Tuesday, March 23, 2010
It ain’t fiction, but a natural fact..
“Fantasy love is much better than reality love,” Andy Warhol once said. “Never doing it is very exciting. The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet.” Had this other king of pop lived to a ripe age of 82 and decided to sponsor a well-entrenched group of Canadian art rockers, he would be hard pressed to find a better group than Vancouver’s own Collapsing Opposites. While the gritty life of sex, drugs, and savants is neglected more than burgeoning sti’s of NY’s early 80’s in the band’s newest release, In Time, it does capture the tension that fascinated Warhol: the irreconcilable space between two conflicting sides who manage to create something exciting through attraction through their opposition.
Their 8th and self-released LP, complete with artwork penned by singer/songwriter Ryan McCormack, explores basic elements of the human condition. Negotiating the abundance or lack of time in one’s life, the relationship between the mind and the body, and how to come to terms with the fact that, although we might wish to be stars, we’re really just rocks (hey, they’re made of the same thing). Chatting with drummer/artist Laura Hatfield and McCormack about the new album, the two are playful and candid about it’s points of inspiration: “When I wake up I want to sleep longer, when I’m awake, I want to stay up longer... I always joke that if we could take all the money spent on war to slow down the rotation of the earth around the sun, so we could have more time, we’d be a lot better off. ”
Timing is everything on their latest offering, where reverb soaked guitar parts and pun-infused wordplay spar with darker rhythmic bass and organ droning. The interplay between Jessica Wilkin’s keys and bassist Jarret Evan bass lines provides that, at any given point, the songs can move from charming and childlike, into a void of a cyclical, manic, and detail obsessed narrator.
The use of timing and mood reflect the evolution and maturity of a band who began as a one-man act, and found a more sophisticated voice as a four piece rock outfit. And though McCormick agrees they have benefited from the compromises inherent in-group dynamics, it hasn’t been painless.
“It’s the give and take between different people that can be tricky sometimes. When it was just myself playing, a first verse could have five bars because the lyrics needed five bars, and a second verse could have 11 bars. Communicating those arrangements was a lot harder. With a band, you end up just doing 8/4/8 bars; it’s easier to communicate. Than again, with a band, I don’t even have to envision and flush out entire songs; I just put a little seed out there, and it grows.”
With plans to tour the west coast in the spring, and a Canadian and European tour in the works for the summer, it seems that Collapsing Opposites can do nothing but blossom. Ironically, it is their lack of careerist ambitions and their commitment to artistic pursuits that seem to be fueling their successes in the practical and conceptual world of music.
“If you just accept the fact that you wont make money, then you realize you can do whatever the hell you want. Everyone has hobbies, whether you’re a painter, or want to spend money on a family or smoking…! It’s about having complete control over what you do.”
Having deeply entrenched themselves in Vancouver’s indie pop scene through collaborations with the Greenbelt Collective, They Shoot Horses, and other long standing local acts, this band proves that giving up can mean getting plenty back. While residing in the tension between two opposing points can be a problematic and irreconcilable situation, it can also give birth to the kind of prolific, respected and creative reputation that Collapsing Opposites have built- and that ain’t no small feat.
Collapsing Opposites Release their LP, In Time, on July 26th@ Little Mountain Studios
The Media Club attract music lovers first and foremost, so bringing a crowd of 70 or so keeners wasn’t much of a problem on this windy Monday night. And truly focused bunch they were, horseshoed strategically around the low, orange-lit stage, waiting for Certain Breeds to begin their 10 o’clock set. Now this band may have the worst luck out of any I have ever seen, and tonight was no exception. Two false starts, a request for a light change, and an apology to the crowd didn’t much help to get the flow of things going, especially for a band whose songs aren’t usually more than 3 or so minutes. A tough start, particularly for a band on the cusp of brining their haunting, pop-macabre act to a wider, hungrier audience. Once things did get rolling, however, Certain Breeds consumed and mesmerized the crowd with richly textured arrangements of simple yet intricate melodies. Delicately balancing swelling keyboard echoes, moog delays and loops, with rich haunting vocals and slightly wicked cello parts, this set could have been sublime, had the band started with more solid footing.
Solars took the stage shortly after, and despite working through some technical difficulties, they managed to sculpt their post-industrial sound-scape into a 20 minute experience of dark, lulling uncertainty. Regrettably, the subtlety of their crescendo was interrupted more than once by a piercing distortion, one that was definitely not in the anticipated bag of tricks. Such is the wager when making live noise, I suppose. All in all, it made me think of Fripp and Eno, with less equipment and more distortion. Eyes closed for most of the set, my imagination took me to the trough of a dark wave, and as it slowly fed upon itself to reach the crest, the razing of the beachcombers to follow felt calming, almost welcoming. For the purposes of the show, Solars subdued the energy brought by Certain Breeds, and could have opened rather than gone second. But outside of this context, I would certainly see them again in a more noise-conducive environment.
