Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Kowloon Walled City
[This is the 43rd installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Kowloon Walled City
Album: Container Ships
Label: Brutal Panda Records
Favorite Song: "You Don't Have Cancer"
The Bare Bones: Container Ships is the second full-length by San Francisco sludge metal band Kowloon Walled City. It was the first of the band's releases to feature the work of Tigon guitarist Jon Howell.
The Beating Heart: It would be safe to say that Kowloon Walled City's music is amalgam of various styles and genres , ranging from the raw energy of Unsane, the melodic resonance of post-rock bands such as Slint or Rodan, and the suffocating atmospherics of anyone from Godflesh/Jesu to ISIS. In that way, had I wanted to say that safe thing I just said, KWC is situated in that wider field of artist whose work revolves around honest, at times abrasive, emotional expression. However, it would be closer to the truth to say that KWC, while perhaps engaging with pre-existing traditions, use those to create an emotional resonance chamber all their one, one amplified by their own unique take on a combination of emotional earnestness and sonic brutality. And while a lot of that power was already on display on their remarkable debut, Gambling on the Richter Scale, all of those floating, raging pieces came almost startlingly together on their 2012 masterpiece Container Ships. The rage is still there, the abrasive, confrontational nature of their music is too there, along with a newfound sense of space and depth and an increased emphasis on subtle, almost frail atmospheric spaces. It is by far one of the most emotionally engaging and crushing albums of recent memory, and thus a very welcomed addition to this interview series via a recent conversation with KWC frontman/guitarist Scott Evans, one that also touches on his parallel role as one of the leading engineers/producers in heavy music today (East of the Wall, Great Falls, Ghoul, Minsk, and many others).
As usual before we get to my exchange with Matt this is my chance to encourage you to check out the rest of the Albums of the Decade series (and the rest of our interviews, including a news series about the great albums of the 90s) as well our new podcast (YouTube, Spotify and all that) and/or our latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL.2. Also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, if you like what you see here (for whatever reason). Thank you for your time and support. On to Scott and Container Ships.
Do you remember a moment, given that there are innumerable moments such as these in the musician's life, where you heard a song or an album, and your mind just caught fire, and or you're scared, or you felt they were doing something wrong? Or a moment you can point to that really changed your taste in music?
I can point to a half dozen or ten or whatever times in my life that I would call life changers, where my brain got reprogrammed. And the very first one was when I was listening to KISS when I was in second grade.
That's great. What was the context?
I don't know, KISS was very big in popular culture at that point and I don't even remember how that stuff landed in my life. But my brother and I both were obsessed, just non stop listening to KISS records. And music ended up being a huge part of his life too. He's two years younger than me and we had a lot of the same experiences, musically, up till we were probably 20. The next big one was my aunt gave me and my brother a Queen tape and a Black Sabbath tape, Sabbath’s Greatest Hits. And that was really it, that was the “boom” moment for me.
Which one, the Black Sabbath one or the Queen one? Or both?
The Queen tape was great, and I can still remember listening to a lot of those songs. I can remember the details of those songs, from then. But the Black Sabbath one just went right to my reptile brain, and has never left, obviously. By the time I was in fifth grade or something I had every drum fill memorized, I just absolutely loved it. One more big one for me was finding Ye’s Close to the Edge in my parents album collection. Not my parents’ usual music tastes, so it must have been a record of a friend of theirs’ or something like that. And putting it on, it’s got this swell at the beginning, and these bird sounds, and then this 13-minute, just sprawled-out crazy rock song starts. I have never heard anything like it. To this day that's probably that's one of my favorite records of all time. It just, again, absolutely reprogram my brain. And there were probably more over time.
