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Music Interview

Preserving a Culture: An Interview With the Sound Engineer Documenting the Folk Music of Mongolian Herders

Music InterviewAndrew MeriwetherComment
All media by Dimitri Staszewski

All media by Dimitri Staszewski

The eternal struggle of the documentarian is capturing someone in an authentic moment. As soon as one turns on the camera or the recorder, people start performing—masking themselves whether intentionally or not. This challenge is no different for Dimitri Staszewski, who has spent the last nine months as a MTV-U Fulbright Fellow filming and recording Mongolian herders singing and playing traditional music all over the East Asian nation.

Staszewski has documented the voices of goat and sheep herders in the southwest, Kaskak eagle hunters and Reindeer People in the north, and more, always attempting to capture these lay singers in their natural state and preserve a tradition that is beginning to fade. Transverso sat down with Dimitri as he prepares to return to the U.S. to discuss his reflections on the process, why the singing of herders offers something unique, and the future of his online collection, the Mongol Music Archive.

TRANSVERSO: Having been in Mongolia for about 9 months now you’ve met with tons of Mongolians and done countless recordings. How are you feeling coming off this entire experience, and how do you feel about it coming to a close?

STASZEWSKIIt’s interesting because in the expat community I hang around, it’s a lot of academic type people, a lot of Ph.ds - people getting their Ph.d or about to defend their Ph.d - [and] there’s also a few journalists… so it’s been coming up a lot: “What are you going to do with your project?” And without me really asking, [they keep] telling me what they think I should do. [Laughs] Which is funny for me because [the Mongol Music Archive site] is what I’m doing, you know? And I guess I could be doing more with it, but for me it’s like this is the end result. But hearing all these academics, especially like these Ph.d-anthropologist type people, I think I’ve realized - and I started to realize this on my own anyway - I’m a recording engineer before anything else, definitely before an anthropologist, definitely before a photographer or writer. So I’m thinking, “what does a recording engineer do with this project that is supposed to serve ethnomusicologists and Mongolians?”

So you’ve gotten hours and hours of footage and recordings and now you’re wondering what’s the best use of this stuff now that you have it?

Yeah, exactly. Because I’ll put it all on the website, it will all be there, and there’s going to be close to over 200 videos, which is insane, and what do you do with that? How do people even know about that resource even? Unless they search it. And if you don’t speak Mongolian, it’s not really that useful. Yeah, so there is just so much more that can be done.

Obviously there is a big question of what you’re going to do with this, but going back to the beginning of why you decided to do this - and you’ve written overviews of your project and introductions to what you’re about - but I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the specific idea you discuss in your work: capturing herders singing songs, as opposed to professional musicians, and wanting to capture those herders in their natural element as they’re doing their work, not as performance. Why that is so interesting to you or why you think that is important.

Traditional music is part of being Mongolian - like in the city - urban Mongolians listen to traditional music, there are lots of performances. It’s a respected profession to be a musician that performs traditional music. But I saw that the songs - the really old ones - come from herding culture, they come from that life style. If you’re singing about a mountain or whatever, you’re not singing about herding necessarily, but it comes out of being a herder. I noticed that there is this huge urbanization happening, this globalization, that’s influencing the music that is popular in Mongolia. So there are fewer herders singing, like young herders have access to tons of new music, they have TVs in their homes, so it’s happening less and less. The idea is to show… because when you see a herder singing about the environment that they’re in, like you see them next to their sheep and goats in the mountains, it’s so obvious that that environment and that lifestyle gives that herder a different perspective from someone who sings in the capital for their livelihood.

What is it about them not singing for their livelihood, or them singing to their sheep or to the mountain or where they are, that provides something distinct from professional musicians that you think is important for people to hear?

Yeah, well I think it’s important for them to hear and see. That’s the thing. My thesis is: A herder who this is their lifestyle, by recording these performances, I’m not just preserving that performance, I’m trying to preserve that perspective contained in that performance. Because that’s something - even if these songs aren’t being lost, that perspective is something that is being lost. And so, if you look at it in a more objective way, like there are regional differences in the way these songs are performed, the lyrics will be different the notes will be different, but bigger than that: as fewer people live like herders in Mongolia, it becomes more difficult to find that perspective. So kids living in UB [Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital and largest city where 45% of the population resides] may not have heard, never seen a herder singing, and I know that’s true, there are kids you have never seen that. Even if you live in Mongolia, that’s not necessarily accessible, it’s not something to get to see or hear very often in your daily life.

And because young Mongolians in the capital aren’t hearing this music they are losing this important perspective that is part of their heritage?

It’s more that the role that singing plays in the life of the Mongolian herder can’t really be overstated, especially the men - women less so - but if you talk to any Mongolian man and ask them what they do when they are herding it is singing, they’re always singing. Maybe it's just a little humming, maybe it’s them belting out. And when you talk to the people who consider themselves local entertainers or musicians, it’s a way for them to practice. And so it’s more like that tradition as it exists is disappearing and what that tradition says about Mongolia and how that is part of peoples’ heritage is important to preserve as it becomes less common.

What you’re trying to capture is so difficult, right? Because I imagine as soon as you turn on the camera is creates in artificial situation. Has that been a challenge and how have you gotten around that?

Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. You show up - and this is the anthropologist part of me speaking - and you’re trying to observe something, you’re trying to be a fly on the wall, but you’re this big white thing with a camera; you’re very intrusive, you’re the only thing that is not supposed to be there. And so, how I’ve gotten around that problem… first of all, learning Mongolian has helped a lot, because people are like, “oh damn!” Even if I go with a translator, being able to say a few things and show that I can actually speak Mongolian is pretty helpful to them being able to open up and know that “this guy actually cares, he’s not just trying to make a video to make money.” The two biggest things would be having a local person help you, get someone else invested who is not the performer, but who is your ally so that they can help you find musicians and be like, “this American guy, he’s doing this project, it’s so cool, he’s preserving our culture and it is so important. Will you please sing for him?” and that’s obviously going to be so much more credible than me and my translator from UB.

And then the other thing would be going back to the people that I have recorded before. I think the guy who has been the best is the first guy I recorded when I was with SIT [Student International Training], and I’ve gone and visited him 4 times now, and each time he gets more comfortable. So last time I was there I attached my wireless microphone to his Del, and hit record on my device and sometimes I was filming, sometimes I wasn’t filming, and it just ends up looking really natural. Sometimes it will take him a little while to warm up to it, but he always gets around to that. So my equipment is not longer intimidating to him. I’m just his friend now. So it has become really easy.

So you’ve built this friendship with him and he trusts you, but also understands what your project is all about and trying to achieve.

Exactly. Like, I have this video that’s about 10 minutes, and its what I’ve always wanted to get because it’s just him herding, singing as he’s herding. And I was able to get that because I had this wireless microphone that I attached to him and I was just like “do your normal thing” and he was like “Okay, that’s easy.” And I think having it be that length kind of helps, because it makes you realize that this is not a performance, this is life and it is slow.

It’s like you’re capturing real life.

Yeah, and that took a long time. It took me visiting him 3 times and living with him close to a month.

I imagine it is difficult because you can’t really live with everybody for that long.

Exactly, so another part of the project is that I want this huge archive. So some days I’ll record 3 or 4 people. I’ll introduce myself, I’ll introduce my project, and maybe will catch each other’s names, and then it’s like “Will you sing for me?” Well, maybe we’ll drink some tea before that. [Laughs] Yeah, so that’s the other side of the spectrum. You need to have both of those though. If I had just done one then I wouldn’t have any recordings or I wouldn’t have any meaningful recordings.

What has been the reception from Mongolians? I mean, you are this big white guy with a camera, right? And I know you’ve written about this before and I’ve seen you post about it on Facebook - this dilemma of capturing other peoples’ cultures on film and recording, putting it out there, and perhaps in some ways benefiting from it despite obviously going into it with good intentions.

For the people I’m recording, the experience is positive for both of us. Like I’m taking this tangible thing away and it will become a video. But I think they do gain… like a Mongolian herder doesn’t have the opportunity to see a video of them very often, and I do provide a way for them to see the videos, whether it’s me sending them a DVD or a link, and I’ll always send people pictures. The reception of herders varies from “Yeah, I’ll sing for you, but I don’t really see why this is important, or why you want me to sing because I’m not very good,” even if they are, and then there are some herders that are like, “Yes! This needs to happen, this is so awesome.” They understand that this [globalization] is happening more than I do because it’s their culture, so they fully realize that “I’m a herder and my children and their children will be able to hear this as much as I did growing up.”

And I think the reception of Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar is overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been really humbled by some people being like, “you are doing more for Mongolia than many Mongolians. I don’t even understand why you care about our culture,” which is super humbling to hear, and so it feels good to get that positive feedback.

I’m cautious as a foreigner documenting someone else’s culture, but I’ve [only] had maybe two or three experiences where there was some push back, but I’m really aware of that when it happens. And I think because of that I feel really comfortable being this foreigner. I’ve learned Mongolian, I understand the culture, I ask questions that make it clear that I understand what I’m studying, at least a little bit. So I don’t think being a foreign anthropologist has been something that turns people off. Like the few times where it did, where someone was unwilling to sing for me, it felt like it something on their end and like they had a chip on their shoulder, and it was like, “Okay, I don’t need to record you.”

Right, you just move on.

I know this may not be fully formed thing that you have yet. but what do you think is the global significance of the Mongol Music Archive? Is it just documenting this thing that might not exist anymore or is there some sort of larger message you are hoping will be achieved by preserving this specific subset of Mongolian music?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. There is obviously this one side of things that’s like: Mongolians and people around the world will have this part of Mongolian heritage that is not only preserved but also accessible. So even if [herding] still exists for a thousand years, you don’t get to see Mongolian herders singing very often, so now anyone can see that. And that’s really cool, it’s inspiring. It’s really beautiful to see an eagle hunter holding an eagle and singing to it. So knowing that these types of people are out there and making it real, you see that person, you see that they’re singing. I think that is really inspiring. So that would be the one thing.

And the other thing… like for me, I’ve learned so much from the songs themselves, the ones I’ve had translated. It’s really interesting because I’ll go around and record these songs, and sometimes I’ll have these really powerful experiences where I feel this connection with performer and get a really cool performance, but I don’t really understand the song. And so I’ll have them translated, and it’s really crazy when I had an impactful experience and then the song is translated and it’s like, “holy shit!” I didn’t even get that there and now I have this other thing… like the lyrics themselves are incredibly beautiful. I have a lot of the Kasak songs translated, and those ones especially, they are like lessons in the songs themselves. I’m hesitant to say it is this Old World knowledge or something like that, but it is something that doesn’t exist in modern music. You hear the songs, like there is this song this guy sings about his mother, and I had that song translated, and I was like, “I want to tell my mom that I love her” after hearing this song. Which is really amazing, that a song can make you feel that. That it can remind you to tell someone “I love you” or remind you to not be very jealous or to respect the place that you’re inhabiting. I think when you see this person singing about it really naturally - It’s just part of their life, it’s nothing to them - that it makes you think more about the meaning of the song.

So the fact that they’re not professional musicians opens you up more the advice or the message of their song?

Yeah, when they’re out there herding and their singing, they’re only singing what they want, there is no other motive other than entertaining themselves. So they sing a song when the lyrics of the song are what they are feeling. When that guy is thinking about his mother, he sings that song. When he is appreciative for the valley he lives in or he misses relatives, he might sing a different song. But professional musicians, like it is always to make money, ya know? And they definitely have a connection to their music, but I think having that separation where it is purely, like fully just-for-me, it makes me take the advice or hear the message a lot more.

That makes me think about like when you see musicians play live a lot. Lets say they are playing 100 shows on a tour and they are singing the same song. It may be a really meaningful song, telling someone that you love them or providing advice, but because they are singing it every night over and over and over again, there is something about that that feels artificial. As opposed to somebody whose like, “I’m just out and about and this is what I feel like singing, my livelihood is not attached to this in anyway”

Yeah, I think that’s accurate. But I’m also hesitant to say something is artificial when I’m talking about someone’s culture. I think that’s something we have to be careful about. I would say the biggest message I take away is the positive, what I do get from these herders, as opposed to what I don’t get from professional musicians.

Sure, you don’t want to be disparaging other musicians, you just think there is something important to be captured in the way herders perform music.

So what are the future plans for Mongol Music Archive?

