A Conversation with Duncan Sheik
Mike Ragogna: Duncan, your new song "Selling Out" is a preview of your upcoming album, Legerdemain, with another track, "Half A Room" already having premiered. First off, what was the mission with Legerdemain?
Duncan Sheik: I began writing the songs for this record in 2010 and, at that point, there was definitely no specific sense of mission beyond writing songs that were NOT attached to a larger narrative or story as most of my theatre composition obviously had to be. Over the course of the five years I worked on Legerdemain there ended up being two different--almost opposite--sets of songs that accrued. One set was clearly influenced by the aesthetics of various kinds of electronic and, dare I say it, dance music coming out of the UK and Europe and the other set were much more quiet and internal and used mostly, though not entirely, acoustic instruments. I began to think of the record as a battery: one side has a positive charge and the other a negative charge but you need both for the thing to work as a whole.
MR: NPR says the songs from Legerdemain "...feel full-circle." What do you think NPR meant by that and what was the songwriting process like for the album?
DS: My first four records were mostly an odd mix of guitars, drums and string arrangements but in fact there were a fair number of synthesizers tucked away in a lot of that material. "Reasons For Living" was remixed by Junior Vasquez and "On A High" was remixed by Gabriel And Dresden and both were very big club hits and, to me, that was much cooler than having a top 40 hit--all due respect to fans of "Barely Breathing." So in a sense, Legerdemain is the kind of music I wanted to make when I first started but I was too much a--redacted--to actually go there.
MR: "Selling Out" points to a kind of new production approach for you as an artist. Were you going for that or did it evolve naturally?
DS: Well, a funny thing happened on the way to forum, so to speak. In the midst of working on this record I was also writing and recording the American Psycho score all of which was made using analog synths and drum machines and Ableton Live. And I think I just got interested in more aggressive usage of technologies--both old and new--in my writing and recording process. So although Selling Out was written on an acoustic guitar I immediately had a Roland Juno 60 and SH-202 on there and I kind of Deamau5 drum part so that the acoustic guitar became a color in a more electronic context as opposed to the other way around. I had also been listening to a young english band called The Wild Beasts who are influenced by the Blue Nile and Talk Talk and Japan and I love how their use of clean electric guitars with lots of processing--so that sound became another layer. All this to say it was a very deliberate and enjoyably unnatural process!
MR: In "Selling Out," the concept of selling out is addressed from a couple of different angles with your referring to yourself in the end. Do you think it truly applies to you? Maybe in the bigger sense that we all sell out in life regarding certain things?
DS: The song is actually a fairly strong rebuke of a lot of things going on in pop culture but, yes, it's also a snake that bites it's own tail. I had the amazing fortune to be asked to be "artist in residence" at the Clive Davis School of Music at NYU the past two semesters and it was an incredibly eye opening experience. First of all, those kids are shockingly talented, especially as music producers, but I found myself sounding like a broken record when it came to talking about lyrics. The fact is so many pop music lyrics are some banal recitation of what's going to happen at the club tonight or who's going to hook up with whom or, even worse, some fuzzy concept of female empowerment that's really an excuse to wear a cute outfit in a video about nothing. And I'm all for cute outfits and having fun but that's not the ONLY thing there is to sing about. I think a lot of kids in my classes didn't have successful artists as influences that were singing about anything beyond their own navel. I found myself saying, "Can you try to use a metaphor once in a while? Would that kill you?" Now, obviously, there are people like Kanye and Kendrick Lamar who do talk about real important stuff that's happening in the world but when you turn on the radio they seem to be the exception. So the world might end soon in ecological crises and we're dropping drones and bombs all over the Middle East and every day, there's mass murder and mass incarceration in an America that might possibly be run by an asinine oligarch who can't string a sentence together in english, but I'll be over here writing another pop song on my MacBook Pro trying to sell as many records as I can. The painful absurdity of it is not lost on me.
MR: You've won Tonys and a Grammy, you've amassed a batch of successful albums and had Broadway success with the musicals Spring Awakening, Alice In Wonderland, and Noir with a musical adaptation of American Psycho coming next year. Also, you've scored movies like A Home At The End Of The World and Through The Fire, and the movie version of Spring Awakening eventually dropping. What do your thoughts about how your career has developed and how interconnected, at least creatively, are your solo, Broadway and movie works?
