Nothing Really Mattress: A new Distant Friends album for dark times

Andrew Patrie, photos by Andrea Paulseth

FRIENDLY DISTANCE. Mitch Smuhl (left), Morgan McCandless (center), and John Buxton (right) make up Distant Friends, a phenomenal local punk band whose sophomore record Nothing Really Mattress was released low key at a house show in November.
FRIENDLY DISTANCE. Mitch Smuhl (left), Morgan McCandless (center), and John Buxton (right) make up Distant Friends, a phenomenal local punk band whose sophomore record Nothing Really Mattress was released low key at a house show in November.

It’s not every band who can claim a “cease and desist” order from Lucasfilm as part of its history, but Eau Claire’s power-pop / “no coast” surf punks Distant Friends can. In 2016, the group, then known as The Yuuzhan Vong, an allusion to an alien race bent on galactic conquest in the Star Wars expanded universe, was put on notice to relinquish the reference immediately, which proved problematic as their debut album, Reflected Through Cataracts, had already been pressed to plastic and circulated throughout the scene. Scrambling, the name Distant Friends was chosen (also the title of a track on the debut) marking the sophomore release of Nothing Really Mattress as the first, official recording to bear the new brand.

The album, engineered by Chris Hoyt and mastered by Will Wall (of FMDown), shares a predilection for pun with its predecessor (check the album titles against their cover images), but listeners expecting the straight up pop of previous pleasers like “Who Am I” and “Crash and Burn” are in for a surprise as the more dissonant side of the band gets its due.

“I love poppy, catchy tunes, like out of the 1950s, but I also love dissonance,” guitarist/vocalist, and principal songwriter, Mitchell Smuhl admits, explaining a song like “Better Now,” which begins with a Platters’ style, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” ear-fake before buoyant bass lines contort it into something else entirely. Or the jaunty, discordant Fugazi-isms of album opener “Can’t You See.”

We are also treated to tracks like (the should-be single) “Pickle Rat,” inspired by a friend’s cheating ex-lover and her preferred local watering hole, “Choopie,” “Everything You Said,” and “Like You Always Do,” which tilt toward the poppier end of the band’s sound. But even in songs replete with those dual vocal harmonies that made the first album so sweet, there is still a sense of the off kilter, of surf rock strings being strummed after warping in the noon-day sun.

And this is, perhaps, the album’s greatest strength: its ability to feel both familiar and unfamiliar, meeting expectations and simultaneously subverting them, like finding your car in the grocery store parking lot, climbing in and then realizing it’s not your car.

“That’s the spirit of punk rock,” Smuhl offers. “No rules whatsoever. You can do whatever with it. For example, most of the lyrics were made up on the spot. That’s why there’s no lyric sheet. They’re almost always improvised. The words just have to fit the melody line.”

I ask, with tongue firmly in cheek, how punk it was capitulating to Lucasfilm, and Smuhl looks down, laughs, shakes his Garth Algar mane. “Honestly, I was never too concerned with a band name, so the transition wasn’t that big of a deal. Distant Friends is a cool name. The other band members [John Buxton on bass/backing vocals and Morgan McCandless on drums/backing vocals] liked it. Here we are.”

However, when pressed further, Smuhl is less cavalier, acknowledging that the re-christening is also symbolically meaningful. “The first album consisted of songs I wrote when I was 16,” he says. “This album reflects our identity as whole.”

Ironically, Nothing Really Mattress had a quiet release last month, something Smuhl hopes to rectify in the coming weeks, pushing its presence in both the digital and material worlds. You can also catch Distant Friends on January 6 at the Plus. “I’m really excited about that gig,” Smuhl enthuses. “It’s the Water Protection Benefit show. About eight or nine bands are playing. Hopefully, it’s a good turn out as it’s for a good cause.”

In the meantime, shrink the distance. Acquaint yourself with this power trio and their songs. You may just find they are companions for life.

You can stream Distant Friends record Nothing Really Mattress at ddistantfriends.bandcamp.com or pick up a physical copy at their Jan. 6 benefit show at The Plus.

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