Like its titular Western hero, Miniature Tigers’ I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy is unpolished. Frontman Charlie Brand, 31, recorded pieces of his band’s fifth album (which is out today) on couches all over the country, and when it came time to clean up his ideas for public presentation, he decided to keep things rustic. That unfinished quality blunts Brand’s tendency toward the saccharine, imbuing a spongy, radiant song like “Crying in the Sunshine” with a very human melancholy.
The final product is a sunny collection of daydreams (the title track, featuring guest vocals from Brand’s girlfriend, actress Mae Whitman), unexpected strains of pedal steel (“Pictures of You”), and warmly psychedelic acoustics that recall the Mamas & the Papas (“Wish It Was Now”) or Real Estate (“Dreaming”). Nestled in the album’s second half is the standout “Nobody Else,” where a sample of ’60s Jamaican singer Millie Small’s unique, high-pitched voice bubbles up and overflows into a lush wash of sound. I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy could be about a fantasy, but in the end it’s about the power and the limits of love in this reality.
Miniature Tigers remain a four-person band with keyboardist Rick Schaier, guitarist Algernon Quashie, and bassist Brandon Lee, but Brand was in the driver’s seat for Cowboy. SPIN called him at his now-permanent home in Los Angeles to talk about learning the dulcimer, working with samples, and painting the sun-faded Southwestern interior that serves as the album’s cover.
Where did you guys record the new album?
I recorded all of it myself, really. I started about a year and a half ago when I was living in Texas for a little bit. I was going through a break-up and when I left I was staying with friends until I got back on my feet, so I was couch surfing for a few months basically. I went from Texas to Chicago to New York, and then ended up in Los Angeles. Most of it was recorded just on people’s couches, not a big studio or anything like that.
It was like how someone might record demos, but I really worked on them a lot. When it came time to actually start looking at it as an album, a lot of the original recordings, to me, sounded great and just captured the vibe of the time they were written. So I decided to not re-record anything and just produce, mix, and master the record myself. Even though it’s not the highest-quality recording, I still love it because it’s rough around the edges in that way.
How did the other members of the band keep up with you as you moved around?
We’ve never really all lived in the same place before. We’ve always been scattered around. Usually our process is I’ll write the songs, we’ll all get together, I’ll make detailed demos of full arrangements, and we’ll record everything and reinterpret it in the studio. This time around, it wasn’t as collaborative in that way. It felt right to leave things intentionally raw in the recordings, but I sent some stuff back and forth to a few of my bandmates, and we collaborated on writing and some parts.
Do you have a favorite instrument or effect that helps you get the sound you’re looking for?
I’m always trying to experiment with different sounds on each album. I’ve been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell the past few years, and I’ve been playing around with a dulcimer, even though I’m still trying to figure it out, so I ended up just playing open chords and sampling them, pitching them into different chords. My approach to this stuff was, because I wasn’t in a studio with access to a great recording setup, to take organic instruments but play them, chop them, pitch them, and approach it almost like you would electronic music.
How did you come across Millie Small’s work?
I was at dinner with my girlfriend and her dad, and one of [Small’s] songs came on, and I was like, “Wow, this is insane.” Her dad knew a lot about her and was telling me to check her stuff out, so when I went home that night I just tried to delve into her music. I fell deeply in love with her voice, I think it’s so unique and cool. She’s a Jamaican recording artist, but she does almost Rolling Stones-sounding stuff—there’s this weird crossroads that happens there. I don’t think I even changed the pitch, because her voice is so naturally high.
Did you paint the cover purposely for this album, or was it something you were already working on?
On our very first record [2008’s Tell It to the Volcano], our keyboardist Rick, who is an insanely talented artist as well, painted the cover. It has a similar vibe to this album cover, which was intentional. At the time I didn’t know how to paint or anything, and now I’ve gotten more into visual art, so I referenced the first album cover with a different tone and vibe. It’s a shout-out to him, because he was one of the first people who encouraged me with my art.
Do you want to talk a little about the cross between creating music and painting?
When I first got into painting, it started in a funny way. My favorite artist, David Hockney, was doing this series of drawings on his iPhone and iPad and I thought that was so cool. So on tour five or six years ago I downloaded the app he was using, and I started drawing on my iPhone in the van to kill time. I became obsessed and had an art awakening, like, “Wow, I can draw. I never realized this about myself.” Ever since I’ve just put as much time into it as I do music.
There’s a really similar quality in music and art. All art forms, movies, books, or anything, there’s a common thread of how you approach something. One of my favorite painters, Matisse, is someone I reference a lot. He’s an amazing, skilled artist [who] I’m sure could paint something photorealistic and pristine, but there’s an intentionally childlike and not-fully realized genius. I can look at Kanye’s most recent album—that was unfinished and he kept adding to it, and there were raw, intentional moments where I’m sure he had all the money and resources to sound even better, but he didn’t. That’s how I look at art and painting. This stuff is kind of heavy I guess, but I think the way you approach art and music all comes from the same place, it’s just a different muscle.
I hear a little bit of a country-western vibe on Cowboy, especially “Pictures of You.”
There’s people I love—like Willie Nelson and mostly older country stuff—so I definitely appreciated country music, but I’ve never set out to make country music necessarily. I used those elements as a tool to make it seem like it was coming from someone who didn’t really understand country. I had my friend Spencer Cullum Jr., who’s a really successful pedal-steel player in Nashville, play on [“Pictures of You”], and he added this part that I chopped up like the dulcimer. I wanted to use it in that kind of unorthodox use of country music. It wasn’t about making a country song, it was just a texture or color that I wanted sprinkled in.
If you could envision an ideal environment to hear this album for the first time, where would that be?
I think about that stuff a lot when I’m writing. There are times when I write music as an escape, so you can get out of something unhappy or not where you’d ideally like to be. I usually go somewhere else in my mind. One of our albums that I was writing was super influenced by David Hockney, because I was living in New York in this shitty little apartment during winter and all I wanted to do was live in Hockney’s California with swimming pools, blues, and the vegetation and take my mind off of it. This record was definitely written in a Southern California mindset, so my ideal place to listen to it would probably be like California in the spring, during the day. Something pleasant.