DS: You are, literally, too kind. I'm proud of my body of work but the truth is I wake up every morning with a decent amount of anxiety thinking that I didn't do nearly enough good work yesterday and how the hell am I going to be inspired enough today to do the work I'm supposed get done by tomorrow. For a long time, I was kind of disappointed that my work as a recording artist and my work as a theatre composer seemed not to be interconnected at all. After Spring Awakening had it's Broadway run and had productions all over the world I still had people on twitter saying I haven't had a hit since Friends was on TV. Or people in the theatre world asking me if I miss making records and touring as a solo artist. Well, I never stopped! But creatively, working in these different mediums has been terrific--practically life-saving in the sense that I was starting to tire of writing pop songs around 2006 and wonder what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Having my day job as a composer and moonlighting as a recording artist/performer keeps it interesting if, sometimes, a bit much.
photo credit: Shervin Lainez
MR: Your first major hit, "Barely Breathing," became an instant classic. What do you think it was about the song that resonated so strongly? Were you surprised by its impact?
DS: I'm glad people continue to love the song...and, at the risk of contradicting my rant about lyrics above, it was written in response to the very real romantic turmoil I seemed to luxuriate in at that time--so that's probably why it's relatable. It's a song I sing ironically and make fun of when I'm in the kitchen with my girlfriend.
MR: Your album Phantom Moon was a touching nod to Nick Drake. Did recording a project like this take a little toll on you considering the subject matter? Was your collaboration with playwright Steven Sater what set your sights on Broadway?
DS: By the end of 1999, I had finished my second album cycle and that record, Humming, was far less commercially successful than my first. The "authenticity" of the alt rock era of the early and mid nineties was over and the music business took a hard right turn back towards artifice and the more overtly pop sound of Britney, Christina, NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. I indignantly sat in my apartment listing to late Talk Talk, Radiohead, Bjork and Massive Attack and wishing Jeff Buckley was still alive. So the toll had already been taken on me when I started writing those songs with Steven. In some sense, the making of Phantom Moon was my way of stiff arming the rest of the music business while simultaneously getting the need to make self-indulgent art songs out of my system. But that record still sounds good if only because I was stubbornly rigorous about the sonic palette and the fact that no electronic instruments were allowed to make an appearance at all. Simon Hale's string and woodwind arrangements may not necessarily sound "hip" but they will never sound dated.
MR: Do any of your projects change you significantly following the creative and recording processes?
DS: Certainly working on American Psycho forced me to really get back into using synthesizers and electronic music making machines of all kinds and to find ways of using them that were expressive and unique. I needed to find a way to reference the sound of the eighties without being slavish or ersatz. Since then I think I've gotten to a more healthy place where I can pick up a ukulele or a monophonic bass synth without judging them and their historicity and just make music with them.
MR: Do you ever allow yourself to sit back and savor your works, be it an album, musical or movie? Are there any of your works that make you happy the most?
DS: This is an opportunity for a shameless plug for Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening currently on Broadway. Michael Arden and this cast and band are knocking it out of the park. Unless or until you can get tickets to Hamilton, go see this. I watched the first preview last week and I thought, "well, if this is all I'll ever be known for that's totally fine." Then the next morning, the creative anxiety came back...
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
DS: The bands and artists I'm interested in all have a completely unique sound and a unique voice. They take their influences seriously but they refract those influences in new and beautiful ways. It is your oddness and your eccentricity that will endear you to your listeners so if you can find a way of using those traits in an artistically cohesive way then you will win in the long run.
MR: What else are you working on and where is your musical evolution taking you in the future?
DS: I'm finishing up the American Psycho cast album of the UK Almeida production and prepping for the Broadway production that will open this winter. I'm touring with Suzanne Vega most of November and playing Carnegie Hall November 21. Next year, I'll be jumping into the stage adaptation of Secret Life of Bees and an adaptation of the Mazursky film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice among other things I've been working on with Steven Sater that are finally ready to see the light of day.
JAYE BARTELL'S "LILLY" EXCLUSIVE
According to Jaye Bartell...