It's interesting because I never got into Yes, because for me when I was a kid yes it was one of those bargain-bin bands like you go to the CD store and they had the discounted prog CDs like Yes, Camel, and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. And so I was like: “This is not metal, it’s this weird, meandering music” and I never got the hang of it. It always felt kind of antiquated. And then the last interview I did was in fact with Matt Weed from Rosetta and, and we talked about how we both love The Rising Tide by Sunny Day Real Estate and, and he said that that album made him like Yes. And I was like “Wait, what?” And then after that interview, I went to listen to Yes, open minded for the first time in my life, and I was like: “This is actually great.” I just needed the right context for it.
It’s fucking incredible. That combination, especially Steve Howe and Bill Bruford, they have this combination of like virtuosic playing and looseness, they still have that 70s sort of pocket, while playing stuff that is superhuman at the same time and beautiful. I can't say enough good stuff about the golden-era Yes stuff. To me it’s unmatched. It's like superheroes did it.
I actually wanted to ask something about that since with Black Sabbath or something like KISS, so you were very young and so whatever your lizard brain went for that's what it went for. But you're not eight anymore, and while you still have a lizard brain, it’s still a part of your anatomy. you can reflect on it. Right? You're also a person who is invested in music and in more than one angle, right? And so I guess my question would be whether or not you have had any thoughts about what it was about that early reptile thing that really drew you in? And whether or not it was something you tried to replicate as a musician?
Yeah, that's interesting. I think there's a reason everyone loves Black Sabbath. It's fairly universal. You know, my kids who listen to mostly SoundCloud rap and stuff like that, they love Black Sabbath. Their songs were really simple and really right to the point and it’s like they discovered the entire geological layer of riff, untouched, and they were able to just mine the hell out of it, you know? And all the great low-hanging riff fruit was right there – I’m mixing metaphors….
But it was all right there for them. And, yeah, it's still undeniable. It's just so good. And they were such a good band, which is I think the thing I realized later on. When I was young, it was just very hooky, very aggressive and energetic, and simple enough for me to understand. When you watch that 1970 Paris live show that has made the rounds a bunch, you realize they were just on fucking fire. They were a great band, you know? Everything about a good band, they were. And that to me is what helps them stand the test of time, the fact that the recordings are so simple and so raw and still so good. It's really the difference between the first couple of Iron Maiden records and then the follow up ones, which got glossier. There's something really magical about the first two records where you can still hear front and center that this is a great band just killing it.
So, Yes and Black Sabbath are two great bands killing it. And yet, they're killing it in very different ways. And so I feel like there's something, I shouldn't say “deceptive,” but there's something incomplete about “killing it” as an adjective. Because “killing it” could mean so many things. And it's funny, because when you mentioned Yes being virtuosic, that they had a wide range and they could go wherever it was they wanted to go. And yet, they still chose to stay in this groovy pocket sometimes, which then makes that more impactful. And I think that's also kind of true of Black Sabbath. I'm not sure Black Sabbath were as virtuosic, technically, but they had genius-levels of feel, and they had genius levels of being “in it,” in a way, and of composition and whatever. And I guess when you're eight up or whatever and you just listen to Black Sabbath, and they have that universal appeal, then you’d go “Yeah, it's a good song. it's a good band, what's the problem?” But it's very, very difficult to be that good, in anything. And so, if I would have grown up loving Black Sabbath that would have felt like a very daunting standard to be held up to, because it's 99% magic. And then when you become a musician yourself and then you're supposed to produce that magic, right? You're asking yourself to bring “it,” but do you always know what it is? What is it that you're supposed to bring?
