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The world of Air Waves' Dungeon Dots is one of unexpected complexity. Singer/guitarist Nicole Schneit has masterminded a folky indie-pop record (the fifth in Air Waves' discography) in which the melodies have a modest kindness about them, but the lyrics get into something more complicated.
Schneit sounds both pensive and down-to-earth, delivering her verses like they're the fleeting thoughts of someone about to kiss one part of her life goodbye to make room for something new. In a FREEwilliamsburg interview before putting Dungeon Dots together, Schneit said she wanted to stay away from break-up songs.
It seems she stuck to her self-imposed challenge: "Fort Tilden" is about her watching kids play hide and seek at Rockaway Beach in her hometown of New York City and thinking about when she was a child and played in the same place. The handsome, upbeat "Sweetness" was inspired by "the presidential campaign." "Radio" is a paean to pop songs on the radio going stale. "Lightning" isn't about her, nor is "Ride." By contrast, "Waters," a spare, pretty duet with guest vocalist Sharon Van Etten, is very personal, but Schneit is tight-lipped on its origins; all she'll say is that it's about "letting someone down."
Even though Air Waves get their charm from their simplicity, it's comforting to know that Schneit, a pleasant but shy interviewee, is making her tasks more complex. In college, she played both solo and in a number of bands, including Ferrari with avant-electronica kingpin Dan Deacon. She created Air Waves in 2007, aiming to make the job more professional and do more touring while espousing the mantra of "Keep it simple but full." The band are currently a trio, with a rotating fourth member who handles guitars and keys. "Right now, we kind of sound like the Cars," says Schneit, "so it's cool to have a different player come in and make the songs sound different—because they are so simple, they can go a lot of different ways."
Another major element of Air Waves is how their sweet pop is shaded by an elusive gloominess. When Schneit croons, "I'm alive/I'm on fire/For the first time in my life/For the time in my life" on the standout "Knock Out," she sounds like she's empowering herself after being beaten down. The song's faded production and careful pace don't brighten things up.
"Sometimes, people say that the songs are sad, but I'm not trying to write sad songs," she says. "I know there's a couple of sad songs, but I want people to feel a sense of relief from them and think happy thoughts."
Dungeon Dots is named after one of her past bands—a project that represented something particularly free-spirited to her. Synthesizer and piano came into the Air Waves' mix for the first time on this record; Schneit wanted it to sound more intricate and rock-oriented than its preceding, mellower EP. For the next one, she hopes to add more instruments, like trumpets and violin, plus do more with backing vocals.
No matter those additions, what's most important to Schneit is keeping an accessible sense of melody. "I like when we play a show and people say to me right away, 'Oh, that song got stuck in my head,'" she says. "I like being labeled as pop."
This article appeared in print as "To Air Is Human: Nicole Schneit of Air Waves expands her horizons while staying true to her indie-pop aesthetic."