| Band: Parker & Lily|
Interviewer: Joshua Heinrich
|Parker & Lily's third album, The Low Lows (read my review here), is an interesting look into love gone awry, unravelling. Literally recorded as Parker Noon and Lily Wolfe's 10-year romantic relationship disintegrated, the album is the third and final entry in a series of works thematically built around their relationship. The album's unique, personal theme, as well as its original retro-meets-modern sound, obviously presented an interesting interview opportunity. Luckily, Parker, sans Lily, was on hand to answer a few questions.|
I'll kick things off with the obvious questions. The Low Lows is an album about the end of your 10-year romantic relationship, actually recorded as things were unraveling. A lot of bands containing couples have trouble functioning even when things aren't in the gutter. How difficult was it to work together and record this album? Were there unspoken feelings and ideas that you hadn't shared or that hadn't come to light until the recording sessions? If so, did that create a lot of tension, and how did you deal with those personal aspects of the project?
The ongoing breakup kind of stripped away the will to spend any effort tarting things up and making them, you know, nicer, less stark -- so the album's meaner, leaner, starker than the previous ones. That's the main effect The Troubles had on the work. Thinking back through these songs, there're bad memories associated with the writing and recording of almost all of them. Except for the times when she was actually playing, Lil was in the bedroom crying all through the recording of, for instance, Smashing Party, which took two days, and was done to a deadline for a magazine. Then I flew to New York to deliver it, and when I got back she had moved out of the house. Though we didn't break up for some months after that. And so on. All this makes it sound like a bleak album, though, and it's not, I think. We're not unhappy people… I mean, we ARE unhappy but only because we have this vast capacity for joy and wasn't being realized at that time. So every song contains THAT as well -- an implied substrata of potential delight. Something is always desired, like in Great Gatsby, Death in Venice, Lolita. I mean, we're not RUSSIAN or anything. We're a sad band but not depressed, listless. We don't suffer from ennui. The songs all WANT something they can't have, and are sad accordingly. But the first priciple, the important fact, is that they want SOMETHING desperately.
Did the album's recording generally serve as a therapeutic experience that helped you work through the disintegration of your relationship, or was it something that created more friction and further tore you apart?
I suppose in retrospect I was communicating with Lil through the lyrics, to some extent. Not details, really, just trying to get across how unhappy I was or something. Mad as hell, not gonna take it any more, that sort of thing. Whether that was a positive or negative approach I'll leave to Lil's future therapists. :) In general though, over the years, the work is what killed us, romantically. It's kind of a shitty job in a lot of ways, long hours, no office to go away to, the pay sucks, expectations run high and are not often met, etc; And all those things put a big strain on us. I think we'd have been married all our lives if we had normal, separate, straight jobs. But in the end we had to choose between the work relationship and the love affair, and we chose the work side of things based on the fact that it was the only interraction we still had that worked properly.
How do you feel the personal nature of the material impacted the album's other contributing members? You're obviously still touring and recording together. How has your personal relationship impacted the overall band dynamic and working relationships within the band?
hm. well, they have to put up with some bickering, that's for sure, but we've been so long in breaking up, we're pretty good at keeping things under wraps, now. They don't see much of it. Plus, you know, the best thing about breaking up is you no longer have to work things out, you just have to learn to live with them. So Lil and I go right up to the brink of a fight now, and then instead of going at it hammer and tongs like the old days, we just sort of back away slowly and warily and get back to work the next day. We're learning not to take the bait. I think by tour time we''ll be able to be together for a few months without killing each other outright. The boys in the band are great great people, too, and they understand it's gonna be a little rocky. They can hack it.