Yeah, I’ll be adding tons of music over the next few months. I’m also having this photo exhibit that will hopefully fund my life for the next month or two, which is probably possible because Wyoming, where I live, is super cheap. So I want to finish that, and I think I need some time to sit with it and think about how I’m going to compile it, because I do want to do something more than the website with it. So whether it’s publishing some stories, not necessarily about Mongol Music Archive, but stories that incorporate the music I captured or specific experiences, or culmination of experiences with the music tied into it, I have some specific ideas already. But yeah, just sitting with it. Nine months in a foreign country is a big deal, and when you have been solely focused on this one thing for nine months, I think I need to step back and think about what I’m going to do. 

See more of the Mongol Music Archive and like it on Facebook.

Diane Coffee's Shaun Fleming Learns He Has a Spotify Page and Explains Why 'Everybody's A Good Dog'

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

Panache and personality are two things that Shaun Fleming has in spades. Following earlier stints as a Disney voice actor and Foxygen drummer, his near three year run as Diane Coffee has seen him and his Good Dogs cover a lot of ground and challenge a lot of conceptions. Fleming is a performer at his core, but his approach to the consciousness should be noted as well - a beguiling sort of romanticism with a hint of jocularity - he's a new age amalgamation of David Bowie, Kevin Barnes, Prince, and Meatloaf, but with his own psychedelic sensibilities. Diane Coffee's live sets precede the band's reputation (arguably one of the best live bands on the tour circuit), and Transverso spoke with Fleming before he embarked upon yet another journey of "a lot of peace, a lot of love, a lot of happiness, and a lot of costume changes" this summer tour.

TRANSVERSO: How are you enjoying the last day before kicking off your tour in Lexington tomorrow?

SHAUN FLEMING: I’m doing alright man, [it's] nice hanging out in the backyard. I’m in Bloomington, Indiana. We actually have a couple days off, so I’m just hanging out at home - I’ve been living here for close to three years now.

How do you like it?

I love it man! I really, really love it. It's definitely a lot different than New York/LA, and all of those other places. But it’s a great spot, it's really cool.

I’ve heard it’s a great spot, there’s a lot of cool music up there – yourself included.

Yeah man!

So Diane Coffee is a singular name, but you play with a backing band – I think you’ve referred to them as The Good Dogs.

Oh yeah, yeah. They’re my Good Dogs.

So do they make Diane Coffee a full-blown solo act that happens to have a backing band, or do you consider it to be more of a collective entity?

Um, Yes. [Laughs] It’s a little bit of both, you know? Diane Coffee – the name is kind of a way to put a label on a feeling. It's that feeling that I get – and a lot of people get – when I’m performing. Its that performance element. It's that same kind of person and you're at a show – maybe you’re quiet at home, but then you’re in that element where that sort of voodoo comes over you and you just start singing at the top of your lungs, moving and grooving. Its that, and it just so happens that [Diane Coffee] is the name I’ve given it. It's something that I’ve definitely embodied, but its also The Good Dogs, we’re all for Diane Coffee, and the audience at a show, they’re Diane Coffee, we’re all Diane Coffee.

Do you ever have shows where people come up to you after a set having expected someone other than who you are?

I mean, not so much any more. There were a lot of people who came when we first started playing that came and were like “Oh, my friend told me to come and see this band and I thought it was going to be some female lounge singer,” but, not so much any more. I mean, band names aren’t really that important – at least to me – they’re usually all pretty bad, including mine. I mean, even The Beatles – that’s just a stupid pun – it's like it doesn’t matter, because they’re made fantastic music, and that at the end of the day is what I think is the most important thing. I mean [The Beatles] could have gotten away with anything at this point. But so not that much any more because we’ve been around long enough to where we’ve gained enough of a reputation that people come in knowing the whole deal.

What can you tell me about Harem Scare ‘Em?

Whoa… Whoa dude! Good on you! Good on you doing your research! [Laughs] Harem Scare ‘Em, that’s my very first – I’ll call it a band, but we were like a cover band. We had one or two originals that we tried, but they were just really, really bad, so we just decided to not do that. So it was high school, and we had a talent show coming up, and we were all like “Hey, we all play music, let’s play the show!” But I could barely play the guitar, so I was just front man vibes. We did [The Beatles'] “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and we won the talent show. Our principal was like this old hippie, and he was like [imitating voice] “Yeah, we’d love have you do a whole concert of this stuff!” So we were like “Oh god! Okay!” So we learned like an hour of all sorts of – pretty much, we were like a Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix cover band – so many things. We did like a 27-minute Beatles medley, which was insane and quite an accomplishment at the time. So we did that, and it was fun, and we were like “the high school band” and it's continued on, and whenever we’re all in town together today we’ll just go to a bar and book a show as Harem Scare ‘Em and do like three hours of covers. It's great, man. I love those guys. Actually, the guitar player’s dad, is the one who arranged all the strings for [Everybody’s a Good Dog]. Steve Hansen is his name. It was great man. It was really cool to work with him, and just kind of have more family connections. I mean, it’s a family album [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s Harem Scare ‘Em – those guys are all great, and they’re just some of the best musicians I’ve ever met.

I noticed on your Spotify profile you only follow three artists – Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, and The Miracles…

I have a Spotify profile!?

You do! And it says that you just follow Isaac Hayes, The Isely Brothers, and The Miracles.

That sounds about right.

Would you count those three as inspirations in some way to how Diane Coffee came about?

Well, I mean yeah, but I’d also count countless others. I mean, I’m influenced by everything that I hear, even if I don’t like it. It's like that would be something that I wouldn’t do, and that’s the only way I would be influenced by that. [Laughs] I mean those guys are definitely… I don’t know why. I don’t really use Spotify all that much, mainly just because my phone is kind of broken – my headphone jack is broken on my phone. I’ve been like listening to CDs in my car, which is cool. So I don’t really use Spotify, and I never really got into it that much, but I know I had to make one for some little promos for Spotify, so I had to have one. We’re kind of veering off point, but yeah, definitely those guys are influences, but I think some bigger influences for this project would be people like Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, people like Prince and Meatloaf and Bowie and The Beatles; these big people who have these really big stage shows and were very flamboyant and broad. I mean, I come from a heavy theatrical background, like a lot of musical theatre and stage shows and I did a lot of improv comedy, so I like a lot of that in performance – theatrics – and that’s something I really wanted at the start of this project. It's just sort of me in general too, it's not like its something that I can just stop doing.

So your stage presence - which is unparalleled in a lot of ways – is that inherent then? Almost kind of conditioned to be theatrical?

Yeah, I don’t know if its been conditioned… that’s the age old question like “Are you born this way or did you come up and figure it out?” I’ve always been wanting to put on little shows and get dressed up and put on my mom’s clothes and all that. Then I sort of came out of my shell in high school, as far as performing in public and I joined a lot of theatre classes and all that. So I don’t know if its always been that way. Wanting to perform and be flamboyant like that has always kind of been something has been a part of my life that I’ve never really gotten to have just free reign and kind of do whatever I really wanted to do until now. [Laughs] I want to make it as big as I can with the means that I have at this point.

Moving from the live set to the recorded and production side of your music – between your two records, My Friend Fish seems to explore darker musical tones through a lighter narrative lens while Everybody’s a Good Dog almost does the opposite, in the sense that it tackles more complex narrative themes but with a happier disposition. Is that a product of having more time to figure out what Diane Coffee is?

Yeah! Wow! Man, I really like the way you put that! That’s great! I’ve always kind of thought of these two records in the same way. You know, I don’t know if its intentional with that first record – I was kind of in a dark place, just being sick and in new surroundings, just being alone; so that’s kind of how that all came about. But lyrically its still pretty light. But with My Friend Fish I didn’t really know that I was doing a record. It was really quick, and it was more like I was just making songs to kill time. But with [Everybody’s a Good Dog] I got more time to keep thinking about the structure, though for me, [lyrics] are the very, very last thing I do. I always write the lyrics like the day before I put them down.

So, I mean, it's kind of weird – for me I don’t really go into it with an idea, I just kind of go into it with a feeling of the song, and the melody will kind of tell me what the song is about. Then I might kind of have a phrase that’s floating in my head and the whole thing will come from that one little phrase. I just think knowing that I was putting out this record, I wanted to just take a little more time and reflect a little bit more, and figure some more of what you said, more complex narratives. It's kind of hard to say why exactly that happened that way, too. It was just sort of the place I was when this record came out.

That makes total sense. On the same kick – I’ve always been interested in what the process is when someone is laying out the tracklist for a record, particularly the first and final tracks as possible “statements.” Did that notion come to mind when choosing “Spring Breathes” to open Everybody’s a Good Dog and then closing it with “Not That Easy?”

You know, I do like to spend a whole lot of time picking out the order of how these songs are going to appear on the record, but “Spring Breathes” sort of came to me… It's funny, it's like the only song that this has ever really happened to, it actually came to me – that whole intro - it came to me in a dream. I woke up, and I have the funniest voice memo recording of me kind of stumbling through in the middle of the night where I was trying to sing what was going on in my head and like how the song was going to go like [whispering] “Oh yeah, and then it's going to change and it's going to really fast, and then at this point its going to Latin sounding,” you know, [laughs] it was really weird. So I knew that that song – just because of all the changes and just how it was structured – it wouldn’t really fit anywhere else in the record. It kind of had to be first or be last, and that song is definitely kind of about starting over again, and kind of asking yourself these questions about whether or not you’re – in this case its about falling love, again, and whether or not you are in the right place to have another relationship, especially given your career or anything else that may be in your life. And that was kind of the same thing with “Not That Easy,” which was kind of accepting that you are always going to be coming home, and you’re going to have an atypical relationship. So in that way, those two made sense as the very beginning and very end of this huge journey for the record to come that kind of understanding.

It seems like a positive prospect at the beginning – it doesn’t necessarily become negative – but it's certainly more spectral gazing in a sense at the end.

Yeah, for sure. I mean there are bunch of songs that… The record is loosely – there are a few tracks that maybe have slightly differing themes, but for the most part, this record is kind of about examining me personally. My love life, my relationships, entangled with my career, and both things I don’t want to live without. So it's very hard, because they both take up an incredible amount of time and energy, and I don’t want to sacrifice any time on either. You know what I mean?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

And it's something that everyone – it doesn’t matter if they’re doing something else – experiences; there’s almost always going to be something they really love that does the same thing. I’d love to say that I would give everything up for either thing, but its just not true.

I’m sure that’s far more relevant than you could possibly fathom.

[Laughs] I think a lot of people go through that, be it artists, or anyone whose maybe got a hobby that takes up a lot of their time.

I wholeheartedly agree. As far as bookending tacks are concerned – “Hymn” and “Green” on My Friend Fish is one of my favorite beginning/ending pairings on a record.

Thanks man! [Laughing/fake yelling] You’re damn right! You’re damn right!

So with the theatrical inspirations for your live set – you’re a very snappy dresser on stage.

Thank you.

Of course. I assume the background in theatre plays some sort of role in that facet of your live set?

Oh yeah, sure! As far as all the theatrics on stage, I’ve been working a lot with my partner, Melinda Danielson – she goes by Nature’s Whether. She pretty much designs all those costumes. She’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades. You know it sounds kind of bad to say “well she’s just an artist,” you know what I mean? But its true, she does a lot of sort of performance art stuff and then she also does design work for me, and I work very closely with her when we’re coming up with themes for these shows. Like this last one, where I was in this gold costume – and we finally retired that one – but that was all about battling with the masculine and feminine archetypes and halfway through you shed and open up. She pretty much put that whole thing together. So that’s something that we can both do together, and how we both sort of share our artwork. We can both be working, but also have a fun time when we get together. I love what she does. So it's really, really fun to be able to work with someone you love, or with family.

I bet. I’d figure it probably helps further solidify the relationships, in a sense.

Yeah! I don’t know if you knew this, but we did this tour with of Montreal, and David [Barnes, Kevin Barnes’ brother] does all of the costuming and stuff; he’s kind of in charge of that whole world. It's like Kevin’s music and David is art.

Right. Yeah, I saw you guys on that tour.

Yeah man, that was so great. Those guys are so much fun. I love them to death. So that’s really cool that they’re both able to do that – it's like a family affair. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Melinda.

Awesome. I don’t want to try and pull any spoilers or anything – but what can people expect this time around in terms of thematic elements?