While the band got packing, the attentive crowd began to morph. Bright tones replaced dark shades, and the attentive horseshoe dispersed for a youthful, raucous bunch. Cute couples came to the front and made googly eyes at each other as fresh faced Sunny Day In Glasgow plugged in. Plunging into their first song with a growly, fuzzed out bass tone, blood pounded through neglected limbs, and shivers of sonic pleasure reverberated through the room. If anything, watching and listening to this five piece could give you an eargasm, if you weren’t too discriminating. The two gorgeous lead vocalists danced through devoutly crafted pop-instrumentals breaks, returning to carefully orchestrated four part harmonies, and rising and falling dynamics. However, like a chocolate bar eaten too quickly or an over eager lover, , after a few sound bites and strokes, I was feeling shallow and empty. Unlike the minimalist indie/electronica leanings of their new album, A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s live show reminded me of an Arcade Fire without the holy desperation, or an Architecture in Helsinki without the frantic quirk. The two vocalists seemed to be propping each other up for their mutual lack of decibels, all to often things became lost in a wall of noise. Given the numerous member changes the band has faced within the last couple of years, it made sense to me that they might opt for more of a rock set than a quiet electro/indie experience. Regrettably, they weren’t able to pull off the former with the professionalism or originality that the oversaturated genre demands, and made me feel as though leaving after the first few songs might have made the night more of a success.
Apollo Ghosts remember the things you went through
In a time when bands are increasingly expected to distribute their music internationally, through MySpace players, hungry torrent downloads, Japanese tours and continental blogs, one might timidly expect that within this reality, both musical and thematic content would reflect a more internationally minded attitude, culture, and audience. A listen to any ‘mainstream’ billboard topping rock band will, in general, confirm this observation. When’s the last time Greenday sang about Berkley and not the totalizing idea of “America”? When’s the last time U2 penned a tune with the resonance of Sunday Bloody Sunday? While some rock bands can leave home and manage to produce imaginative and intriguing musical and lyrical narratives of travel, distance, and ‘voyeur’ for their future works, a local flavour can be lost to too much tourism.
This is the tension and contradictory state of the rock band experience, but Apollo Ghosts, a self described ‘rocal’ Vancouver three piece, have travelled to both core and periphery to explore this creative quandary, triumphantly returning to their westcoast roots on their newest release, Mt Benson. It is a fiercely local offering, bringing the narratives of so many island punk kids into a seamless, 25 minute, adolescent retrospective, featuring cars, cokes, lakeside swims and quests for lovers gone afar. Somewhere, between the lo-fi sunny cheer of the Vaselines and the naïveté of Jonathan Richman, Apollo Ghosts resurrect local histories in a time when they need to be heard the most.
“With our first record, Hastings Sunrise,” reflects guitarist/singer Adrian Teacher, “Amanda and I had just came back from living in Asia, and we felt really inspired. I wanted to blend my traveling experience in Asia with the Asian influence in Vancouver.” And while the synthesis of experiences abroad and experiences at home provided enough excitement to pack rooms full of sweaty dancing kids, and sell 500 copies of their first pressed lp, their latest offering draws experiences from life in Nanaimo, and it’s iconic Mt.Benson, home to Witchcraft lake and Wolf Mountain.
“It’s where it all started musically,” insist Jay and Adrian, who have been playing bass and guitar together for the last six or so years. “Our intro to punk started with bands like AK47 and the Crusties, all these really weird punk bands.” From there, participation in various projects and international adventures brought them together in 2007, and the three punk-rooted friends came together to form their current “groove machine.” Playing mostly in art spaces and grungy basements, the trio is decidedly content to continue their adventure as a local band playing, accessible and fun shows.
“In the day’s of Hoko’s, we loved putting on two dollar punk shows, and our favorite to play are all ages or house parties, that kind of stuff. We like the Biltmore, except our drummer is to small for the stage, we have to put her up front on a riser.” When asked about why they don’t play many bar shows, the Ghosts insist “ It’s not really a choice that we have to make, because we don’t really get offered to play at bars…Well sometimes we get offered shows, but they’re always with buttrock bands. “
Not playing bars and sticking to all ages shows is a choice that many punk bands attempt to stick to, but for a band living in Vacouver, paying for jam spaces, equipment, and recording, can seduce the most earnest and principled musicians into hopping in bed with the bars. But the general resistance to tour too often, play too many bar shows, or quit their day jobs sees Apollo Ghosts creating a buzz born from writing catchy as hell songs, and playing fun shows.
