Nashville's Cheap Time Evolves From Lo-Fi Punks to Power-Pop Auteurs

Cheap Time's new album isn't even out yet, but for singer/guitarist/songwriter Jeffrey Novak, it's already in the past tense. Novak and the rest of the band—drummer Ryan Sweeney and bassist Jessica McFarland—finished Exit Smiles in January, spent most of the summer working on new songs, and started recording the follow-up this month while Novak had a spare bedroom available to use as a home studio.

"We try to keep a pretty tight turnaround on the new songs," Novak says. "Today we just finished recording the drums for our next album while we have the time, and we'll have October off, too, when we'll finish tracking the rest of it."

In between, the Nashville band will start touring on Exit Smiles—a tour that will land them in Knoxville this weekend—and spend several weeks on the road with Mudhoney.

Since forming the band in the mid-'00s, after moving to Nashville from Henderson, Tenn., Novak has seen Cheap Time evolve from lo-fi garage punk inspired by Memphis bands like the Oblivians into crystalline power pop on Exit Smiles, due out in November on In the Red. The progression has been accidental and deliberate, instigated by almost-constant personnel changes and the 26-year-old Novak's growth as both a songwriter and a studio auteur. The new album is equal parts Big Star, John Cale, and Television—smart, tough, concise, and bratty, with Novak's increasingly sophisticated compositions made apparent by crisp, clean, in-your-face production. Besides the strength of the songs and the great sound, though, Novak's biggest contribution on Exit Smiles is his dedication to editing.

"I must have written a hundred songs for this new album, and it only has eight songs on it," he says. "That was the goal from the beginning—each record had had two less songs than the one before it. The first album was 14 songs and now the fourth only has eight songs. I wanted an eight-song album, four songs on each side that filled out a side and went well together. It took a while until I found that.

"We recorded and mixed a 10-song version of that album and then threw away five of those songs, or six of them. We'd finished doing that 10-song version and I'd listened to it once and didn't like about half of it, and then thought, okay, I'm going to have to write certain things to fit in these spots where things are missing."

McFarland, who also plays in the Nashville garage-rock band Heavy Cream, joined in the middle of those sessions, just after the band had returned from a European tour. She's originally from Paris, Tenn., not far from Novak's hometown, and the two had already bonded as West Tennessee expatriates when the sudden departure of Cole Kinnear left an open position in the band.

"I didn't know what we were going to do," Novak says. "He quit the band after a show in New Orleans opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which was a high point for us. It really caught us off guard. I came back home and couldn't get out of bed for three days. I didn't know what we were going to do. Then the first person i talked to about it was Jessica. ... We had a deep connection from being West Tennessee natives. We're both westerners who moved to the middle. Ever since she joined the band I feel like everything's turned around in a different way, and my head's opened up to a larger sound."

As Cheap Time has evolved, the list of influences credited in reviews and by Novak himself has changed, too, from Redd Kross to Sparks and now British art-rock exemplars like John Cale and Kevin Ayers. It's less a case of bandwagon-jumping than the creative development of a genuine music nerd with restless ambition and open ears.

"Every album builds on the mistakes and what you've experimented with on the albums before," Novak says. "The one we're working on now has funk and reggae things to it that our previous records don't have, but they still fit in with the context of the sound that we've done since our first single. Influences can all be filtered through the same attitude and they come out sounding the same. I feel like that's the best way I personally understand our music. I'm always trying things. I demo a lot of stuff—so much stuff that I don't want people to hear. You're constantly testing the limits of what you think you're capable of. That's the fun of making music to me—all those different challenges each time. A new record is a completely new challenge we've never dealt with before."