Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sunset Rubdown

I learned a long time ago not to trust first impressions.

The first few times I saw Wolf Parade live, back in 2003, I was immediately struck by the songs and stage presence of Dan Boeckner, and equally befuddled and annoyed by the songs and vocals of his co-frontman Spencer Krug, which I thought were aimless, proggish anti-pop. I think it was only after hearing their EP (the one that was consistently in print, unlike the earliest demos) that I started to come around, and by the time Apologies to the Queen Mary came out in 2005, I'd totally fallen for every aspect of Krug's songwriting: his way with melody and countermelodies, his penchant for minor keys, his way of conjuring what sounded like old sea shanties and filtering them through a fractured new wave lens.

That said, it also took me a long time to get used to his other songwriting outlet, Sunset Rubdown. The hodgepodge debut album, Snake's Got a Leg, was a soupy, lo-fi mess, with minor gems scattered throughout its generous tracklist. And when I first saw the project live, it featured a rock band line-up that just made it sound like a poor man's Wolf Parade, with all the songs deemed too weird for that band.

Once again, I was dead wrong. On both 2006's Shut Up I Am Dreaming and the subsequent tour, Sunset Rubdown carved out their own unique identity. The band was dextrous and inventive with its textures. Krug's songs were overflowing with ideas and pop hooks--often inside one single track--but never felt suffocating. Because it came out at a time when Wolf Parade was still building on its momentum, the album was unfairly shrugged off as a side project and sadly forgotten about by the time year-end lists and prizes were being doled out.

In the meantime, Boeckner's new solo project Handsome Furs arrived in my mailbox today (it's out May 22 on Sub Pop), Wolf Parade have started recording a new album, and there's a new Sunset Rubdown album in the can and set for a fall release. Currently, SR are touring with Xiu Xiu, which brings them to Lee's Palace in Toronto on Thursday. Hopefully we'll get a peek at the new material.

This email conversation took place almost exactly a year ago for this article in Exclaim.

Sunset Rubdown
April 17, 2006
email interview, conducted immediately before a Wolf Parade show in New York City

The name Sunset Rubdown goes back how far?
It originated on a beach about 7 or 8 years ago, when a friend and I were watching the sunset, and ended up petting this stray dog, describing it at the time as a “sunset rubdown.” Ever since then I’ve used the name for solo recordings and performances, no matter what the style of music. The origin is actually kind of wholesome and innocent, yet somehow sexuality or even perversion of some sort is hinted at in the phrase. I like this vagueness and contradiction. I’ve had people tell me that it’s “gross,” or “sounds like the name for music that you snort coke to.” I think that’s funny.

Snake’s Got a Leg was culled from different sources, no? How old was some of that material?
Yes, it was. There was a set of 5 mini CDs that I put together about two years ago now. Each cd was about 20 minutes long and featured a different style of music. One was acoustic guitar songs, one was distorted keys and drums, one was instrumental electronic, etc. I was doing them DIY, trying to put them in nice little packages and all that, so only ended up making maybe 20 sets because the process was so labor intensive. It was just a little project that I wanted to try and I didn’t hate the results. It was in doing those mini CDs that I became okay with the idea of putting two or more versions of the same song out there. I would write a song on piano, then rewrite it on guitar, for example, and often the results were different enough that I didn’t feel like I had to decide which version was better, but rather put them both out there. Hence the mini CDs of different styles containing different versions of the same songs. So in that way the project made sense to me and seemed like a fun idea.
But then Global Symphonic heard them and wanted to release the songs, and logistically it’s sort of impossible for a small label like them to release 5 mini CDs. So I had to try to make a sort of “best of” compilation of all the discs, and the idea didn’t translate. It was an annoying process trying to figure out what songs I liked best while still trying to represent the original idea, and then form it into a cohesive record. Basically it didn’t work. Besides trying to get all these different styles to flow nicely together, there was also the problem of differing sound qualities. All the songs were produced lo-fi, granted, but at least on the original mini CDs the sound quality, though poor, was consistent on each disc and in my mind created a mood. But trying to sequence all those different song styles together with all their differing production qualities just made for a really convoluted record. Snake’s Got a Leg is just all over the place, I know, and in the end I was really hesitant about putting it out there at all, but it ended just being one of those “fuck it” situations. So I wasn’t really surprised at the mixed reviews and actually agreed with what the more negative ones had to say about the record, but on the other hand I don’t regret it. It is what it is.
Anyway, most of those songs were written and recorded in 2003, with some of the more electronic stuff going back anywhere between a year and 3 years before that – old computer music I had laying around that I thought would maybe be okay to share (or maybe not).

