“Sometimes we enjoy playing live, but generally it’s more of a relief when it goes well,” Keith Freund of Trouble Books told me before the final show of their brief UK tour. Perched on the curb outside London’s Café Oto alongside his wife Linda, the only other permanent member of the group, Keith’s manner is as engaging as it is eccentric, fielding my questions with an excitability that allows for only occasional contributions from his more reserved partner. “There are so many variables when performing live and it’s nice to be able to control them more with recording,” Keith went on, perhaps getting to the heart of the duo’s aversion to playing to an audience.
Trouble Books’ music is probably best described as ambient pop, filtering sugar sweet boy/girl duets through a love of Brian Eno and lo-fi recording techniques such that each song inhabits its own, entirely unique, soundworld populated by bubbling synths and swooning guitar loops. It would be fair to say that the power of the duo’s music lies in the minutiae – subtle textures and atmospherics – rather than any visceral emotion that would lend itself to the live setting. Indeed, Keith described to me their unwillingness to “jam” as a group, preferring instead to carefully sculpt and “tinker” with their songs as they are recorded.
Despite expressing a desire to command the precise details in their sound, with their most recent release Trouble Books surrendered some of their creative control by collaborating with Emeralds guitarist Mark McGuire. “It’s one of those rare occasions where you have a dream of how something would turn out and it actually pans out that way,” Keith smiled with, I might add, absolutely no degree of arrogance. Simply entitled Trouble Books and Mark McGuire, the album represents a rare occasion when two established – and wholly idiosyncratic – artists have come together to produce something that effortlessly exceeds the sum of its parts.
“I think we had a sense that it was going to lock up pretty well,” Keith went on, describing the process of working with McGuire, “he adds an extra energy that we lack and he’s much better at guitar so he can fill in a lot of space that we already left empty.” Throughout the record, McGuire’s sparkling guitar loops weave around the songs, enveloping Keith and Linda’s more sparse arrangements in a shimmering gauze of sound. “It was really easy to work with him,” Linda added, “neither of us is accustomed to jamming but he is so when we came up with something he could take it in a completely new direction.”
Having garnered a sizable cult following both in their native USA and across Europe – during their set, Keith told the audience of a “very sincere” Belgian boy who had expressed to the band his penchant for making love to their Endless Pool EP – the duo seem reluctant to expand their operation in order to cater for their growing fan base. “I think Lin and I are tired of going to the post office every day during our lunch breaks,” Keith laughed as I asked him whether we’d be seeing a wider release of Trouble Books and Mark McGuire, only 50 copies of which were initially made available through the band’s UK distributor, MIE Records. However, I certainly do not sense a lack of ambition from the duo. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that Trouble Books lack the ruthless drive necessary to achieve more widespread recognition, measuring their success instead through their own levels of artistic satisfaction.
The duo’s set later that evening was, as expected, endearingly amateur, though a far cry from the ramshackle performance that Keith’s comments had lead me to expect. In fact, the only song to really fall flat was the only one that was taken from Trouble Books and Mark McGuire, as the duo attempted to compensate for the loss of their friend’s guitar playing. But it is in this amateurism that the group have their greatest asset. Far from a polished “product”, the music Trouble Books make is touching in a way that only homemade music can be and as I watched them play in the candle-lit Café Oto it was almost impossible not to fall in love with it even more deeply.