James’ Brand New Blog

Reaney rawk intvus: MMX,Vol. I . . . a fascinating Q&A with Eric Howden of Raised by Swans

- January 14th, 2010

Music & words as intelligent & passionate as Raised by Swans’ . . . it comes from somewhere. Head. Heart. Ears. Soul. Psyche.

In other words, it’s a pleasure to start the 2010 edition of the e-mail Q&As that won’t all fit in the pages of The Free Press, but can live & breathe in full here on JGBNBlog at lfpress.com.

Thanks to Eric Howden of Raised by Swans for starting this year’s Q&A “James Reaney rawk intvus” on such a high note . . . Vol. I will be hard to surpass. Thanks, Eric.

Here are the interview answers:

Q: Looking way back, I found this comment about the Gandharvas album in 1994
. . .”There are no throwaway tunes on the album,” said bassist Eric Howden.

I would say the same thing of No Ghostless Place,  definitely no throwaways
… Is that one of the reasons, the time needed for writing, shaping &
refining, that it takes a while to produce a new album?

That and the fact that I’m the least prolific songwriter I know – hahaha.  Which isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of, but at the same time, I wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) have it any other way.  Part of the slow output also comes from working full-time; not only did we not have the luxury of booking big blocks of studio time, but getting home at the end of the day feeling like one has been dragged around by horses and then injected with a strong sedative doesn’t always lend itself to feeling particularly motivated or inspired.  But no complaints – personally, once I get working on something I love everything gets pushed to the periphery anyway, including trivial things like sleeping and eating.  And concentrating on fewer songs means that each song gets an enormous amount of care and focus devoted to it.  Still, I guess that doesn’t fully account for the four years between albums – that time mostly came from building the songs up as carefully and patiently as possible; making sure that they were as beautiful as they deserved to be, not overdoing things but not letting a single detail slide.  When a song first makes an appearance, it usually comes out of me as a big helpless flood of sound and feeling – one or two key lines right away but the rest of the words mostly just gibberish, guitar parts intertwining in my head in ways that haven’t quite sorted themselves out yet, only the basic version of the drum part in place (this continues when I first record because programming my ancient drum machine is a pain in the ass).  I record brand new songs on an old ADAT machine in my living room, semi-impatiently, both because I want to hear them so badly, and also to get them out of my head so that I can hear them from a few steps away.  Once I do that, I have to go back and pin down how to orchestrate them properly; some of the songs on No Ghostless Place are new enough that they were never played as a band before they were recorded.  So patience and time are essential ingredients, because the trick is in letting those songs develop in the studio in the same way that they’d develop were we to play them as a full band for a year or so, night after night, in rehearsals and at live shows.  New parts creep in over time, little melodies or harmonies emerge, arrangements change subtly, lyrics get rewritten, parts are also removed utterly, even full songs sometimes…..thankfully, Andy’s very patient with (and used to) ideas like, say, suddenly adding an eight bar intro to the beginning of a song, or turning a song inside out.

 Q: While individual tracks stay with me, the most impressive thing in the
first few days of listening is the overall shape of the album . . How did
that come about? (Or am I just projecting a form on to something that was
more a matter of chance).

I’ve always felt that it’s important to consider the shape of an album as a whole.  Just like a novel, an album needs to start, develop, and end in a certain way, or else it comes across as fragmented or imbalanced.  I was determined from the start to make No Ghostless Place an album that was best listened to in its entirety, as old-fashioned as that notion may be.  It’s bookended with similarly stark, intimate songs, it starts with an inhalation of breath and ends with the hiss/exhalation of amp noise, it leaves spaces where spaces belong, its tempos shift when they need to shift, it gets hot and cold, it makes your heart beat really fast when it soars or gets loud and enormous-sounding, but it always catches you gently afterwards, slows you back down.  And feeling/theme-wise, I think it both begins and ends in exactly the right way.  Because most of all (and I’m not entirely sure that I succeeded at this), I didn’t want to make a hopeless album.  As lonely and dark as some of the songs might sound, I still think that the thread that ties them all together is hope, as weary and scraped a bit thin as that hope might be. 

How do you get the drummer(s) to play so quietly? (There is probably a
better way to ask that . . . The drum sounds, soft or loud, are among the
album’s most striking features).

Well, in terms of the softer drum performances, I’m thinking that you’re referring to the tracks that Andy played drums on, because Brady, our drummer, has often been told at clubs (typically by sound engineers) that he is the Loudest Drummer On The Face Of The Earth.  And frankly, he is – at soundchecks I’m freshly shocked every single time he first hits his snare drum.  Because of Brady I know what’s it’s like to be shot at point blank range by a throng of people simultaneously firing sawed-off shotguns.  But yes, we’re really proud of the drum sounds, and to be fair, Brady is absolutely capable of playing softly too, depending on the song.  For this album, though, several of the songs were written after he’d played his bed tracks (‘Old Fires’, for example), and required a very different sound and feel.  We set up loops to stand in for the drums while those songs were built up, but one night Andy suggested that he give the drum part for ‘Old Fires’ a shot.  He played beautifully, and we kept one of his first takes on that particular song.  Subsequently, Andy played on a few other songs as well.  Because of the sound of Andy’s kit and playing versus Brady’s, the drum sounds and performances are unique (and so, so good) for each song.

Q: It took a while for this Raised By Swans lineup to come together … I
think Alex Wright is the most recent arrival . . . Accepting that the band
goes back to the 1990s, is this the edition of Raised By Swans that is the
definitive one?

Absolutely.  Alex responded to a posting we’d put online, back in 2007, when we needed a guitarist – the moment we met him and rehearsed as a band we knew that we finally had the right four people involved.  Alex is one of the most serious and committed musicians I know – when he arrived that first night long ago we discovered that he’d learned how to play Codes and Secret Longing more or less in its entirety.  We weren’t even capable of that at the time – hahaha.  He not only solidified that album’s songs live but also gave us a huge push of positivity towards working on No Ghostless Place (which he also contributed some amazing guitar playing to).  I’m certainly happiest with this lineup, and I think the guys feel the same way. 

Right now, as a bonus, we have Ray Cammaert from Pink Moth playing keyboards with us live.  There have always been pianos and keys in our songs, so it’s been pretty great to have those parts back in the songs for live shows.

Q: Admire the words, even the ones I’m just on the edge of grasping. Any
thoughts of spoken word recording . . . Or putting them on the sleeve.

Thanks – I’m very proud of the lyrics.  We’re definitely going to post them on our website somewhere, this time.  I’ve never really been a fan of printing lyrics on the sleeve/insert itself, as following along too closely (at least during the first listen) can make the song sound awkward, as it pulls a specific part to the foreground before the song gets a chance to be absorbed as a full song.  It can come across like karaoke.  I realize that almost no one reads the lyrics right away, so I’m likely being paranoid.  But that’s the main reason they’re not printed anywhere on the actual CD.  Besides that, I also still like the idea of words being interpreted and filtered in whatever way the listener needs – I’ve discovered lyrics to songs I’ve adored in the past, after filling in the wrong words for years sometimes in my mind, and it’s almost always been a letdown.

Q: Anything obvious that I’ve overlooked?

We’re in the first stages of booking a cross-Canada tour for spring 2010, coast-to-coast.  As well, Atom Egoyan’s Chloe will be coming out in March, in the States and Europe.  We hope to head overseas later in the year to do some playing as well.

(Show details:  Cover for the Call The Office show is $5.00.  Doors are at 9:00 pm, show starts at 10:00 pm.  Pink Moth and Lonesome Ghost are opening the night.)

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