November 30, 2006
Sparta's journey hasn't been an easy one. From the split-up of At the Drive-In, some have dismissed them as being merely contenders for mainstream approval, devoid of the artistic merits of those in The Mars Volta, a band that, to say the least, is drasticially different than Sparta. I should know; I'm one of those people who disliked their first album Wiretap Scars. However, something changed. The band grew tighter, and as time passed and the gap widened between Sparta and At the Drive-In, It became harder to make the comparison. Their second album, Porcelain, was a vast improvement, but it disappeared into obscurity, thanks to a record label that no longer believed in them. Then, as one would be expected, things within the band went haywire. Members left, tours were canceled, and the end loomed over their head. But then something happened. The band decided to look inward, and decided to make music for themselves, and the resulting album, Threes, is a grand, epic statement. Yeah, it's rock, but it's good rock. I had the chance to talk to bass player Matt Miller about the situation surrounding the creation of their new record. It's an interesting talk, and should serve as a caveat to those who make music...
Jumping back a bit: The time before the creation of Threes was rather tumultuous for Sparta, with label problems, internal conflicts and personal issues. Looking back at that time now, do you think Threes couldn't have happened any other way?
Defintely. Usually, whenever there's any kind of stress or turmoil for us, it brings about great creativity. Threes was different overall for us. We had free time to write and create.
From reading about Jim's personal crises in the Spring of 2005, it seems as if it's directly tied to the record label turmoil with Geffen/Interscope. Was the creative process for Threes--from taking time off and then coming back and writing two dozen songs without any label pressure--was that a different experience for the band, writing without pressure or expectation?
This time we actually...we had been in the usual cycle of make a record, go on tour, and write songs in the little free time allotted. We gave ourselves time to write. We had no deadlines, but we were working all throughout that time. Some of the songs that made the album were over a year old, and were the first things we put together when we started Threes. But with the time--and we didn't allow ourselves to not use the time--we were pretty much left to our own devices, and we were going create what we wanted to create; it was completely up to us. On the last two records, we had a certain timeframe in which to write them. For this one, it's the first time where, if one day we didn't want to write and record, we didn't. We could stop and come back later. To be able to do that, it was a relief.
It must be nice to be able to walk away from the music business machine and just create.
Oh yeah--very much so! The machine you are talking about, it kind of tarnishes the whole fun and beauty of being in a band and of making music. That's the harsh, real, and ugly aspect of it.
When you were holed up in your warehouse, writing the songs that would constitute Threes, did you have the idea to just write and not even think about making the next album or looking for a new record label? Were you just more into the idea of fresh, pressure-free creation?
Well, no. When we started the sessions in El Paso, we had pretty much decided on what our new home was going to be like and what the label would be. At the same time, Hollywood knew that we wanted to take our time and they knew exactly what we wanted to do, which was to be able to stay in El Paso for two months, in a giant warehouse, spending hours there each day, just pushing the record button on our gear, recording everything, and not having any chains on ourselves; any kind of chains, like, "we can't write a song like this" or "we can't pursue a melody like this." Whatever came out, and whatever worked its way into our hearts to where we absolutely loved it, it made the record. In every sense of the word, in almost every situation, from first finding a label to making the album--in everything, we said, "Let's not give ourselves any constraints."
I was thinking of your situation as being like Jimmy Eat World, where the band made its big hit record after being dropped and shopped to labels as-is. Was that what you had in mind, or had you signed to Hollywood and then made Threes?
WE pretty much had decided who we were going to go with. At the time we were label shopping, we weren't a hot commodity; we had backed out of a major tour, we had a member leave, and it looked like we were falling apart. So when Hollywood actually came looking for us, we thought, "Wow! Okay!" and we decided to meet, to see if it would be the right direction for us.
Considering your label woes, did the band have major trepidations about the label?
Oh, of course. Whenever you get into that kind of label situation, indie or not, major or not, you don't know exactly what they want, but they don't know what you want, either. It's awkward, and it's like an odd blind date at first. You go and meet, and if things go well, you meet again. With Hollywood, when we first met them, our first meeting was supposed to be thirty minutes. It wound up being four and a half hours! (Laughs) We really hit it off; we really connected with the people there. It made it nice, and when we decided to work with them, to us, they weren't just a label, they were our friends.
Another aspect of Threes is Tony's film Eme Nakia. Was the film as much a part of the creative process for the album itself, or was it an independent and separate project?
Definitely. Tony brought it up, even before we had any ideas for starting our third record, because at that time, things were still up in the air with Sparta and we hadn't decided if we even wanted to continue to be a band. He came up with the idea and said "What do you guys think about making a short video or film to go along with a record," and we thought that sounded like a great idea. It would be a good experiment that would give us an area of having more creativity, and also, we could build back and forth from each other.
I've only seen the trailer, but it looks quite fascinating. Do you have a release date as to when it will be out?
It's out now. It's in limited release right now, and is only available through Best Buy with the CD. I'm sure it will be out on its own DVD with other material as well.
It sounds like you guys are enjoying Sparta a lot more now.
Yeah! I think things are different now. I think it all ties back into letting loose, and at the same time, we feel totally in control of whatever we want to do, and it's very liberating! I hope it stays that way.
Sparta's Threes is available now on Hollywood Records
November 29, 2006
Dance music isn't really my thing. However, when someone comes along and makes intelligent, interesting dance music, (not IDM, per se--just because the term has the word intelligent" in it doesn't mean everything that bears such a genre description actually is) I have to set aside my inability to dance and appreciate the music for what it is--good. Thus, when I received a copy of Swedish dance mastermind Lindstrøm's compilation, "It's A Feedelity Affair", I didn't really know what to make of it. The cover is stark, minimalist, and reminiscent of Windham Hill, but the music inside is catchy, grooving, and impressive disco compositions that recall Giorgio Moroder. One listen to Hans-Peter Lindstrøm's collections of twelve-inch sides had me interested; the second listen had me--an admitted anti-disco non-club going recluse with not one iota of rhythm in my feet--dancing around the room and really, really getting the grooves of such songs as "I Feel Space" and "There's a Drink in My Bedroom and I Need a Hot Lady." I think I even danced. So I caught up with Mr. Lindstrøm via email, to talk about his music and his artistic aesthetic.
Tell me a little bit about your artistic approach to twelve-inch singles. Do you compose songs in a different manner than you would for an album of material? Do you prefer the conciseness and the limited amount of time that a side of vinyl has to offer?
Yeah, putting out 12"s is the easy way out. You only need a few tracks, and then you’ve got a new 12". The way I've been working on my 12"s is just to try all kinds of stuff in different genres. Writing for an album is much more time-consuming, and I kind of feel that I need a "vision" or a set of ideas to do a whole album. That’s the reason why I consider "it's a feedelity affair" a compilation more than an album. Writing for 12"s doesn't involve too much time, and if I'm efficient, I can finish a 12" in a month or so. Until now this has been my preferred way of putting out music. These days I'm working on album-tracks, and that's another story. Maybe I'm not ready for it yet...heh.
To me, the title "I Feel Space" recalls Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love." Is it a tribute to Moroder, and do you consider him an influence on your work?
Yeah, I was inspired by that track when I made it. Moroders bass-arpeggio is maybe one of the most powerful arpeggios I know, and it sounds REALLY massive on a good sound system. He's definitely an influence, but I wouldn't say it's a tribute. Those two tracks don't sound the same--at least in my opinion.
Listening to your music, it's hard to ignore the emotional element of your work. What drew you to dance music--was it the ability to experiment with sound, or was it the ability to manipulate the mood of a dance floor full of people with a simple melody?
Heh, it was the possibility to work alone. With all the musical elements from beats to melodies, I was tired of compromising when playing in bands, and I've always been interested in studio-work and the construction of a song. Also it's a lot easier to work alone with electronic repetitive music with a sampler, since I didn't have studio-facilities such as the possibility to record on 24 channels. I started with a crappy digital Korg 8-track, and then a computer with very limited power. But now, since computers offer such amounts of power, everybody can buy a "fully equipped" studio for very low money. Anyway, I'd say I'm probably more interested in experimenting with sounds than manipulating a dance crowd.
When you are on stage, whether it be Ibiza, Miami, LA, or Paris, does the power of motivating people intoxicate you? Do you find that different cities and different continents respond differently to your work, or is there a commonality to a crowd's emotional response to your music?
I still haven't been to Miami, LA or Ibiza yet :o) What I like about playing my music "live" is trying out new stuff I've been working on. Listen to how it sounds on a big sound system and watch the reaction of the crowd. And yes, I find there are big differences from city to city and country to country. In some clubs, the resident DJ(s) has been playing my music in their sets, so the crowd knows some of my tracks. And then sometimes I get the feeling that people doesn't understand what I'm doing at all, and the only reason why I've been invited is because the promoter or resident DJ wants to change the musical direction of the club, and therefore invites me to play. Most of the time there's at least one person who comes to see me, which is enough for me!!! Hehe
What other projects do you have forthcoming?
There are a few new 12"s and remixes in the pipeline. I'm also working an album or two. And some more... :o)
It's a Feedelity Affair is available now on Feedelity
November 28, 2006
The Little Ones
Lesson one of interviewing: make sure you have fresh batteries! My talk with Edward Nolan Reyes, lead singer for The Little Ones, gets somewhat cut off prematurely, because the batteries were bad and the tape became inaudible. But what I can tell you about them is this: they are a great band that show a lot of promise. Just one listen to their debut Sing-Song will tell you that. It's poppy and slightly trippy and catchy as all get-out, and it's hard not to listen to their music without getting a very big smile on your face! So, in spite of the dead batteries, we got some pretty good information out of Ed.
