Even before Bad Bad Hats had released their first album, Kerry Alexander already feared the sophomore slump.
But the indie-pop band’s frontwoman—along with husband and multi-instrumentalist Chris Hoge, bassist Noah Boswell, and drummer Connor Davison—has confronted that fear head-on with Lightning Round, an instrumentally lush and lyrically tender collection of 10 love-themed tunes, released this week.
For Alexander, a game show fan and trivia buff, the title has multiple layers of meaning. “The lightning round is the round where you really need to prove yourself. It’s fast-paced. You’ve got to know your stuff,” the wavy-haired singer says over tea in south Minneapolis, with a hint of a southern accent. (Though born in Minnesota, she moved to Alabama at age five.) “So for the second album, it’s like, you’ve heard us before. Now this is our chance to show that we mean business, that we’re not just a one-trick pony.”
Alexander returned to familiar lyrical turf—relationships—on Lightning Round, but she came at them in a different way this time. “I like writing songs about breakups,” she says. “That has been fruitful territory for me for many years, but I have been in a relationship for a long time. I haven’t had a breakup in like a decade. I wanted to challenge myself to write more songs about being in a long-term relationship.”
“Absolute Worst” revolves around those little tiffs that make you so mad you want to sleep on the couch, “Automatic” is a testament to unconditional love, and “Makes Me Nervous” was a rare songwriting collaboration between Alexander and Hoge. Initially, she had an anxiety-producing crush in mind, but he nudged her toward writing about the protectiveness couples feel about one another.
Alexander doesn’t always write from her own life or emotions, however. She often culls from friends’ relationship stories—and from pop culture. A lover of pop music tropes, she wanted to use the love-as-drugs metaphor after hearing Tove Lo’s “Habits.” The result was the downright addictive “Nothing Gets Me High,” about how love feels less exciting as one ages. It’s an ironic title. “I have never been high before,” she admits.
While Alexander used to write lyrics first and pair them with music later, recently she’s focused on vocal melodies, and fits the words to the rhythm. Constant touring has also shown her what audiences want: upbeat, rockin’ songs. Sometimes, there’s an internal tug-of-war as she tries to please her inner creative and the band’s fans, but ultimately, she says, “they’ll enjoy the song if it’s a good song, so just do what you feel.” The songs that resonate most with listeners tend to be the ones that “are more true for me,” according to Alexander. “That’s been really interesting [to see]. It’s like people know.”
Though Alexander has been writing songs since age 9 and playing guitar since age 13, Bad Bad Hats is her first band, formed in 2012. They signed that year to Minneapolis label Afternoon Records and released their debut album, Psychic Reader, in 2015 to critical acclaim, winning City Pages’ annual Picked to Click poll that year.
For Lightning Round, the trio reunited with that album’s producer, Brett Bullion. In early 2017, they spent five weeks recording in Bullion’s northeast Minneapolis studio, “which was intense,” Alexander says. “It was like a roller coaster of emotion for me.” Alexander prefers an organized and task-oriented approach to recording, but Bullion wanted the band to “just go in there and see what happens,” Alexander recalls. That was tough for the sensitive singer-songwriter. “The songs are so important to me; if I feel like they’re getting out of where I think they should be, I get very defensive.”
The band employed a slew of instruments on this album, from multiple synths to a Rhodes piano to a 12-string guitar. “We really try not to limit ourselves in the studio, which I think makes for a more interesting, lush product,” Alexander says. Bullion also wanted to bring in a dedicated drummer so they could record the album live. Davison filled that role and was later welcomed in as an official Bad Bad Hats member.
Alexander and Hoge, who met and began dating while students at Macalester College, married last fall. Two weeks before their wedding, after the album had been mixed and mastered, Bullion called them up and encouraged them to ditch two songs on the album and record new ones. Overwhelmed with their nuptials, they initially objected; after their honeymoon, however, they rallied the band and recorded three new tracks; two made it onto the album and one remains a “secret” to be released later.
Alexander believes the album is more cohesive as a result of the re-do. “When it all came together, it was so much more satisfying. It felt like things happened naturally. It was much more inspired that way,” she says. “Sonically, this new album feels a little bit moodier, perhaps, a little bit more nuanced.”
Sadly, this is the band’s last album with Boswell, who is leaving to pursue a Master’s degree in social work. “It’s a little scary with Noah leaving ’cause he and Chris have been like my anchors,” Alexander says. At the end of “365,” the last song on the new album, Boswell plays a somber, extended bass line. “I can’t think of a better way for the album to end than Noah taking us out on his final contribution on a recording. It’s so perfect. That’s one of my favorite moments on the whole album. It really does feel like a beautiful finale,” she says.
The band has had quite the ride; in addition to playing all over the country, they were featured in the New Yorker and recently opened for Trampled by Turtles at Bayfront Park for an audience of 10,000 (the largest sold-out show in Bayfront’s history). They'll play a release show at the First Avenue Mainroom on August 18.
Fitting, then, that the new album cover art features a quintet of trophies, visual recognition of how far Bad Bad Hats have come and to Alexander’s goody two-shoes, overachieving personality. “When I graduated school, I really struggled to find some other measure of success without those kinds of boundaries,” she says. “Success doesn’t have to be the trophy on the shelf, it doesn’t have to be the A, it’s doing something fulfilling and being a good person. The trophies are like a message to myself, like, ‘You’re doing it. You’re on the path.’”