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Map Ref 01: False Start

Hey Friends:

As mentioned in my last blog post, I'm going to be spending some time in the next few weeks working through a song-by-song breakdown of Geography, referencing favorite songs that influenced the making of the record. Personally, I love when artists talk process—discussing the origins of a lyric, or what he or she may have been listening to at the time of a track's conception—so I thought it might be fun to write about about how my record came to be. And since Geography's aesthetic theme is rooted in maps, I'm naming this post series accordingly with a not-so-subtle nod to my favorite Wire song. Here we go!

"False Start," the opening track to Geography, is one of the oldest songs from the record, demoed back in 2011 when I was working on our Resolution EP; in fact, I believe that the first two songs I wrote were the opening and closing tracks ("State of the Union" dates back to 2008), and I knew early on that "False Start" and "State" would start and end the record's sequence.

That heartbeat bass pulse, which underpins the entire track, is a straight-up pull from Spoon's "Small Stakes." I've long thought that this is one of the best album openers of all time—gripping and emotive despite the spareness of its design. Spoon's bluesy moments don't really resonate with me as a songwriter, however their commitment to making strange production choices have provided a lot of inspiration to me over the last ten years.

Earlier demos maintained that "Small Stakes" minimalism throughout, featuring only vocals, bass pulse, and some synthesizer run through a timed delay, however once I knew what the theme of the record was going to be about, I realized that some additional melody might be needed. That's where the piano came in. As a side note: all but two songs from Geography contain piano—an instrument which was featured only sparingly in earlier City States songs—and my use of it throughout the LP really did help bring out the emotion I wanted to convey.

But back to "False Start:" that persistent 8th note piano phrasing, running in parallel with the bass pulse, is borrowed from LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," which, in my opinion, may be the finest song written in the last 15 years. This isn't the first time I've tried to mimic James Murphy's crowning achievement: on Resolution I attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a similar move with the EP's closer, "Reverse Slow Motion." Could one suggest that the former song naturally flows into the latter? Perhaps. I do think that "False Start" is more successful.

About two weeks before going in for mixing at Soma, I knew that the song still needed something more—movement? progression?—and that's when I added the extra drum machines, synth arpeggios, and live drums that slowly fade in throughout the song's second half. During the last 6 months of writing and recording I listened to Stereolab and Tortoise (two bands I've written about before) maybe more than any other groups, and when "Olv 26" popped up in an iTunes playlist one day, I heard a stylistic parallel that made a lot of sense to me. Strangely, those electro-snare inclusions remind me a bit of Hot Chip, but once the live drums and arpeggios fade in, I hear an awful lot of Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Those final edits, for me, make the song, and I'm glad I decided to make some last-minute additions.

Next time, I'll talk Dismemberment Plan, Walkmen, and the death of the universe with "Endless Sunlight." Thanks for reading!



Influence VII: Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die

In two days, I’ll be going to Soma Studios in Wicker Park to mix one half of our forthcoming LP. From a purely logistical standpoint, I’m excited and a bit relieved to be moving into the end phase of what has become a two-plus year project; however, the specifics of what we’re about to do are particularly thrilling for me.

Before we go any further, I should just put my fanboy biases right out on the table: we are going in to mix at the studio that produced Millions Now Living Will Never Die, one of my favorite albums of all time. Okay, there. I said it.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs during the mid/late ’90s, and by the age or 16 or 17, listening to new music and discovering new bands had become a defining part of my daily life. And based on simple proximity to the city, combined with my particular interests, the music of Thrill Jockey was hard to miss. I don’t exactly remember what it was like for me to hear this record for the first time, but I do recall the first time I heard the band name Tortoise—which took place in a conversation whereby my ears also first witnessed the names “Slint” and “June of 44.” Not too long after that I purchased Millions Now Living, and they quickly became one of my favorite bands.

I wouldn’t doubt that my affection for this record has a lot to do with the time in my life at which I discovered it—perhaps its songs are subjectively linked to nostalgic feelings over my teenage years, or at least tied to the thrill of musical discovery that was so important for that time in my life. But even outside of the historical significance that this LP personally has for me, I’m still drawn to it for the same reasons as I was 17 years ago: it’s at turns bizarre and cerebral through songs like “DJed,” contrasted with moments of emotional directness via “Glass Museum” and “Along The Banks of Rivers.” And the production—at moments it feels almost completely untethered from the rules of traditional songwriting, nearly otherworldly in its execution.

Though my songs are far more conventionally rooted in the pop format, I’ve slowly become more interested in manipulating sound—making instruments sound unlike themselves, exploring noise, texture, atonality. And in my personal experience, this is one of the albums that opened up these possibilities for me.

So here I am: two days away from mixing 5 songs that I’ve lived with for 24 months straight, in a studio that produced a landmark LP for my life. I’m nervous, but more than anything, I’m excited to hear the results.



Influence VI: Stereolab – Dots & Loops

Throughout the last two years of writing and recording, I’ve consistently gone back to a handful of records as references, and to that end I’ve probably listened to Dots And Loops more than any other. This may come as a surprise to some, given that D&L has a reputation for being Stereolab’s jazz influenced album, and a decidedly breezy one at that. To be fair, I think that the “jazz” label is only true by half; instead, what I hear when I listen to Dots And Loops is a wonderfully strange pop record, one which bridges the gap between electronic and acoustic sounds better than anything in Stereolab’s catalog.