You first released the EP about a year ago, correct?
We initially self-released it on our own label, Branches Recording Collective, and we put it out ourselves in April of this year.
How did you hook up with Astralwerks?
Pure chance. We had some shows at the Mercury Lounge earlier this year and we played a couple of other shows and they were there, and they came and it kind of came out of that, a chance meeting after we played.
It seems like a somewhat unusual label for you guys to be on.
Yeah, I was as surprised that they were interested as well. But they are a good label, and they were really nice to us, and we felt comfortable with them.
Plus, they're good for giving you momentum on a national level.
Yeah, which we could have done, but it's really, extremely hard to do on your own, financially speaking.
That's true, especially if you're an independently-based band. Have you started working on your full length debut yet?
Yeah, it's going great! We've actually been working on it bit by bit for a while now. Right now, it's going to be a little bit tough, having to schedule things between tours, which we plan to do when we have some time coming up and we hope to have it finished pretty soon.
How did you guys meet up with David Newton?
When we formed the band, we'd recorded ourselves on various tracks and boards, but we decided that we wanted to record some demos at a studio with somebody. My friend Paul, who works at Better Looking Records, suggested David. He has the same vision for our songs that we do. Initially, the songs on Sing Song were merely demos. But then, when we heard them, we really liked them and we decided to release them as they were.
I kind of got the feeling that you guys were bursting at the seems a little bit, like you were on the cusp of going for bigger, louder, more orchestrated sound. Is that something you're envisioning with the full length?
Yeah! I think so. Obviously, we're really proud of the songs on the record, but we were really constrained by time and money. But now, with the label support, we're going to be able to pursue those ideas. I think there will be more orchestrated parts on it. We've already started talking about these things. You'll hear a little more percussion, a little bit more in terms of textures--it'll be really well thought-out.
What I've really enjoyed about Sing Song is that the music seems quite kaleidoscopic, with sounds swirling and tumbling and every time I listen to it, I hear something a little different than the time before. It's definitely a record that grows on you--not in the sense that it's not good upon first listen, but it's just that you hear something new on each consecutive listen.
That's something we tried to do. I've always liked music like that. I can remember hearing records by bands that I liked, but then I'd start to discover new things within the songs, and listening to them over and over again made them blossom more. I want to do that, too, with my music.
At this time on the tape, it becomes rather inaudible, thanks in part to dead batteries! But go and catch them live soon--they'll be on tour in select cities for the next few weeks and in the UK in January. Visit their Myspace for more information on where they will be playing.
The Little Ones' debut Sing Song is out now on Astralwerks
November 27, 2006
What Made Milwaukee Famous
It's been a wild, hectic ride for the boys in Austin's What Made Milwaukee Famous. They've received national acclaim in many major publications before they even had a record deal or had played outside of Austin. Their debut album, Trying To Never Catch Up, came out well over two years ago, and it still holds up today. That's why new label Barsuk reissued it--it's too good to be obscure. I spoke to Michael Kingcaid recently, and got him to reveal a little bit about the band's future.
What's new in the world of What Made Milwaukee Famous?
A lot of touring. We've done, like, four tours this year, and a couple of them were pretty extensive trips, with French Kicks and The Long Winters, and I think we may possibly do a smaller tour at the end of the year. Hopefully after that we'll be home until February to work on some new songs.
Have you started on your follow-up yet?
We have not, no. We've got a few songs completed, a lot of songs that are partially there, and a handful of ideas for others. Seven or eight are completely done. We're eager to get back home and start recording.
Have you made any decisions as to who you'll be working with on the new record?
No, it's going to be up in the air for a while. This reissue's only been out for eight or nine weeks. Outside of Texas and the rest of the world, it's a "new" record.
When you signed to Barsuk, what made you decide to reissue the record, instead of recording and releasing a new one?
We really have a lot of faith in this record, regardless of how long it had been since it was first released. We wanted the rest of the US and the world to hear those songs. I dunno, things never happen on the right time schedule or exactly the way you want it, but it's nice to have it on a great label. Before then, it was basically just a few record stores in Austin and Amoeba Records in California who had it.
I read somewhere that it sold out and went out of print quite quickly.
Yeah, we sold a lot of them on tours. We had to buy another round, just to make it through the end of that tour. (Laughs) It's kind of silly to think of it as out of print, because we have assloads of 'em at home, because we had to buy another round of 'em. But yeah, it sold really fast for us; we went through three or four pressings.
Have you been surprised by the meteoric rise and critical acclaim you've had, for being such a unknown band?
Yeah, we got a lot of really good press there for a while. We definitely attribute that to our management team. It's been really crazy, but we really appreciate that people have been out there, putting a good word out for us.
On the first record, stylistically, you guys were all over the map. On the new material, would you say that the sound has solidified more, or a more unified style dominates the material?
No. (Laughs) I don't ever want to stay in one place musically. There's a lot of stuff out there to find out about and experiment with, especially considering we came from different musical backgrounds. It's a vast musical landscape out there, so we want to touch on everything. I mean, we don't want to put out some jaded record that's schizophrenic. The last one was cohesive enough sonically, and we'll always want to put out an album that is a cohesive body of work, but we definitely want to experiment to get there.
You mentioned different backgrounds. What were your musical backgrounds?
Drew likes Britpop and poppier music; John came from a punk background; Jeremy has a Latin/jazz background, and I'm a hip-hop fan.
Have you been performing a lot of new material live, or are you mainly sticking to material from the debut?
We've been playing about five or six new songs live. Most of the time, we play 'em all only in Austin, because they've kinda been getting the short end of the stick and because they've heard all of these songs for three or four years now. We want to give them as much new material as we can when we play there. On the road, we're in front of audiences who probably haven't heard most of these songs, so we try to play more of the older material.
Tell me a little bit about the new material.
We have one called "For the Birds," and it is...I don't want to say "standard rock 'n' roll," but it is pretty rockin'. WE have one called "Tricks of the Tirade" that we've played quite a few times, and it has John on vocals. WE have one called "When the Grief Goes On," it's kind of an odd number. There are a few others we do here and there, and we have a few others we are working on. We're definitely looking forward to getting back and working on new material; we've been trying to take care of business for the record and touring, but it doesn't leave much time for that, you know?
Has it been frustrating for you, progressing as a band, yet standing still with the older material?
Yeah, a little bit, but this is what we've been waiting for all along. Like I said, it never really happens the way you plan for. As long as it happens, though, I’m happy!
What Made Milwaukee Famous's debut album, Trying to Never Catch Up, is available now via Barsuk.
November 20, 2006
Ah, yes, it's that time of year again, that short, three-day week where you do things in anticipation of Thursday, AKA the day where you eat too much turkey or stuffing or whatever food you happen to choose to like for that day and you rest up for the following day, the day before the start of the Christmas shopping season! Okay, so we all know that this is a dead week, right? Right. We've decided to be lazy (somewhat) and take this week off. We will be back next Monday, November 27th, 2006, with lots of wonderful content!
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving week, and we look forward to seein' ya bright and early Monday morning!
November 17, 2006
Ad Astra Per Aspera
Chaotic, rickety, psychedelic, trippy, schizophrenic, insane. All of those adjectives could easily be used to describe the music of Ad Astra Per Aspera. This Kansas-based collective makes music that is, as described, a crazy head-trip that's a whole lot of fun to listen to. Though they've been a band for several years, they recently released their full-length debut album, Catapult Calypso, a hidden gem of a record that deserves your full attention. I recently spoke to lead singer Kurt Lane about the band, the recording, and their upcoming plans. If you get the opportunity to see them live, DO NOT PASS IT UP.
You've been around since 2002, but you're just now getting around to releasing a full-length album. Was there a particular reason it took you so long to do so, or did you feel no hurry to release a full-length?
We've self-released two EP's and we had a seven inch single. We spent a lot of time working on those, and we had quite a number of songs that, for one reason or another, we felt like we didn't want to record or include on a full-length. It took us longer to release an album because the process takes us a while, and the record was a mixture of things we'd been working on plus older material that we wanted to get done.
Are you particular when it comes to your recording and your songwriting?
We generally go through this process where Mike brings in parts and we kind of play around with it for a while, where we come up with a version of the song we like, then we play it live for a while. If we don't like the way it sounds, we'll edit out parts or add new parts. I don't think we've ever had it where a song kind of came up and we played it one way and it stayed that way forever, so yeah, it's a long process for us.
Your music is both chaotic and intricate. I know that bands that combine those elements often run into a major hurdle when they try to perform said material live, and they usually find that they can't do it. But from what you've said, it seems like you guys are just the opposite of that.
Yeah, for the most part. We play lots of our material live first, and then record it after the fact. Many of our songs, we played them live for several months before we considered recording them. Sometimes, it's as long as a year.
The kinetic energy of your recorded work certainly shows that. When it came time to record, then, did you record live to tape as much as possible, or was it a more detailed studio process?
It depends. Drums are always going to be live, and you can't really couple takes of drum tracks together. I think that the drum tracks will always help to determine the liveliness of your sound. For the rest of the band, yeah, we did record everything live. Then we went back and added overdubs or extra percussion and things like that, but a lot of it was done live. We prefer to do it that way, and not record to a click-track. Like you were saying, there's more energy and more flow to it that way.