You know, this time around – it's still really in the early stages – we wanted to try and get one more thing for summer, but its been hard because we’ve been out on the road so much, so its hard to find time to work something completely new. But the idea behind this new one is that we’re kind of sailors exploring the ethos and we crash land on this crazy island, and we start to learn. It's about acceptance and being able to understand someone else’s culture or ideals and be able to really dive headfirst into that. It's basically like walking in someone else’s shoes. So it's kind of like a journey of discovery and acceptance [laughs] that’s kind of the long and short of it, but still trying to work it out.

Down to the eleventh hour it sounds like.

Yeah, it's like when you’re trying to work out a new song on the road – the only time you have to really practice is like the 10 minutes you have during sound check – so it's like you’re just “I’m going to keep doing this. Maybe it's not ready yet, but I’m going to keep running through it. No we have to fix that, we’ll have to do it tomorrow.” So you’re kind of adding more as you go along, and hopefully it really pans out, but its fun. We ran a version of it just the other night, and it was pretty fun. It gets the audience interaction and it's pretty cool. Its going to be this sort of ever-evolving show; it keeps us on our toes.

So what should we expect from the tour this summer?

It's going to be a journey. A lot of peace, a lot of love, a lot of happiness, and a lot of costume changes.

Everybody's A Good Dog is out now via Western Vinyl. See Diane Coffee tour dates here.

The Staves Discuss the Transience of 'Sleeping In A Car' and Loving Eaux Claires

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

The life of a touring musician is one such existence that has been prophesied and romanticized in every which way, but the one prevailing commonality amongst touring musicians remains the mode in which a transient life can impact one's purview on music and life as a whole. Touring can perturb and intimidate, but for others like English sister trio, The Staves, a life of transience marked by fleeting moments while in constant motion can be irresistible. Having spent the better part of two years on support of their 2015 full-length If I Was and their most recent EP release, Sleeping In A Car, it would be fair to assume that the road has come to mold The Staves' approach to their acoustic folk music immeasurably, along with producing lifelong creative partnerships with the likes of Justin Vernon.

Transverso spoke with the eldest of the three, Emily Staveley-Taylor, to find out more about their view of life on the road and its impact on their career to date. 

TRANSVERSO: You’re pretty close to the end of your tour. How have things been playing out thus far?

Its been so much fun. It's been like really, really great. We’ve just been so amazed by the people that have come to see us, and it's just been a riot – I’d forgotten how much fun it is touring in the States. So fun.

You've been touring in support of If I Was for the better part of a year and a half now, is that correct?

Yes, I guess so. A year and half, I believe.

And it looks like the touring has been pretty extensive – has the reception for the record been what you anticipated, or did you have any expectation at all?

No, I don’t think we had any expectations. I mean, you never know, really. For us, it's always about just kind of playing new music, and we just love it. And we love traveling around, and we’ve just been really lucky that people have been into it. That’s really a great bonus.

How has the transient lifestyle lent itself to an EP like Sleeping In A Car?

I think the more you do it, the more you realize what sort of a strange life choice it is. Yeah, I guess our songs have sort of started to reflect our lives when you are kind of displaced, I suppose; when you’re far away from your friends and your family and your grounding, your home where you’re kind of familiar. So yeah, things kind of become stranger and slightly more surreal, and slightly harder to retain a sense of normality. So I guess that’s what we’ve been exploring in certainly this last EP and probably parts of the last album as well. So it feels kind of quite fitting to play those songs on the road.

So did you spend a lot of time writing Sleeping In A Car on the road as well?

No, we don’t really write on the road; generally there’s never really any time. So we try and write when we have breaks from touring.

How long of a break did you have to write the EP? Was it all in one moment, or was it split up?

The title track was actually demoed almost a year before. It's really kind of a different process for each of the songs – some of the songs have been kicking around for a long time, and sometimes a song comes to fruition in the space of a few days. And this EP was a little bit of all of those things, so yeah. The recording and coming together of all three tracks was really done in a week.

I read that you recorded the EP in both London and Eau Claire – at Urchin Studios and April Base respectively – how does that happen? Does that effect the recording process at all?

Well, we recorded 90% of the EP at April Base Studios and then it was time for us to come home – our flight was booked – but we hadn’t quite finished it yet and Matt [Ingram] has a great studio in London [Urchin], and we were able to book in a couple of days there, so we went in and just finished it. It was stuff like all we needed to do was change the drums on the second verse of this that and the other, add a harmony line to this thing. So it was really kind of the finishing touches, but we had all the basic from April Base; it was kind of just finishing the decorating.

Sleeping In A Car's transient lifestyle “tone” – being an “outlaw,” stolen phone in the night, etc. – almost feels like you’re creating a “runaway” mentality. Is that a fair way to interpret it?

Yeah, I guess so. I think it feels like that sometimes – you’re living outside of any rules of normality that [it] seems like most other people live by. Its kind of disorienting, but also really liberating, and even kind of exciting. Yeah, it's kind of all of those things at the same time, and its kind of a bit dangerous if you don’t try really hard, you can lose your head. It also makes you feel really alive. Its great. Sometimes you do certainly feel like you are kind of an outlaw, just operating on the periphery.

So in a way, does the EP act as a coping mechanism for extended periods of time spent on the road?

I think that music is a coping mechanism for life, really, genuinely. I think it’s a place where you get to explore what you’re thinking and feeling about what’s been going on in your life. It’s a place where you get to try and make sense of it, or try to understand it better. Its almost like a form of therapy – putting it into a piece of art, to study it in a way – to kind of take yourself away from it for a bit, and you can see it more clearly. I think that we’ve been finding that more and more, as we’ve been writing more and more. We really, really felt it with the last album, and I think it continued with the EP with that vibe. Sometimes its only when you finish making the music that you actually realize what has been going on for you, like "Oh yeah, its there. I finally see it.” Its like this mirror that I finally see clearly through – that’s how we feel about it anyway.

Has your time spent on the road had any sort of impact on your approach to performing the songs live as well?

I guess so. I think really – in all honesty – money has a large impact on all of that stuff. If you’re playing some kind of show and they have a big budget then you can do something really kind of outrageous and have extra players with you, and you can try all the stage, and all sorts of lights and everything. It can be a wonderful thing to do. We actually did that recently in London - it was great – we had three brass players, two string players, and there were loads of us, and it was great fun, but when you don’t have much money, you kind of have to do more yourself. At first that’s frustrating, but actually, it's been really, really fun. We’ve been playing instruments that we’ve never played before – Camilla’s playing bass, I’m playing a lot with synths, Jess has got a keyboard – it's just a different set up now for us, and I think its really breathed some new life into a lot of older songs, certainly. We’re just really enjoying feeling more like a band than we ever had done, rather than us just singing together. Its really exciting, its really fun being on the road with this set-up.

Now that things are winding down on the tour do your live sets feel more nebulous or are things becoming more and more familiar?

Well, not really; the tour is coming to an end, but we have festivals in the States right through to the end of August – some of them we’re writing special pieces for, so there’s lots of writing, rehearsing, and traveling around for that. And then we’re kind of staying out in the States until Christmas time – we don’t know where we’re going to living, or what we’re going to be doing - we just kind of decided to hang out on this side of the pond for a while. So we feel kind of ungrounded and unsure of what the future holds. [Laughs]

I would imagine that’s the beauty of the situation that you’re in.

Yeah, it is. And its also one of the great things about being in this situation with my sisters – that there’s always a large piece of home with me wherever I go – so that really helps.

Does that help out in maintaining your proverbial “sanity” while touring so extensively? You all seem to be pretty clever, and I would imagine that humor plays a nice role in easing the strain of touring.

I think that’s true. I think that humor plays a great role in everything, for everyone, and we’d go mad without it.

Most people are pretty familiar with The Staves’ association to Justin Vernon, but I saw that you guys played Sydney Opera House in a sort of “in-the-round” set-up. What was that like?

Oh, it was really exciting. I mean Justin and everyone in that band and crew just have a very, very exciting way of thinking about music and about art and about performance and its really an inspiration to just be around it. And to tailor a show to a building like Sydney Opera house, where it really plays to the room was wonderful to watch that kind of evolve. Its just great fun to be a part of – we love the music – its really interesting for us to sing in that band, because we get to use our voices kind of more as instruments – we’ve kind of been singing the horn parts or the string section – it's kind of a way that we’re not used to. I kind of think that’s informing some of the stuff that we’re writing right now, it gives a lot to think about in terms what we do vocally. It's great. [Laughs] I mean, who gets to go and perform at Sydney Opera House? It's wild.

It seemed like it would be phenomenal. On that same note, I saw you at Eaux Claires last summer, so I wanted to get your take on what it was like for you, to be an artist performing at such a unique festival.

Oh no way! Well I think that one of the amazing things about that festival was that the artists really had a similar experience to the viewers and everyone just got really excited, and felt really lucky to be there. All the artists were watching the other artists, everyone was just hanging out, and everyone was just excited to be a part of it, and everyone really was a part of it. It was successful because the vibe that all the people brought to it. We’re really excited to be playing it [again] this year. We’re actually doing a special piece with yMusic. Do you know them? It’s a sextet of chamber music.

Right! Rob Moose is a part of yMusic, right?

That’s right, yeah. All of those guys! So we’re going to be writing something together just especially for the festival. Its just a joy. The people that were there, the people that went to the festival were there to really enjoy the music. A lot of other festivals have become corporate, or commercial, or become more about getting wasted in a field, and taking Instagram photos, where Eaux Claires was just about the music. It was so refreshing, and so magical, and its kind of why I love the Midwest so much. [Laughs]

Still Whistling Through the Darkness: Peter Bjorn and John On Reaching 'Breakin' Point'

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Bands are often boxed into having narrow calling cards despite their best efforts, whether it be a niche genre or a particular magnum opus from 2006 unfairly labeled as a one-hit wonder. But five years after their last LP, Gimme Some, gave us 300% of a normal thumbs up in the form of guitar-driven power pop, and a full decade after their ubiquitous hit, "Young Folks," whistled its way into hearts and sync licenses everywhere, Peter Bjorn and John's seventh album, Breakin' Point, offers something altogether different.

Their first full-length released on the band's own label, INGRID, but polished by a veritable all-star team of outside producers, it's a pure pop collection of 12 singles that simultaneously signifies both increasing independence and their most controlled and collaborative effort to date. It's 41 minutes of danceable relief from some of the negative themes lyricized - such as dealing with The Man and modern music industry woe - made all the more special considering its creators only had two hours of sunlight back home in which to play it.

On a recent warm summer night, Peter Bjorn and John continued the first steps of an American tour in support of Breakin' Point as the headlining act at a modest food festival in the streets of Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. Several delays (the preceding band's grand piano didn't exit the stage without an apparent fight, nor did the Swedes' monitors play nicely) and a hard curfew saw the easy-going trio abruptly cut off after 40 minutes, leaving throwback set closer "Objects Of My Affection" sadly unperformed, but even that did little to mar what was a classically exuberant PB&J show now also aided by new touring members and that special kind of excitement that can only come after a hiatus as long as theirs.

Transverso sat down with guitarist and lead vocalist, Peter Morén, and percussionist, John Eriksson, following their set to discuss Breakin' Point, illegitimate sons, and why they keep on whistling even after all these years.

TRANSVERSO: So tell us about this Breakin’ Point tour.

JOHN ERIKSSON: This specific tour is the first feeling of how the songs are taken by the audience [that] has heard the whole album, and it’s very different from all other tours because we’re bringing all our families in a hippie bus. There’s one family bus and one crew bus; I think the family bus, that’s where the party is! [Laughs]

How has bringing your families along affected tour life?

PETER MORÉN: We just started, so we’ll see. All day is gonna be taking care of kids.

How has leaving your old label and releasing Breakin’ Point on your own startup, INGRID, changed your process? Do you feel you have more freedom now?

MORÉN: Not really. We didn’t know it was going to be on INGRID, really, but we started the label in between the records so it felt pretty natural eventually, but I don’t think it affected the record.

ERIKSSON: Pontus [Winnberg] from Miike Snow - they are also in the INGRID label - actually co-produced two of the songs. I think that might not have happened if we didn’t have that label with [them]. We worked in the INGRID studios in Stockholm for a week and the week after Miike Snow did their new album, so meeting Pontus was a natural thing to collaborate. We might play on their record and Pontus worked with us, so that’s the good thing about INGRID: collaborations and stuff.