I think one of the things about Black Sabbath is that anyone can sit down with a bass or guitar and fumble out of Black Sabbath song. So, you can approximate the ingredients. And that's easy enough to take with you as an influence later. With something like Yes, it’s a lot less obvious. There are plenty of Sabbath-clone bands. But there's not that many Yes-clone bands. But…. I'm trying to think of a way to answer your question. In the end, for me, both of those bands, and lots of other bands that I could pinpoint along the way do a combination of things for me, I think where they are writing music that's full of hooks, things that your brain can grab onto, and they're presenting them aesthetically, tonally, production wise, whatever, in a way that's interesting, and really serves the music. Maybe that's why something like Fragile or Close to the Edge really grabs me, Whereas a Porcupine Tree record doesn't. Porcupine Tree borrows from a lot of the same places and is very well done and thoughtfully produced and all that, but there’s something about the aesthetic or the production that doesn't bring it home for me. I don't know if those two things are enough to draw a line through every record that I would consider life-changing, but I think it's why I like King Crimson’s Red or Discipline but I really don’t love Islands or one of those records that’s more improvisational and abstract and less hooky. In the end, I love those sweet, sweet hooks, you know? And they can can exist in a 12- or 20-minute song, when done well,
Yeah, I get that. But, and I'm just latching on to that one last time, but so one of the things that I'm preoccupied with in these interviews is myself and the fact of me being from Israel, and more importantly neither American nor European, which really fits any place that isn’t in either. And I've been interviewing musicians who are not from Israel. And, personally, I've been more inclined to listen to American metal throughout my life. And I've often wondered why that is. I think I'm attracted to the fact that there's a lot less posturing and a lot more of a sense of real people doing real shit. But the thing that's strange to me is that it is a band like Black Sabbath and a band like Yes, they're both in very different ways, kind of larger than life. Right? Almost like they almost have their own mythology. Like, Yes to me feel like musicians that live in a cloud, that have the groove.
And Black Sabbath always worked on that kind of borderline occult/political, larger-than-life themes of war and religion – everything is huge. We're talking about war, we're talking about the devil. And then you go on Skype and talk with a dude who is inspired by both and writes a song titled: “You Don't Have Cancer?” How do you go from all that immensity to writing songs about street names in San Francisco? How does that grandiosity then get whittled down into what turns out to be, again, again, a very personal, very grounded kind of style of music? Real people who are ironic and make fun of shit we don't take things seriously, or at least not in the same way?
Well, I think, for me, but this may be true of a lot of people who do creative work, in a lot of ways I have lots of limitations. And so a lot of my musical life is inspired by and aspiring to be like people who I could never be in a room with, musically. Be that Yes, or Carla Kihlstedt, or Kaki King, or any number of amazing vocalists on records, or producers who could run circles around me. I've always aspired to or looked up to that stuff. But at the same time I'm working within my own abilities and strengths and limitations. And I think one of the things that you do is you play to your strengths. And this band, I think, has been realizing its strengths over the 12 or 14 years we've been doing this. We're still figuring out what we're good at and trying to chase that. And so be that musically, or lyrically. Lyrically, especially, because I think the thing you're talking about is specifically lyrical.
Yeah, I think it is. It's like a tone.
Most of that comes from me, I'm the person who writes 98% of our lyrics because I have to sing them. And I am a very limited vocalist, also. And the truth is, I’m not a great writer.
I couldn't write a Radiohead song, or a PJ Harvey song, or a Pink Floyd song if you held a gun to my head. And so whatever has come out has just been whatever I'm good at. I'm not a storyteller. I don't have notebooks or journals. So, lyrically, to me, lyrics are a huge challenge in this band. I don't know what it was like for Ozzy to write lyrics or Geezer, whoever wrote them back in the day or, you know, John Anderson or anyone like that. But I hope it was easier for them than it is for me. I want to think that those people were more gifted lyricists than maybe I am.
I think part of it is the lyrics, because I think the lyrics are a very explicit way where that happens. But I think you could easily, and I don't want to make this too abstract if that makes you uncomfortable, because I kind of tend to go there, but I think there's something about the American hardcore tradition, from Bad Brains and Minor Threat and all the way up to Botch and Coalesce and onwards. There's something about the musical way this happens, even if it does get pretentious, because Botch and Coalesce were intentionally fucking with people, so there's some pretension in there, but they were fucking with people using the limited faculties they had, just liked what you said right? It’s not like they said: “I want to fuck with people’s heads. I'll just go to study music eight years and do my scales and work on my skills until I reach the point where I can so fuck with them them.” They said: “No, I can play two fucking chords, I want to mess with people with just that.”