“As we get older and understand how it actually works and talk to people of different strata’s, we really realize what we have. We work our jobs, then play a really wicked punk show. In the summer, we go play some more. We’re not opposed to more people listening to us, but we’re not going to push ourselves in that way. We’re just lazy and would rather concentrate on writing good songs.”
It’s just that lack of grand colonial ambition that make Apollo Ghosts such a great band to see and hear. It’s punk rock: something new, exciting, yet rooted in the traditions and communities of people who actually give a shit and care. In summarizing their general attitude to the “do you want to make it” question, drummer Amanda weighs in with some of the greats:
“Adrian sent me an interview with Cary Mercer (Frog Eyes) who just finished teaching, and he talks about how having a day job can really help you focus on your music in a different and new way, because it isn’t your job anymore. It becomes a lot more relaxed and fun, and the pressure for x number of songs sort of dissappears. Ian Mcaye talks about that too, the point where you start mass producing your artwork, then it fails to become art.”
So climb that mountain, dig your garden, and find a day job you enjoy. Things are good in Vancouver, and they’re even better with bands like Apollo Ghosts.
Apollo Ghosts release their album, Mt Benson, with Sean Mrazek Lives and Dirty beaches, April 10th@ Little Mountain Studios.
People who are serious about music are hunters by vocation. They stalk and follow melodic origins, map the genealogies of genre, and document where music has come from and where it might be going. Non-professionals document with emotional memory, like the time you listened to Appetite for Destruction all summer, or that sexy boys 2 men album your teenage self made out to. Recording engineers, however, make a business of cataloging sounds to help represent the scope and quality of a band. It’s a process that not only takes a certain amount of technology, but also a stiff order of personality. At Vancouver’s Hive Studios, a diverse mix of personalities roam the halls of the Burnaby concrete bungalow, just next door to an infinitely busy Costco and a well frequented burrito restaurant. After a 20 minute skytrain ride from downtown to SFU production way, the Hive is downhill walk into a land of industrial warehouses and railway tracks, an innocuous enough setting for a place that deals with so much exceptional talent. Boasting a roster of acclaimed recorded acts and musicians like Black Mountain, Bison B.C., Ladyhawk, Tranzmitors, White Lung, Vedda Hille, Nick Kirgovich, and the Cave Singers, the Hive Studio’s deals with some of the best in pacific northwest independent music, and has maintain a non-threatening face to meet up and coming bands’ dreams and expectations.
“Ten years ago if you were playing in a punk band and you could hear the instruments on your album, you’d be pretty impressed,” states Jesse Gander, co-owner, producer and engineer of the Hive over a morning cup of coffee. 10am is early for this and other recording engineers, whose hours tend to spread over one or two week blocks of recording. Gander and co-owner, founder, producer and engineer Colin Stewart split the weeks at the studio, where days easily span from 11 am to 11 pm.
“It means I don’t have a lot of outside interests, and sometimes my friends can feel a little bit ignored,” Stewart apologetically laughs as he details how an engineer’s days are spent. From the initial meeting with bands, going over expectations, ideas, timeframes and potential problems, the process of recording a record is a long process of creative bursts and systematic elimination, starting for Gander with a sweet sounding drum kit. “Unless the drummer has a particular way they prefer it, drum tuning is something I’m pretty into. The fidelity of a record comes from the drum sound. The kick occupies much of the lowest sounds of a record, and the cymbals occupy the highest, so getting those ends of the audio spectrum well represented makes a good record, to my ears at least.”
After the drums are tuned, the keyboard, bass, guitar and pedal amps are mic’d, and the engineers and musicians listen to the sounds in the control room. It’s a process of translation and luck for musicians, having to communicate to engineers to what tones they want and what feel they’re looking for. Ipods are brought out, and references to obscure and popular guitar tone are made until everyone is happy. Initial set up can take as much as an entire day before bands are ready to record, and even after that point, things are still up to change and shift over the course of the next week or so.
“Hive is a large studio, and part of the point in coming to the Hive is to record live off the floor. Because we have an isolation booth and multiple headphone mixes, having people playing together, even when they’re playing to a click track, makes a better record; it gives it a vibe. If we can get the bed tracks finished sooner, it opens up more time and money to work on the more creative aspects of a record.”
