In the fall of 2008, Jayson Kramer took the MCATs, that gatekeeper for medical school and the terror of many a biology or chemistry student. He survived and, for the first time in years was able to take a breather and reflect on where he would go next.
Kramer had grown up on a diet of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, gravitating toward biology at Boston University and battling the premed circuit. "I felt a certain amount of pressure," he said. "School is expensive."
But music and art were constant influences throughout his life. His mother worked at a record store around Chicago's Lake Zurich neighborhood, exposing him to bands like New Order and Radiohead.
In the aftermath of the exam, Kramer's head was clear. He didn't want to become a doctor. He lingered aimlessly around Boston for a short while, until a breakup with his girlfriend propelled him to return to his native Chicago. "I just needed to go home," said Kramer.
Three years later, the quarter has navigated the churning music industry, reaching a measure of prominence. They released a debut full-length record, "Art History," earlier this month and joined the veteran Montreal romancers Stars on a national tour in the fall. Their song "Purple" was licensed by Sharpie, the pen company, for use in an ad that first aired during the MTV Awards on Sept. 6.
Kramer now does music full-time, having left a side job tutoring young students in urban Chicago. He is, in many ways, living the dream. Although he's constantly aware of the financial struggle, he is able to focus on the art.
"If you're going to do it for the money, you're going to get weeded out pretty fast," he said.
California Wives first caught the attention of Vagrant Records, home of veteran acts like the Hold Steady and PJ Harvey, at the SXSW music showcase in Austin, Texas. In an age of the viral single, Vagrant is still determined to put out complete records.
The label felt it was "important that each song was strong," said Kramer.
"Art History" refers to the act of wading through the musical past -- in Kramer's case, new wave, grunge, Brit pop and shoegaze, piecing together influences into something new.
It is foremost a pop album, with jangling guitars and sparkling synths, inlaid with Kramer's smooth delivery. Recording the album was a process of trimming and expanding, infusing each track with a hook.
"I think every song has to have something you can grab onto," he said.
The band worked with producer Claudius Mittendorfer, an indie rock veteran who had produced Franz Ferdinand, Muse and Interpol. Mittendorfer would examine each song and suggest an addition like a bridge, which might turn into an outro. The band ultimately selected 11 songs out of around 20, revisiting some older tracks like "Twenty Three," which appeared on the earlier "Affair EP."
For all its melody, the album reflects the uncertain world and the turmoil and finding one's place. It is about the messy process of growing up. "I think the record is more angsty than people realize," said Kramer.
In live shows, Kramer tries to channel that emotion into something that will captivate his audience. He flies around the stage, shredding on his guitar. On the current tour with Stars, the band is playing venues like the Paradise in Boston, a surreal experience for Kramer, who fondly remembers the venue from his college years. And as California Wives continues to make its way across the country, Kramer feels himself maturing, gaining fuel for that next album.
"I want it to be a snapshot of my life," he said.