Has the current geographical spread of the band, with most of the band residing in Georgia and you in Manhattan, impacted your songwriting or recording styles or techniques?
yeh, we're learning to stand on our own feet as songwriters. In past songwriting was totally interactive at every step and stage. Now, any given song is taken through almost to completion by it's primary author, then the other person helps arrange it or whatever. Mostly. And I'm not saying it's gonna stay that way, but that's the way it is now. We're going on tour with 10 all new songs, except I Am A Gun from The Low Lows CD, and seven of those ten were written more or less completely by me, the other 3 more or less completely by Lil. And I'll tell you this: they are the best songs we've ever written, bar none. Every one is world class. I know that sounds swell-headed, but it's just relief, really. It's just so easy to write good songs now, somehow -- they're pouring out. Our next album'll come out 7 months after The Low Lows, we're already recording it.
Your sound is a fairly unique blend of retro and modern and includes fairly interesting instrumentation. Could you describe how this sound came about and elaborate a bit on your influences? How did you handle the decidedly retro, organic sound of the album's production?
I grew up at the end of a dirt road five miles outside Nacogdoches, TX. No radio, no tv, no new music, just my dad's vast record collection, which ended circa 1968 when we moved out to the country. So that's the sound in my head, thats's what I love. In recorded music (my own and others) my aesthetics are closer to Alan Lomax's than to Steve Albini's. I will always opt for a crappy analog sound over a pristine digital one. God save us from ever sounding like Bright Eyes or Belle and Sebastien. Even people I adore, like Will Oldham, can have their backbone stripped out by overly hi-fi production. But, you know, even if I preferred to sound like You Are Free or Curtains, I'd have to start a meth lab in my basement to pay for it. GOOD hifi sound (not the cheapo digital imitation of it, which sacrifices nuance for clarity) is priced out of the range of most people. As to gear, that's just a series of small aesthetic decisions, and the willingness to put up with the hassle of old gear where necessary. I mean, hammond organs sound better than voxes, farfisas sound better than hammonds, and acetones sound better than farfisas. So we travel with acetones, mostly. That sort of thing. Jeremy has a sampler, but the rule is, only artificial sounds will be sampled. Drum machines, moog, theremin. Things that you don't imagine a human playing. It's just too damn embarrassing to push a button and have an acoustic guitar sound come out. As for recording, it took a long time, but over time, decision by decision, we sort of re-invented more or less exactly the way things were in small studios in 1960. This was not the desired end, it's just how things wored out. Tube amps, tube mic pre's, 2" tape, etc etc. Then most everything we record gets run track by track through Fender and Silvertone amps several times before it sees the light of day. I just like the sound better that way.
With the uniqueness of your work on The Low Lows and its obvious retro appeal, it's sort of hard to draw significant comparisons to a lot of modern bands or to place your musical styles or backgrounds within the context of today's music scene. So, for a little insight, what are you currently listening to? Are there any current bands that you're particularly into?
Well, though I do feel like I'm confessing a venial sin (something along the order of "impure thoughts"), I have to say I enjoy the new NY thing. But then I liked the last NY thing too: Blonde Redhead, Royal Trux… I even like the Strokes & the Yeahs. "Modern Romance" is a great song. They've got enough in common with us that I can get my hooks into it, but they're different enough that I'm not compelled to dissect them minutely, the way I do, say, Broadcast, or Will Oldham. I find professional interest in a band is often incompatible with actual enjoyment. I love that first Iron and Wine album, Palace, Cat Power, the first Clientele record. My Morning Jacket has been really kicking my ass recently. D'you know that song "If It Smashes Down"? Now those are some lyrics, boy. I am trying to talk Jim James into producing our next record. There's a band called Phosphorescent, on the same label as us, they're the best band south of the mason-dixon right now, my hand to god. Tindersticks first three or four records. That sort of thing. A lot of the bands we get compared to bore the living shit out of me. Slow and moody's great, I guess, but without muscle and backbone and a driving message, who needs them? They know who they are.
Has your unusual sound presented any promotional challenges or do you feel it has helped you from a promotional standpoint?
In general I think it's the primary limiting factor in our career. We're just out of step with what most people wanna hear sonically. Nothing to be done about that, though.