"I wrote to my great friend Ursula Gullow, a painter who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, to see if she had some video we could align with the song, 'Lilly.' She's not a video artist/filmmaker as such, although she did produce a fantastic local-artist-profile documentary series for a cable access station years ago in Asheville when I lived there too. In any case, she sent along the car wash odyssey and it fit the music--rhythmically and tonally--so well it almost looks like a deliberate score. The images remind me of Harry Smith or Stan Brakhage, and the car wash-aspect gets me every time. I'd be lying if I said there was any direct or intended correlation between the images and the lyrics--but that doesn't mean you can't just make one up! Just think of that Phil Collins video with Ronnie and Nancy Reagan in bed. All intentions and results aside, the video is an easy collaboration with a friend I love."
Darlingside - Birds Say
"I know I'm no doctor but I know you can't live in the past. But the only way to go is to go back..." - from "Go Back"
When the Fleet Foxes and Lord Huron debuts pushed their kind of reverb-folk that many young acoustic or Americana acts have since adopted, it was a refreshing take on the otherwise stagnant, sometimes all too serious genre. The effect's heavy-handed deployment validated Lord Huron's lonesome cowboy and Fleet Foxes' internal dialog adding more gravity to the musical proceedings. Both groups' production values and arrangements were pretty simple, appreciation of the music based simply on how it hit you.
Well, reverberation has been redeployed on Darlingside's ambitious Birds Say, though it's only one of the techniques this versatile quartet utilizes. The big group vocals, embracing sometimes transcendent and always intelligent lyrics, are really what you come for; you stay for the impact these emotional arrangements deliver non-stop. Darlingside is one of the most group vocal-heavy bands since The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel--performed not in a sterile, cookie-cutter Eagles approach but with passion--and its musicianship and choices of instrumentation are impeccable but not snotty.
Co-produced with Dan Cardinal, Birds Say is a sonic gem to be envious of and is one of the great albums released this year. Between its anthemic opener, "The Ancestor," and its so-much-said-in-a few-lines closer, "Good For You," the album is both retro and 2015 folk, unconsciously revisiting what was best about the revered singer-songwriter field during its Golden Age.
Birds Say's first step into Darlingside's universe is the aforementioned, pseudo-apocalyptic "The Ancestor" that's thick with encouragement, not doom and gloom, and the song's key line, "but I will find my way out of the dark someday," might as well be the theme for the album. Truth be told, my being a relatively new father, hearing the song's lyrics, "I'll follow my baby boy, he'll be a silver toy and we'll count the ages as they're ending," were the knockout punch I never saw coming. Actually, that can be said for this whole project, but I'll hold off on my over-the-top fawning until the very end.
So the album marches on with the adolescent, stream-of-consciousness "White Horses," a song that could be a metaphor for this album's journey. It's all Byrds-y vocals until a lone Paul Simon-esque solo line emerges from the blend that gently introduces the album's non-egotistical protagonist. This is done hit-and-run style, I'm guessing, in order to not distract from the ever-growing emphatic group vocal delivery by the end of the piece. These guys are collegiate smarties (see interview below) and it's obvious, though not with the Oxford commas a group like Vampire Weekend occasionally struts. Darlingside understands nuance and sforzando as they explore the unity element of what's being delivered.
Another highlight of Birds Say is their clever nod to Simon & Garfunkel's "Peggy-O," "Water Rose," that introduces the album's best track, "Do You Ever Live." The latter vocally synthesizes The Association and The 5th Dimension with chord changes that sweep the listener through circles of fifths and major to minor to augmented key sections solidly landing on a musical bluff--pun intended--to contemplate the adventure. Speaking of Simon & Garfunkel, "The Only Living Boy In New York"'s best moment--the "here I am" chorus--is emulated in "She's All Around," making it yet another heartfelt highlight of the album. But the real masterpiece is "My Gal, My Guy," its themes of disorientation and immersion swimming amidst reverb-drenched vocals singing lines such as, "I wake up alone, is it today or is it tomorrow?" Using phonics effectively is another of the group's superpowers, and it's all over this cerebral travelog that visits New York City, Tokyo and Amsterdam as well as depths of the soul.
Surprisingly, the So-Cal group America gets a little unintended luv in "Volcano Sky," which might raise an eyebrow or two. But again, what gets amalgamated here are the best elements of the '70s band, the track concluding with a vocally-complicated and flanged "would you" vocal chorus that America would never do, even with George Martin producing. And the Eagles, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and all the Cali country pop heroes could do worse than take a listen to the album's concise epilogue, "Good For You." The song is a lesson in how to conclude an album properly while reminding us why The Byrds still are so revered. Ah, almost forgot... The song "Harrison Ford" references him in such a nonchalant way--as in the dude our protagonist is meeting looks like him and that's it--that it makes all that follows a pleasant head-scratcher revealing more about the band's charmingly nerdy personality than about some big statement. It's nice to have a few of those as well.