And it wasn’t just Pontus; you enlisted a lot of outside producers for this album including Paul Epworth (Paul McCartney, U2, Florence And The Machine) and Patrick Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop), which you don’t normally do. Has that outside influence in the studio made it more difficult for you to translate the record to your live show?


MORÉN: It was hard doing the record. It took a long time, but when we finally got the record done and started rehearsing live it felt pretty natural to do the arrangements. That’s partly why we wrote in those [new touring members]. We usually only play the three of us so this is like an upgrading or something. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: Its PB&J Big Band... PB&J Plus Two.

I was thinking, because of your band name you can’t ever really change members.

MORÉN: [Laughs] It would have to be the same name.

How many bassists are there named Björn?

ERIKSSON: There was a guitar player named Björn Ulvaeus in ABBA, the old Swedish band. He played the bass too. Yeah, we met [him] at the airport a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t say so much, but he might be able to fill in. [Laughs]

I read that ABBA’s been such a huge influence on you you once jokingly claimed to be their illegitimate sons.

ERIKSSON: [Laughs] Oh yeah!

You’ve been around a while now yourselves, is there another band you’ve influenced that could be your illegitimate sons?

MORÉN: [Laughs] Ooh, good question…

ERIKSSON: There was a Swedish guy [Peter] actually did some work with, I thought he was your son, he seemed to like the same stuff you did. He was a Swedish hairdresser, that guy.

MORÉN: [Laughs] What? A Hairdresser?

ERIKSSON: Yeah! His name was Mikael… Mike? Mikey? Michael? I don’t know. [Laughs]

MORÉN: Someone I played with?


I know Paul McCartney is another big influence of yours, and it was his birthday yesterday. I know it's kind of an impossible question, but I was curious if you might have a favorite song of his.

MORÉN: Ooh, that’s interesting. It’s funny, because yesterday we were playing Nashville and Ringo Starr was playing [there too] on Paul’s birthday. It’s kind of hard, I’ve almost heard them all. Let me think… I actually did a Spotify playlist with 150 Paul McCartney songs, it’s actually pretty good.

ERIKSSON: [Laughs] For who?

MORÉN: For anyone who wants it! [Laughs] And I didn’t even count the classical records or experimental electronic records, I just did the pop records. But that’s a good playlist actually, I recommend it, I’ll send it to you! [Laughs] There’s a pretty little song I’ll pick today called “I’m Carrying.” It’s on the London Town record. That’s George Harrison’s favorite Paul McCartney song, so I pick that today, and tomorrow it’ll be something else.

ERIKSSON: You’ll have to update your website.

You critique the music industry in “Pretty Dumb Pretty Lame,” specifically the entitlement of some artists. Is there anything specific that inspired that subject?

MORÉN: It began with this thing where artists moan about how hard it is being an artist. Like, okay, skip it then! [Laughs] I don’t get [it], like things should be great if people come and see you play, otherwise you should skip it. I don’t see the point in being an artist if you don’t enjoy it, because no one forced you to be come an artist. There's a lot of shit in this industry for sure, it’s kind of quite fucked up, so there's a lot to critique. [Laughs]

You're successful artists who seem to enjoy what you do now, but I know Peter was studying to be a librarian before the band took off. That made me wonder: if you weren’t Peter Bjorn and John, what would you be doing instead?

MORÉN: I had some [jobs] before: I did some teaching, I worked in a bookshop. It would always be jobs because you had to pay rent, it wouldn’t be passion. I enjoy studying film, so I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Maybe I would write something like music reviews, that’s fun.

ERIKSSON: Luckily I had an old music career - I don’t want to call it career because it’s a hobby still, music - but I played classical percussion in a classical ensemble, so if PB&J hadn't happened I would still be doing that, I think. I’m happy I was drawn out of that because I did it for a long time, but now if I could choose I wouldn’t go back to that. I’ve been thinking about that… as Peter said I like movies too, but you know how hard it is to make an album, then to make a movie it’s like 20x the troubles with every detail, so I wouldn’t go into film. So same as Peter; just writing words. That would be fun because then it’s quiet and you can do it anywhere. That must be a very good job to be a writer, I must say, as you are. If Björn was here he would answer he wants to be a tennis pro, I’m sure.

In the past you’ve discussed the juxtaposition of light and dark present in both Swedish culture and the pop genre. Can you elaborate on how that inspires your creative vision?

MORÉN: It’s not something we discuss or decide about, it’s just something that happens quite naturally. It’s been like that on almost all the records, but I realized there are some very positive songs as well here and there. But if you take like a whole catalog and divide it down theres a lot of more depressed lyrics or slightly negative. I like that juxtaposition, but, for me anyway, it’s not planned like I think I should write negative lyrics to positive music.

ERIKSSON: It’s a natural Swedish melancholy always in every laughter. [Laughs]

MORÉN: [Laughs] It’s a long tradition in pop music. It’s quite common actually even in stuff you don’t think about, like even early Beatles songs that are happy are like, “I’m a loser,” “Help!” It’s all shit. Lyrics are really depressing.

ERIKSSON: It’s dark; during winter season where we come from up north it’s like two hours a day you might see the sun. Apart from that it’s just total darkness. So maybe that should affect you in some way, but also it might be a reason why there are so many musicians; you have to be indoors when it’s too cold to be outside [so] you either become a hockey player or a musician. If you live in Brazil you can be outside all day, you can be good at football.

MORÉN: For us at least, and a lot of Swedes, I think, the way we were brought up in really small villages [in] the middle of nowhere there wasn’t a lot to do. There were a lot of people doing sports and [we weren’t] into that, so when I got into music I did a lot of it myself. I learned to play guitar by myself and just listened to records and write songs to keep myself amused. Then of course when you grow up and move to Stockholm there are a lot of things happening, but I think sometimes you try to get back to that vibe of being bored to be able to create music. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: All our friends, all my classmates were playing hockey except me. I found music, and same for Peter and Björn too. So it’s interesting that we three met [because we] started off not finding any bandmates because we lived in this small city up in the north of Sweden. But then you end up in Stockholm and you form a band that’s now playing in Chicago! It’s pretty weird and amazing. [Laughs] 

Breakin’ Point features a decent amount of whistling, but in the press release you made a point to say it shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. Have you felt pressured or hesitant about including whistling in your songs since “Young Folks”?

MORÉN: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know if it was discussed on any previous records but there was some whistling on the instrumental record called Seaside Rock, but no one noticed. There is whistling on [Writer’s Block track “Amsterdam”], too.

ERIKSSON: And on “Objects Of My Affection” and the B-side “Ancient Curse.” We whistled the whole summer.

MORÉN: And on this record we whistled on “Nostalgic Intellect” as well, but it’s together with the organs so it doesn’t sound as much. I think even on this new one we were kind of hesitating, which is why I said it wasn’t a big thing. It is something you do naturally; I always see people [doing it]. You just whistle stuff, you know? So on that song “Breakin’ Point” we had the piano melody already recorded, but then I was recording my voice and I started whistling, and someone said we should keep that and turn it up. But we were hesitating, actually. [Laughs]

ERIKSSON: Yeah, it’s like you did a magic trick at a party; you can’t do it at the next party or people with think you're cheesy or something. [Laughs] Peter had a supergroup called Tutankamon for a while, and you did a song with whistling and it was kind of not so far from “Young Folks.” You played it in a jeans store and did that whistling and I thought, for me, it didn’t fit. Like, Peter shouldn’t whistle, that felt bad.

You can't whistle with other bands!

ERIKSSON: Yeah, I felt betrayed actually! [Laughs]

Read our review of Breakin' Point here.

Cullen Omori Talks 'New Misery,' Tour Cancellation, and Life After Smith Westerns

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

If you’re an indie buzz band aficionado of the early twenty-teens, you likely touted Smith Westerns as one of the preeminent “buzz bands” in their class. As it seems is the natural course of most relationships, endeavors, and bands started in high school, the members of Smith Westerns began to develop divergent views when it came to their future direction, and subsequently disbanded.

Since the dismemberment of the band, former frontman and Chicago native, Cullen Omori, set out to grasp the realities of embarking on a solo journey, making demos initially intended as post-band-breakup coping mechanisms, that after some extended basement sessions, materialized into Omori’s sublime Sub Pop debut, New Misery.

In the midst of a cross-country move, Transverso spoke with Cullen over the Bluetooth speaker system of his Fiat rental as he combed the Hollywood Hills in search of his future Los Angeles homestead.

CULLEN OMORI: Let me just jump in my car real quick, it's air conditioned in there. So anyway… Alright. I’ve got like this crazy rental car… and it's like a Fiat. The little tiny Fiat thing, so it’s a super… it's got like a computer thing in it that I can use as a Bluetooth so I can talk to you over the car.


So what’s up? Lets talk. Fire away.

Alright. I guess I’ll start out with something general: How do you feel having New Misery out for a while now? How do you think people have interpreted it? Are you pleased, or are you kind of bummed out?

You know, it’s a mixed bag. I spent so much time making the record and, I mean, the record was done and mastered last August, but it took six months to come out and that was kind of annoying, and to have my “maiden” tour blow up the way it did with my van breaking down and the rental van that we got just to go back to the airport got broken into and my clothes got stolen.

That must have been rough.

I mean, it’s a story for sure, and it’s a crazy story, but it's like those things were all kind of real big bummers. I don’t know, I think right now, I’ve always been… with Smith Westerns, I’ve always had really good reviews and this time around its been mixed. I think a lot of people in the US haven’t been getting it in the same that all my European or UK reviews have all been like super super good. You know? Its kind of like people have been missing the point and, I don’t know, that’s kind of annoying. But I’m not trying to write for like critics. Usually, it just so happens that critical people tend to like my music a lot more than like a general audience. This time around it’s a little different, but at the same time… I don’t know. I guess I do. I’m a little annoyed because I feel like I made a record that sonically is really different, but still has a lot of complex, deeper things that people kind of take at face value. Kind of like, “Oh these are songs that some Millennial would write about,” like “Losing the indie spotlight” or “Falling out of some popular band,” when it wasn’t that. It was that was part of it, but there were so many other kind of themes of coming out a self-destructive thing and being so fucked up all the time on drugs, and just not knowing kind of what I was going to do next. And kind of just working through that and while working through that I wrote this album, and that was more what it was about, more so than like “Oh, I’m bummed that I’m not in Smith Westerns any more.” I could give two shits about being in Smith Westerns right now, and I also really hate that I’m getting pegged where people are kind of like “Oh yeah, this is like Smith Westerns,” and it's comparing it to it, and people will send me messages that are like “Can you make a song that’s like this Smith Westerns’ song?” and it's like “Shut the fuck up.”

Absolutely. That has to be irritating.

Yeah. So I guess it's mixed about how its been received.

Sure. I figured that’s probably the downside of once being involved in the “indie darling” or “buzzband” cycle. It seems like it might create this sort of undue expectation of anything that might come after whatever the initial entity was, and that sounds like something that you’re dealing with right now.

Yeah. Well the thing is Smith Westerns wasn’t Coldplay – we weren’t this huge thing – and I like to think of it as I can go on and have a life after Smith Westerns and it doesn’t have to be held up to it. You know? I feel like as the frontman of the band, I’m kind of unfairly labeled as whatever I make, when really it was this whole process of me and Max writing the songs. It wasn’t just me doing everything. So yeah. Also, coming out of a bad situation, Smith Westerns kind of just gelled together and all of us sort of were doing well, and the path was obvious that we would keep making music with it. But after I left, there was no path. It wasn’t like “Oh, I should go and write another record,” and one of the cool things in writing this record was that it was an exercise in letting myself know that for me personally that I can sit down and write an album start to finish all by myself. I could do all the parts that otherwise, Smith Westerns were too afraid to try, or they thought were going to be bad, or whatever.