And that's what I find. And that's what I find interesting, because even the people you just randomly named, who by the way just happened to all be English, are the kind of artists that are working in a tradition where you’re expected to be literate, you're expected to have studied the greats, and there's no shame in reading a bunch of books. And I think in the American tradition it’s different, at least in this post-hardcore world. You say: “You know, fuck it, I'm limited, so I can't do that.” We're all limited. I'm limited PJ, Harvey's limited. Everyone's fucking limited. But the reaction to limitation is different. I find that fascinating. So your reaction, in Kowloon, to limitation is that in a way, celebrating it. “That's my music, and if you ask me to do anything more than that, then Fuck you. Because that's not what I do.” You know what I'm saying? So it's, it's also the lyrics, but it's not just the lyrics. It's a general posture where your superpower in a way is that you don't have a superpower. And you kind of try to use that to your best advantage, whereas I don't know some dude who might be born in fucking, I don't know, Sweden, or Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree, he might think: “Oh, shit, I'm limited. I need to study for twenty years!”
Don't get me wrong, I have taken music lessons, I had theory classes, I have taken poetry writing classes, never of them have really stuck. So, I have a fair amount of imposter syndrome about this, but at the same time I like making music and when you get the right group of people together you can create something the sum is maybe greater than its parts. I think that in our band I am definitely the worst musician in the room. John is a fantastic guitar player. He's a very unusual guitar player, but he's been a guitar player his whole life, that's what he's done. Ian is an amazing bass player, he could go play in an R n’ B band tomorrow, he's one of these people that can go sit in on sessions. Dan is an extremely good drummer, and Jeff was too. Whereas I’m a little bit more of a hack, but good at kind of gluing things together.
So, is being a hack an advantage while in a band?
A lot of good in rock music comes from people playing at the edge of something – the edge of their ability, or the edge of control, or something like that. There are counter examples, I guess, but I think that if everything's too easy or if they can do everything, then the results end up lacking energy or without an edge, which I think is important in rock music. And that's how you end up with stuff that's super polished and glossy and boring. You can look at 20 or 30 years of 90s and 2000s top 40 radio and you see the best tools and the best studios and the best studio talent churning out stuff that is beautifully made vanilla ice cream. I mentioned this the other day – if I disappeared for 10 years to just do nothing but practice guitar and came back a 100 times better guitar player, I would still be able to access the hack part of my brain, it would not change the way our band sounds. And having that is a strength I guess, whereas if I walked into this band a total virtuoso shredder…. It’s hard to fake being a gorilla when you’re not.
Is that a strength? I don’t know.
It is. You know, this interview series has spawned another one about the 90s. And a lot of what comes out of those conversations is talking about, or romanticizing, the 90s as that last decade where you were allowed to fuck up while being a musician, or that things didn’t have to be pitch-perfect in the studio, and so your humanity was left hanging, as it were. And you may have wanted it to be more perfect at the time but as it turned out it was the flawed, human stuff that stuck.
I don’t know that that’s actually fair, and here’s why. Many records that we would talk about in the 90s were made over the course of months. Yes, they were limited because of analog tape, there are so many tracks, and all that stuff. But recording budgets were bigger – that was the peak of big, fancy recording studios. And so you would take six or eight months to make a Soundgarden record. You could make that same record today in a week and a half, because of the fixing and the editing, and because there aren’t any track limitations, and so on. Well, maybe not a week and a half, but very quickly. Or you could go much further and fix everything, but you don’t have to. It requires some degree of restraint when you’ve got all the tools in front of you, but you can still treat Pro Tools like a sixteen-track Tascam tape machine in 1994 if you wanted to, and I do think recordings like that still exist.
Would that be the gorilla version of production? The hack part of your brain?
I don’t know. Is Steve Albini a hack?
