One of the more striking moments from last year's MusicfestNW was watching a packed Berbati's Pan lose its collective shit to the jumpy, giddy pop of Dirty Mittens. The band, especially firebrand frontwoman Chelsea Morrisey, fed off that energy and threw everything into the performance. It had the joyous abandon of a basement house show, leaving both the Mittens and their audience sweaty and spent but with huge grins on their faces.
"The thing that I've always heard from people is, 'Man, you guys look like you're having the best time up there,' says guitarist Ben Hubbird, picking at the weeds in the overgrown backyard of bandmate Josh Hawley. "Good! 'Cause we are! I'm so glad we can communicate that."
That spirit flows out of the band's first full-length album as well. Heart of Town (released this week on Magic Marker Records) is a crisp and positively infectious concoction that finds a fruitful valley between the worlds of disco, twee, '70s pop and the underground rock that the band's four core members were reared on.
Effortless as it may sound on record and in concert, the Mittens found their voice (and captured it for mass consumption) through a lot of trial and error. The band was started by Morrisey and keyboardist Noah Jay-Bonn in 2006 playing a ramshackle version of folk music. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing," Jay-Bonn says.
"That's an understatement," counters Morrisey (a onetime WW music intern). "We didn't know how to play our instruments, but we started playing shows anyway. And because we had a lot of friends in bands, we were playing big shows." Out-of-town engagements were a tougher prospect.
Over the course of the next three years, Morrisey and Jay-Bonn started enlisting the help of more accomplished players, while also learning how better to play their instruments. And the Mittens finally started to settle on a sound they could call their own.
Then came the struggle of recording it for posterity.
In total, Heart of Town took a full two years to finish. The sessions, overseen by veteran producer Jim Brunberg, were squeezed in around the band's work schedules with extra time tacked on for string and horn overdubs. That took all of eight months with the rest of the time devoted to mixing.
"We mixed the whole album once," says Jay-Bonn. "We went through this collaborative process of mixing the whole album ourselves. All of us would have notes on it."
Bassist Patrick Griffin laughs. "There were some early mixes that we thought we were pleased with. But a couple of days later, simultaneously, an email chain started going out saying, 'Yeah, I hate this.' 'Yeah, me too.' 'What were we thinking?'"
"I don't think it was a problem," Jay-Bonn continues. "It just wasn't what we were looking for. It was a very clean studio record. It was missing a lot of youthfulness."
To bring it back to the band's original vision, the Mittens enlisted the help of Paul Laxer, after admiring his work on Typhoon's Hunger and Thirst. "He pulled out entire parts that we spent hours and hours recording," says Hubbird. "Cut out drums in places. Changed the structures of songs in some ways."
Jay-Bonn agrees, "It was always a shock at first, but then I'd listen to it again and realize, 'Oh, that's great, actually. Why didn't we think of that?'"
Now there's a palpable sense of relief among the members of Dirty Mittens. Relief that they finally put the big debut album to bed, and that they have reached a point where they don't have to beg for out-of-town shows anymore. "I almost feel like I want to send each person who replies to my emails a fruit basket," says Morrisey.
But Morrisey also feels like the Mittens have a long way to go here in their home town, in spite of shows like last year's MFNW triumph. "It's been a little bit of an uphill battle. I feel like people still remember shows where we were just bad. We're constantly winning people back or winning them over.â
SEE IT: Dirty Mittens play Mississippi Studios on Thursday, July 14, with the Black Whales and Orca Team. 9 pm. $10. 21+.