So it's like an exercise in songwriting for me, and so I still like the record. It's not like anything has turned me off to how I feel about it. I still feel strong about it, I support it, I think they’re good songs that are smart. I think that unfortunately, it's not a record that people… well, you know, I feel like right now with indie music, if you play guitar, you go two ways with it – you can go shoegaze-y or you can go with this '70s light rock shit. Its like jingle rock, and I really wanted to make something different, so I thought at the time a year and a half ago “I wasn’t going to be playing jingle rock doing the '70s stuff,” you know? Everyone has been doing rip-off Todd Rundgren or rip-off Canned Heat or whatever, so I was like “Well, I’ll try something different.” I wanted to make a song with synth. I wanted to try something that has soundscapes that were these songs that could technically be, you know from the '70s or '80s. And I also really wanted to move away from the revivalist idea – I didn’t want to make something where you could be like “Oh, these guys are trying to hearken back to like some era of guitar rock” or whatever. You know? I wanted to make something that was more kind of “my sound,” and I felt like it was appropriate being twenty-something, well when I wrote this album I was 24-25 and I thought it was appropriate. Also, it was my fourth record, so I could really start trying to move away from my influences and starting to really do it kind of “off the cuff.” I thought there was something that – I’m not going to say its my “sound” now – but it was more kind of less leaning on a certain genre, or a certain sound, or a certain band to make it sound right. It was a different experience too, not working with a band; that’s always weird. You know, with Smith Westerns, you could split work together – me and Max would work a lot – having a sounding board to bounce ideas off and change things, which was great, but at the same time, it would become limiting when Max and I had different ideas of where the music should go, and what we should be sounding like and stuff like that.

Right. You mentioned there was a “weird” trend in “revivalist” sensibilities in indie rock and what not – at this point, would still consider it to be “revivalist” or would you just consider it to be “en vogue” or something to that effect?

I mean… I think its very much a trend right now. I think that there are always bands, for as long as I’ve played music, and for as long as I’ve been recording music and can remember – there’s band that will go off of a certain vibe, or a certain genre or whatever. I think that now, however, the attention those bands are getting is huge, and its just part of how things go. It's circular, you know?

Sure, most things are.

And for now, its going to work for people, but I feel like I made a record that kind of was three years too early or three years too late or something, you know? It was probably two year too early, because its not any of those things. And that’s the other thing, too – even if I fail at something I don’t want it to be something where people can be like “Oh, he’s ripping off that band.” I think I did a pretty good jobbing of taking all my influences and melding them into this record. You can’t be like “That’s the Elton John song,” or “That’s the Flaming Lips song” or shit, I don’t know. Its all kind of spread out.

Well what comparisons have you seen people try to ascribe?

The only comparison I’ve ever read about is when people say something like Tame Impala, but I don’t even listen to Tame Impala to be honest. I was singing in a John Lennon-y kind of voice in 2010, so it's not like any of my music is a reaction to current music. That’s not how it works for me.

Its stylized in a manner of which is unique only to you, but do you feel like people take the stylization too seriously? Like with the US audience, you said it doesn’t quite “mesh.” Do you feel that people are taking you having been in a band like Smith Westerns too seriously to be willing to open up to Cullen Omori?

That could be a possibility. I feel that when I was with Smith Westerns, I didn’t feel like I was this huge public figure or anything like that. So, I didn’t feel like if I was, it ever benefitted me. I don’t think I get a huge benefit from being the front man of Smith Westerns. If there are any connotations connected to me being in the Smith Westerns, they’re negative – things that I did when I was twenty years old. They think that I’m like bratty or I’m pretentious, but people forget that there were two other dudes in the band – my brother and Max – who were equally as bratty and pretentious as I was. I didn’t use my name because I wanted to go solo. People weren’t like “Oh yeah, Cullen Omori, check it out.” I used my name because we were mastering the record and they needed to have a name and I couldn’t come up with one that I didn’t hate, you know? So I just used my name. Its one of those things where there might be some bloated takedown when they can’t accept something like when someone [else] has a “clean slate” would - like a musician that they wouldn’t know anything about other than the music. I feel like people also form their own narrative about who I am, and what my music is about, and that’s literally formed people’s ideas – word of mouth – that’s formed people’s ideas of me on some things. It's still all over the place, but I feel like people are building their own narratives for me, and it's not a good one. Unfortunately, that’s how it goes, but I think in Europe or the UK, they don’t have that the same way here. I guess I just pissed off the wrong people when I was in Smith Westerns.

Why do you think that is?

Because at the same time, when you look back at music history or whatever, you these “coffee” guys or like the type of guy that only writes music because they couldn’t find the music they liked to listen to, because “everything sucked” and so they made their music or whatever, and people celebrate that. But I think now, with the internet, Twitter, and the press in general, there’ll never be a next level rock star, because they’re constantly tearing them down. The persona has to be this guy that’s always humble and they can be like “Oh, I want to get a beer with that guy.” There’s no longer the idea of being this presence on stage that’s larger than life. Its like this “cool” real vicious energy and people don’t want that – it makes them uncomfortable and they want to tear it down. And I don’t think that that’s how I am, but I think being a front man and having it all kind of be about me, I think that feeds into the concept that people have this idea of me being a pretentious asshole guy, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m making music that I want to hear, I love performing, I love the aesthetic. My favorite part of this album that you make, you have to create this interview around it, you know? You have your album artwork, you have your videos, and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in doing; I’m a part of that from beginning to the end. I don’t want to say I’m not getting a fair shake or try and complain about it or anything, but I feel like my past isn’t there to help me, it's only there to hurt me. For whatever reason its stuck to me more than anyone else, you know? Like I read about the dudes in Whitney, or whatever.

It sounds like you’re almost just experience this curse of being the frontman despite your main intent to just make music you want to make, as opposed to appealing to a larger mass that may have listened to something you made in the past.

Well, I mean the idea… the narrative that I had was “I want to make pop music,” I think that people go and see that I went away from a band to being a solo artist that wants to make pop music, they think that I’m trying to capitalize on something, or it’s a money grab. That’s not true at all. When I say “pop music,” I mean that I still make music that isn’t dead to a lot of music history, and people that know music know good bands, everyone from the '60s to now; it's all in there, its all in my music. Its not like I’m trying to become Selena Gomez, or anything like that. Its just that I can appreciate something that’s melodic and immediate and trying to work something that is so over the top – like when you think of pop at the top, you think that it's grasping to be as marketable as possible – and try and take that and warp it, like I do with all music that I’m interested in. Its kind of real representation for myself, and its something that isn’t selling out; it’s a cool thing. I think there’s something to be said about making music that a fucking six year-old girl can get into, as well as a seventy year old man, you know?

But [I'm] staying true to my principles, and not selling out in a musical sense, and I think that often goes with not trying to play into that retro-revivalist seventies shit that’s kind of being accepted into the “indie spirit.” I’m just going to do my own thing and play around with what works. Right now, I’ve just been listening to nothing but Ministry, and I want to go really heavy for the next record. I just want to play around do whatever the fuck I want to do. Luckily, I’m in a position with Sub Pop that I can do whatever I want – they are so behind me in every way – even when my van broke down, I went to their office and just hung out for two days, Jonathan Poeman drove me to the airport and made sure I had everything – that I had a hotel and everything after my shit got stolen – that’s something I’ve never had before with a record label. I’ve never had that kind of acceptance and kind of support. It's cool and it makes me want to create, and I kind of feel like this maiden tour that I did that ended up blowing up is just part of my story now. Nothing I’m going to do now is easy – its not like coming out of the Smith Westerns, make this record and coming out at a different place. That’s that. I think part of it not being easy, and part of it being bad luck hanging over me… when I’m backed into corner I think is when I’m at my best, its when I’m my most creative. I have the kind of ability to draw upon whatever kind of emotion or anxiety to really crush whatever comes next, so that’s kind of how I approach it. I kind of let it rip me apart, and that’s where I got New Misery, I was slowly in self destructive mode, and I did not care what was going to happen to me. For a while I realized that the only thing I’m even halfway decent at is making music; everything else, I suck at. Everything else, I am less that amateur at. The only thing I know how to do is put together some chords and write lyrics that people can relate to, and that’s a cool talent to have. Its something I didn’t really appreciate until now, until I made New Misery.

It sounds like you’re trying to maintain a positive yet stubborn rationale even despite your string of bad luck, did that reenergize you at all when it came to working on your demos?

Yeah, it took me a second. During New Misery I felt bad for myself for a lot of the time, I did for a second when all that stuff fell apart on that tour, and I had to clean house a little bit with different people that were working with me and try to really figure out how to do it again. I mean, I’ve being doing it now for seven years – being in the music industry – and I know that I fuck up. You know you’re going to mess up. Its like, what am I supposed to do.

[Cullen calls out “What are you doing?” to a passerby while driving.]

Hey, sorry there’s a guy in a wheelchair being a dickhead. Anyway… It does make me create but it also kind of… what’s the word? I don’t know, I’m a very pragmatic person – like while on tour, that’s why I bought a van rather than rent - but the one thing that doesn’t makes sense is that for me, is that its all stress. Not with the writing part, but everything else that goes into making an album happen. And touring, there’s so much stress, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever not be kind of looking at anything other than the next year, you know? I don’t really think any further than that, I still want to do it, but there’s a part of me that kind of just defies the logic of “should I take it easy?” but I say no, I’m just going to keep on doing it. That may sound kind of emotional, like… what’s the word? Like a fucking… motivational speaker, or something like that.

I think that’s conceivably the best attitude you can have facing the stuff that you’ve experienced. In a way, you’re maintaining an indomitable spirit about the whole thing – you’re not feeling sorry for yourself, but at the same time you’re not saying you’re going to go conquer the world in a day. There’s a realist approach to it.

That’s how I do it, and that’s how I’ve been doing it. Its stressful or whatever, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve grown into this role; I’ve grown up doing music my entire life. There’s no formula to follow – everything’s different. There’s no right way to get somewhere, but there’s a lot of ways to have missteps doing it. But I don’t know, I guess right now its like, that toured got fucked in the US, I’m going to Europe to play some shows, and then I’m going to come back to do some more tours. I also really want to start supporting some bigger bands – I think that I’ve been out of the music scene for so long, but back in the day, I had really good relationships with different bands. But now its kind of a different scene – Chicago only has a handful of different bands: Orwells, Whitney, me, and a couple of smaller bands. There’s not much of a scene. What I want to do with music is – I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the next record – but what I want to attempt is really go outside something totally different, you know? Like not have it be '70s guitar riffs and love song lyrics. I mean my mind is constantly going. I’m like manically going and so hopefully something will click and work. I think this record is good, I think New Misery is really good. Its like, I don’t know if the singles were the best representation of what the album was, but I think that for me, everyone that I showed it to at Sub Pop, everyone has a different favorite song on the record. There was no go-to “This is the single of the record,” everyone was willing to give an idea on what they think about it, and that’s awesome, because that means that the record is chalk full of real songs, and that’s something that doesn’t necessarily happen with other bands. But at the same time, I don’t exactly know what people like, there’s no formula. If there was, I would experiment and try to fuck it up.

You mentioned you’ve been listening to a lot of Ministry as of late – have you been leaning toward a certain album more than others?

I like kind of like With Sympathy. I like the stuff where they’re kind of new wave-y. I’ve been reading the Al Joregeson autobiography and its amazing – its so good. Its like he’s this out of control junkie, he’s crazy. I don’t know, that was a part of music I just kind of stopped listening to - something really heavy, like super heavy, trashy. But I’m starting to get back into Ministry, especially the stuff where it was kind of still super poppy, like the new wave stuff was really interesting. Its kind of like the category of music that I’ve been making. I’m a pretty anxious and angry person, and I don’t really present it in my music – my music is more cathartic than it is straight up in your face progressive, and I think that the next thing I want to get away from is how dreamy everything is and how smooth most of the songs are, to get [to a point] that makes it a little bit harder. I grew up around punk bands, and Smith Westerns was very much like a shitty punk garage band, and I feel like that would be a really cool thing to do.

Have you ever leaned over into any RevCo stuff yet?

I’ve listened to a few things, but I haven’t really gotten into. The autobiography is so good - if you haven’t read it, you’ve got to read it – all his stories are so fucking funny.

I’ll have to check it out.

I’ve always been like “Oh, I should read it,” but I wasn’t going out of my way to get it, and then one day I just walked into a place and it was there. One of the stories that he tells is every single time they played a show on tour as Ministry, I think there was a limit to anything over 90 decibels, and they would never do it, they would always play above it. They would get fined every night, and it was like a  $20,000 fine every night. And the label said they won’t pay, they wouldn’t do the tour support, so I guess Al jerked off into a Ziploc bag and sent it to the A&R guy and then the guy calls him and says “Did you send me drugs, what is that? That stuff smells like shit!” and he was like “No! That’s my fucking cum, if you don’t pay us, everyone on the crew will start sending you our cum,” and they got the tour support.

That’s insane.

I know! It was so good, it was so funny. 