I very rarely review albums these days because of all the obnoxious blathering and proselytizing that occurs during the opinion process that I'm as guilty of as my contemporaries, check out the above for evidence. But this group needs a good launch and I hope its label Thirty Tigers understands what they've got here and decides to put most if not all its eggs in this basket. Birds Say was quite a surprise, it not only impressing me with what was achieved but how deeply it touched me. Good luck boys...
A Conversation with Darlingside
Mike Ragogna: Darlingside, the new album is titled Birds Say. So? What do birds say?
Don Mitchell: Well, "Birds Say" is the name of one of the songs on the album, and the song deals with the themes of communication and particular how something that one person might say to another is going to be received in a completely different manner from how it was intended. I think a bird talking to you and you literally having no ability to comprehend the language of what's going on but still being able to extract meaning from it is sort of what a lot of art is about. We thought that was a cool metaphor for what's going on on the album as a whole.
MR: You guys are a literate bunch, you've had much education in English, literature and related humanities. How much does that play into all of your works?
Auyon Mukharji: Everything is done from four directions with us. This applies to both our musical arrangement and lyric writing. And every song is different. One song Harris might bring in the shell of a musical arrangement and then Dave might do a first pass at lyrics, then we'll all get around a workshop it and give feedback and sip coffee and then he'll take it back and rework it and we'll do that process several times. Other times someone might come in with a lyric draft along with the music and we'll workshop that together and it might be a more completed piece. Other times, we might do a creative writing exercise just to generate lyrics, where one person will then take a collection of some nice lines and some utter nonsense and rubbish and combine that into a draft of a song that will then be re-presented to the group. Since we're talking about four different people each of us have our own inspirations for things and there's a lot that we share. One thing that has certainly happened as we have toured as a band for almost six years now is that there's a common vocabulary with all of us. As much as we are shaped by our individual influences we certainly shape each other. There's a Darlingside voice that took us a long time to develop, but as far as individual influences, a book that I read a while ago was The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I just couldn't stop thinking about that book and eventually the inspiration ended up driving a lot of the lyrics for the song "The God Of Loss" which is on the album. That's just one example. The "God Of Loss" song is written from the point of view of one of the characters from the book but we also write a lot of songs from a personal perspective, more like a traditional singer-songwriter storytelling and self-reflection part of that genre. One thing that we definitely take from the literary studies as you put it is the group work shopping of things. A number of us took writing classes when we went to college together, so we take that process into our rehearsal space and that has been a massively fruitful tool for us in writing from four directions, because we all are rather opinionated and occasionally stubborn. Any creative process that involves four equal processes is going to involve some spirited discourse. That framework of taking the tools we've learned in the classroom for writing and work shopping something together is something we certainly apply now as a group.
DM: I think some of the things that I tend to bring in come from creative writing classes for sure. I studied with Jim Shepard a lot in college and his wife Karen was my thesis advisor and they talked a lot about voice and how voice and content interact. Stepping outside of a personal narrative is something that's a lot weirder in songwriting than it is in literature, taking on someone else's voice. I think we kind of alternate between a personal perspective and one that's from the outside. One reason I think we can get away with that is that we're often melding the perspectives of four people to begin with, so there's kind of this hybrid persona that will take shape some times where there will be an element of one guy's childhood with something someone else wrote that's a more abstract, emotional line. When we all get our subconsciouses working together, doing a free-write or something where we're extemporaneously singing lines over a tune that fits what comes out is often going to be in a surrealist mode but that still fits the emotion that's being conveyed in the song. We'll get a hybrid of personal narratives with surreal, poetical things that are happening.
MR: What about the musical blend? Where are you coming from with the vocal and instrumental arrangements?
