Ambulance (Ltd.): Keeping the Beat

As we begin the interview, Congleton is holding a Bert from Sesame Street doll and a bottle of Red Stripe.

There have been a lot of labels tossed around to describe Ambulance Ltd.’s sound, many of them familiar: shoegazer, ’60s pop, garage rock, late Beatles, mid-career Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd. Leave it to me to pull in the odd reference: Lloyd Cole. English singer-songwriter from the ’80s and ’90s, back then as new wave Brit-pop with the Commotions, later as a more introspective solo artist (and he’s still recording today, though his songs, for obvious reasons, have mellowed). It wasn’t until I saw Ambulance live at South by Southwest in March that it struck me. With his longish Beatles-esque hairstyle, full cheeks, and ready pout, Ambulance singer/songwriter/guitarist Marcus Congleton very much resembles a young Cole. Going back to the disc, the impressive full-length debut LP (TVT), Congleton’s easy, sometimes sweet voice has elements of Cole’s as well.

The comparison is lost on the band, though. “Who?” Congleton asks blankly when I mention the name. I hate to say I’d expected as much, but it’s true. They’re young—I don’t have dates and ages, but I’d be willing to bet all of the band members are still in their early 20s—and come off as extremely hip. What need would they have for Lloyd Cole in their musical vocabulary?

We’re sitting in the Ambulance RV outside the Patio in Indianapolis, where the band has just finished its too-brief 30-minute set as part of the Midwest Music Summit. We’ve cajoled drummer Darren Beckett into joining us (“I don’t want to talk to her,” he’d initially whined when invited by Congleton; I’d overheard, though, and he amended his statement: “Why wouldn’t I want to talk to you? I’m a man, I’ve got urges.” Whatever.). The group recently graduated from a van to a small RV, so the two of them give us “the tour”: “This is our living room, there is our kitchen, where we prepare our meals. This is also our sleeping area, and that”—pointing to the bunk above the driver’s seat—“is the bridal suite. The bathroom’s off limits.” Band nastiness in tow, apparently.

As we begin the interview, Congleton is holding a Bert from Sesame Street doll and a bottle of Red Stripe. I must glance too obviously at the doll because he looks down, sees the doll, and discards it. No chance to snap pictures, then. Darn.

Ambulance was signed to TVT in the music industry’s rush to find the next Strokes: they qualified based on the merit of being a hipster-looking band from New York City. (Ironically, only bassist Matthew Dublin is a New York native; Beckett is a transplant from Ireland, Congleton from Oregon, and guitarist Benji Lysaght from California.) They had played what they described as an unusually bad set in NYC and were thinking of calling it quits (not an unusual occurrence; “We got really disheartened because we didn’t have any money,” Beckett says) when they were approached by TVT. First up was a self-titled EP, released in June of last year, followed by LP in March. Since then, they’ve toured with the likes of Placebo, The Killers, Stellastarr*, Elefant, and others (hipster bands, all of them).

LP is one of those slow, creeping discs that gradually insinuates itself into your musical soul until, ultimately, it claims you for itself. At first listen, it’s a little mellow, a little slow. Congleton’s voice isn’t especially strong or unique, the guitar riffs, bass jams, and drumbeats don’t instantly grab you…at least, that’s how it seems. Once the band owns you, you’ll recognize that sweet voice and those mellow yet involved chords anywhere. Songs like “Primitive (The Way I Treat You)” and “Heavy Lifting” will quickly become staples on your iPod; soon, you’ll be wondering why they’re not on every radio station and television ad.

As we begin the interview, I first ask about the band’s name. In a strange set of circumstances, the name “Ambulance” belonged to an existing group that Congleton and Dublin joined; once the original members left, Beckett and Lysaght came on board—and the name lived on. “We had demo tapes with the name ‘Ambulance’ on them when record labels first got interested in us,” explains Congleton. “At that point, one of the original guys was gone. We gave out a few demo tapes, [the last original member] left, and then we got offers from these companies that knew us as Ambulance. We didn’t make an effort to keep the name; it just kind of happened.” (The “Ltd.” is for legal reasons, to differentiate them from other similarly monikered bands. “We wanted something you couldn’t say,” says Beckett. Congleton adds, “I think he suggested Esq., for Esquire. We were trying to think of abbreviations, things that people would not pronounce. Ltd., U.S…” “People say Ambulance Limited, like Public Image Limited,” expounds Beckett, then shrugs. “It doesn’t really bother me anymore. Hopefully pretty soon it’s just going to be Ambulance.”)