Atlanta's Malachiae Warren Talks Background, Beginnings, and 'Heard U Was In My City'

Music InterviewDelaney CliffordComment

Starting at the age of just 12, R&B crooner Malachiae Warren began his singing career through YouTube and school talent shows before moving on to recording at 14. Coming from a family with an extensive musical background provides its advantages, and the now 20 year-old talent is currently taking huge strides in leaving his mark on his home city of Atlanta, bringing fresh life into a scene that so craves the new talent. Warren - better known as Chiae - continues to develop his skills in writing, producing, and singing with his creative partner, Jasper Cameron, and released his major label debut EP, Heard U Was In My City, via Universal's Motown Records on March 25.

We met up with Chiae to discuss his background, beginnings, and the new EP.

TRANSVERSO: Tell us about Heard U Was In My City.

WARREN: [The single] “Minute Made” is a new sound from me, coming all the way from my first single “Thank Yo Momma (feat. Migos)” that came out a few years earlier. For this record, you know, a bad seed came through town and didn’t know what she wanted, so this new music is just a way to express that feeling from me personally.

What's the story?

The way it went was this girl - an ex girl of mine - would come and kick it with me in Atlanta, but she wanted more out of the relationship than I wanted to give at the time. She ended up coming back to the city, but she didn’t call me when she did. So my mind was racing, thinking, “Who’s she with, who’s she talking to?” That sort of thing. I just felt that regret kicking in. So the EP takes little pictures, moments, and feelings from that time in my life, and I just made what I was feeling.

How has coming from Atlanta and being a product of that culture and vibrancy affected your music?  

First and foremost, I love Atlanta. I was born and raised here, so of course I have to always represent. It’s just a great place to be, especially in the entertainment field. You meet a ton of like minds down here; it’s just really easy to connect to people. The only downside is that there’s just a ton of competition to face, but when you find your sound and you stand out, that’s what people pay attention to. That’s what people will gravitate to. You just have to find yourself and run with it.

From whom do you pull inspiration?

Gotta shout out to Atlanta, so Monica, Ludacris, Usher, and people of that nature. But I listen to a lot of other stuff too. I’m a big hip hop fan, so I got a lot of love for Future and Drake - even the greats like Jay Z and Tupac. I get a little bit of influence from every genre.

Have you considered working with other artists similar in style like The Weeknd or Travis Scott?

Yeah, absolutely. Right now though, I’m focusing on finding myself and my sound - the thing that will make me unique and stand out. But I would love to branch out and work with other artists that have the same vision as I do for their music.

You mix a lot of different styles in unorthodox ways, like inserting an almost '80s hair metal / anthemic sounding guitar into hip hop. How and why do you experiment with these different generations and cultures?

That’s crazy that you noticed that. I’m just into music, man. I really just do what I feel and put in what sounds right, no matter what I’m doing. I’m not here to follow trends or fit into standards, that’s just not me. I put passion into anything I do. We bring live bass players into the studio to bring that extra feel into the sound, bringing the old school back to the new stuff, that kind of thing.

Since I’m so young, I look at my generation, and I see how easily influenced we are. So I try to strike a balance that can find all of those different listeners. And that’s not to say that I won’t do the turn up songs, I just feel like you have to have that balance. I might do those types of songs, but I’m going to keep doing songs about love, songs that make people feel good in general. You’ve gotta have fun, but you’ve gotta have the downtime too. It’s a balance. If you turn up for too long, you’re gonna crash after a little while.

You’re only 20 years old. How does it feel being such a young artist at this level in the music industry?

It feels great, man. I just count my blessings and just do my best to remember why I’m here and who got me here. It’s just another way to prove to people my age that dreams do come true, so never listen to that negativity in your life. Keep on moving forward.

What brought you to music in the first place?

[It’s] crazy, man, because I was doing a whole lot before music. I was acting a little bit, actually. But this whole thing started with me doing some comedy sketches on YouTube. I’d add some singing at the end there, just a little snippet of a song, not anything serious, just to maybe show some viewers that I could sing. When I woke up the next day, the comments were just going crazy. Girls were going crazy over it, so I thought why not, and started singing more. I actually played my school’s talent show and the same thing happened, girls went crazy over it. That’s what made me want to pursue music a little more from then.

You've also gone on to start a brand called LoveLife.

It’s just something that we do to present a message— loving life, loving your music, loving yourself. We need more positivity in this generation, in this genre, everyone’s gotta love their life, you know, go forth and don’t be afraid to follow your passion. It’s nobody else’s life, and nothing’s holding you back, so go chase it.

So what's next?

We’re really just focusing on this EP that I just put out and the focus of that release, “Minute Made.” I’ve just been running around Atlanta, getting my name out and talking to the clubs and the DJ’s, all of those guys, just grinding it out. I really wanna see my fans up close and personal, so I will definitely be hitting the road in the next few months. Right now I’m just working on getting my name out down home, but when I hit the road, I’m gonna be hitting those cities hard.

Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn on Solo Project Made of Oak, "The Triangle," and Leaving Breadcrumbs

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

It wouldn't be off base to say that Nick Sanborn is best known as one half of the euphonious brain trust that is Sylvan Esso, but being Sylvan Esso's chief instrumentalist to Amelia Meath's head lyricist is not indicative of Sanborn's entire body of work. He's been an active constituent of the vaunted North Carolina "Triangle" for going on half a decade now, having aligned with acts like Megafaun as well as continuing to expand his long standing solo project, Made of Oak.

Wholly thoughtful and incredibly amiable, Sanborn spoke with Transverso about Made of Oak's 2015 debut EP, Penumbra, the various perspectives an act like Made of Oak allows him to explore, and the wellspring of musical collaboration found in Durham and the surrounding North Carolina area. 

TRANSVERSO: You just played in Bloomington, how was that?

SANBORN: Surprisingly great, considering I’ve never been there before with this project, and it was a Wednesday, and it was raining. [Laughs] It was great. It was kind of serendipitous coincidence that happened that my friend, Nate Brener’s band, Naytronix, happened to be in town on tour. We were crossing paths like ships in the night, and he ended up being able to open the show, so it turned what could have been a cold, weird night into a deep, old friends hang. We all went back to his mom’s house afterwards [Laughs], it was great. It was really, really cool.

So what are your thoughts going into the Spring/Summer tour? It sounds like Bloomington was a pretty solid start.

Oh yeah, it's great. With this project, the stakes are so low, and the people who tend to come to the shows have an extremely open mind about what they’re expecting or not expecting – so what the most exciting part to me is about these shows is that they feel very free and open, and can kind of go anywhere. That’s been the main theme for me, and also I’m just back to playing the venues I’m used to. Sylvan [Esso]’s been doing great, and I’m really grateful for that – that’s obviously been a huge change in my life. You know, I’ve toured clubs like the Bishop [in Bloomington, IN] last night for twelve years before any of that happened. This is like, I’m back in the shitty greenroom, where I belong.

Is that a familiar nostalgia?

Well it's more that it feels like my wheelhouse. These are kind of the clubs that I’ve always played in, and you know the last two years have been awesome, playing for way more people, but that’s the aberration – that’s the outlier. Shows like last night are more of the norm for me. So it's kind of good to be back to that.

Being in a more familiar territory, do you feel as if you approach your Made of Oak shows differently from your other projects? Does it make it feel any more organic?

No, not really. I think that just the energy of a smaller club is way different from a bigger club. They’re two totally different types of show. I think if I was playing the exact same set that I played last night that was like, ten times larger, it would feel way different, and I would react different, and I would play different stuff. You kind of just go with the energy that the crowd has, and I think in a smaller room there’s a really wonderful, intimate, energetic thing that happens when you can look up, and I can make eye contact with every single person that came to the show. It's just a different thing. You feel like you’re a part of the crowd. I guess that’s the biggest difference, I feel like when I’m in a small club, there’s no big difference between the performer and the audience, whereas the moment it gets bigger there’s this moment, when it reaches this critical mass where when the audience hits it, they feel like one giant person, you know? [Laughs] You’re kind of trying to make an individual connection, but its just kind of this mass of people, and it's either going well or its going terribly, and that’s kind of your litmus. That’s the biggest difference. I’m not sure if that makes a change in how I’d approach putting the set together, but I think energetically is where you really feel it.

I would imagine with your EP, Penumbra, already being more sonically dense, a smaller space might be a little easier to embody the record’s spirit.

Yeah. [Pauses] I think that… well, you know what? I think its tough to say. I think this material feels a lot more niche to me, definitely. So in that way its makes the most sense in a small room. But yeah, you might be right, there’s kind of a lot going on, so the minute it does get bigger you might lose something. I’m not sure though. Its tough to say, having never done it.

So what have the months following Penumbra’s release looked like for you? Were you pleased with its reception? Do you even bother with stuff like that?

Yeah? Um. Yeah, “question mark.” I guess. [Laughs] I try to not read anyone who writes anything about it, or who writes about any music made by me. Because, there’s no good that can come of that, you either get your ego stroked and then you become addicted to having your ego stroked, or somebody doesn’t get it and tells you you’re terrible, then the part inside you that tells you, “You’re terrible,” all the time is like, “See! You’re terrible!” So there’s no good that could possibly come of that.

What about with your live shows?

The shows have been great! We did a tour kind of right after it came out, and we went on tour with this band Tushka. And with Tushka, the coolest part of the tour was my buddies – Phil and Will – only put out one song out and they just put out one video, and I had just released an eighteen minute EP. So nobody coming to the show where you usually do forty-five minutes, they all know that they can’t expect… They’re going to hear a ton of stuff that they’ve never heard. Like everyone knows that going in. So that just made this great environment where the shows, both sets every night, felt like they could go anywhere. That has been a really cool part of the reception, I think. The people that are into it seem like they want to come and listen, and figure out what’s happening, and hear something they haven’t heard before. So no one’s waiting to hear “some hit,” its like what track is even playing is beside the point. So I think that’s my favorite thing, that that crowd exists.

There are some particularly unique song titles for Penumbra, or at least from an outsider’s perspective – I’m sure for you they make total sense.

Well that’s kind of the nice of being an instrumental artist, I’m not using lyrics, but I still feel like I wrote something that’s from a very specific time in my life. So you kind of leave these breadcrumbs that make sense to you. I just love it when you can imbue that kind of material with intent. Like when you look at something and think, “Oh, this is an intentional choice. This person chose these things. Why did they do that?” I love that moment, where as an audience member, you have to ask yourself why something happens, because whether you come to what the artist thought, it gives you this kind of structure to hang your own story on. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. I know that "penumbra" means "the outer region of a shadow being cast..."

Dude! You are the first person who interviewed me that’s looked up what it meant. That is awesome!

Well it sounds like you’re trying to have some fun with the language of the titles because there are no lyrics. So it almost seems like you’re presenting an over-arching theme without having to spoon-feed it to listeners.

Yeah, well that’s another thing, I think there’s this kind of teeter-totter of “overtness.” I was reading this negative review of a season of Mad Men – I’m so sorry, I’m going to tangent you out here.

No need to apologize, it’s a great show.

[Laughs] Perfect. So I think it was about season five, and the reviewer’s problem was that the metaphors were too “on the nose.” That was the season where one episode there was a toothache, and [the reviewer felt] like it was too surface, and that it didn’t take much thinking to figure out what they were trying to do. Where as before in the show, you had to really think about what questions it was making you ask, and you had to suss out the meaning of each shot, even. And then [the reviewer] compared that problem with when you hear a joke, which is, the thing that makes a joke funny to us is that our brain has to kind of “jump the gap.” Its when you make the connection, which is why when you explain a joke to somebody, it isn’t funny, because of the fact their brain didn’t do that. So learning-wise, we only ever learn the lessons when we actually have to make the leap ourselves. Like that’s the only reason that actually happens. Its like when you’re a kid and you do dumb shit over and over and over again, and your parents tell you you shouldn’t be doing this, but you have to screw it up to actually grow up and learn the lesson, you know what I mean? [Laughs] So I think about that a lot with music; you could really spell it out for somebody, but then it's not interesting. Its like you rob the listener of the opportunity to make their own connections and learn their own lessons, and relate it to something. You’re taking that really important part of interacting with a piece of art away from them. So I think about that a lot – how can you present them with enough proof of content, and enough of those “breadcrumbs.” Its kind of like this promise you make to the listener, like “I put something here. You aren’t wasting your time. Its here. You might find it, or you might find something else. You can trust me.” I think about that a lot – that line of making it too opaque or too clear, which is kind of an interesting tightrope you can walk there.