I take it, then, that you guys are more about the live show than the studio?
Not necessarily. We're interested in doing as much as we can, but I also think we're interested in effects and textures and things like that, but only if they can be recreated on the go, when we're performing live.
So what's next for you guys?
We'll be touring the Midwest in November, playing shows with a number of different bands. In December, we'll be going to Texas and Oklahoma for a week and a half, and in January, we'll be touring with a band called Paper Airplanes.
Ad Astra Per Aspera's debut, Catapult Calypso, is available now on Sonic Unyon.
November 16, 2006
There's not really much I can say about Tobin Sprout, other than the fact that he's an excellent songwriter, is an excellent painter, and although he might not release a lot of music, it's a sure bet that whenever he does release a record, it will be a quality release. Such is the case of his first new material in a few years, the soundtrack to the film Fortunes. It's a collection of some of Sprout's earlier work, along with a few new songs. It was a low-key release, but it's a low-key release that's worth seeking out. I'm honored that Mr. Sprout took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk about the soundtrack, about making music, and about his future plans.
How did the Fortunes soundtrack come about?
Matt Salzberg got a hold of me, probably about five years ago, and he asked me if I wanted to do the soundtrack. I wanted to, so we just kind of traded tapes back and forth with different themes that I had to use for it.
Was it a different kind of working process for you, in terms of songwriting?
Yeah, this kind of approach was much more about the music itself than the lyrics, such as lot of experimental things, with certain scenes requiring three seconds of sound. I really enjoyed working with Matt, and I hope I get to do that again.
Did he select the older material, or did you?
Yeah, he sort of picked the songs, and I offered up some songs that I had. I wrote a few songs for the movie, and some of them I'd been working on for a long time before I got involved in that project.
Speaking of making music, you've been kind of quiet for a few years, in terms of releasing music. Has music become less of a priority for you?
Not really; I'm still writing quite a bit, and I hope to have something out by this spring or summer. I've got tons of songs, but they haven't been recorded. I've also been doing a lot of writing, and I’m also a painter. I did some shows last year, and I'm doing another show this fall in Chicago. I'm also working on a children's book based upon the paintings that are on my website as well. So that's what my winter's going to be: writing my book.
Are you doing anything new, sonic-wise? I believe I read somewhere that you were doing some piano writing.
Yeah, I'm doing quite a bit of piano writing. I'm not really sure of the direction. I really haven't actually recorded any of these songs past the demo stage, so I'm kind of going to experiment around with the styles. I'm definitely going to have a band behind me, too. The guys who were with me on my last tour are going to back me up, and then I've got some other people who are going to help me out. So it's going to be of a lot higher quality of recording. I think it's going to be a lot better.
Do you enjoy the songwriting process more as you get older? Is it easier? More difficult?
No, it's the same. You learn; it's all the same process. I think I've grown quite a bit as a writer, and these new songs are more melodic. Lyrically, from writing the book, I've changed my lyrical style, and I'm looking forward to the next record.
Tell me a little bit more about what inspired you to write a book.
I don't know if you've been to my website, but there are a number of paintings that are representative of my style, more sensational, sort of mystical. When I did the art show in Cleveland this summer, there were some publishers there who encouraged me to write the book and had connections that would help me get it published. It's something I've never really thought of doing, and when I start doing it, I'm really going to enjoy it. It's aimed towards twelve-year olds and older.
Any idea on when that will be out, or is it just some time next year?
It's kind of whenever I get it together. I've been working a lot on computer animation at this point. As for the book, it's some time in the future. But right now I'm starting on it.
I've really enjoyed the soundtrack. I wasn't even really sure you were still making music.
Yeah, I'm definitely still making music. I've just been so busy with other things lately, but there will definitely be another album soon.
The soundtrack to the film Fortunes, featuring the music of Tobin Sprout, is out now on Pravda Records
November 15, 2006
Boduf Songs' debut album, Lion Devours the Sun, is a record that really startled me. It's one of the most haunting and most hauntingly beautiful records I've heard in a long, long time. Plain and simple, this music will make you feel just a little bit ill at ease, and you won't really understand why. This is powerful stuff, my friends. As you'll read below, mastermind Mat Sweet's music is inundated by his love and fascination with nature and insects. Just keep that in mind. One night, out of boredom, I placed his album alongside the Gus van Sant film, Last Days, a la Pink Floyd and The Wizard of Oz. Much to my surprise, the film matched up. (I shall write about this experiment at some future date, mind you.) I implore you, if you like to be disturbed, if you like to be haunted, then Boduf Songs will not disappoint. Music didn't really get any better than this in 2006.
It's hard to ignore the influence of nature in your music: from the cover art to the references to insects in the lyrics to instrumental passages that recall the sound of insects swarming and buzzing. What is it about nature that you find so enthralling? From listening to the descriptive way you discuss insects, I'm led to ask, do you work in the biology/entomology field?
Nope, I work in a library. A lot of the pictures and things that I use come from various ancient tomes hidden deep therein. As for the influence of nature, I think it comes from an urge to create a certain type of atmosphere. The way that I look at song writing, it’s a lot like painting a picture, trying to express a feeling or atmosphere that can’t so easily be rendered in narrative prose, like trying to explain a dream to someone in a way that engages them rather than bores them to tears. Hopefully.
The sorts of dreams and environments that inspire me do often seem to share this particular theme, I think it has to do with a desire for escapism of some kind combined with a wariness of the perils of an overly rose-tinted view. Or something.
I grew up in a remote, rural environment. One thing that strikes me about your album is that you've excellently captured the dread of the woods and the isolation that comes from a solitary, remote lifestyle. Did you grow up in a rural environment?
I grew up in a suburban, middle class environment, but it was none the less remote and solitary for that. The ‘dread of the woods’ has long enthralled me though, there’s a certain sense of foreboding and longing and dread and a whole lot of other stuff there that I find very compelling. There’s a conflict between the idea of nature as a benevolent, fragile entity that needs to be protected or returned to or what have you, and the harsher perspective of a chaotic, brutal place filled with much horror and ugliness. This struck me with particular resonance when out strolling one beautiful summer afternoon in a forest in southern France, when I came upon a splendid dragonfly on the ground having the back of its head gnawed off by a hornet. Actually it was more like the hornet had eaten through most of the dragonfly’s head and was determined to exit through its face.
Do you find a correlation between the isolation one finds in the middle of nature and the desolation one finds in a troubled mind?
Different for different people I think. Speaking personally, without boring you with the details of my own private demons, there’s a vast difference between being overwhelmed with the pointlessness of existence and the vanity of the world, and being lost in the countryside when it’s starting to get dark. Certainly there can be a hugely overpowering sense of alienation and loneliness in both, but you know, anything to do with those kinds of states of mind seems really subjective to me, it’s hard to talk about. Comparisons can be made though for sure, and there’s a wealth of metaphor in there.
I have no way of knowing this, but have you seen the film Last Days, by Gus Van Sant? It's a somewhat fictionalized account of the last day(s) of Kurt Cobain's life. The mixture of despair, hopelessness and the overwhelming presence of nature throughout the film remind me a bit of Lion Devours the Sun. The other night, while suffering a fit of insomnia and boredom, I decided to watch the film on mute, with LDTS as its soundtrack. Surprisingly, the two matched up somewhat closely, and it made both the film and the record much more interesting.
I did see that movie, I found it veeeeeeerrry sllllllowwww and pretty much unrewarding. I like plenty of films that people might accuse of being too slow, but there was nothing about Last Days that made it a worthwhile experience to me. The Boyz II Men video was especially excruciating... I wonder what part of the record that coincided with? Anyway, I’m glad that you found the experience enhanced.
What other things are you working on?
Just starting to put together some ideas for another film for a song from the record, and we have a handful of live shows coming up. Also working on something metal. We’ll see what happens with that.
Boduf Songs' Lion Devours the Sun is available now on Kranky
November 14, 2006
When you listen to Still Point of Turning, the debut album from Philadelphia's Relay, you'll be transported quite quickly into a blissful world of kaleidoscopic sounds and surprisingly hard and driving melodies. Led by studio wizard Jeff Zeigler, one listen to their debut proves that Zeigler's decision to make Relay into a fully-functional rock band was a wise one. Sure, you might be reminded of classic shoegazing bands of yore, but Relay is a modern band, making its own sound, and making a racket that is quite enjoyable. Alongside bands like Mahogany, Relay is forming their own blissful rock scene. Here, Zeigler talks a little bit about Relay, his decision to make it a fully functional band, and the band's recording style
What sparked your decision to transform Relay from a bedroom project to a full band?
I had this desire…I feel you can kind of hit a wall in doing that. You can only go so far when it comes to bringing in people to perform with you, if you don't have a real band. Also, it's nice to hear your stuff recreated in a way that's a little more visceral, immediate. Plus, it just evolved from meeting people.
So you wanted to have a band before you had your record?
Yeah, they kind of go hand in hand, you know? (Laughs)
Well, what I mean is I know a lot of bedroom-type projects fall into a trap, where someone makes a record by themselves, yet they don't have a band, and when it comes later, it can be rather problematic.
Yeah, I see your point. Yeah, that's definitely true. With Relay, it kind of evolved at the same time, with recording and learning the songs as they were recorded.