The band members consider themselves to be a team of musicians rather than friends; as Lysaght’s said, “We’re not afraid to kick someone out if they aren’t pulling their weight, because we didn’t go to grade school together or anything.” This band-before-friendship mentality was evident by the abrupt addition of bassist Matt Dublin before Ambulance recorded LP. “We fired our other bass player a week before we went to London to record our record,” Beckett says. In typical point-counterpoint fashion, Congleton explains, “We were just drinking in a bar one night and we called him and we said, ‘Matt’s joined the band.’ [Matt’s] an amazing bass player, a great musician.” Adds Beckett, “I was just scared to do it, so he did the dirty work.”

Today, the band numbers four or five, depending on whom you ask. Keyboardist Eric Roddick, a consistent part of the touring lineup since March, isn’t included in the lineup or the publicity photos. “We kind of treat him like he is [an official member],” protests Congleton as Beckett belches. “It’s just his legal status that’s different.” Beckett chimes in, “He’s also a producer. He might actually do some stuff [on the next album].” As has become custom in this conversation, Congleton again offers the explanation to his mate’s statement: “He’s setting up a studio in Brooklyn, and we’re talking about moving in there and doing some rehearsing and recording. So he’ll probably be involved in whatever we do next; I’m not sure if he’ll play on the next album or not. Maybe. He’s been definitely a staple of the band for the past few months.” “And now we love him,” Beckett finishes.

Ironically, though, it’s impossible not to notice that, onstage, Roddick is so obviously not a part of the band. Tonight, the four “legal” members all wore faded, retro T-shirts with jackets, their hair longish and tousled; relegated to the side of the stage with his close-cropped hair, button-down shirt, and Converse high-tops, Roddick is very much an afterthought.

Though you wouldn’t know it in St. Louis, Ambulance does get its fair share of radio play. “We get added to a lot of radio,” says Congleton. “We’re surprised [the album’s] done as well as it did. I mean, shit: doing pop music. It’s such a gamble.”

As this is an issue about independent artists and labels, I want to ask about the band’s decision to sign with TVT—the largest indie label, to be sure, but still not one of the major players. I want to know if Ambulance sought out an indie in an effort to maintain creative freedom or to rally against The Man. In his laid-back, reserved manner, Congleton quickly shoots down that line of thought, saying, “Nah, we didn’t really give a shit. It wasn’t anything that we pursued or thought about in any way; it was just the best option for what we had, which was nothing. It was a really, really tiny advance, but we wanted the money so we just did it.” After a little more prodding—surely there are benefits to being on an indie label?—he admits, “[TVT’s] been good to us, for the most part. They’ve really spent a lot of time with us. [On a] major, we’d be a lot richer and happier, but we’d probably only last for three months.”

Ultimately, though, it’s about the music, and this is something Ambulance takes very, very seriously. Congleton initially writes all of the songs, then takes them to the rest of the band for their input. Though he previously considered himself more writer than musician, he’s changed his opinion of himself. “Now we have to do so many shows; I’ve got to take voice lessons, and warm up my voice and stuff. Maybe that will help in the writing; maybe we’ll evolve in that way, think about it in terms of doing shows and playing live in front of people, and that’ll influence how we make albums.”

As a slave to LP, I, of course, look forward to what future releases from this promising young band will bring. For now, though, there are the live shows to think about—specifically, the band’s upcoming tour with The Killers. Hopefully, The Killers’ rapid rise to success will rub off on these four; at a minimum, Ambulance will be playing in front of larger audiences that they’re typically used to. Though the two bands’ music styles are different—and, let’s face it, though they’ve influences from all over the board, Ambulance’s style is, really, their own—let’s hope the audience appreciates the talent put forth by its opening act.

After that, the world is theirs for the taking. All they need now is distribution on the other side of the ocean. We leave the boys arguing over a possible European fall tour with The Thrills (MC: “We can’t go.” DB: “I think we still might go.” MC: “Really?” DB: “That’s what Veronica said.” MC: “I hope so.” DB: “But there’s no fucking point, because we don’t have a record out.”) and walk down the Indianapolis sidewalk, “Primitive” playing a pleasant loop on our inner soundtrack.

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