That’s fantastic. So you’re basically utilizing your experience to allow the listener to heighten their own.

 Right. Well I’m not much of a lyricist, and I don’t really love singing on records. [Laughs] So I have one opportunity to do the thing a lyricist would do, kind of. I have that tiny bit of real estate to kind of give [the listener] a hint of context.

Speaking of lyrics on a Made of Oak track – what can you tell me about your collaboration with Well$ and Professor Toon on the “Side Rides” remix?

That all just came about from doing that [“Side Rides”] video. I had that concept for that video, and kind of talked through my idea of what I wanted it to feel like, and they were both way into it. I just thought when we shot it, that they were going to come and freestyle, because for the music video, we wouldn’t actually hear it. But both of them showed up to the shoot with written verses, like they wanted to be doing the same thing in every spot, and they were just super pro about it. So then over the course of that two-day shoot, me and all of the other people there just kind of got obsessed with the idea of eventually releasing a totally different version of the song that would showcase them instead of showcasing the track. It just took us forever to actually do it. It was interesting, I think when the video came out, there was this misunderstanding that I had made a decision to mute the vocals or something, which was a real bummer to me. It just missed the point really heavily, and I just thought “Oh, bummer.” But when it came out, everyone was like “Oh cool, where’s the vocals?” Which was ironically the initial, kind of snotty joke of an idea that I had - a reference of how people think of instrumental music. It kind of weirdly up like the snake ate its tail [Laughs], because the irony was everyone was writing about – at least everyone who took that angle on it – “how interesting” or “how stupid, he muted the vocals,” but the thing was, we didn’t even have the vocals recorded. That wasn’t even a thought, until after we actually made the video. [Laughs] So yeah, it took like months for us to get it done, because its three really busy dudes’ schedules; we’re all playing all the time. But yeah, it was great when it finally came together.

Do you like being able to collaborate with other artists from “The Triangle” in North Carolina, and kind of help maintain a healthy music scene out of the area?

Oh absolutely! That’s like one of the first things that drew me to the area in the first place. That’s actually like the main thing that drew me to [Durham, NC], because I moved there four years ago to play with this band, Megafaun. So it was like a no-brainer to move there, because the music scene is so diverse and rich, you can do almost anything and people will show up and pay to see it. So the level and the volume of talent there is, its like this weird secret; [Laughs] it's crazy. But yeah, the hip-hop scene is nuts there right now, like Well$ and Professor Toon are obviously two of my favorites, but there’s like so many young dudes coming up that are really cool. This dude Ace Henderson just put out an amazing mixtape, they’re all over the place. And then there’s this other cool thing that’s started popping up is bedroom producers have started to emerge. I think that making electronic music has kind of made other people be like, “Oh, I’m not the only one that does this here. I can show up at stuff,” so that scene has gotten really cool. It's all the same group of 200 people, so if there’s constant intermingling, then everybody is really excited to work with everybody else, but it makes for a lot of weird output.

It's a cool, otherworldly collaboration, it sounds like.

Yeah, that’s the thing, I think especially in hip-hop, how that scene works is either by total chance or “Hey, why don’t you send this guy a packet of like twenty beats;” one is happenstance and the other is kind of depressing. [Laughs] That’s the cool thing about The Triangle, you’re around everyone all the time where legitimate collaborations happen, and you can work together and you can take the time to make something cool, which sounds like a low bar, but it actually doesn’t happen. So its only in places like that - well there are crews and scenes that are really good about that - but its cool to see it in action. To take something further than just sending a guy your beat. Its nice to really make something together, it's really cool.

So do you think that microcosm within The Triangle, and more specifically, Durham could be viewed as the “catalyst” for some of the area’s civic growth? Do you think it has a direct impact on the proverbial, “revitalization” of Durham?  

Air quotes revitalization is the perfect way to put that. [Laughs] It's tough right now, there’s a lot of tension right now, and I think the correlation between the creative scene of people and developers is that developers tend to capitalize on places that are very rich in creative people. It's kind of been the thing since the dawn of real estate development [Laughs] more or less. So that’s the only real correlation I see there – any time a place has cool shit going on, people tend to build condos there. But, I think culturally, the interesting thing is that there’s just a lot more people in the area, and that means inherently, there’s a lot more creative people, or people who want to make music, or go to shows. So that has been really great and welcomed, and it’s a crazy scene of a lot of very different kinds of people there, and that makes for some really awesome chance happenings. But yeah, I’m not sure I’d credit it or correlate them more than that. I think we could have a whole other conversation about the successes and failures of the Durham City Council [Laughs], whether that went right and where its going wrong. And again, its tough for me to even talk about, I mean I’m a white guy in my thirties whose only lived there for four years. I’m not sure its really my thing to talk about.

I was just curious. I had noticed some similarities in the developmental struggles amongst fast growing secondary markets like Durham or Nashville in that regard.

Oh absolutely. I mean, it's not just a “your city versus out city” thing. It’s a ton of places right now, and its all at so many different level. In Durham right now, they’re trying to make it a startup town, like enticing startups to move here and stuff. So I think the biggest conversation I see, at least in regard to other cities that have been startup targeted as startup hubs is “Well how do we not make it turn into San Francisco?” It's everywhere, man.

What has Made of Oak allowed you to do that past and other projects – The Rosebuds, Megafaun, Sylvan Esso – haven’t been able to? Or is it all focused on getting out and playing for people?

Well it's definitely that. Everything has the same end result, its “Let’s all do something or make something, let’s communicate something.” It's like “There’s so many of us and we’re all going to die, so let’s just try to connect for a second.” I think bands are all different because bands are all different groups of people, its just like a conversation over dinner – every conversation between two, to four, to ten people will have this different dynamic, so a different thing will come out of it. I think if you’re being honest as a band – like if you didn’t get together before you made music and said “Let’s make this kind of music,” which I think is a silly thing to do – if you’re doing that, every band feel totally different, and feel different when you play it, and feel different when you write it, and feel different to an audience member. So in that way, the nice part about the Made of Oak stuff, I don’t feel like there’s any potential for it to get fenced in to sounding any one way; its just however I’m feeling at that time in my life. So in that way, the biggest difference is both the burden and the freedom of not having to compromise or split the direction or inspiration with anybody else. But outside of that, that is both freeing and limiting. I think when I first started doing the shows, the band I had been in, Headlights, had broken up, and I was kind of in this zone of “I need to take control of my creative life,” I can’t be dependent upon someone else to write songs, to book a tour, and somebody else to do something. I just have to stop being a fucking baby and just do it. So really, that’s kind of the other big difference, unlike my other projects, this is the only one born out of a desire to grow up.

I was up at Eaux Claires this past summer, and I know you’re from Wisconsin, so I was just curious about how that experience was for you to play a festival like Eaux Claires, because it felt different from most other festivals in my mind.

Didn’t it though? It’s a little weird getting asked just about Eaux Claires, because I don’t want to come across as hyperbolic, but no joke, we talk about this all the time – that is the only festival I would recommend that a music fan go to. I’d recommend other musicians go to it. Every other festival I go to, and I have a great time working them, but at some point that weekend I thought “I can’t imagine how anyone would pay go to this,” [Laughs] which sounds terrible, but Eaux Claires is the one that genuinely feels like it’s a celebration of music. It feels like that’s actually what it is, in every way, playing it felt that way, being backstage felt that way, walking out in the crowd to watch the shows felt that way, everyone in the audience felt like that was their purpose. No one was trying to wear some crazy thing to get their photo on a fucking blog or something; it’s the opposite of all that other shit. I think out of that comes genuine no bullshit, no pretense moments, and collaboration, because that’s the only environment where that can happen and not feel forced. I did an improv set with Chris Rosneau there last time, just off the cuff. Like two days earlier, we were like, “Oh, we should do this, so let’s see if we can do it.” And now we’re coming back this year to do that as an actual thing. That would never happen at any other festival. Imagine going to the organizer of Coachella two days beforehand and being like “Hey, can me and another guy in another band do a noise set on this day at this time?” and them being okay with it. That just doesn’t happen.  And then [at Eaux Claires] they’re like, “Hey, that was great. You should come back and do that next year.” I’m excited about this year. I really hope it continues, because if it can stay – I hate to use the word “pure” – but if it can stay “pure,” and focused on its precision and not lose the plot, then it stands to become this incredibly important thing. 

Edward Sharpe Is Dead: Alex Ebert on The Magnetic Zeros' Pursuit of Failure, Identity, and Unrealism

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

Despite the much bemoaned departure of band co-founder Jade Castrinos following their last full-length, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros still had 10 different musicians packed on the tiny stage at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music in an intricate intertwining of instruments and personality. It was not immediately clear, however, if their eponymous, messianic leader himself would appear, as his name was crossed off the bill.

Wild Child on How Songs Evolve over Time, Hometown South by Southwests

Music InterviewRemedy GaudinoComment

Since their debut in 2011, Wild Child has become a staple in the Austin, Texas indie scene, but stolen hearts around the world with their endearing ukulele melodies, honest lyrics, and charming live performances. Sweeping the festival circuit this upcoming summer to perform their latest effort, Fools, the folksy six piece is continuously on the rise. 

Before performing their first of three hometown South by Southwest showcases, founding duo of Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins (who may or may not be newly engaged) sat down with Transverso at local favorite, Swan Dive, for a chat about their latest album, touring, and the inspiration behind it all.

TRANSVERSO: Fools came out in October, how’s that been going?

KELSEY WILSON: It’s going great, we have a lot of really good festivals lined up because of it.

I’ve heard third installments of anything, whether it’s an album, TV series, book, is typically harder to write. Was this true for Fools?

WILSON: Writing has never been an issue for us, that’s something that has always been there. With the first record we did it all ourselves. We rented equipment and figured it out. For the second record we did it professionally in a studio with a producer, like a nine-to-five kind of thing. This last record we found our favorite parts of both of those and just used them. We were in a studio but we could be there all night and we were just with homie producers, so at 2 AM if I was like, “I wanna do vocals right now!” I could.

How has Fools changed your live show?

ALEXANDER BEGGINS: Well, it’s kind of a curse because we just want to play all the new songs we just wrote, but we have to play a back catalog, but it’s been good and I think we’ve written a lot for our live show in mind. There are bigger songs, some more crowd friendly foot-stomping tunes. It’s weird how your live shows can dictate what you write.

What inspires Wild Child as creative individuals? 

WILSON: Other people. It’s always about experiences we’ve had with other people, we can only write about exactly what’s happening. It’s always straight from the journal, which makes it kind of hard because it’s extremely personal and really honest but we cant write something that we don’t agree with entirely and feel entirely. So, yeah it’s always just exactly what’s happening which is funny because then you sing about those tiny ass moments for the next two years every day and it’s like, "I’m still talking about that?"

You’re forced in to remembering those small moments repeatedly.

WILSON: And you have to get right back in that headspace every time you sing it, and Fools is pretty extreme.

Wild Child came together as a band from writing about break ups and situations like that, so is it hard to perform those songs over and over again even after those feelings have passed?

WILSON: After awhile they start to mean different things. You can attach songs that we wrote four years ago to different people. We wrote a song four years ago and still to this day we’ll be playing it live and be like, “That’s what I meant - that’s what that means - I get it now.” So they’re constantly evolving the more we experience and the more that we play them.  It’s not actually always the same, which is cool.

It makes the meaning change over time, so it gives it a whole new feeling towards it. 

WILSON: And you get to celebrate these experiences through meeting other people who’ve had them and connected to the song, so the songs stop meaning a song about a bad thing that happened and now it’s a song that connects you to thousands of strangers you don’t know. 

So how does it feel playing SXSW as a band from Austin?

BEGGINS: It’s really comfortable, this is like in our backyard and we actually only play Austin like once a year, so it's fun for us to get to play. But it feels like no pressure at all we already have everything we need, so it’s not like we’re trying to find this, we need this, this guys gonna be here. We’re just here and lets play some songs. It doesn’t really feel like a festival to me. 

WILSON: Yeah it’s just that one time that our city gets trashed and super crowded.

Back in Chicago we have Lollapalooza, but it's more contained. 

WILSON: We’re going to Lollapalooza for the first time this year.

BEGGINS: We’re stoked; really excited about that.

Are there any cities you are especially excited to go to for this upcoming tour?

