Minnesota duo If Thousands have been creating soundscapes and working in improvisation and experimentation since 2000. I recently got a chance to talk to the band about their fourth full-length album, I Have Nothing (read my review here), the two day improvisational recording session in which it was created, and both their past and the future.
Hey guys... Thanks for doing the interview. I believe this is where I'm supposed to start off with a generic icebreaker. So, how's the weather over there?
Not too bad... it's about 20 degrees out right now which is nice for Duluth. Actually, we've had a pretty mild winter so far. Last week it was in the 40s, which is like shorts and picnic weather for us. The complaints about Duluth winters are historic, but we really haven't had extremely bad weather in something like 12 years or so. The problem is that our winters last so long - usually around October to May. Back in 1991 we got four feet of snow in one evening, and in 1993 it got down to 70 below (wind chill). Since then, it's been relatively mild during the winter months.
So, if I'm not mistaken, I Have Nothing would be your fourth full-length release. How did you approach this project differently from the previous three if thousands albums? How do you feel the improvisational recording sessions and results differed from previous sessions? Did the two-day time limit and improvisational nature lend a certain immediacy or spark to the material, or do you, in retrospect, think that it was, perhaps, too limiting?
The main thing about our latest album is that we went into the studio with no preconceived songs or ideas whatsoever. Even though largely what we do is improvisation, we almost always have a concept or bare bones song structure of what we want to do. Especially when recording, since we're the ones paying the bill. This time though, we went in totally empty-handed. The reason is we wanted to go back to when we first started playing music together and having absolutely no clue whatsoever. As soon as the record button was hit, we just started playing and hoped that what would come out would be good. As a result, we've gotten the most attention we've ever received than any of our prior albums. Maybe that says something, maybe not. Perhaps too much time is spent on what happens before a recording - when in reality, most musicians should just get in there and play. Don't worry about what anyone will think about it 6 months later when the album comes out, because there's no way you'll ever know anyway. That's why corporate music sucks - they think they know, but nobody does. Just create. Just play. That's why musicians play music in the first place, right? As far as the short time limit in the studio, we always do that to ourselves. It's just how we work. None of our albums have taken more than three days to record. I think back in the beginning it was because both of us had so little money and had no idea what it would cost to make a professional recording - so we limited our time in the studio. That's usually an idiotic idea when making an album - you usually want to spend as much time as possible in the studio. Well, we've always done things backwards. What ends up happening is you become very adept at doing what you have to do with very little wasted time or material. If you've got 2 months to do a recording, you can take every liberty on sound that you want to - you can take your time.... make it polished like a hip hop record. And boring. Over the years, we've found that by limiting our time in the studio, we've become very efficient. We don't waste any time. It also sounds better to us - kind of that "freshness" and sense of urgency. If we took a month to do an if thousands album, it would probably sound bloated. We're way too into sound - obsessively so. Give us an endless budget and a couple months in a studio and we'd be recording backtracks of everything from the resonance in the studio windows to using parabolic microphones to record squirrels eating nuts two blocks away in a tree. Which sounds like a lot of fun, actually.
The sessions for this album took place at the studio where you recorded your debut. Do you feel that the new album connects to that one in some way? Was there an attempt to recapture or return to something that you did during that time, or was it merely an arbitrary studio choice?
We definitely wanted to get back to our so-called "roots". Also, we really like Ben Durrant's style. He has an amazing ear for what we do. We've been in other studios where the engineers act like they'd rather be washing their socks than recording us. It's never been that way with Ben. We've always said he's the invisible third member of if thousands.
How did you hook up with Paul Metzger, gst, and 2i? Did you intentionally choose them for the release because you had their specific instrumentation in mind and a direction for the project, or did their instrumentation and input color the release beyond the basic ideas you were working with for the album? Which element brought the apparent Indian and bluegrass melodic influences found on tracks like "Push" and "Stella and Me" into the equation?
