article by mike meginnis.|
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There are some bands whose albums you have heard before you hear them: Alkaline Trio, The Strokes, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and even to some extent the critically untouchable Pixies. We buy their work not because we are expecting or even desirous of something new, but because we enjoyed their last three albums and we'll probably like the next couple, too. Walking away from them is always a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you got to relive the initial glory of discovering the band and their sound, but on the other hand, that's pretty much all you got to do.
Stars Like Fleas is not, and probably will never be, one of those bands. Their epic, dreamy Sun Lights on the Fence moves at a luxuriant crawl from start to finish, making use of countless instruments and a small orchestra of musicians as it goes.
Is it jazz? Is it blues? Is it starry eyed folk-pop? Yes, yes, yes, and no. By avoiding immediate identification with any one genre, Stars Like Flease pull off the essential balancing act -- they are familiar, yet completely new and distinct, and offer enough surprises to survive listen after listen. They've already survived the complete mishandling of their debut, and now they're back on a new label, with a bigger, more powerful sound. Splendid recently sat down with core members Montgommery Knott, the inimitable lyricist and vocalist, and his partner in crime Shannon Fields -- multi-instrumentalist, producer, and discusser of things. We talked about the way they make their music, what they want it to do, their developing live show and fourteen turtles named Jasper...
Splendid: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. How have things been going for you guys recently? Is the record doing okay?
Shannon Fields: Well, in terms of critical reaction, it's been much more positive then I expected. Like, across the board positive. I always expected extreme reactions, which we've gotten, but I expected them to be more evenly balanced between appreciation and crucifixion. Instead, we're hitting people's Best of 2003 lists and stuff, which is kinda surreal for me -- like from writers and musicians we admire. Pretty crazy. As far as album sales go, you'd have to talk to Praemedia, our label. I have no idea. Nor do I want to know. It's only just come out and the promotion has been pretty grassroots/DIY. We try not to spend much time thinking about that stuff.
Montgomery Knott: Things are very berserk for me. I'm scheduling and booking Monkey Town's Spring Program. I'm logging and editing over 40 hours of footage I shot in Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Berlin last summer. I'm trying to finish a feature-length film for four screens by this May. And we're recording the next Stars Like Fleas album at the same time we're putting together a live act. It's a very ripe and very precarious. And that feels about right for now.
As for the record, the album, I have no idea how it's doing. We leave that to Lance and the label. Good reviews are good.
Splendid: Yeah, I was really surprised. I just casually mentioned you guys while I was working on my questions, and this girl I know said, "Oh yeah, them! I've been meaning to look into them." So that was cool. Anyway... we all start somewhere, though few of us like to be reminded. What were your respective first projects like? I imagine you each covered a lot of ground on the path to your current collaboration.
Shannon Fields: Yeah, there's a long trail of discarded projects and bands going back forever. Not much that anyone would care about, though. When I met Montgomery, I had just finished recording an EP with James Weber from Julia Sets -- a great lo-fi noise-Americana band based in St. Louis, MO -- before I left the Midwest, and Montgomery heard that and really responded to the 12-string acoustic guitar stuff I'd recorded for it. But at the time I was diving into very abstract electronic music and free improvisation for the first time. I was just moving to New York. He was just moving to New York. I was not looking to be in a band with vocals and Montgomery was just really insistent that we meet and talk, because we had a lot of the same influences. I hung on blindly to begin with, 'cause he seemed to know half the people I wanted to get to know. And he had this voice.
Montgomery Knott: My first band was called the Ice Weasels and we got together at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. I'm pretty sure we sounded like the Indigo Girls or the Thompson Twins. We sucked, but we didn't know it, so it was fun. I was friends with Elliott Smith during this period when he was forming Heatmiser. This is also when the Supreme Dicks were on campus. We were chumps by comparison.
When I lived in Austin, Texas, I was in a series of bands that finally led me to a group called Snuggles. For about a year during 1995 and 1996, there were four bands, including Snuggles, Gut, Big Horny Hustler and Glorium, that seemed to form a very vibrant hardcore scene of melodramatic, sludgy math-rock. By the end of that year, all the bands had broken up. I eventually moved to Barcelona, but before I left, I did some recording with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid.
Splendid: Lately, it seems like every album I get, regardless of style or content, completely ignores the existence of capital letters in its visual design. But most artists don't actually refer to their songs that way. So is this some sort of graphic designer conspiracy? Have they decided the small letters are simply enough on their own?
Montgomery Knott: I'm responsible for our own contribution to this conspiracy. But it's only because of Brooklyn's borough-wide ten percent tax on capital letters. We would be bankrupt if we capitalized. Besides, I tend to dress in lowercase and I thought our album should reflect the way I dress.
AUDIO: As Hard as You Want
Splendid: You guys are all driving my editor nuts, I hope you realize… (laugh) This one's more for Montgomery -- what's it like for you to listen to your own voice, after it's been chopped up and arranged with the rest of your music's instruments? A lot of singers express pure agony over hearing their performances, but I imagine there's a little more separation when it's been handled so vigorously by way of production.
Montgomery Knott: I don't mind being vigorously handled. But sometimes I want to do the vigorous handling, you see. Pitch-shifting isn't just for Lauryn Hill anymore. It's mainstream avant garde. All Photoshop filters should be used, including the one that embosses everything. Use them wisely and you'll be rewarded with eternal life.