I was surprised to see SR become a full rock band, which seems to invite obvious Wolf Parade comparisons—in a live context, anyway. Why did you want to go with that format?
Basically, I wanted to hear the songs live, and I wanted to bring some other brains into the mix. I like a lot of layers and I can’t do it all myself in a live setting, and bringing in other people obviously helps to push the songs to places that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I were working alone. So it started with just the four of us learning to play these songs live, then naturally there is a desire to record the material, so we made a full band record. In the future, Sunset Rubdown will probably continue to put out a mix of both solo and full band recordings, because I really enjoy both formats.
The most obvious question I guess is why not just bring these songs that I want to hear in a live setting to Wolf Parade. Sometimes I write songs that I want to hear in a way other than what Wolf Parade would do to them. That band is like a giant 5 man amplifier, most times. And with all the same components in place at all times, there is a certain sound that is unavoidable no matter what the original idea might have been. And that’s fine, that’s what Wolf Parade does, but I don’t always want to hear everything I write subjected to that same format. The song “I’ll Believe in Anything” is a good example of what Wolf Parade does to a song. The original Sunset Rubdown piano version is quiet and slow, and the Wolf Parade version is loud and blown out. And it’s not like I went to practice that day and said, “Let’s take this piano song and blow the shit out of it.” It’s just what happens naturally. Sunset Rubdown allows for different instrumentation, is consciously more dynamic and spacious than Wolf Parade, and in general, slower.
I enjoy both bands and what they do, as I believe both have their place, and I don’t mind if there are comparisons. There are and will be obvious similarities because I write songs and sing in both bands, but I believe the two bands are different enough to justify their coexistence.

I saw what I think may have been one of the first full-band Sunset Rubdown gigs at ZooBizarre, but I don’t recall when that was. When did you debut the line-up?
I can’t remember exactly. ZooBizarre was our second show. The first was at Casa del Popolo opening for Telefauna and They Shoot Horses… I think it was in June or July of 2005.

How is it that your band is mostly comprised of Victoria ex-pats? Did you play with any of them in B.C.?
No. I hadn’t even met any of the Sunset Rubdown kids until after I was living in Montreal. The fact that two are from Victoria is entirely a coincidence, or some sort of socio-political B.C. migration to anglophone / francophone segregated Mile End type thing that is not worth getting in to. I myself only lived in Victoria for a year. The Sunset Rubdown practices were the first time I had played with any of them.

Do you think keyboard players naturally write in a different style than guitarists? Do keyboards naturally lend themselves to different melodies, harmonics and arrangements?
It’s hard to imagine a song like “Swimming,” for example, on guitar. How often do you write songs on guitars?
Yeah. I mean, of course I don’t think that guitarists think any differently than keyboardists, but I think the instruments themselves – the physical layout – demand or lend themselves to different results, but not anything too drastic. For me lately I’ve been really interested in guitar, doing most of my writing there, but I almost always take what I write on guitar and rewrite it on the piano, or vice versa, and every time I make that translation I come up with something that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s really interesting for me to play with that difference in ideas that a specific instrument gives birth to, both in structure and in voicings of chords/ harmonies. I used to write mostly on piano, but like I said, lately it’s been a lot of guitar.
Shut Up is probably about a 50/50 mix. But I’m not a very good guitar player. I would be curious to see what a song like “Swimming” sounds like on guitar, but these stubby piano fingers just aren’t fast enough for that yet.