DM: Given that the four of us met in an a cappella group at Williams, we clearly had some ability with harmonizing together in a group so some of that stuff came from that. We would arrange things to try to get away from everything moving in parallel. We went into Darlingside with that training as far as voice leading and counterpoint stuff, which is a little different from folk groups, which I think typically are doing more parallel shapes where a melody is harmonized with lines that fit the same general arc. I think when people compare us to CSNY or one of those other classic folk groups they're hearing some of the folk harmonies that we get from the things we listen to and love from our parents' generation and some of the folk acts that are out there right now. I think there's something different that we do on some songs where we take some barbershop influences and some classical influences for our vocal arranging from a cappella groups and classical music. Harris and I both grew up doing classical strings, so we kind of treat the voices like instruments where we don't really do vocal things with them. We'll just hold notes for a very long time to accentuate the motion in other parts or to get from one chord to another that's in a different key maybe but if it has just the one common tone we might hold that through.
MR: Is everybody just doubling, tripling, maybe quadrupling their vocals like the Carpenters and Queen?
DM: That varies a lot from song to song. We certainly do double or triple track voices when we're going for that effect, that's a classic CSNY trick from back in the day that we read about. We tried doing that on left, center and right. We would actually not record everything in omni, but we would put a single take of each of us up the center with a slight spread in the panning scheme. Then we would re-record all of it with us standing around the microphone at the same time in omni and we would take a whole new take of us singing along with ourselves and we would do one of those off to the left and re-record over that and throw that one off to the right. We tried that and ended up liking that effect on some songs and on other songs it sounded terrible, so we didn't use it. We definitely aren't principled about these sorts of things, there's no rule with the album. There are times when it's twelve voices or more and there are other times where there's a single voice and that's it.
MR: The Boston Herald threw out a bunch of examples of the class of groups that you belong in, acts like David Bowie and Pink Floyd and Radiohead and Joni Mitchell. I really don't hear that, I hear--at least vocally--The Association, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Starship... Why did you feel like it was cool to do elegant four-part harmonies in an era where no one is harmonizing the way that you guys are?
DM: We weren't setting out to bring back something we miss and we weren't setting out to do something no one had ever heard before. Our sound comes up pretty organically. That's not to say that we don't ever set out to do a thing artistically, but I think we do have a pretty healthy amount of respect for spontaneity and the organic process of building something up and seeing where it goes. Given what Auyon said, the democratic nature of what we're doing and how many distinct influences are being brought to bear on the process we just trust that it's going to sound like us if all four of us have our hands on it, because none of us are really good at taking a backseat. We know it when we hear it but we're not setting out to do a specific thing. I think if you're responding to something in the vocals that sounds like Jefferson Starship maybe our journey parallels them in some way vocally because they started as a folk group and then they scaled up into a more electronic thing and we're always somewhere on the continuum. We started out as all being in an a cappella group together and then we started writing songs and doing folk tunes and then eventually we were built up into a pretty full-on rock band for a while. You can hear the more indie rock sound in some of our back catalog. We've kind of since scaled back to where we do most of our live performances around one microphone but we still use some of those older electronic textures, we've just placed the emphasis back on a vocals-forward sound. I think it was a happy accident that at some point we realized we liked the sound of us practicing, when we weren't fully plugged in, when we were just standing in a room and getting our faces close together so that we could hear and blend. We realized when we were doing that and playing at super soft volumes on any amplifiers or instruments that that was a sound that we missed when we scaled up into a more full production. We've tried to reincorporate that practice vibe into our full performances.
MR: How did you approach the complicated vocal arrangements that seem to be going through circles of fifths while raising minors to majors? What was behind plotting arrangements like that?
DM: We really like the idea of taking a melody that's relatively simple and just does one shift from minor to major during it and then quickly transposing it up a fourth and having the vocal parts stack around that. There's definitely some parallel Queen-style moods where people are singing very heavy parts that are in parallel but there's always one part that's droning through it to pin down the chord. When you pivot into the next key that becomes one of the moving parts and then the another part stays in one spot and holds it there. I think that's a classical move that we wanted to nod toward. You go through the beginning of the verse in the key of G and then it moves up to C, and then the chorus is weirdly between those two keys so we thought of it as a pivot where it could be understood that rather than being in C it's in A minor and all of the chords fit into that scale but it also could be that it's back in G and you just have a flat seven chord like a blues song but in the key of G. The chorus exists between the two verse keys. That's kind of a weird thing that we found as we were starting to write the song, we didn't have a chorus and we were just looking for a transition back to a verse and we thought, "Maybe this song won't have a chorus at all," but we ended up using that transitional segment to be the effective chorus of the song and then later on in the song the bridge is just a modulated minor version of that same chorus. We used a lot of the vocal parts from the chorus, we actually took them and held them in place over a certain set of chords to create weird suspensions and things. We play a lot with that, the difference between the dragged parallel folk shapes and the more classical holding a tone or re-contextualizing the same melody using a different set of chords that's in a new key. And that doesn't happen with every song, some of our songs are just one four five good old rockabilly, but then on the occasional song we like to cut loose and do some weird chromatic chords and things like that.