Something else I noticed is that the record has a very spontaneous vibe. When you recorded it, did you record it live?
It's really all over the map. Some of it was done pretty much live, with guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. Some of them were recorded with drums and bass parts tracked on. Some of it was just totally from the ground up, built in parts, while some were done with the full band. It's just a contrast, song by song. Even if you can't notice the songs were done in different ways, offhand I think it has a nice flow throughout.
That's something I noticed: the record has a very seamless quality to it, and it sounds really live and electric.
I think a lot of that is thanks to our drummer. The way he plays, it comes off really well on tape, and I like it.
When you started Relay, between its inception and its debut, did it evolve greatly as the new members came in?
It's funny. I think it did initially, because it was me, then our drummer, and then the whole band, and from there we really jelled. Now, I think it goes back and forth, whereas when we first had a full band, I felt like we had to get everybody completely involved in that sense. Sometimes it would be hard to juggle. It doesn't always work. I think we've all fallen into a comfortable zone. I still sometimes worry that some of the material they haven't figured out, but other times, it's all written together. It goes back and forth.
Did you happen to perform any of the material live before you recorded it?
Um, yeah, probably about half of it, I'd say.
I've always picked up on that. When a band has a recording that sounds really crisp and fresh, I often wonder if they've intentionally spent time on it live before recording. It adds a different spark to a song.
Yeah, that's definitely true. I think live, we strip it down. Our recordings have lots of layers, but live, it's stripped. But I think it's often the lesser elements that are sacrificed. That comes from a mindset on a how a song should sound that you get from playing it live. Yeah, a lot of the material was worked out live beforehand, and then recorded.
So do you have any other projects that you're working on?
Actually, yeah. The girl in the band, Racquel, we're in another band as well. It's still kind of a work in process, but it's a little more electronic, a little more bouncy. It's a bit more Broadcast in nature. I tend to do a lot of recording, too, and that takes a lot of my creative energy and my time. Also, just some solo stuff on the side, too. There's a ton going on here in Philly, and all of the bands are really supportive of each other, and there's a good community of people here.
So what's the plan for Relay?
We've got CMJ coming up soon, and we've got some tour dates coming up. We're going to try and tour a lot, up to next year. We're wanting to really get ourselves out there before we start working on our next record.
Relay's debut album Still Point of Turning, is available now on Bubble Core
November 13, 2006
The music of Feathers is cool. It's cool and smooth and relaxing. For the past few years, Eddie Alonso and company have worked meticulously on their sound and their songs, and instead of following the traditional route of releasing a debut album, they decided to release a trilogy of EP's. The first EP, Absolute Noon, was a record that mixed together a Stereolab/Beach Boys/Tortoise vibe that made you smile. They recently released the second EP in the series, Synchromy, and it is a bit of a departure, mixing in elements that are more dance-oriented. Once again, this trio (now a quartet) has released a pleasing, satisfying record. Mr. Alonso spoke to us about the band's reasoning for the EP series and the process of making Feathers' music.
What prompted you to release a trilogy of EP's as a debut record?
It's always a struggle for us to get together and record songs. It takes us sometimes over a year to record just five songs. We got caught up in doing things, so it just made sense to release EP's. Also, I get the feeling it allows us more creative freedom and to make more disparate music. With an LP, you have to have some kind of unity of sound running through it. I'm so schizophrenic when it comes to style, so it made sense to focus on short EP's. Eventually, though, we'd like to make an album.
That's what I liked about your two EP's: they're concise and succinct artistic statements.
We focus a lot of energy on every song. When I have an idea for a song, it usually sits around for months; we listen to it and think about where it will lead or what we can do to it. It's usually a process of focusing on one song until it's done exactly like we want it. When we go to the studio, we'll work on one song until we're finished and then move on to the next. We're not jumping around on songs during the process; it's a really intensive focus on each song. Most of the time spent on the song is actually thinking about it. The actual process is like a very explosive thing, it happens, and then we move on. I like to think about a song for months on end, think about what I can do with it, because chord progression and a drum part and a bass line, it's really easy to come up with that kind of stuff. But to really turn it into its own unique little world, it requires a lot of thought, and I guess you just have to wait for that moment.
I take it, then, that Feathers is mainly a studio project?
We've been practicing to play live shows for the past year. We have something now that we actually feel comfortable playing in front of people. We're playing at CMJ, and we're playing a couple of shows here in Miami. It's just been a struggle for us to get it to sound the way we want it to sound, because on record, the things we did in the studio, they weren't songs that we sat down and played together as a group. It's difficult to convey some of the more elaborate ideas we recorded with just three guys. We have a new guy, a guitarist, and it's sounding a lot fuller.
I went back and listened to Absolute Noon, and the music you were writing then has a mellower groove, whereas on Synchromy, the music has more rhythmic elements, almost to the extent of being "dance" music.
I think the idea with the first EP…my tendency towards making music is...I don't want to say "aggressive," but it's really easy for a band to do the "cool" thing, distorted guitars, and just do something that's kind of expected. We wanted to do something that went against our nature, to make a really positive sounding, happy record. That's what that one was. The second EP is more in line with the way we think about music and our natural tendencies about music. The first was kind of an exercise of doing the opposite of what we do, just to see if we could do it, you know? (Laughs) I was unhappy with the way it came out. I just don't think that sort of idea translates to the audience when it is released. Because when a record's released, it is what it is, and nobody knows what you were thinking about when you did it. It's hard to articulate what you were thinking during conception and recording. It still is for me. It was like an elaborate inside joke, that EP. "Let's make a really happing sounding record without guitars! Instead of a guitar, let's use an electric sitar!" Synchromy, the new EP, is definitely in line with who we are and our ideas of what we think our music should sound like.
It has a more aggressive nature to it, even if it's not "aggressive." When I think aggression, I think "in your face," but the EP has a loud, pulsating, impossible-to-ignore beat.
The songs have a unified feel, but there are so many disparate elements within them that it gives a bit of an off-balance feeling, but at the same time, we wanted to make them self-contained, so that it made sense in context. There's definitely more juxtaposition there and more aggressiveness than the first EP, and it's a little bit smoother, too.
Have you started working on the third EP yet?
That one's been in the works for a while now. It's kind of driving us crazy, because we have at least 15 songs ideas. We're trying to hone it down to five or six songs, and they're all at different stages of development. What we're trying to do with that EP is blend the aesthetics of the first one with the second one, and that's been a major pain in the ass for us lately.
It sounds like it would be a difficult thing for you to do.
It is. What we're struggling with now is how to arrange parts. They're all there, but where to put the right piece in the right place? That's where we are at right now. But we're making progress. Lately, we've been focusing on playing live and getting that sound development.
When you add the aspect of the live element, then you're adding a third element that's missing from the first two records.
Oh yeah, yeah. It's been easier for us to play songs from the second record, because it's more guitar-based. We're slowly implementing some things from the first record and adding them to our set list. We get together once a week, but sometimes we can't, because of work. But lately we've had some momentum, and we're kind of happy with how things are sounding. Hopefully, we'll see how that turns out.
Do any of you work in music professionally?
I'm a musician and sound designer for an advertising firm. Eric produces radio spots and things like that. Matt works at a fancy children's furniture store
I kind of had the feeling that Feathers was the project of people who like the idea of spending as much time as possible in a studio in order to produce the most perfect song possible.
More than anything, it's our real creative outlet. I don't consider what I do to be an honest creative outlet. I'm told what to do: "make a song that sounds like this. You gotta do it." And that's cool and everything, you know? It's all I know how to do, and I'm actually getting paid to do it. But there's rarely artistic satisfaction in it, because you're doing what someone else wants you to do. If something were to actually happen with Feathers, in terms of us getting noticed or people actually buying our record, that's cool, too. But that's not our main goal. Our main goal is to make the music we want to make.
Feathers' Synchromy is available now on Home Tapes
November 12, 2006
Live Review: Make Believe w/ Ecstatic Sunshine, MVSCLZ and Video Hippos @ Emo’s in Austin, TX (11/7/06)
The results are just as slapdash as one would expect. Songs that showcase the band’s unacknowledged knack for catchy choruses (“A Song About Camping”) are juxtaposed with the band’s most unrestrained moments of bashing and wailing (“Another Song About Camping”). Snippets of synthesizer abuse (“Bisect Duality”) and audio verite (“Florida/Oklahoma 12/05”) are scattered across the record. Even the artwork, which consists of various drawings that Nate did while in jail, reflects the album’s quick gestation.
Despite (or because of) this, each member of the band turns in his most accomplished performance yet. Tim’s singing is stronger, and his lyrics are more lucid; Sam Zurick’s guitar playing is as nimble and freewheeling as ever; Nate continues to play in time signatures that can only be notated by hieroglyphics; and Bobby Burg holds everything together with bass lines of dub-like simplicity.
This evening marked the fourth time I’ve seen Make Believe live. This show bore the unfortunate distinction of being the least attended of the four, mainly because the Rapture --- whose popularity has persisted despite the waning of the disco-punk craze --- was performing on the outside stage of Emo’s at the same time. However, that didn’t stop about 50 people from staying inside to demonstrate their loyalty. (Admittedly, I did sneak a peek at the band to catch their rendition of “House of Jealous Lovers,” which sounded even better now than it did when I saw them play in Houston two years ago.)
