POV: Two 'Best Frenz' invite you to the mall 

click to enlarge From left, Suwito and Armbruster. - PHOTO BY BENJAMIN ZUCKER.
  • From left, Suwito and Armbruster.
Daniel Armbruster has never visited the Adirondacks. While the Joywave vocalist and lifelong Rochesterian has toured the world, the formidable peaks to the east have eluded him. But that hasn’t stopped him from using the mighty mountains as creative inspiration.

“It’s you and I on a chair in the Adirondacks,” Armbruster sings on a new song from his group Best Frenz, a collaboration with California musician Jason Suwito. “We’re so alive like it’s 1993.”

The electronic pop swirls as Armbruster waxes nostalgic about a vacation he never actually took, with a car fueled by dirt-cheap, Clinton-era gasoline. It’s pure fantasy, a running theme throughout Best Frenz’s debut album, “The Mall,” which hits streamers on August 11.

Armbruster has another name for the concept: “implanted memories.”

“It’s certainly escapism, looking around at the same four walls and not going back to an earlier time in your life, but an earlier time in a different life,” he said.

After Armbruster and Joywave toured with Suwito’s band Sir Sly in 2018, the pair kept in touch, eventually reconnecting in a Los Angeles studio while producing a song by the pop group Dreamers. They decided to make a little music for themselves; Suwito sent tracks to Armbruster, but both were busy with their main commitments — until COVID hit. They formed Best Frenz, created 2021’s “30% Off” EP by sending music back and forth online, and kept working on songs as new virus variants popped up. “The Mall” came out of a desire to leave the uncertainty behind.

“We were like, ‘You know what sounds really good right now? Going to the f*cking mall,’” Armbruster said. “Just walking around with your friends and not worrying about everything outside. That’s how we arrived at this concept. The songs are more about things that maybe I wished I had done as opposed to things that I have done.”

A playful, postmodern romp through a metaphysical space in which memories appear like sunglass kiosks and cellphone shops — where else could this buffet of choices happen but the mall?

The songs reflect the fun of daydreaming. “The Carousel” begins with a circular blast of synthesizer that feels like a carnival, while “Sunshine & Milkshakes” leans into bright string samples and lyrics about “sharing a glass of wine in the umbrella shade.” Armbruster likened the track to Len, whose 1999 hit “Steal My Sunshine” still soundtracks summer revelry among millennials.

“I was going through a period of rediscovering house music,” Suwito said via email. “I remember telling Dan that I wanted to make a house record. I think some of that came through in ‘The Carousel.’”

The death of the American mall is easy to exaggerate. A 2020 report forecasted that 25% of all U.S. malls would shutter in five years or less, while others remain optimistic malls will never die. The nostalgic quality they maintain — dated architecture, declining food chains, a lack of e-commerce — provides a playground for Best Frenz, even if Suwito said he wasn’t a mallrat as a teen.

“I do have fond memories of my parents bringing me to the mall to ride the carousel and of smelling Mrs. Fields cookies,” he said via email. “I’d also go to a build-your-own baked potato spot in the food court after hockey practice.”

Growing up with “nowhere to go and no one to hang out with,” Armbruster and Joywave drummer Paul Brenner frequented The Mall at Greece Ridge on weekend nights. But Armbruster stressed Best Frenz’s mall is a complete construct of fancy and imagination — even if some modern darkness seeps through lyrically.

“Did you think there could be so much death here?” he sings on “Sunshine & Milkshakes” before quickly snapping back into the bright-lit illusion partially inspired by the Santa Monica Pier.

Armbruster snuck one actual memory on the final track, “Closing Announcements.” He recites, verbatim, the loudspeaker spiel he’d give while working at Staples in the early 2000s.

Unlike certain malls, that shop is still open.

“It is still there, always taunting me,” he said, “letting me know that it’ll be there when I need it again.”

Patrick Hosken is a freelance writer for CITY Magazine. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].

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