No, but he is a firm believer in limitation, I think.
Yes. In some ways actually that is a more elevated type of engineering than fixing everything. Being a hack comes up in recordings in all kinds of ways, I just don’t think that choosing limitations is one of them.
Agreed. So, getting to Kowloon. You’ve mentioned that you were a band that was still trying to figure out what it’s good at, and that you’ve figured out more as you went along. But that also means you began at, if I may, your most ignorant.
Putting stuff out and not really knowing what it was you were doing or what you did best. And then, as with any art, you got to look at what you did, pick apart the stuff you found more interesting and then went at it again. But my question is whether or not, when you guys were starting out, you had any set notion about the kind of band you wanted to be or even the kind of scene you felt like you belonged in?
So, when we started this band I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted it to be. For me that’s the easiest way to start a band, to have a sort of mission statement. In our case the idea was to be stripped-down, repetitive, and to not be afraid of that. And there were three bands that I would point to over and over again: Godflesh, Unsane, and Shallow North Dakota. Those were the bands we looked to and said: “We can synthesize something from these and get at the right vibe.” Scene-wise, I was mew to San Francisco, we had just moved here from the East Coast, and I was just starting to get to know people. Starting this band was basically me finding people on Craigslist and trying to get a band going. So I didn’t know much of the scene here. But what I found was a really welcoming scene – there were a bunch of venues to play, they were super cool about booking, there were a bunch of other bands doing similar heavy things and we could get shows with them, they were all friendly people. For that matter, the internet at that time was just sort of ramping up in its support for independent metal and heavy stuff and was just great, very welcoming and supportive. I don’t think I knew what to expect, but it was great.
Often I hear about bands coming up in scenes and then starting to grow out or sideways from those scenes and then experiencing a kind of backlash for that change, and so on. But I guess that wasn’t your experience at all.
No, we always pretty much got to be what we wanted to try and be and what we thought we were capable of doing.
Cool, that idea of trying to be what you thought you could be brings me to the topic at hand – Container Ships. I read some of the interviews you gave around that album’s release, and it seems you got a lot of questions and comments about how Container Ships represented a shift for the band. You were told that it was spacier or more atmospheric and in some of the cases you kind of pushed back against that notion, saying that you got what was different about it but that the seeds for that were already there. So, basically you were arguing against it being a quantum leap and more toward a gradual evolution theory. So I guess my question would be whether or not you now see more clearly how that may have been a shift or do you still think it was the next logical step? I know that, for instance, adding Jon must have been a big part of that change.
Yeah, in hindsight I can. I guess the answer looking back is that both of the things you said were true. Because we didn’t really change the way we did things. Jon was definitely a personality change and a playing change, but it was sort of a lot of little things. I don’t think there was ever a decision to dramatically change anything. I think you can kind of look at the last song on each of our records and I think those seem to forecast what’s going to happen next, and the last song on Gambling on the Richter Scale is a little more of a spaced-out, slow-burn kind of song, and we did this split with Fight Amp that we recorded in a decent studio instead of in our practice space and we wrote some more space into that too. I think those things, to me, even though they happened with Jason still playing guitar, laid the path out that we then walked on to get to Ships. I do understand that if the last thing you had heard was Gambling and then you heard Ships you’d go: “What is this?” The vocals were a big change, which, to me, was the same but it turned out different. So, yeah, I guess the answer is “both” – we did the same things and it came out different.
I’m a bit of a drum freak, despite the fact I had drummed in my life.
Drums are the best, yes.
I’m drawn to what drums do more than any other instrument, it’s just the essence of what music is for me. And so, the drums on that album feel isolated, not with the rest of the band, is that correct?
Well, we all played everything live, but there were enough isolation rooms where we recorded that both guitars and the bass were in their own booths. So we were all standing in the same room hearing ourselves on headphones but the takes that we're playing were the keeper takes. So it’s pretty much like playing with a real band, it’s a little bit weird because you’re used being knocked over by the guitar and you’re hearing it in your headphones instead, you just have to have this suspension of disbelief that it’s going to sound great, but besides that it’s the same.