Opening act Video Hippos is a Baltimore duo that consists of a singing drummer and a guitarist. They compensated for the absence of a bassist by playing along to synthesized backing tracks. True to their name, they played in front of a projector that displayed random scenes from cartoons and military videos. Their overwhelmingly loud electro-punk songs reminded me of Parts and Labor, but they were neither as tuneful nor as catchy. However, I found it endearing when the drummer ran off stage between songs to give hugs to random members of the audience. I assume that the presence of his middle-aged aunt and uncle in the audience filled him with goodwill.
Second act MVSCLZ (pronounced like “muscles”) is reportedly the alter-ego of Assacre, a local one-man band who is both indescribably funny and shockingly talented. He wore a red bandana, Star Trek glasses, a fake mustache, a torn muscle shirt and rolled-up shorts. He spoke in a fake French accent, frequently admonishing the insufferably staid audience: “Why are you American men so scared to dance? I am a terrorist, and I have come to invade your land with the terror I am singing!” He frquently contorted his voice to match his backing tracks: a soft croon for the lounge ballads; a throaty, stentorian drone for the industrial songs; and a demonic growl for the hair metal epics. He spent long portions of his set making goofy poses and forcing the audience to dance with him. His set was, for better or worse, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Next up was Ecstatic Sunshine, a Baltimore duo whose press sheet succinctly describes their modus operandi as thus: “Two guitars, two humans.” On their debut album Freckle Wars, guitarists Matthew Papich and Dustin Wong cram as many riffs, arpeggios and textures into a three-minute song as it can possibly stand. Freckle Wars sounds like the world’s greatest math-rock record, but with the rhythm section punched out of the mix. Listening to it is a test of patience: how can I ride the buildups and breakdowns of the music without my head trying to fill in the blanks with imaginary bass lines and drum beats?
Conversely, Ecstatic Sunshine’s live show is a revelation: while watching it, I felt no need to fill in the blanks. Papich and Wong strangled their guitars with the glee and abandon of two college students jamming together in a dorm, unconcerned with luxuries like bassists, drummers and audiences...which they probably WERE before Carpark Records came along. Their enthusiasm forced me to shake off my preconceptions. I got lost in the moments when the line between lead and rhythm dissolved, when Papich and Wong’s guitars synergized to form a tower of reverb and fuzz. I danced and head-banged along to the music. The rest of the audience loved them just as much. In the seven years I’ve been regularly attending concerts, I’ve only seen an audience demand an encore from an opening act thrice. Ecstatic Sunshine sated our demand with a two-minute volley of noise that sounded like a flock of wild geese.
Despite the 14-hour drive from Santa Fe that Make Believe endured to get to the show, only Tim showed any visible signs of fatigue. He didn’t do as much stretching or as many fake yoga poses as he normally does, and he coughed and sneezed a lot between songs. The first words he said to the audience were: “It’s difficult for me to project because I have a lot of snot built up in my skull.” He then spoke briefly about the long drive, and asked the audience if they had anything more interesting to talk about. A man in the back shouted, “Dems won the House!,” which didn’t prompt a response from anyone.
Later on in the set, a particularly excited (and, of course, drunk) audience member grabbed Tim’s mic stand in order to maintain his equilibrium. This accidentally caused the microphone to hit Tim upside the head. Tim then snatched the microphone from the stand so furiously that the stand broke in half. Once the song ended, he gently admonished the guy (“I know you’re excited, but that really hurt!”). Tim spent the rest of the set standing closer to Nate’s drum kit to avoid further altercations.
The band focused on Of Course material and lesser-known songs from their previous releases (“Television Cemetary,” “Abracadabra – Thumbs!”). Aside from Nate breaking two drumsticks in one song and Bobby’s bass going out of tune in another, this was the best Make Believe show I’ve seen, from a purely technical standpoint. Although Tim’s lack of energy was disappointing, this wasn’t an off night for the band by ANY means.
November 10, 2006
What's more impressive about the music of Annuals? That their music is so big and expansive and lush and pretty and complex, or that the band is incredibly, incredibly young? Of course, it doesn't hurt them any that they are extremely talented, and that their debut album is one of this year's true pop treats. But like many young bands, Annuals have been subjected to comparisons with other bands, bands they don't necessarily sound like. What's that like? We had a nice little conversation with bass player Mike Robinson about this and other issues. It's a fascinating look at a talented young band. You read about 'em here…well, not first, but most certainly best!
Tell me a little bit about how you guys got together.
It goes back about seven years. Myself, Adam, the front man, and Kenny, the guitar player, we've been playing music together since we were thirteen or so, and it's always been the three of us. We started out playing pop-punk and little kid music, basically. We stayed together through high school. Zack came on then. We were originally playing under the moniker Sedona--and it still exists, but it's more like a studio project than anything else at this point--but we were all involved in that. Annuals was kind of Adam's thing while we were all doing Sedona. Adam was the drummer in that band. Drums are not exactly an expressive instrument by any means, so he just started writing his own stuff, and it just really caught on. His stuff was way poppier. The Sedona stuff was much more of a technically-based type of thing, and while everybody agreed that the music was good, it just never caught on like we wanted it to. So, you know, we've been together for, like, forever, and Zach joined about three years ago. Anna, the keyboard player, she is Zack's girlfriend, and Nick, the drummer, is an old friend of Zack's. So basically when Zack joined, he brought the rest of the band with him! (Laughs) It's just what we've done, like, in all of high school, we just played music and didn't pay much attention or mind to anything else, for better or worse.
It seems like you guys are getting a lot of attention. How did this come about for such a young, unknown band? Were you playing out a lot?
Yeah, we've been playing locally forever, and then, just by total chance of luck, we were actually on a self-booked tour last summer, a really scrappy situation, where it seemed like every show was impossibly far away from the next, but we took everything we could get, really. But then we got a phone call just as we were leaving Naples, Florida, and it was JC at Ace Fu. Apparently, they'd found us online at Pure Volume, and it really all just fell out of the sky and into our laps. At the same time, it couldn't have come at a better time. We'd been playing together all through high school, and we were ready to hit that crossroads where we were about to get out of school and try to figure out what we were going to do with life, and then they got in touch with us at the most perfect time, and it just got the ball rolling. Since then, other random people have taken interest, and fortunately there's been a lot of good response from a lot of people in the industry, and from there it cumulated and now it's spilling over into blogs. It's really surreal, to be honest with you. We've been on the local band level for so long, and all of a sudden, it's happened. But in a way, it seems like it's taken forever.
It seems like you were not necessarily seeking out all of this attention. I saw Pitchfork and Spin and was impressed by that.
Yeah, and stuff like that, I don't even know where it's coming from, you know? It's just been popping out. I don't even really understand it.
I've seen a lot of comparisons to bands that you don't necessarily sound like. Does that worry you?
It doesn't worry us, because to us, it seems like…well, to mention us in the same sentence as Arcade Fire? Initially, we thought, "Well, Arcade Fire, they're a really great band!" We really like them, but they're not an influence to us at all. We've been playing music this way before we even knew who they were. We first started listening to them, like, last summer. It's very flattering, you know? Very flattering, don't get me wrong. But at the same time, these bands don't really go into the formula that we have in place. I definitely attribute our sound much more to names that no one's ever thought of mentioning. Our most direct influences are ones like Mike Patton, Radiohead, Bjork, and Aphex Twin, and other things like that. It's all chased up into what we're trying to do, but it's way poppier than them. It's really cool, being compared to Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene and Animal Collective, that's really cool. And we're really flattered. But at the same time, no, we don't sound like them and we don't want people to think that we do. We don't want people to hold us up in their shadow. Yeah, so it is a little worrisome, but it's also very flattering.
My take on it is this: from a band like Arcade Fire springs up a hundred bands who want to be Arcade Fire. But only one band is good enough to actually be Arcade Fire. So when I saw the comparisons I was a little concerned, but when I heard the album, I didn't think you sounded like a lot of the bands you were being compared to, and I just wondered where these people were getting such ideas.
Yeah, I guess with Arcade Fire in particular, I think the initial reason why they keep coming up is the way our songs are, they're somewhat similar to theirs, because we try to make it where our songs move around and reach a certain climatic moment where things then kind of explode. We're into that. We're into songs that have a momentum built into them, and Arcade Fire is masterful at that. At the same time, that's also why I worry, because we don't want people to listen to us and then hate us for every reason we don't sound like Arcade Fire. I dunno, it's kind of a weird double-edged sword.
It's cool to be up there on that level, but at the same time, you don't want people thinking that you're merely copying or trying to be something that you are not.
Exactly! We just strive so much to hammer out a unique sound, and I think we've done a decent job, hopefully. It is a little disheartening, I guess, but it's going to happen anyway. To be compared to somebody, that's just the way it is. At least we're being compared to these really great bands. It could be a lot worse. We're appreciative, but at the same time, there is a little bit of trepidation.
I don't really hear one influence, but I hear vibes of sounds, like one moment I'll hear a Sixties vibe, then a more modern vibe in the next song.
Yeah, we kind of try to have each song touch different areas. We listen to everything. Even Brad Paisley, we've been listening to him a lot, just because we never knew about him and we discovered he's an incredible guitar player. We try to bring it all in.
The information I have on you makes it look like Adam's the mastermind, but I don't really get that sense from talking to you.