MR: This is the second incarnation of the group, right?
AM: Yeah, I think that's a fair way of referring to it.
MR: What was the historical evolution of the band?
AM: We all met at Williams College and graduated between the years of 2006 and 2009. When our youngest guys at that point, Sam, our drummer who no longer plays with us and Harris, our poet cellist who we've mentioned a few times, when they graduated in 2009 we moved into a house together in Hadley, Massachusetts. At that point we were still establishing what our sound was and it ended up growing into a string-laden, harmony-filled indie rock outfit. We only had one full-length studio release as that, it was Pilot Machines in 2012. Shortly thereafter there was a confluence of a few things and some of us were thinking more of getting back to a more organic, singing together in a room vibe rather than into microphones and back through monitors. Going to more of the acoustic folky format was of interest and at that time our drummer just decided road life wasn't exactly what he wanted, so we decided to strip down to a four piece at that point. That was the beginning of version two of the band. That was about two years ago now. Birds Say is the first full-length album we're releasing as the four-piece, folk-oriented Darlingside.
MR: What's the story behind the name?
AM: "Darlingside," itself--whether it has a "c" or an "s"--is something that we made up but the phrase comes from a British literary critic from back in the day. At some point each of us took a singer-songwriter winter study class at Williams and one of the instructor's favorite quotes was attributed to that literary critic, "Kill your darlings." That applies to creating things, because often the parts that you're most attached to or enamored by are what will keep it from being a cohesive piece of art. We were all intrigued by that phrase and thought that an appropriate single-word version of it would be "Darlingcide," but we nixed the "c" and replaced it with an "s" because of potential pronunciation mishaps. Also the "c" is significantly more morbid, we aren't that into death, so that is what we landed on.
MR: But shouldn't one be somewhat attached to things they feel passionately about?
AM: I wouldn't say that we are necessarily great at the practice of killing our darlings, but the most effective way for each of us individually to not stay too attached to anything that we're doing is knowing that the other three guys who are judgmental and picky writers in their own right are going to be tearing it apart later. That's a process that's evolving as we continue writing and making music together. It used to be that one person would bring in an almost finished piece and then we would all attach parts to it, whereas now it's much more, "Bring in a piece, know it's going to get work shopped, know it's going to get torn apart and put back together." There's usually one or two stewards for each song, so the stewards will take the piece back, take the criticism and put it into something and then we'll rework that together and the process will repeat several times. I think that keeps any one of us from getting too terribly attached and needing to hold on to something, because we know now that the process involves getting our hands dirty with pretty much every lyric decision that passes through the band.
MR: Were there any songs on the album that almost had Darlingside commit darlingcide? And what do you think is the real shining moment of the album?
DM: You'd probably get a different answer from each band member on that second question, but as far as songs that almost didn't make the album it's hard to say in retrospect. There were ones that were on the edge that stayed and ones that aren't on the album but seemed for a while like they were ahead of the pack. Once the album is set in stone, to me that's the album and you have to be able to let go at that point and call it quits. It's so hard to get to that point that once you do get there you feel so relieved to have made the choice that at least in my case I feel good about all the choices. I don't ever think, "Oh gee, track ten should've been replaced by that fourteenth track that we left off." Track fourteen that didn't make this album, it's not even necessarily that it's a worse song, it just didn't fit in the sequence the right way. It might become an even better and more important aspect of the next project or something like that. We're just constantly cannibalizing our material, too, so if I song doesn't make a record, a verse from that song might become a whole new song and then there's two songs that come out of that one idea that didn't quite make the album. It's been nice to feel like everything is open, but once there's a track list for the album I don't think there's a lot of hand wringing and regret about the exact choices that were made.
