, really dark but really happy at the same time,” Hughes explains. Tattoo standout track “Tune Out” wouldn’t feel out of place in a David Lynch movie, with warbled synths, plenty of reverb, and ominous yet dreamy melodies. Another highlight, “Monster,” is a laid-back reggae tune subverted by snaky, chromatic synth lines and plenty of satisfying dub drum fills.
Raindeer started with Hughes making bedroom synth-pop. In August of 2010, he sent out his eponymous first EP, which had songs originating as far back as 2007, and he was shocked by the response: Blogs fawned over the album, and earlier this year the prestigious U.K. indie label FatCat featured the single “Tattoo” as their demo of the week. And with a solid leap in songwriting from the the initial EP and a second one, now collected together as one self-titled LP, to Tattoo, Hughes should expect plenty more attention.
Although he crafts Raindeer’s music alone, Hughes always intended to play live—and that meant assembling a band. “In a city where everyone plays music, it was really hard to find people to play music for some reason,” Hughes says. But when Devin Byrnes asked to remix an EP track, Hughes went out on a limb and asked him to join the band.
The lineup has shuffled since then. They recently lost their drummer to a move to Philadelphia. “It’s very stressful, what’s happening now,” Hughes says about trying to arrange a tour. “It’s kinda difficult [with the] rotating cast of members. We’re not a professional band at all, [but] we try to be.”
However, Hughes talks with excitement about working and growing with his bandmates.
“We collaborate a little more every time we get together,” he says. “We’re starting to learn how to work with each other. It’s just difficult ’cause all my music career, I just always wrote myself. Right now I’m learning how to work with other people and accept what they say, that I’m not always right.”