Adam writes the songs, and he plays damn near every instrument that appears on the record and he records it as well. But Kenny, our guitar player, he's incredible, and he adds a lot into the sound as well. I'll then come in and work on bass parts--it's really a very collective approach, but at the same time, Adam is definitely holding the reins, yet is definitely a group effort and the record wouldn't sound the way it sounds if there wasn't a group effort going into it. Kenny, in particular, he's the highest talent in the band, by far. It's just insane, the technical, complex things you'll hear on Be He Me, and it's thanks to Kenny. He's just incredible at music. And Adam? He's a savant producer, honestly. Me and Adam, we took audio classes in high school, and it was really weird. It was kind of a bullshit class, honestly; like, football players took it and a football coach taught it, but at the same time, we had access to ProTools. We'd skip class and hide out, recording. We had a really great friend who helped us purchase our own recording equipment after high school. Just being on ProTools all the time, Adam has developed an insane sense of recording and producing. You'll hear all kinds of little tricks on the album, and that's all Adam, just going insane. He's got this uncanny ability; he can stay in one place and work on one thing for, like, twenty hours. And he does, all the time. You can really hear it. It's very meticulous, a total OCD approach.
When you perform, how difficult is it for you to reconcile the obvious differences from the studio recording?
We strive harder than anything else we do to make everything sound as much like the record as we can live, but there's a little bit of a twist live. A lot of people say they like us better live than the recording, just because live is much more of a rock and roll experience. It's much grittier and much more energetic and there's a lot of movement, and we try to be as entertaining as we can. We try really hard to make a live show as much like the record as it can be, and I think we do a pretty good job. We've never gotten bad feedback, except for the people who caught us at South by Southwest earlier this year, who caught us in probably one of our worst performances ever! (Laughs)
South by Southwest is sometimes a difficult place to have a good show.
Yeah, that's what we'd been told. We were real bummed out, because we'd never done anything like that before, and we still are a relatively young band, and we hadn't played out of state a whole lot, though we have a small amount. We were really looking forward to it, and then, it ended up being what it was…When we got there, it seemed to me that everybody knew it'd suck except for us, and then we found ourselves on this tiny stage at what I would assume was a jazz club. Basically the stage was able to fit the two drum sets we have when we play live. Everyone else spilled off of it. We couldn't hear each other at all, and it was a really horrible experience. (Laugh) We're definitely a "club" band. If we're on a stage that we can all fit on, we usually do extremely well. But often we do have to struggle to try and overcome from smaller places. Hopefully, we're about to graduate from such places, maybe to a medium venue class with stages that make sense. But we are a big band. The reason we have a lot of stuff -- an annoying amount of stuff, actually-- is because we really are striving to make it sound like the record. Every time we show up to a club, the sound guys are always like, "Oh, my god!' (laughs) We really are, admittedly, a production nightmare. We do what we can, but it's kind of tough.
I did an interview with the band Evangelicals. Their first record was mainly the work of the band's mastermind, recording it by himself, and he didn't really bring in the aspect of the live stage to his recordings, so when they play live, it's nothing like the record.
When people see us live, I think that's when people really get the sense that anything they've read about the band being led by Adam…there's a really wide range of personality in the band, and when people see us live, it really sticks out. I think people put it together, like, "wow, this is really a band," because there's all of us onstage, and it all holds up, and it's not just Adam.
Since the live element of performance is starting to come into play a lot more now, do you think the writing you're doing now reflects that and the limitations that the live element presents?
Honestly, I don't think it's really going to change what we're going to do all that much. There have definitely been many moments during recording, where somebody does something, then we delete it instantly, because we think, "There's no way we could do it live, no matter how cool it might sound." So we do stop ourselves whenever things get to be a little too much, but a lot of the crazy effects and noises like that, we tend to figure out something. On some of the songs, like "Ida, My," since we can't do a total Aphex-wannabe beat live, that part is turned into an overwhelming rock part, and the energy is still insane, and it's a lot of fun to play it that way. So we find a way--I've heard it said that we "rock" live a lot more than you'd expect. That's because we've always been in rock bands, so that element is there.
Plus, I think it's healthy for a band that is performing live not to completely reproduce the studio recording. Obviously, retaining the same elements to the song is important, but changing it up a little bit.
When we do play live, it's very much a whole different element. If you've heard the record, you're going to be entertained, but it is a whole other thing. Even if only minute things change in comparison to the album version, the songs are in their own element. It's its own thing.
Annuals' debut album, Be He Me, is available now on Ace Fu
November 09, 2006
Champaign's Headlights formed out of the ashes of another great Champaign band, Absinthe Blind. Both bands specialized in pretty music, but Headlights' sound is definitely much poppier. From the gorgeous vocals of Erin Fain to the wonderful arrangements by Tristan Wraight and Brett Sanderson, the music found on Headlights' debut album, Kill Them With Kindness is overall a wonderful listening experience; the music doesn't overwhelm your ears as much as it opens and folds and reveals itsself in an amazingly kaleidoscopic manner. It's a cinematic record that will leave you wanting more. The band is also a nonstop touring machine, too; they spent nearly two years on the road supporting a limited edition 4-song EP before they got around to releasing an album. Here, Tristan Wraight tells us a little bit about the band's formation, their motivation, and their plans. (We also had a brief conversation with Ms. Fein, but the tape unknowingly ran out midway!)
How's the touring going?
It's great! We're having a good time. We're out with Decibully, another Polyvinyl band.
Tell me a little bit about how Headlights formed.
We all went to school and played in bands together around Champaign-Urbana. Erin and I played together in bands for years, and Brett played in a few bands with me, and ultimately we realized we were definitely interested in making music together as a full-time thing. Most people aren't into that, because it means a lot of sacrifice. You don't get the normalcy of life, or a good job, or a relationship, or whatever it may be. Over the years, we got whittled down to three, and it's really cool, because it's made things very efficient, and we can work hard and be focus. Basically, it's all about us being able to go on the road together and play shows.
Were you also in Absinthe Blind? (Confirms) I loved that band. Absinthe Blind spent a lot of time working and recording in the studio and not a lot of time on the road, but Headlights is the polar opposite, spending months on the road with very little in the amount of recorded work. Is this a reaction to the way things were with Absinthe Blind?
Yeah, it is, kind of. We learned a lot of lessons in Absinthe Blind—a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. Primarily, we learned that anyone can sit around and make a really good record. You can even fake it and make a pretty good sounding record. But to actually make any progress as a band, you have to go out there and play your music for as many people as you can. A lot of people function under this terrible misconception that you can just sit, make seemingly great songs, then if you wait for whatever to come along, then it will come to you, and it just doesn't work that way. I suppose it might work every once in a while under really weird circumstances, but we aren't the kind of people to sit around and wait for something good to happen. We are going to try and make it happen for ourselves. I think we learned that in Absinthe Blind, because it was…it was a band we loved and cared about, but we didn't have any clue how to work and progress. We learned that in order to rely on being a musician, you actually have to be a musician! (Laughs) You have to be out on the road, playing your music.
So did you make a decision to say, "Hey, let's write some songs, tour them for six months or a year, and then record them?"
Yeah, that was very much the conscious decision we made. We have a goal to tour as much as our bodies can handle.
There are elements of your music that remind me of Absinthe Blind, and that's natural, considering the songwriting source. Yet there's a rougher element, one that Absinthe Blind definitely lacked. As you said earlier about avoiding getting caught up in studio work, after spending all this time on the road, by the time you recorded these songs, were the recordings basically live recordings?
Yeah, a lot of it was. Then we'd think about it and add or take away things. Erin and I were both primary songwriters in Absinthe Blind, so I'm sure that a lot of musical flavors have carried over into Headlights. We wanted to have a more direct approach to songwriting and simply making good pop songs. We love layers and atmospheres, so we wanted to throw all of that into the mixing pot and come up with some relatively focused music. I think we achieved what we wanted, but you can never be sure.
You have to set those things aside and not worry about it.
Yeah, definitely, you have to follow your gut instincts.
So are you a lot happier with Headlights than with any of your other bands?
Yeah, very much so. We're all in a really good place with life, both personally and professionally.
Well, we have CMJ coming up in the fall, and as always we have a lot of touring on our schedule. We're planning to make it over to Europe for a while. We did almost 200 shows just on a four-song EP, so…we'll probably be on the road for a while for the new record! (Laughs) We'll try to give it as much of a chance as we can. We all have pretty low expectations and a lot of optimism, too.
Since you spend so much time on the road, do you do most of your writing on the road? Do you carry a recording board to capture ideas, and then build from that?
When you're on the road, you're always in a state of movement, and as such, a lot of ideas happen, but they just kind of go into your subconscious and float around in there for a while. You go out on the road for a while and when you stop, you'll discover that you have this backlog of ideas. If you're lucky, you can have a creative explosion of ideas when you get off the road. This summer, we took it off, and we wrote a bunch of songs that had been swirling around for some time, and we tried a bunch of different ideas. It's kind of hard to do that when you're on the road, other than when you're in the odd hotel room or if you have an afternoon off.
When will we see some of these new songs?
We're doing a split with Metal Hearts on Suicide Squeeze. They're some of our best friends. We did a tour with them this past spring, and we really love them. That should be out in either January or February, so we're excited about that.
It's nice to hear of a band that's having fun out on the road.
Yeah, man. Life is good; we're with some of our best friends, and we're chugging away, doing what we love to do. We're lucky people.