AM: I would certainly second that, and add on that since the writing process is four way and multi-tiered and the arrangement process is just throwing stuff at the wall and reworking it and a lot of the stuff we rewrote in studio for live arrangements, there have been so many different levels of writing and rewriting and rearranging that it's pretty convoluted and hard to tell who wrote what and what was happening and what the original idea was and what the replacement idea was and whether we went back to the original or whether we're using the replacement or if there's a third thing altogether. It's all pretty mixed up in our heads at this point which is kind of cool. The way we write and talk about things at this point, we spend an immense amount of time together as a group so often times hearing childhood stories from other folks and things that have happened to each of us and internalizing those things and then having a hand helping write about these experiences from a time when we weren't necessarily connected, if Harris brings in a lyric that has to do with his world in Chicago growing up and all of us immersing ourselves in that, stories can get mixed up. There have been a few times where Harris has been telling me a story about something that has happened to him and I have to remind him that that happened to me, it didn't happen to him. We have a group processing of past experiences that happened to one of us individually but now we have a collective almost imagined past that we share because we're reflecting on and going over things together as a group. It's similar to the songwriting process, where we produce this album of material as a group but as far as going back and trying to remember where everything came from, certainly there are certain bits that we can pinpoint, but in broad swathes of the album it's a big mixture of four people working with it at several different times over the course of the songwriting.
MR: What songs on the album best display what happened as Darlingside?
DM: I don't think I have any one song I would point to that's like, "Here is a representation of all things Darlingside." I think the reason for that is just that we write in a lot of different directions and we have fun chasing something down its own little tunnel. I think you don't get a sense of everything the band does from just one song. In particular I'm often the one who's writing down the band's set list for a live show, so using that as a metaphor for the album, if I'm writing a set list and I was asked to choose just one song--or even pare down to four songs, which I'm asked to do for a really short festival slot or an opener or a radio program--I'm always trying to pick, "Let's do one where Harris is doing the cool alternate tuning guitar wizardry, and then another one where he's going to do the cello," because those are very different things and we kind of want to show our different sides. I might also be thinking, "Let's do one where we're singing in harmony through the whole song and it's really obvious and another one where it's primarily one singer and there's a more relatable narrator in the song." I would want to pick a more upbeat one that's more pounding and has a prominent kick drum and a banjo and a mandolin doing a more bluegrassy thing and another one that's more ambient and has a smooth and classical feeling. For that reason I think it's very hard to say which one is the pinnacle of Darlingside. I can more easily say within a given category which songs mean a lot to me on a personal level but it's actually really hard to pare down for me.
AM: In a very specific context of live performance I'm excited to get these songs arranged up for the release shows that we're doing. Two of the ones I'm most excited about right now because they're upbeat and kind of party for us to play are "Harrison Ford" and "My Gal, My Guy," but that has very little to do with me viewing them as the pinnacle of the album and much more with the fact that they're two of the most upbeat tunes we have. As far as a favorite about something I'm not unexcited to bring some of the slower tunes to the stage but those two especially I think are going to be a lot of fun to play live. They're also a little bit trickier for us, so there's also the anxiety of not knowing whether we're going to be able to execute, which also gets me pretty excited. Just as far as favorites in general those are ones that I'm really excited to play live.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
DM: We used to manage everything in our own band, we were unsigned to a label and unbooked by an agent, we didn't have any helpers outside of the band until the past year and a half or so and I think it's important to make sure that everybody you interact with comes away feeling good about it, wanting to do more of it and wanting their friends to have that same experience. You hope that there's a virility to your own business. Your reputation really matters a lot when you're a younger band because when your opportunity comes around and someone gets asked for a recommendation, "What band would be good for this slot?" you want them to be thinking of you, not just because your music is great but because you're really easy to work with. I think my biggest piece of advice is be ready to be the band that's first on somebody else's mind. We recently started doing band Christmas cards because it feels good to keep in touch with everybody who did great things for us, whether it's putting us up on tour or putting on a show for us or any number of different things, supplying audio gear and things like that. Just make sure you remember the people who help you along the way because there's a whole lot of them.
MR: What do you think is the future for Darlingside? What does success look like in five years?