Increasingly with digital technology, bands anticipate more bang and creativity for their buck when going into the studio. “Back in the day, analogue tape was so expensive, as were studio costs, making it harder for just any band to record an album. These days, achieving any sense of clarity is pretty expected because of computers, and are expected to offer something special rather than something that’s adequate.” That something special changes depending on the engineer you hire. Getting creative in the studio can mean putting mic’s and amplifiers in outside empty garbage bins, location recordings in empty warehouses, and throwing everything into the kitchen sink. “On the last Ladyhawk record,” recalls Stewart, “we put a microphone into a plastic Ziploc bag, dropped it in a sink full of water, and sortof swished it around in a swirling motion, recording the sound while also tracking a guitar solo. I mean, it sounded like shit, but it’s just that kind of creative experimentation which sometimes leads to new, cool sounds.”
Gander, who has played and performed music for decades, takes a coach heavy approach to getting people’s creativity flowing. “I have techniques that I think can help people to sing better. It starts with getting people to warm up, showing people how to sing scales, even with the really heavy stuff like metal and grindcore. With the approach to singing, singers often think you have to sing harder or more powerfully when you’re in the studio, different from live or in practice. But really, straining or stretching your vocal chords can make you sounds smaller, while singing from your chest makes you sing bigger. For first timers in the studio I take a different approach.”
It’s the variety of approaches, and the welcoming, non-threatening atmosphere at the Hive, that keeps clients old and new coming back. “A lot of young people fail at being engineers because they’re interested in being rock stars,” suggests Stewart, “and they forget who’s the boss. This is a service industry, but rather than make burgers, I make records. With a band that first comes in, I’ll just be as relaxed as I possibly can. If they get tense, I just tell them it’s cool and completely normal. I’m incredibly sensitive to people’s emotions, and generally I get a sense if someone is unhappy before they express it. It’s one of the things I do best. You don’t want to torture musicians, they’re just so insecure… they’re as insecure as I am.”
Insecure or not, the diversity has contributed to the success of the sound and business elements of the studio. Engineers like Stu McKillop, whose highlights include hardcore acts like Textbook Tragedy and LA Massacre, and Mike Gittens, who recently recorded locals Collapsing Opposites and Adelaide, have brought their own presence and clientele to the Hive. Through internships, budding engineers like Gittens have the opportunity to work at the studio day and night to gain a few pointers. Aside from a few menial tasks, which inevitably include tidying up after bands, interns get to rig mics, record sounds, cut tracks, and get a hands on chance to record great sounding records. “Since we operate as a collective,” states the Hive Website, “the ideal intern would be self-motivated and genuinely interested in The Hive in the long-term. We want to work with people who can go on to fill the ranks, rather than take the garbage out. We want people who will bring creative ideas and energy, rather than coffee.”
After all the creativity gone into recording a band, taking days or weeks, the engineers mix the collection of sounds taken. It’s a finicky and concentrated process, which can take days. All that time in the studio listening to a bands sound can accustom an engineer to the potential flaws of an album, making mixing a process best done in the morning, with fresh ears. “I don’t listen to any music until I start mixing,” divulges Gander. “Then once I start, I’ll listen to tons of different records to make points of reference. You have software in your brain, which makes you accustomed to different anomalies of sound. It’s the same reason why you don’t find your refrigerator loud when it’s in your house, or you don’t listen to background noise. It’s the same for recording. You tend to tune out sounds that you become accustomed to, which may in fact be intensely bright or intensely dark for the world outside your studio. So one of the big tricks in mixing is cross referencing so I can re-set my own mind.”
After the songs are mixed, the mastering is either done at the Hive, or sent off to a mastering specific studio. After this point, the creative input of the engineer is largely over, and it’s up to the bands to do what they want to with the music. Because the hive is booked 24/7 day and night, there isn’t a lot of time outside of payable hours to reflect with the engineer on how things are going. In one or two weeks, the album is born into the world, while bands go back to their dayjobs, and the engineers move on to work with other bands.
Today, the success of a band isn’t so much determined by it’s compositional structure, as it is determined by how it defines it’s sound. It’s the first 15 seconds of listening that make or break bands, and in those first tentative moments, you’re not listening to the song structure or composition; it’s the warmth, timbre, and tone that draw in the listener. These are the aesthetic decisions that go into an album, and they are diverse as the people who record them. And while the Hive’s aesthetic leanings are diverse, it is the warmth and timbre of the personalities who work there which have maintained it’s solid reputation and professional success in the local, independent music scene. And in a time when expectations are higher than ever for recording bands, that’s no small feat.