Re: your writing in Wolf Parade, you told the Montreal Mirror that “the only reason my stuff doesn't come off like totally inaccessible, pretentious synth prog is that Dan helps normalize it, so it creates a good balance." How is it that Sunset Rubdown avoids this
I’m not sure SR has avoided that fate. It’s not synth prog, because the song styles and
instrumentation are both too removed from that, unlike some of the rock stuff that WP does – synthy stuff balanced out with guitars. But if I had to say what band was more cerebral, it would be SR, and cerebral music can come off as pretentious sometimes. Wolf Parade is more of a straight ahead rock thing, not less intelligent, but perhaps less patient, but there is heart there. Sometimes I worry that a first time listener to SR will find a lack of heart in the music, because it is a little more convoluted. For me there is a lot of heart in SR, but a new listener might have to let it grow on them before they find it, if ever.

What do you think of Handsome Furs? What’s the status of it?
I’ve yet to see it in the fully realized way that Dan intends. I saw him do a solo show a while ago and it was good. He writes songs well suited to his voice and guitar style, but I know he has other things up his sleeve that I’ve yet to see. And I haven’t heard the recording yet, so I really can’t say what I think of it, but I’ll bet I like it.

Why does the glockenspiel appear in so many Montreal bands?
Don’t know.

I feel very torn about the role of vocals on this album. Normally I don’t like it when vocals are too high in the mix; I prefer when they’re on equal footing with the other instruments. The vocal melodies here are very strong, yet I feel I have to fight to make out your lyrics, which are often masked in reverb, and it’s all the more frustrating because I really enjoy your approach to wordplay and narrative. What was your intention with the vocal treatment, both here and on Snake’s Got a Leg?
I think the vocals on Shut Up are higher than Snake’s or the latest EP, which was not such a conscious and intentional thing. I mixed Shut Up very quickly, in 4 days, and probably would have ended up lowering the vox on some songs had I had more time with it. The high vox were apparently just my initial gut instinct, and you can read into that however you like. I find SR to be little more lyrically driven than WP, and so perhaps wanted to have them more out there, though I am still very uncomfortable calling myself a lyricist. It’s something that I’m now working on more consciously than ever, and hopefully they will improve with time. The distortion and reverb on vocals is simply an asthetic that I really like. With Shut Up I tried not to overdo it to the point of incomprehension, but then I have the disadvantage of knowing exactly what I’m saying when I mix the record, and so maybe give the comprehension of lyrics too much benefit of the doubt. I tend to like lyrics either very buried or way up, so I guess the latter is the way I steered with this one, but honestly never gave it too much conscious thought.

Do you like to write with narrative and characters?
Sort of, not really. I don’t know. My favorite songs are definitely NOT the ones where I write from some character’s POV, but I have done it and still play them. I like to write from my own POV in a way that is honest enough that I can live with it, yet not overtly self revealing, and so metaphors and wordplay come in, which are fun to work with. I don’t know. I’m still really trying to figure out what the fuck I’m doing with lyrics.

Why do you like recurring motifs and titles?
The recurring titles are simply the different versions of songs that I want to put out there, like I mentioned above. And motifs, I think, evolve slowly in a connected way that often overlaps. It’s a linear process where things overlap and lead to one another as a person grows as a songwriter. I don’t think it makes natural sense to be writing songs where topics sprout and have no thread within them.

Has Wolf Parade allowed you to be a full-time musician?

How does this effect your output and various projects?
It’s good. There is obviously more time to think about projects and writing, but the catch is that you can’t write on tour. Your brain goes numb. I’m writing this interview on tour and perhaps you can tell. I usually gush out a bunch of built up ideas between tours and get them into the practice space or on tape as fast as possible, before we go out again. But yeah, it allows a certain freedom that I don’t take for granted.

How old is Fifths of Seven? Is that a continuing project or was it a one-off?
It was a one off for me, that I did about two years ago now. They are continuing without me but it was never a “band.” It was fun but not enough down my alley to pursue any further.

Has it ever performed live?
Not that I know of.

What’s the status of Swan Lake?
Comes out in late 2006, no plans to tour. We’ll see how this first one goes before thinking of doing it again, but I imagine the three of us will keep working together in one way or another.

What is the instrumentation like?
Sort of what you’d expect. Guitars, drums, keys ... and a GLOCKENSPEIL.

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