November 08, 2006
Keris Howard might not be a name that you are familiar with, but don't let that stop you from investigating his music. He was the leader of the beloved Sarah Records band Brighter, and later formed Harper Lee, as well as serving as a member of Bob Wratten's Trembling Blue Stars. Earlier this year, Harper Lee released a wonderful EP, He Holds A Flame, which appears to be the band's farewell release. But longtime label Matinee has also released a second Brighter collection, entitled Out to Sea, and it, too, is wonderful. It was nice to have him sit down and tell him a little bit about his past, his present, and his future.
What brought Brighter together, and what broke it apart?
Brighter was basically just me for our first two singles. I'd sent a very rough demo to Sarah in late 1988 after falling in love with the first Sea Urchins and Another Sunny Day singles, and much to my shock, they wrote back and asked me to do a 7" EP. The "band" came about when people started suggesting we played live, so i grabbed the two people closest to me, my girlfriend Alison and my best mate Alex, and asked them to join. From then on we recorded and gigged as a three-piece.
I think it's fair to say we were never given the artistic freedom on the label that bigger hitters like the Field Mice and Heavenly were afforded. This was never really a great problem as i was never that confident a song writer and getting Sarah's (ie Matt & Clare's) thumbs up before we were able to take the songs into the studio was in some ways reassuring. Unfortunately it set us on a bit of a collision course. By 1992 it seemed that the label was finding it harder and harder to find songs of ours that they wanted to put out and i was starting to take it personally! It took quite lengthy negotiations to agree a tracklisting for what was to be our final EP and in honesty, i think we recognized as we went into the studio that this was likely to be the last thing we did on the label. Despite al ot of people telling me now how they loved it, when we released the "Disney" EP it had a bit of a mixed reception. Ironically, it was the first recording we'd made without the presence of both Matt & Clare in the studio and without their mediating influence, the three of us all tried to pull the band's sound in different directions. Against this background we then did an ill-fated tour of the UK with Blueboy, a tour which prompted me to realize that what ever small success we'd had, it wasn't enough to pull an audience on a wet and windy night in Hull during University reading week! Alex decided to leave the band shortly after, and after a brief dalliance with recruiting a new bassist, Alison and I decided to bring the band to an end.
In recent years, you've worked with Bob Wratten. Was he an influence for you in Brighter?
I think Bobby's actually been more of an influence on my post-Brighter song-writing as most of the songs that made up our first couple of singles and the “Laurel” LP had already been written prior to me hearing "Emma's House".
Do you feel a tinge of romantic longing for those heady Sarah Records days?
I do, but then Alison or Alex reminds me that I spent most of the time moaning and complaining. As with much in life, you don't tend to appreciate things till you lose them. Saying that, the great thing about those days was that the “club” we were part of was such an egalitarian one. I think the whole fan/band relationship was pretty blurred. The idea of “fans” being in some kind of passive relationship just wasn't there. So many of the people who'd come to our gigs were writing their own fanzines, or in bands themselves or setting up labels. If there is some romantic longing it's probably for that feeling of being part of something special, mixing with people you confidently knew shared your values and politics, people who really believed they could make a difference and that what they were doing wasn't just about music, but about effecting a change over life in general.
Does it surprise you that many of those bands (Field Mice, Aberdeen, Secret Shine, Orchids, for instance) are finding renewed interest 15-20 years later?
Not at all. I think the back catalogue of bands like the Field Mice and Orchids will sound great whatever decade you happen to be listening to it in. The only possible shame is that although people are rediscovering the label's bands, there doesn't seem to be much rediscovery of the label's politics and ethics. It'd be great to think that the label's legacy isn't only a new wave of bands inspired by the “Sarah sound”, but also maybe a new wave of labels that wear their politics as proudly and doggedly as Matt and Clare did.
What do you consider to be the highlight of Brighter's brief existence?
“Laurel” was the first release to really get picked up by the music press, and to give us that brief feeling of giddiness that comes with suddenly getting good reviews in the Melody Maker and NME. For a month or two we really started to believe we might be going somewhere, and that we might be able to really define ourselves as a proper band. Unfortunately, that was to be as good as it got.
Let's talk a moment about Harper Lee. Were you surprised by the attention paid to the song "He Holds a Flame?" Does such attention inspire you or motivate you to write?
When I'd written our last LP, All Things Can Be Mended, it'd been in my mind that it would probably be the last thing we'd do (you only need to listen to the last track, “There's a light in me that's gone” to hear the sound of a man laying down 'calling it a day' metaphors with a trowel). 18 months on from that I wrote some songs which actually made me think it might be worth one final throw of the dice so we released the EP and thankfully, it received a pretty decent reception. Oddly, the result of this was to make me think even more strongly than I did after the last LP that this is the perfect time to bring the band to an end. Best to go out on a high, I guess.
Is Harper Lee an ongoing project, or do you consider it more of a hobby that occasionally releases records?
I've never liked the idea of the band as a hobby as that suggests to me something quite self-indulgent. It's always been important for our music to reach an audience and connect with people in some small way, so i guess it's a bit more outward looking than the word “hobby” suggests. To describe it as “an ongoing project” would probably have been more accurate, especially as both myself and Laura have been involved with other bands during the last 7 years (Laura with Kicker and me with Trembling Blue Stars). However, the word “ongoing” probably no longer fits; as intimated before, I think the last EP will prove to have been our final release.
What are you working on next?
Over the last twelve months, I've been working with Andrew Montgomery (once lead singer in the band Geneva) and Dick Preece from Lovejoy on a new “project” called St Famous. It's giving me the opportunity to give free reign to the OMD/New Order influences which have occasionally popped up during my previous incarnations. Additionally, over the summer I was doing bass duties on the new Trembling Blue Stars LP, The Last Holy Writer. I think that should be out early next year and trust me, it's utterly wonderful.
Harper Lee's final release, He Holds A Flame EP and Brighter's latest compilation, Out to Sea, are both available now on Matinee Recordings
November 07, 2006
I have to admit to an instant love of Westbound Train's third album, Transitions. On first listen, I was immediately reminded of the classic English Beat, which, as you will read below, is understandable. Their record is more than a mere imitation, though; it's a pleasing, hard-to-dislike record that's mature and mellow and, ultimately, was one of this year's best releases. And I have to hand it to lead singer Obi Fernandez; he is an excellent singer. I also have to give him some credit for talking to me when he did. After a month and a half of missing connections with him, when I finally did get a hold of him, he was suffering from laryngitis, and he sounded terrible. If the interview below seems a little stiff, please forgive him; he was kind enough to speak to me, and what he had to say was quite interesting. I thank him for sacrificing his voice a little bit just to talk to me. Go check out their record; I doubt you'll be disappointed.
Transitions was the first time I had heard Westbound Train, and when I did, my very first reaction was, "Wow, these guys remind me of English Beat!" Then, when I looked at your Myspace page, I thought, "I'll be darned, they're actually touring with English Beat!" How was it, touring with them?
(Laughs) Touring with them, I can honestly say that it was the most fun tour I have ever been on so far, and for many reasons. A: Being on tour with English Beat. B. Not just touring with Dave Wakeling, but also The Specials' Lynval Golding and Selecter's Pauline Black. Just being on tour with your heroes, people who influenced you, it really couldn't get any better. Every day was really incredible, just getting to share the stage with them.
Considering the major influence they have on your music, I'd imagine playing with Dave Wakeling was like a dream come true. Did he give you any advice or life lessons from his years of experience?
Oh yeah, he taught us a lot of things. He showed us his styles; he talked about going out every night and doing our jobs. He talked a lot about going out and making things happen for ourselves, not to depend on other people, and that if you want something, then you should just go out and get it done.
When I think of ska, I'm usually reminded of the ska-punk trend of the mid-to-late 1990s, which was really youth-oriented. But your sound is much more mature. Do you find that your audience is older, or are ska audiences a bit older now?
I think that when we play shows on our own, we'll see an older crowd. But we've been playing a lot of package tours and playing to an audience that's a lot younger. I think it just depends on where we are playing and what's going on.
On Transitions I noticed that almost every song starts with an apology or a defense or some form of contrition. Even the title, Transitions, reflects change. Was this a really personal record for you to write?
Yeah, it was a deeply personal record for us to write. Transitions, I think, was possibly the most descriptive title for not just myself, but for the rest of the band as well. We went from being a band that only toured a little bit, with all of us trying to finish up our educations first to being a band that was on the road a little bit more, and then suddenly we were a band that was on the road full time. A lot of stuff happens to you when you make that jump in commitment to the road. Not just in my personal life, but in everyone's personal lives. The cool thing about Westbound is that we're all really, really close; we're all really good friends, and we have a big family vibe, and we have a connection. With Transitions, I had a lot of songs that detailed these feelings, and I just tried to write about what was going on.
I went back and checked out some of your older material, and while it's good, it didn't quite have the same vibe as Transitions. Do you personally see this album as a major growth in your songwriting?
Oh yeah, yeah. With Transitions, we had more time to work on it, but like I said, in the time surrounding Transitions, my life was totally different. Here I am, I'm seeing the world a whole lot more. My mind opened up, my ears opened up, my eyes opened up. All of these people in the band, it's affecting their worlds in different ways, too. It's like a different world for us, and now it's like I have a hold on a world I didn't have before. It's like I kind of have the world at my fingertips, and at the same time, I'm totally immersed in it. The only thing to do is to write about it, you know? But definitely, yeah, there was a big jump in the songwriting. Our first record, Searching for a Melody, we were just learning our style, and I was just learning my style. It was taking a risk, but we were just learning how write songs. For Five to Two, I was dealing with more introspective things than before, but I didn't allow myself to be fully honest with my songwriting, and I think it shows. There are still some pretty good songs on that one, though. Transitions, though, I think it blows those other two away, not just musically, but I think it's also more autobiographical and more honest, too.