For one, they're all incredibly talented and relatively unknown musicians who deserve more attention. We've always collaborated with other musicians we have a great fondness for. What it's really about is we love playing with great musicians. Doesn't everyone? Paul Metzger was asked because we'd become friends after playing a show together and decided we should really record together sometime in the future. We're both huge fans of all his work. It sounds trite, but he's amazing. Seriously amazing. The gst and 2i connection happened in much the same way. However, that was more Aaron's doing. Since if thousands began, Aaron has always wanted to include brass instruments. Christian has always wanted to include more acoustic, non-electronic instruments. That's why both are featured on this album. The Indian influences are straight from Paul Metzger. It's deep in the guy's soul. Once you get in that groove, you just want to get comfy and never leave. The bluegrass influence is rather weird. It's something that just happened. We had a minor "hit" on one of our ep's back in 2002 that was a banjo tune. It's not like we were raised around bluegrass music or even listen to it for that matter. It's just one of those things that happens - for what reason? We have absolutely no idea.
There appears to be quite a bit of mixing and post-production involved in this release. How much of the production was done in-studio and how much is post-production? Did you approach the sessions with final production, layering, and processing in mind, or was it a free improvisational session that you later transformed into the final pieces?
There's actually less than you'd think. What we were expecting is that Ben would end up totally remixing what we did. That's largely what happened on our first album, Candice Recorder. In fact, he barely touched most of our work on the latest album. He said he liked it the way it was. The most post production was done on "Chidren With Horns," which really wasn't much in the end. 99% of the album is just plain us with no frills. It's usually pretty open-ended. That's why we try to choose engineers who are familiar with our genre and style. We treat engineers as though they're another member of the band. This time, though, there was very little manipulation.
On a similar note, how do you go about translating your material to a live setting? Is your live work decidedly different from your studio work, or do you manage similar arrangements and sonic manipulation live?
It's pretty much one and the same. Christian usually brings an obscene amount of instruments to a show, then plays them all in order to layer sounds on top of sounds. What we do live is very similar to what we record. It also depends on the venue - the "feel" of the environment. If it's a large venue with a quiet crowd, we're more in our element. That's more like being in a studio. You can actually hear what's going on. In that case, we'll play large soundscapes similar to those on our albums. If it's a small venue with a noisy crowd, we have a tendancy to do very loud, noisy music. I guess you could say environment has a lot to do with our sound. Our "sound" is pretty indicative of the environment of Duluth, no matter what we record or where we play.
Is there any particular significance to the title of "Crispin Glover"? Is it an homage to the actor or merely an arbitrary title choice?
It's an homage. We both love Crispin Glover's work. He's very honest and odd. He's never compromised his talent. The piece we named after him is our attempt at playing the music he might hear in his head. Who knows - maybe he hears Bach concertos. We think slightly deranged carnival music may be more appropriate, though. It's the "which of these songs is not like the other" on the album and we've gotten a bit of flack for it because a lot of people don't understand what the song is about. By the same token, if Crispin Glover was standing in a crowd, I'm sure he'd stand out. And yes, we've sent him a copy. Haven't heard anything back yet, though.
If Thousands began as a project where you intended to experiment sonically with instruments you had no training in. Over the last 5 years, I'm guessing you've probably developed some sort of skill in playing, or at least knowledge in how to effectively use and process, some of those instruments. How do you feel that's changed your sound, direction, or mission statement? Do you feel that the musical knowledge you've gained has helped from a production and songcrafting standpoint, or do you think you've lost a certain naivete and immediacy that was present in your earlier work?