But was there any difference in how the drums were recorded? To prevent, say, bleedthrough from the other instruments? Or, actually you’re with headphones so there isn’t any bleedthrough?
Exactly. Well, actually the amps are pretty loud so there is some. If you listen to the solo drum tracks there is some bleedthrough, but not much. But, yeah, wheres in the records before that it was like recording in a small club – everyone in the same room, absolutely jet-engine loud, and good luck.
I ask this because that’s just a subtle, small thing and if you weren’t insane like I am then you might not have even noticed the fact that all the instruments sound like their collapsing into the same mic – which is a very Unsane kind of recording. They always sound like everything is exploding into one poor mic.
Until that Visqueen record, which is really beautiful sounding.
Yes, they were beautiful sounding all the way up to their last record. But that small decision to me, as a listener, makes it that you go from that AmRep/chaos sound to something that sounds more like ISIS. So it’s not just the space of the songs or the mood that’s different it’s a kind of statement in how you guys sound and how the drums sound that make it sound like just a different brand of music. Does any of that make sense?
Yeah, and it’s interesting you describe that as a small change because that’s a huge change. If I’m going to record a band one of the very first decisions I’m going to make revolves around this – are we going to put everyone in the same room for takes, and if we’re doing that, are the amps going in the room or not? Because that has huge implications on how that feels to play and the way the drums are going to sound. It’s very hard to do that with big, let’s just call it Chicago-style, drum sound, and very hard to do that if there are a number of 100-watt guitar amps in the room at the same time. There are ways to do it, but it’s much harder. So that decision to me is a big deal, and I think it’s definitely the main difference you hear between those two records. In the end, a guitar amp with an SM57 three inches from it, that will sound pretty much the same in a practice space or in a studio. But drums in a big nice room with no bleed versus drums in a carpeted practice space with bleed is the difference between night and day.
But that begs the question…. A lot of times I talk with musicians, and the best example I have for this is an interview I did once with J. from White Zombie. And I went on and on about the guitar tone and he said something to the effect of that he had to change his amp mid-recording for whatever reason. And, just in general, every times I ask a band about what I perceived to be this big artistic shift it ends up being a question of equipment, or mic placement, or whatever. So it wasn’t always that they meant to do anything differently it just turned out to be different. So, as a person who records bands, to what extent a change in feel or even in some cases in genre down to technical decisions?
Well, I think this is a good example: If we had recorded those same songs with the same people the way we had recorded Gambling they would have sounded different. They’d be the same songs, played the same way, by the same people, and they would land differently through the speakers. I don’t know that it would be like a different band or anything, but I think that, on a good day, you get those things aligned. A recording engineer, producer, or whatever you want to call it, can hopefully make a bunch of little decisions that do support an end goal in that way – “Does this band want to sound super dry and precise or do they want to sound more gelled together? Does the guitar player play with a lot of feedback normally and does he feel very strange if he can’t do that? Can the bass player get through the songs without a million mistakes?” There are lots and lots of little things that you’re trying to put together and that hopefully support an end result that is what makes sense for the music.
And just to relate to one thing you mentioned in passing on the way to that question, the White Zombie story. All the things that happened in Ships, all the changes, were intentional. There were lots of little things, but they were decisions, and I guess in the end ten little decisions amount to substantial change. The idea of going to record in a real room, that was on purpose, and for a reason. The idea of asking Jon to join the band to try and get that weird Jon-Howell magic, that was discussed a lot and worked out amazingly. I changed my guitar amp for reasons, and that worked out. I mean, I was playing a different pick, I think, and that changed things. Lots of little things.
So, that’s interesting because if we go back to my first question about the album, whether it represented a big departure or gradual change, then it seems that what you’re saying that artistically the process remained the same but that if you tinker enough with some of the things that are a part of that process then you end up with change.