Have certain scenes or even countries been more receptive to your work than others?
Hm, well, all the TV shows we did across Europe last year were pretty damn fun... Especially Spain. It felt like some kind of retarded Beatlemania for about two second. We did a top of the pops-type show with dancing girls (no shit) and an audience of high schoolers bussed in for the occasion.
The album's bitter, disenchanted, sometimes sarcastic lyrics, when combined with its nostalgic but not particular sad or bitter music, create something of an interesting juxtaposition. Was this sort of an intentional thematic idea, perhaps aiming for sarcasm or symbolizing the difference between the outer and inner dialogue during the disintegration of your relationship, or was it simply the result of the music and lyrics being separate entities that were later combined?
It's more of a emotion/logic split. To my way of hearing, the music provides the emotional subtext to the story or thesis posited in the lyrics. Like, the words might be saying, fuck off, don't call me again, but the music swelling up underneath is saying I love you, please don't go. I am a harsh judge of people, myself and others, not because I find people despicable but because I love their potentiality so much, it breaks my heart when they don't live up to it, when someone's unkind to me that didn't need to be, when a couple chooses to let an argument spiral into a fight, when people in love don't hook up out of fear or lethargy. Whatever. I try to find the truth of things, good or bad, and state it fairly exactly, if cryptically. Never with sugar on top. But THAT's not the totality of my involvement with whatever I'm writing about. There's also the soft, mushy, forgiving emotional response, the capacity to forgive, the deep-seated desire to put aside the intellectual scalpels and be happy. And all that's contained in the music, the instrumental part of the songs, I think, and the vocal melodies. So it's a tag team, lyrics and music: two opposed but equally true views of the same situation.
Is the atmosphere of your live shows remarkably different from the laid back sound of the album? How do you translate the album's decidedly lo-fi, retro production and use of varying instrumentation into a live presentation, and what difficulties does that process present?
yeh, the live show is an entirely different monster now. You put yr finger on a trouble spot, or what used to be a trouble spot, something that cost us a lot of time. We tried for years to replicate the albums, with samplers and drum machines and huge fucking organs it took two men to carry. This time we're doing it the other way around. We wrote these ten new songs FOR THE LIVE BAND, and that's the set we're gonna play in support of The Low Lows, then when we come off tour we're gonna record them more or less live to tape. Writing songs for live band is an entirely different process, with different rules, so the songs are pretty radically different from what's on the last record. The broad sparseness of the record can't be maintained on stage. We're LOTS louder, more anthemic. The new band is absolutely goddam perfect, it's a monster. It's SO much fun to play these songs live, to have some muscle back in the band. Now we can scream and feed-back and bang around onstage & break things. I know it's hard to imagine, but trust me it's cool as shit. We just got back from two weeks up and down the East Coast, and I've never had so much fun, never got so many compliments either. So I'm real happy, can't wait to tour.
According to your press release, you've already begun work on your fourth album. What can we expect stylistically? Now that the door has closed on the relationship, has the subject matter of your work taken a substantial turn?
The subject matter HAS changed, yeh. We're happier, less static, therefore less stoic, more outward-looking lyrically. Also, you remember what I was saying about the lyrical/musical dichotomy? Well, now that the music's all pounding and white-noisy, the words just can't be as sad or they take on a dark, gothy tinge that troubles me.. So frankly I'm writing a lot of pure love songs... For instance, "The Last Wonder of The World" goes "The dam of her mouth / crumbled and she kissed me / it's always April / behind her pretty lips, see". "Poor Georgia" starts out "Mandy / frail as a cane reed / her eyes are birds in a tall tree / swaying sweetly". It's practically Elizabethan, taken out of the musical context.
Well, I suppose that about wraps it up. Thanks for doing the interview! Best of luck with the album release and tour!
Parker & Lily website: www.parkerandlily.com
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