WILSON: We have our favorites, I think we’ve played everywhere now so it’s kind of like what friends we have that are living there that we haven’t seen in awhile. It’s always nice to go to New York, LA, Chicago. Chicago has always been really good to us. Always.

BEGGINS: We’re doing a lot of stuff in Canada this year, too. Vancouver for the first time will be really exciting.

Wild Child has a sort of grassroots fan following. How do you think that will develop or evolve as you continue to grow as a band?

BEGGINS: I think that we have this secret weapon. We’ve developed this fan base that I think is going to be with us for a long time. It’s not this overnight success; all of the fans have grown with us for the past five years.

WILSON: It’s been a slow and steady build. For the past five years every single time we go through a city the crowd is 30% bigger, so it feels sustainable and real.

BEGGINS: I think that’s the way to do it these days. I mean, we would take overnight success if it came to us, but it's nice to know you can handle what’s coming at you. 

WILSON: And with overnight success - how do you keep that up? You can’t, no one does. But it’s like we can keep this up all damn day.

How do you keep it up? Last year you were out on tour for about nine months, plus writing and recording a record.

WILSON: We’ll schedule. If we don’t have to leave the hotel room until 2 PM, we’ll wake up early and do some writing. We went to Savannah, Georgia to record Fools. It’s beautiful and we just needed to go somewhere where we didn’t know anyone except for the producer and the studio, so it was like, that’s our option. We rented a house and it was like summer camp. 

BEGGINS: Our whole life is pretty much on a calendar. 

WILSON: It’s in 48-hour sections. I know what we’re doing today and I know what we have to do tomorrow. At all times.

Fools is out now. You can buy it here.

From Airheads to The Grammys, DIY Duo White Mystery is ‘Outta Control’

Music Interview, New MusicWeston PaganoComment

Rare are the bands blessed with the full package of a naturally iconic appearance, instantly classic backstory, and genuine DIY earnestness all at once, yet that’s exactly what Chicago-based brother-sister duo White Mystery have always had in spades. 

The radiance of Miss Alex and Francis Scott Key White’s shocks of ginger hair somehow personify their fuzzy rock riffs better than you would’ve imagined possible, and backed by their appropriately Orange brand amps even a cursory glance tips you off to something special. But below the Iron Maiden t-shirts, denim, and lo-fi jams is a frontwoman who can shred with the best of them – when she’s not singlehandedly filling the roles of the band’s record label, PR, booking, management, and merch production all at once.

On top of being a completely self-sufficient music industry microcosm, White Mystery manages to churn out a full new album (or, in the case of last year, an entire feature-length film) like clockwork on the 4/20 date of each and every year, while Alex also daylights as the Vice President of The Grammy’s Chicago Chapter, leading one to wonder just how many different hats she can wear over her fiery locks.

To announce their forthcoming LP Outta Control, the raucous redheads took over Last Call with Carson Daly last night to debut singles "Sweet Relief" and "Best Friend," the latter a sunny, Jefferson Airplane-esque track that tells the tale of camaraderie and is stop-motion animated as an adorable canine dive bar to raise awareness of adoptable rescue dogs in a music video released today.

Transverso spoke with Miss Alex White about White Mystery's origins, Airheads, and how their next release is on a mission to make pop music good again.

How was performing on Last Call with Carson Daly?

[It went] really well! White Mystery flew out to LA and played this legendary club called The Troubadour in Hollywood where Janis Joplin, The Doors, Guns ‘n’ Roses, even Cheech & Chong got discovered, and we played a full concert, and Carson Daly’s current NBC late night show recorded us and it air[ed yesterday.]  We’ve been on TV and we’ve been in movies, but this is our first time on network late night television.

You mentioned Cheech & Chong, are they an influence of yours?

[Laughs] Well Cheech & Chong definitely inspired the White Mystery movie That Was Awesome, which is a stoner film that came out last year on 4/20, and Cheech & Chong reviewed our album and helped premiere the trailer when it came out last year, so yeah, it was cool. Of course I love Guns ‘n’ Roses and Janis Joplin and all that stuff too.

What’s it like having an annual release date of 4/20 that coincides with the stoner holiday and is usually near Record Store Day as well? How much of that was planned?

That’s a great question. When we first started the band Record Store Day did not exist yet. So we really lucked out when two years later or so the record holiday came about and happened to always be within three to four days of our annual record release. So it really benefits our CDs and albums going into record stores around the world, and we do release it early to record stores depending on when the record store day is, so if it’s on the 15th the new White Mystery release will be in stores already.

What originally inspired setting that date?

Well it’s funny because Francis and I – my brother that’s the drummer – we had both been in a lot of different bands separately but also together with other band members. I traveled the world with my old band Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra, [and it’d] be like, “Okay, bye Francis, see you later!” and [I] kind of left him at home and would be on my merry way with my bandmates, and when I graduated college and moved out of my childhood home here in Rogers Park in Chicago we started missing each other. We almost started hanging out more when I moved out then when I lived at home, and we started jamming and developing new songs. Myspace was available and Garage Band had become a program that allowed musicians for the first time to record a song and put it up on the internet immediately, and that really changed the environment for musicians, so here we were experimenting with Garage Band and that kind of thing, and we were like, “Wow, let’s start a band!” and we did. And we looked back at our Myspace and were like, “Oh, we started it on 4/20, I guess that’s our band anniversary!” and you know, ever since then we’ve used that date as an annual, cyclical milestone that makes sure we stay on track and are always producing new music and pushing boundaries for creativity in the music industry.

What can you tell us about this year's 4/20 release that will happen later this month?

It’s one of those things where everyone knows we put a new album out every year and have been since we started as a band, but it still surprises them somehow. It’s our best work yet, and we want to drop it like a big bomb. So basically the new White Mystery album - which is to be released on April 20th and the single [today] along with the stop motion animation music video - is called Outta Control which is inspired by White Mystery Airheads, which we had based the name of our band on back maybe 20 years ago when we got an Airhead taffy candy that said "White Mystery Outta Control" on the wrapper. [That candy’s wrapper] no longer [says that today], but that’s what inspired the name of our band [and] album. It’s really important to us to stick to our original vision. So anyway, it’s our 5th album; it is our pop masterpiece that we spent a lot of brain hours on developing it into the best possible album ever, where in previous years we did not have the luxury of time that we did for Outta Control. For instance, our third album Telepathic we recorded in two days while we were on tour in Oakland, [and] we recorded Dubble Dragon our double album at a live show in one take at a studio, so for this album we were like, “Okay, let’s take some time and really dial this album into a masterpiece.” It covers a lot of mood, but it definitely has the kind of dark witching vibes of a lot of White Mystery albums, but it has a lot of really great upbeat pop songs.

Outta Control  cover art

Outta Control cover art

As someone with a DIY rock background what is the ideal pop song vibe to you?

A pop vibe is sort of ironic because while the album is called Outta Control it’s probably our most controlled work yet, which is how you create pop music. For instance, a lot of times when we made albums the drumming and guitars are just everywhere, you know, it’s like exploring over here and exploring over there and just like wailing and shredding and pounding, but in order to create pop music like every single stroke and note needs to be very methodical, and once you listen back if it’s not something that sounds absolutely perfect you have to actually revisit it until it is. So that’s what we did with the new album, we tried to make it [a] perfect masterpiece and that was a very fun challenge for me, you know? I love The Monkees, I love The Rolling Stones, I love Patti Smith, and I listened to a lot of their seminal records and it also really inspired me to try to make the cleanest album possible. When you listen to record like modern garage records I like Ty Segall, for instance. A lot of times the producer will put a lot of fuzz or a lot of reverb on the record to give it this kind of lo-fi sound, but we actually wanted this record to be more of a hi-fi sound that, for instance, could be on the radio and perhaps expand our audience more so.

You seem very connected to your DIY Chicago identity and have a sort of a cult fan group. When you say you’re looking to expand what are the boundaries or lack thereof you’re looking to transcend? 

Well we’ve traveled worldwide to Hiroshima in Japan and Karlsruhe, Germany or Queenland, Ohio, you know, we’ve played a lot of pretty obscure cities on Planet Earth, and there will always be an audience of people who have seen White Mystery, and in some cases multiple times. We’ve been a band for 8 years and we’re extremely grateful for our fans because they are the backbone of what we’ve been able to achieve all these years, and what we’d like to do is make mainstream music better. So right now when you go to the Grammy’s or watch the Grammy’s it’s honestly a lot of very contrived sort of tame pop music, and a lot of times I kind of envy my parent’s generation when bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple were actually popular and on the radio, and I think that the White Mystery mission would be to try to make pop music good again with this new album.

You're also the Vice President of the Grammy’s Chicago Chapter, do you often feel like you’re one of the craziest, rawest, indie-est people in that circle? How do you reconcile those two worlds, are you trying to change the system from the inside out?

Well I’m not sure how much I can actually really comment about it but I would say that the Chicago Chapter is full of amazing working class professional musicians who are on a mission to basically help musicians make a living in a world or industry that has changed a lot in the last 20 years. You know we’re in the streaming age now and people used to make money off of album sales. It’s a diverse group of people and I wouldn’t really consider myself… they’re all unique individuals and we’re all working towards shared goals of advancing music in the Midwest.

To go back to your origin story, you have a photo of you at an Airheads factory. How did that come about?

Yeeeahhh! So basically - and that was years ago too - we received an email from the marketing department of [Perfetti Van Minelle] - which makes Airheads and Mentos - that said, “We’ve been watching you for a long time and we saw that you’re playing Cincinnati which is just right over the river from our factory where we make Airheads in Erlanger, Kentucky. We would be honored to have you visit our factory and we will make sure that we are producing White Mystery [Airheads] that day.” So we went and we put on our little Laverne and Shirley cloak and toured the factory and they gave us tons of free candy and it was one of the best days of my life.

If you order vinyl from Polyvinyl they include Airheads in with the package; have you ever considered including White Mystery Airheads in with yours?

Yeah we have done [that], and we’ve passed them out at shows, and you’ll see there’s even a picture of us in a giant bathtub full of Airheads and we passed those out at Halloween. I like Polyvinyl and they’re in Champaign, Illinois which is kind of funny, but I think that the thing they and we have in common is that Airheads are kind of the unofficial candy of record stores. When I was a teenager and I worked at Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Lincoln Square, [Chicago] Airheads [were] the only candy we sold ‘cause it’s not like chocolate where it goes bad or melts or gets gross, it’s taffy so it just sits there and it’s kind of, you know, like a Twinkie where you could eat it today or in five years and it’s gonna taste the same. So a lot of record stores would sell these Airheads and that’s partly why we really love them and why Polyvinyl love them too; they don’t go bad, they’re flat and they ship without getting smooshed or broken, and if you ship a Snickers bar it’s gonna be, like, melty or fall apart or get smashed, where an Airhead is [a] flat sugar, non-expiration kind of candy. And they’re cheap, they were like 20 cents when I was a teenager, so it’s like you could literally have 50 cents and still get change back after you got candy, you know, so I think that [since] they’re so inexpensive and made in the USA they have the feel. Made in America, baby! And I think that that’s partly why we love ‘em so much too, that’s the secret. [Editor's Note: I had to eat an Airhead while transcribing this, and though I didn't have White Mystery on hand, the cherry red flavor I did have was probably the next most appropriate option.]

It seems throughout your career you tend to end up in duos: The Red Lights, Miss Alex White & Chris Playboy, and White Mystery. What is it about this dynamic you like best in music? Do you not like the idea of too many cooks?

Well I guess a lot of the time I would want to start a band with whoever was my best friend at the time, and, you know, it was just easy. So if there was someone else out there who’s your best buddy, who you hang out with all the time, then you start a band together; one of you plays drums and the other one plays guitar. So it just kinda worked out that way. And with The Red Lights, Elisa was my really good friend in high school and she had passed away at a really young age, and then Chris Playboy who replaced her also passed away, and Eddie [Altesleben] who was the drummer of The Red Orchestra who was a four piece band, he passed away as well, so it’s like even when you’re super heartbroken from the passing of your friends when your passion is music it helps you get through rough patches. So I like playing in two pieces ‘cause there’s just a really special dynamic that happens between two people and it allows you to be creative and collaborative, and then you never need to buy a van, you can always tour in a car.

Will White Mystery ever be solved?

[Laughs] Well back on 4/20/2008 Francis and I agreed we would do the band for exactly 10 years, so technically the riddle will be solved 4/20/2018.

You can preorder a physical copy of Outta Control here or a digital copy here.