Great question. That's the first time anyone has ever asked us about that. Well, it's true that over years we've gained some insight on our main instruments (guitar and organ) but we never sit down and practice individually. You know, running scales and whatnot. We're more interested in what sounds the instruments can make rather than trying to become virtuosos. This is accomplished by not learning. It's a lot like what David Bowie once said, "Synthesizers are great if you throw the manuals away." The main reason we began with the idea of the drone is because Christian couldn't move his fingers very fast over the keyboard on his Hammond organ. And he still can't. It's not that we're lazy, we just take a different approach than most musicians. We've always been a strange band. The things we've gained deal with the making of the albums themselves. At first, we had absolutely no clue how to make an album or perform this stuff live. Although it was exciting and new, it was very frustrating. If anything, we've both matured. Aaron now has a daughter and Christian will be getting married this summer. Still, our music is (and probably always will be) an infant. We really haven't changed all that much in 5 years... We don't think you ever stop learning about music, even if you're a maestro. There's just too much there to learn, which is the fun part about doing all of this.
Your music combines both more traditional musical elements and experimental elements. What artists from both sides of the spectrum do you feel have been the most influential on your work together?
It's really hard to explain. We always say Brian Eno, but we rarely listen to his music. He's just the closest to the music we make. OK, we'll just come right out and say it: WE'RE FLYING BY THE SEAT OF OUR PANTS! We always have, right from the beginning. The music we make, to the best of our knowledge, is inspired by a conglomeration of every musician and sound we've ever liked that's been stored in our brains since we were old enough to discern what we liked or didn't like sonically. This runs from punk to classical. 80s new wave to blues. Mountain music to Tuvan throat singing. All of it. All music. What we do is put all of that in a strainer, add our own emotional experiences, turn on our instruments and filter everything out into our own creation. We've never tried to copy anyone. We're honestly not trying to be pretentious or haughty - we just can't. When we began in 2000, we didn't even know bands like us existed (such as Wendy & Carl, Labradford, Stars of the Lid or God Speed! You Black Emporer, etc.) When we found out bands like us existed, we thought, "Wow, that's really odd. Is a Zeitgeist or something going on?" We just knew that what we were doing felt good. So we kept doing it. Hope that helps.
From experience, working in a two member musical project can sometimes be a bit harrowing when it comes to artistic disagreements since arguments can be a bit bipolar without a third party to balance things out. It seems that it could, perhaps, be even more difficult to resolve artistic issues when working in a genre where sonic textures and stylistic tendencies hold as much importance as song structures. Do you ever disagree on the direction of a particular project or the aesthetic elements of a song or piece, or are you usually more or less on the same page? Is I Have Nothing the album you both envisioned, or is it more a work that came out of compromise?
Yet another hard to explain, weird part about if thousands. We rarely have disagreements, which is unheard of for a band. If we do have any, they're mundane and dissipate quickly. We'll both tell each other if what the other is doing completely sucks. We take no offense, it's just part of the process. I guess we're just really easygoing people. The other piece of the puzzle is that we both fit well together. Other bands flippantly talk about this kind of thing going on, you know… "MusicianX is such a great guy, we never fight, we're looking in the same direction, blah, blah, blah..." then you see them at each other's throats two days later or you can feel the hate seething from the stage when they perform. Aaron & I try to leave our egos at the door when we play music. It's not a rule we made up, it's just one of those things that happened. It's not about us, it's about what we create together. Yeah, that sounds cheesy but it's true. Come to one of our shows and you'll see for yourself.
Where do you see If Thousands going next? Would you like to continue in this experimental, improvisational direction, or do you think you'll take a more song-oriented approach or try something entirely different?
I'm sure we'll keep going with the experimental side, but it's hard to tell if we'll ever become more "mainstream". We like where we're at. There's no pressure from anyone except ourselves. We can do whatever the heck we please. That's a nice feeling, and it should be that way. Music is suppose to be something fun to do. We have friends who are in "big-time" bands who beat their heads against walls because they're under the gun to record that "next big hit." We say screw that noise. For two guys who just started making a bunch of weird sounds one day, we've come unbelievably far. We make albums not because we have to - but because we want to. And oddly enough, a lot of people out there buy them. With if thousands, the road never seems to end. The scenery just gets better and better. And that's a really, really nice feeling.
Well, I think that about covers it. Thanks again for doing the interview. Best of luck!
If Thousands website: www.ifthousands.com
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