I really respect artists who are willing to mature their sound as their audience matures, instead of treading the styles of their earlier recordings.
Yeah, that was a goal for us for this record, and it's one for our future recordings. For Transitions, there were a few songs that I had that didn't get brought to the recording table, and the others have songs, too. So in a way we are really looking forward to recording our next record, because I think it'll sound real cool.
I take it your main objective and priority now is lots of touring?
Touring...we're going to be touring until we're blue in the face. We've got the Reel Big Fish tour that we're doing now, and then we're going to take a little time off in December, so we can kind of screw our heads back on. Then we're going to do a headlining tour on our own, a short, short run of shows, and then we're going back to Europe with Reel Big Fish, and then we're coming back home with high confidence!
Westbound Train's latest record, Transitions, is out now on Hellcat Records
November 06, 2006
Graham Lindsey's music is haunting and beautiful. It's steeped in the traditions of Country, Folk, and Americana, but he never really sounds like either one. Instead, there's a quality of his music that feels almost funereal, as if it's the voice of the past coming back to remind you of your ultimate destiny. It's hard not to be affected by his songs, and from the first moment you experience him, you'll definitely be transfixed. I know I was. He just recently released his second album, Hell Under the Skullbones, which was an impressively maturation of the sounds he delivered on his debut album. For our talk, we got him to talk a little about his past, and a little bit about the making of music. It's an enjoyable read, and it's one I certainly do enjoy.
I know about your previous past as the precocious drummer for preteen punks Old Skull, and then you released your solo debut in 2003, but what were you doing in between? Were you making music on a regular basis?
Not really on a regular basis. I was a member of Old Skull for two years. I quit them in 1992, I believe. So between then, during those eleven years, I was playing in punk rock and emo bands here and there, playing my guitar, songwriting a little bit. Around 1995, I started to do my first real stand-out shows, with acoustic guitars, bass, more punk rock stuff with me solo. I did that for a few years, but then I just stopped. Between 1997 and 2001, when most of the stuff on Famous Anonymous Wilderness was written, I was just by myself.
I know you have a punk background, but was there a moment that made you decide "I want to do something different musically," or was it a gradual change?
Yeah, in stages. In stage after stage and level after level, a lot of musicians go through that sort of thing. I was really, really young at the time I was going through that, and I wanted to hear something different, and I wanted to do something different, and I thought that I could do it. So I think it was just a gradual build, to the point where I dropped electric guitar for acoustic guitar.
What prompted you to release a solo album?
I guest just writing the songs I had written. I had about seventy or eighty songs written between a two year period. I narrowed it down from those songs I had to the eleven that were on the debut. I guess I didn't have anything else to do with 'em, but I just didn't want to sit on 'em, either. I felt I had to get 'em out after having them around for a few years.
So you decided to take that plunge.
Yeah—kind of like vomiting! (Laughs)
During the time you were writing the songs that became your debut, were you playing out live?
Here and there. During the formative period, during those years where I was screwing around, I'd write two-bit songs on acoustic guitar, just kind of feeling it out, getting my bearings. I was playing live quite a lot. Then I wound up moving down to New Orleans, then after that to Brooklyn, then Nebraska—pretty much all one right after the other. I guess I gained a lot of material for the later songwriting I was doing in 2001 to 2003, just from all the experiences I was having. So I wasn't really playing live all that much. Oh, I'd do a few shows here and there, playing for twenty people, most of which were friends of mine, that kind of thing. But at that point I wasn't interested in the whole economic monster that is this business. I just wanted to get my songs out there. I feel now it is important for an artist to keep that monster at bay, and to realize that you are a songwriter for the song's sake, not for the money or the comfort.
I also noticed that the songs on the new record are a bit more arranged, and there's a band, whereas the debut was just you with a guitar.
There were some songs with a bit of additional instrumentation on the first album, but I deliberately wanted to keep that paired down, due to the background of the writing of the songs. I don't want to say I had a strict vision for what I wanted to do on that first album, but I know what I wanted and what I didn't want with this latest album. Me and Steve Deutsch, my engineer and producer, we were much looser with our ideas; we thought, "Wherever these songs take us, let's follow it, and let's not have such a deliberate tension on the songs." Whether the finished songs are "better" or not isn't up to us; these songs are what they are. I didn't want to replicate Famous Anonymous Wilderness note for note, either. There's a tendency for artists to piggyback on past successes, and they wind up putting out the same album time and time and time again. That's boring.
How did you meet up with Morris Tepper and Van Dyke Parks?
That was pretty much courtesy of Steve, who's been situated centrally in LA for a long time, and he's worked with a lot of musicians throughout his career. He either had personal relationships with them, or he knew a guy who knew them. WE went through with someone who was a little out of reach, and then someone else. A name would pop into our heads, and I'd say, "well, you know, Morris Tepper would sound great on this song, with the pattern this song has, let's see if we can get ahold of him," and, sure enough, we did! It all pretty much came together that way.
I'm sure you were impressed, working with these two legends. Were there any things you took away from working with them, in terms of musical ideas?
They brought something I wasn't deliberately looking for. But it was very exciting hearing them, you know? Especially with Van Dyke Parks—he brought something much more musical to the song, more ideas than I had originally heard. Ultimately, working with them, it helped my songs, it was a whole "What if?" scenario that really worked out.
One thing I've always been struck by is the arrangements. They're very nice, and they're kept very simple and basic. When I was visiting your Myspace site, I listened to a few of the live tracks you have posted, and basically I could tell no real difference between the live and the studio tracks, because of the stripped-down nature of your songs. Is that part of the reason you tend to write more minimalistic arrangements?
Yeah, exactly! I like to, when I write…when an artist is on a record, it's different from an artist live. I know that I'm – I don't want to say that I'm let down, but I'm definitely not interested when an artist, during a live performance, is replicating every single sound verbatim that is on their record. I think the whole idea of music should transcend the musical exercise. As far as minimalism, this latest album, it's not as minimal; it's more arranged, and it has more layers and textures. But when I perform solo, I try to fill it all in. I don't want to be the pussyfoot folk singer up there. I try to fill in that space that's natural with solo performers, there's a ferocity that's.. (inaudible) But I do like the minimalist approach, and with me, that's what music's been about all the time, when I'm sittin' on the porch, or strumming on a guitar, that's the tendency about how I make music. I don't want to be puritanical about it, though. (Laughs)
Considering you come from that punk background, with what you do, the quiet but powerful emotional nature is equal to the emotional rush of what punk is about.
I've spent 15 years annihilating my ears, listening to punk rock. I still do it! (Laughing) But the real primitive punk rock, the three-chord, bam-bam-boom-boom chords of punk rock, it's three or four instruments playing, and to me it's arguably comparable to one big acoustic guitar. I think of what punk rock has gone through now, but also to me as an artist playing acoustic guitar, the loud and big sounds can't quite compare if you're really focused on one little guitar.
To me, it's not how loud or insane you can play, but it's how you can bring yourself across lyrically as well. I think if punk rock is partially emotional, if you see people going batshit insane on the dance floor, I think you can get the same kind of mental emotion by having your lyrics up front and having what you say be the focus.
Absolutely. It's ripping the song out of the artist, then ripping the artist completely out of the song, and then letting the listener carry it on. To me, that's what makes sense. The music that's affected me most in my life has done that. I think it works across the board, no matter what genre of music you like.
One final question: how does it feel—and I don't make this comparison because I think it's clichéd…
I think you know what's coming next… (Laughter)
Of course I do! (Laughs)
How does it feel to be compared to Bob Dylan? Everybody I have played your music to says, "this guy sounds just like Bob Dylan!" I know on some levels you have to ignore that element—I know I do, because I don't think, "oh, this guy is trying to sound like Dylan," because it's just the way you sound when you sing.
Right, well, good for you! (Laughs) But going back to punk rock for a little bit—during the heyday of indie-rock ten years ago, you'd go to a show and you'd hear of a band that was coming through. If you'd never heard of 'em, you'd ask people what they sound like, and people would say, "oh, they sound just like Fugazi," because at that point Fugazi was one of the big bands, and there were people trying to emulate Fugazi's style or what have you. That comparison didn't mean shit to me. It didn't tell me anything. I think it's laziness. It's irresponsible and it's dangerous for any artist to deliberately go about trying to sound just like another artist. It truly is dangerous and not responsible for a music lover or a critic to indulge in the tendency to equate an artist with another, and that's as far as they go, with nothing more than a few seconds to determine or go further into a band than just a few notes into a song. It's like saying, "what's the sky like?" "Oh, it's black" without mentioning the stars. It tells you nothing. You miss the point of what the sky is about.
So, what's next?
Next, I'm going to be touring in the Netherlands and Europe this December, and after that hopefully a tour of the US, or at least a West Coast tour, and writing the third album, of course.
No plans for an Old Skull reunion in there?
Uhh, I hope not! (Laughter)
Graham Lindsey's latest album, Hell Under the Skullbones, is available now on Spacebar Recordings