A lot of qualities that I love about Stereolab’s music are things that I’ve written about before with respect to Steve Reich; specifically, I love how they contrast structural minimalism with compositional maximalism—ie: repetitive songs that become more and more dense over time. And the way that The Groop handles production, editing, and mixing on Dots And Loops is particularly fantastic. Here, live instruments sound strangely electronic and otherwise processed, while synthesizers take on more muted tones. It’s a thrilling, fascinating conceit that has given me a strong sense of how to approach the production of my own songs.

Part of the reason I am so excited about working at Soma Studios (we will be mixing one half of our LP there this weekend) is that some of the work on this record was completed there—my hope is that we can tease similar peculiarities out of our own music as was done on Dots And Loops.

Fingers = crossed.



Influence V: Fennesz - Black Sea

One of the themes I’ve been working through in my most recent batch of songs is the notion of collapse: the idea that everything we build up (or things that build up naturally around us) eventually breaks down. I’m going to talk about what that means lyrically in a subsequent post about The Soft Bulletin; with regard to music, though, I’ve been taking a lot of joy in constructing these intricately layered pop songs, only to knock everything over later on in each track, allowing the arrangements to descend into static and noise.

I spent the weekend finishing up a song called “Uncharted Waters,” which starts out as an Eno-inspired piano ballad but about halfway through, the track folds in on itself, and the result sounds quite a bit like many of the songs on Black Sea—hazy, fluid, and bordering on caustic. To be clear, Christian Fennesz is one of my favorite artists around: his music is beautiful and strange, and the balance he strikes between melody and atonality is nothing short of fascinating.

Strictly in terms of aesthetics, I’ve been taking lots of cues from his heavy use of grain delays and frequency modulation filters, as well as his more recent emphasis on the acoustic guitar. But recently, I’ve also grown to love Black Sea's particular compositional style, whose songs oscillate dramatically between noisy and calm, minimal and dense, composed and deconstructed. Integrating these opposing values into pop songs isn't exactly easy, though I will say that Jim O'Rourke has provided as good of an example as possible on how to make this happen (I hope this doesn't sound like I'm comparing myself to Jim O'Rourke; I'm simply acknowledging that he's another important reference point for me).

And that album cover: a stark photograph of a steel train track, abandoned, and nearly submerged by encroaching pools of water. It’s a haunting—almost tragic—image. Yet I’m captivated, and even calmed, by its representation of collapse, loss, and the world’s complete inability to escape death.



Influence IV: Steve Reich—Music For 18 Musicians

Yesterday while thinking about the record’s opening track—which I am currently finishing up—I wound up listening to Music For 18 Musicians twice through. It’s an all-time favorite of mine, and more than any album that I own, this one might be the most formative in helping me to understand what it means to arrange songs (which is, arguably, a very different discipline than songwriting).

I love the way that the piece is segmented into discrete movements that develop over time. Each section starts small—with just a few instruments working together—before slowly adding layer upon later until the composition reaches critical mass, only to snap back into minimalism upon reaching the next movement. 18 Musicians’ greatest achievement, though, may be in the fact that it succeeds as a highly cerebral composition, while also having a strong emotional impact.

A note on the attached YouTube video: this was a performance of the piece which took place in Chicago’s Millennium Park during the summer of 2011. I was lucky to have seen it live. ‘Twas wonderful.



Influence III: Outkast — Bombs Over Baghdad

Yesterday—which coincidentally was the 10-year anniversary of Speakerboxxx / The Love Below—I finally checked out Bullseye with Jesse Thorn via his interview with Big Boi. It’s a great discussion of Outkast’s work and backstory, and it legitimately sounded like Big Boi enjoyed himself on the show.

About halfway through the segment, Jesse Thorn said two words about his first time hearing “Bombs Over Baghdad” that perfectly encapsulated my initial experiences with the group:

"Holy shit."

One of my college roomates used to play Outkast constantly, and this particular track was completely enthralling to me. “Bombs Over Baghdad,” with those hard drum & bass breaks and squelchy synths, reminded me more of Squarepusher than of any hip-hop records I owned. More than anything, I was taken by the notion that Outkast made a thoroughly strange album that was also hooky and unembarrassed of its commercial aspirations. In hindsight, I now recognize that many of my favorite records—The Downward Spiral and The Soft Bulletin are two others that come to mind—walk that tightrope skillfully.



Influence II: R.E.M. – Why Not Smile

I’ve been listening to this song repeatedly today as a reference for the first song on the new record, which I’m working on this week.

In an alternate universe, “Why Not Smile,” is the opening track of REM’s Up, and it’s a wonderful way to set things in motion. I love the way that the track unfolds slowly, building in layers over the course of a quick 3 minutes.

Many diehard REM fans loathe this album; I think it’s flawed in some serious ways, but the good tracks are stunners. I also created my own sequence for this record, which is really the only way I listen to it:

01. Why Not Smile

02. Daysleeper

03. Hope

04. Suspicion

05. The Apologist

06. The Sad Professor

07. Walk Unafraid

08. Airportman

09. Falls to Climb

10. At My Most Beautiful

No, really, try this sequence. It’s great.



Influence I: St. Vincent - Champagne Year

Right now I’m finishing up the arrangement on a track that leans heavily on “Champagne Year” as reference. I love the odd balancing act that this song pulls off between it’s ambient intro and the more ballad-like tendencies that emerge later on. It’s a favorite of mine from Annie Clark’s catalog (and that says a lot.)