That sounds exactly right. We always tell this story that I said: “Look man, I don’t ever want this band to change. We don’t have to make records that sound different, we can just keep churning out the same exact chocolate week every week for the rest of time and that’s what we’ll be known for, that’s fine.” But we really never did that, because I think that I am a natural tinkerer and Jon is too, and so maybe me telling myself that is more of a grounding thing, like a reminder…. Maybe the way you said it is perfect, that the artistic process is the same but the technical details are ever-shifting.
You already mentioned this, but I was going to ask you anyway about this thing that the last song on the album, at least in the case of Gambling and Ships, serves as a weird premonition of things to come. Based on that, “You Don’t Have Cancer” is the most “different” on Container Ships and the most similar to what you’ll end up doing on Grievances. So, given we’ve just said that the process is the process, but was there anything different about the writing or recording of that song?
I think that was one of the last songs we wrote for that record, and one of the things I do remember about that song is that I think we had a lot of trouble translating some of the guitar part ideas into something that worked with the whole band. For instance, finding a drum part that would drive that song was almost a deal killer, it was like: “This is not going to work.” But I think I was really convinced that the guitar parts were good and worth pursuing and eventually it worked out, Jeff and I together. Because I’m often the guy who goes: “Play this!” [imitates drum sounds]. I’ll come in with demos that have drums programmed in them, I love drums. I’m more than happy to let drummers do their own thing but if they’re having trouble I can hopefully try and generate ideas. So, the song is big and slow, but hopefully, even if the song is slow, you want to have it lean forward as opposed to just sitting straight up or leaning back, if that makes sense, that it still has an energy and a push, and finding beats that had that effect, with that tempo and that much space, was a challenge. And it was a challenge for all of Grievances also.
Yeah. In my frame of reference that sounds like jumping into the Fugazi pool, because to me they’re that flavor in my brain of guitars doing weird shit and it’s up to the drums and the bass to carry the song. For me Brendan Canty is the golden standard in doing that, in almost not caring what the guitarist is doing.
And just sort of be the anchor.
That seems like a big transition for a band, from a full-band attack to something like that.
And if you’re a drummer that just wants to rip, who wants to lock in and rip, that is uncomfortable.
For sure. So, I had a technical question about the lyrics. I know we talked about the lyrics, but I kind of wanted to ask about one aspect of that. I can think of bands that use lyrics as a kind of poem stain on the music, or as something that accompanies the music. But my question is a bit more technical than that: How come the lyrics only come when the loud parts are playing? How come you never sing in the quiet parts?
Well, there’s a little more of that on the next record. But I think the way the songs are written on Ships, structurally, that’s the way they want to be. The chimey parts and the quieter parts are put where they are for a reason, and the reason isn’t that “This is a verse” or “This is a chorus.” I think that’s the reason. If I had handed it to someone else to sing I would have said: “Don’t sing there,” because that’s how the song is written. Now, I think it’s probably fair to say that we wrote songs like these on purpose because my style of vocals is better suited to being over the loud parts. We joke a lot about heavy bands that have a whisper part [laughs], when you’re trying to find something else you can do over a quiet part. That shit is right out for me, there are rules [laughs].
So, if I’m going to be hollering over a quiet part it’s got to work and that is definitely a very naked feeling for me.
I mean, the reason I asked wasn’t because there’s something irregular about it, and I kind of half guessed what the reason would be, other than the fact that the songs were written that way.
Because I’m not comfortable as a singer.
Exactly, but the reason I asked it is because there’s one band that comes to mind when I hear, for instance, the intro to “You Don’t Have Cancer” or "The Pressure Keeps Me Alive," those first few chords, they has a very Slint feeling.
And Slint always talk over the quiet parts.
But I guess that’s what made it clear to me that you weren’t.