AM: Five years, that's funny to think about because five years ago we were just starting to play shows. The way that things have gone thus far we've been extremely fortunate. Don mentioned that we'd been booking and managing ourselves for a long time, but the team that we now work with we love very much and they've allowed us to maintain a lot of control over the decisions we make and the places we play. We still have complete control over our artistic process and what we're putting out there, everything from what the songs sound like to what the album looks like. We're aware that we were very fortunate to have gotten our career to a point where we're supported by our team but also still able to put the artwork out that we are most excited about. Five years ago, if you asked that question, there probably would've been some indie rock dreams that surfaced and now we are a different outfit with four members playing to a folk audience, so my hope is that in five years we'll still be happily writing and producing music together. Don's piece of advice for younger bands being working on relationships with those external to the band, but I think a big thing that we've realized early on too is that just existing as a band and working the way we do takes a lot of work internally too. It's a lot of relationship management when you're spending that much time in a van or a rehearsal space or a writing retreat. Preserving our interband happiness has been a massively rewarding exercise thus far and if we're able to continue doing that for the next five years that will be awesome.
DM: Auyon's sort of our happiness monitor on tour. We all have our separate jobs, Dave does all our web coding, Harris does all our accounting, I do our social media and Auyon for a long time was our booking agent. Now he's the one making sure that we don't go so hard on the road and take every gig and every opportunity and end up unhappy and disliking what we're doing. He helps keep us on task as far as making sure that we enjoy our lives and the specialness of this time when we get to travel and get our music out there while we're on the rise. I think that's a huge thing, is making sure you don't sacrifice your ability to keep doing what you do in order to do it just slightly better in the short term.
MR: Do you emulate the album live? You guys are all musicians and vocalists, but do you supplement with recordings and computers or is it only the four parts?
DM: We pretty much just do it live. In the studio, we can get a little bit more layered with our sound and we can experiment with some instruments that we aren't able to cart around on the road. When it comes down to it even our album puts vocals at the absolute forefront of the sound. When you see us live there's a big condenser mic in the middle and that's where ninety percent of the sound is coming from. The vocals are up close to it and the instruments are a little farther back and we work outwards from there. We haven't used any tracks or anything like that so far, I don't think there's any intentions to do so, but we do find some electronic ways. I run my electric guitars through a bunch of pedals, I'm experimenting with more and more of those. There's some ability to make a loop on the fly and then continue playing through that but I'd say that's really the exception. Two percent of sound that we create is in that affected zone. We'll keep experimenting. If a given song is really better because of that stuff then we'll keep doing that stuff, but I think in the mean time we're pretty happy with the constraint of our four voices, our four pairs of hands and our four pairs of feet and whatever we can get done using those.
MR: And what does the video front look like?
AM: The biggest thing that we're looking at right now is a friend of ours who does some stop motion papercut work. We've generally been a fan of things that are animated. The 2012 album Pilot Machines we were fortunate enough to have a couple of friends animate some videos to a couple of songs. One was the "The Woods" and the other was "The Ancestor," those are both on YouTube and the like. For this album we're not exactly sure which track we're looking at yet, but some more animated goodies are definitely in the pipeline right now, which we're excited about. Beyond that we've been fantasizing about a video for "Harrison Ford" that features Harrison Ford. It's tricky because none of us know Harrison, I don't think we know anyone who knows him, but our hope is that eventually the song will find its way onto one of the screens he owns and he will like it so much, or at least feel an attachment to us as writers given that we are clearly fans of his, that he will allow us to use him in a music video. We'll see how that goes.
DM: No correspondence from Harrison has been received.
MR: Maybe that can be done through a cutout animation.
AM: That could be great.
DM: That's our backup plan for sure. Thank you for supplying that default. I think it would've been a lot smarter for us to name a song after an actor who's not a famously private person like Harrison Ford. Our latest single is called "Go Back" and it's inspired by watching the movie Back To The Future and thinking of where I was when I first watched that movie and what kind of person I had been and thinking about reverting to that version of yourself but retaining the knowledge of the things you've gone through since then and making the best possible version of yourself out of all of that. That song came from time travel as a metaphor for that. I think that a great music video for that could be taking the cast of the original back to the future but in their current age and seeing where they are now and what they're getting up to. I think that could be an adequate alternative to the Harrison Ford idea.
MR: That's a great idea. And now that Mr. Robot is popular you need to write a song called "Christian Slater" on your next record.
DM: [laughs] Right.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
HUGH CORNWELL'S "LIVE IT AND BREATHE IT" EXCLUSIVE
According Hugh Cornwell...
"'Live it and Breathe It' is a song about New York City. The traffic is horrendous and the churches are open 24 hours. There are all sorts of things to aggravate you but there is an amazing feeling of life and activity which you want to be part of. It's very difficult to disconnect."