I can assure you there will never be a spoken part over any of our songs, ever. I mean, you’re right, that is another thing that you can do but that is not in my DNA. It’s bad enough I have to sing over the loud parts, you know what I’m saying?
No! You sing great! People pay money to hear your singing! They’re like: “Fuck the music, I want to hear Scott singing!” [Laughs]
I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one [laughs].
Well, now you have. But I also wanted to talk about the amount of time it takes you guys to release albums. I’ve heard you talk about the process and how your relationship to it has maybe changed. And the impression I got, and maybe it’s misconstrued, that it’s difficult. And I guess I wondered whether recording other people’s music helps getting back in the groove in some way.
I think that doing a lot of recording is fortunate for me because it means that I get to be actively making music and making things in a way that I feel I am naturally good at. I can walk into a recording studio and there’s rarely a time where I feel like: “Oh fuck! I don’t know what to do now!” I’m very much in the zone the whole time, it’s very satisfying. And if I was just a guitar player then all I would have is the music that I’m writing and the bands I was in, and instead I get to latch my wagon to other people’s musical projects, be a contributor, and move on. It’s great. So, that aspect of it is so good, because really in the end I’m in a band not because I have something to say or for any grandiose artistic reasons, it’s just because I like making stuff with my friends, and recording is a way of doing that.
As for whether or not recordings brings me back to our band and writing I think the answer is pretty much “no.” Recording takes a lot out of you, it’s a lot of long days, and a lot of days of having your head deeply immersed in music, and, if anything, it’s one of those things where you get home and maybe you want to not do that for a few hours. If I’ve complained about the writing process, that’s not the way I would like that to come off. It is challenging for me, and there are two reasons for that. The first is, like I said, that I’m not naturally a gifted writer, if such a thing exists, and the second is that I can come up with reasons not to do the work. Doing the work is what matters, sitting down for an hour or two every day, just grinding, and eventually stuff comes out. And it’s hard and frustrating enough for me that I can avoid grinding, because I could do other things that are more gratifying and that don’t fuck with my head as much. So, I don’t enjoy writing but I enjoy having written.
I don’t know if it’s equivalent in any way, but my grinding is writing, and I’m very efficient in not doing it.
So I can find ways to work around it, but at some point it catches up with me. I think people create things for a reason, or at least don’t show up at creating without one. That reason might have to do with making things with your friend, but there’s a reason you’re in that room. So, for me that necessity is on a kind of timer. I can ignore it, but at some point you get antsy and you start fiddling with “the grind” and it makes you feel better, and you’re like: “Shit, I really hoped that would not be the answer.
And so I get back to it, until I can avoid it again.
That is not my personal experience. I think my experience is that I’ll do all those things you were saying to avoid grinding until my brain decides for whatever reason to put in work. And then, usually, after hours, days, weeks of doing that, I produce things and then I go: “Oh wait, that wasn’t that hard, what the hell? Why did I avoid this for so long?” I am not a person who practices as much as I should, and, like I said, I don’t do a lot of journaling, I don’t practice guitar enough, and really I don’t practice recording enough, which is a thing you can do, you can do a lot of experimenting when you have down time. And I used to do that stuff some. And if I could change something about myself it would be that I would practice more, that I would be more of a person that would go: “Look: grind!” I think that would have really positive effects. To hear myself say that out loud it sounds ridiculous – “Why don’t you just do that then?”
I guess that’s just not the way it works. OK, for the last question: When you look back at Container Ships is there anything you’re especially proud of? A moment, a song, a decision?
I think, to date, it’s one of the first records that I have been involved in writing and making that I’m still happy with. If you asked me what I would like to change in almost anything I helped write and create then I could give you a list, and I don’t think I would do that for that record. The recipe worked, you know? For me it’s unusual, to feel like it’s still good.
To say that it was the first does that mean it helped make it clearer for you what it was that you were looking for going forward?
Maybe. I’m also still happy with the record that came after that, Grievances, so that’s a good sign. And if we ever do another record, which could happen, we’ll see.