Splendid: According to your press release, you recorded a lot of audio with your many collaborators in making Sun Lights Down on the Fence. The album has its moments of busy sound, but it seems impossible that it encompasses even a sampling of that many actual hours. Were your collaborators aware of how much of their material would end up on the chopping block? Did you even have any idea yourself?
Shannon Fields: No and no. And it's true that we cut enough from that record that we could have made three more records simultaneously. "I've pumped your stomach and broken through your skin" alone went through so many different versions you could fill an album side with discarded material from that song. But see, for most pop/rock records, you begin more or less with a set of songs you've written and you go into the studio to record, arrange, mix the album. We go into the studio to find the record, and we tried to limit our preconceptions about what we'd find. It takes a lot of patience and because I'm not willing to just accept good performances and good spontaneous composition alone. It took a very long time to mine the material, rework it once we saw what it seemed to want to be, and then to see and shape the collection itself. As for our collaborators' perceptions, they were all over the map. Some were longtime friends who were familiar with our way of working and who implicitly trusted the process coming in. Others, I'm sure, must have been very suspicious and were just like "what are these guys all about?"
Splendid: On the subject of the collaboration, how did that look? The album has clearly had its share of editing and cobbling together; it's possible that each musician mailed a recording of his contributions in from Fiji, but the extremely organic nature of the album makes that seem highly unlikely.
Montgomery Knott: It looked like a red onion cut in half and then sliced very thinly. Lots of crisp white with rims of rich purple and faint hash marks of faint purple.
Shannon Fields: Yes, er, our collaborations look like wheels within wheels. Well, you know, we did have some contributions sent to us to use as source material. But mostly people were invited into our studio. Then, rather than our just composing with a lot of edited sources, the process was much more "conversational" then that. There was a lot of back and forth -- I act, you respond, I respond, she responds, etcetera. And then the narrative that emerges in the lyrics, and the tone of the vocals, that may push everything in a different direction entirely. And I have to deal with that as I shape the music to the new contours of the vocals. And these two elements are evolving simultaneously. It's needlessly complicated, I'm sure, but we're just fumbling around in the dark looking for inspiration, so naturally it's not going to be very efficient. Usually our collaborators would have no exposure to the music before being invited in. We wanted a kind of gut response from them. When you go in to contribute to somebody else's project, you're usually a little vulnerable and you want some direction -- you figure you're there to do a job, right? To play the sounds in the producer's head. But with us there wasn't much of that, because what we wanted was to be thrown off, surprised, confused. We wanted our first ideas about where we were going to be upset. We wanted the musicians to be who they were, even if (especially if) it made no sense in the context of our initial vision. It's why we would take say a jazz musician who has specific ideas about what improvisation should do, and what recordings should capture, and would stick them in very unfamiliar settings and ask them to respond. Some people got that right away and really enjoyed it. With others I was pretty much expecting to get my ass kicked when the record came out.
Splendid: Ass-kicking, yeah -- we'll have to come back to that. What sort of places were you recording in? The album sounds crystal clear, but these days DIY can be that good.
Shannon Fields: Mostly in my apartment. Sometimes in Montgomery's apartment.
Montgomery Knott: We recorded with two separate Pro Tools DigiOO1 rigs. I recorded some vocals in my bedroom and Kymberly's banjo at my loft, but most of the instruments and vocals were done in Shannon's spare bedroom in a quiet little Park Slope apartment overlooking Prospect Park.
Splendid: So, what was going on with the poor kid whose voice you've totally carved and glitched through a couple of songs? It comes across as a strangled panic attack.
Shannon Fields: Hrmm? Is that Monty's inner child you're hearing? I'm confused.
Montgomery Knott: That was my poor voice. Shannon attacked me when I fell asleep while recording my vocals. That's a chokehold.
Shannon Fields: It should've been. Good idea. So is recording induced panic attacks in children, but we're not there yet. In fact, we did record a toddler rampaging around Montgomery's apartment, shouting and ordering everybody to submit to his über-will. I'm serious. Unfortunately, we never found a way to work it into the record. Which is a shame. We did try.
Splendid: Maybe I'm projecting again... If I understand correctly, you're both located in Brooklyn right now. What's that like right now? Do you find yourself going out to hear the latest band a lot, or do you spend a lot of time at home?
Montgomery Knott: Brooklyn feels good right now. Tall-poppy syndrome could certainly set in soon, but right now, the broth is salty. Sometimes I see three or four shows a week. Sometimes three or four a month. Home is where the flesh rots. Privateness is the dirty uncle of privation. I like to dance, too.
Shannon Fields: I'm too self-conscious to enjoy dancing. I love and hate Brooklyn, like everybody. But mostly love it. Right now it's very very cold, but it's good when it's cold, too, 'cause it doesn't smell as bad. It's become a little more tense in the last couple of years for obvious reasons, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Honestly, I try to spend as much time at home with my girlfriend as possible, just watching movies and cooking and reading and mixing and stuff. But that doesn't amount to much time in the end. I'm too busy with music, and a full time job. But most nights if I'm not making music, I'm out watching it. There's too much going on. It seems that everybody in NYC is in a band or plays an instrument, so there is not so much "a latest band" as there are just multiple scenes with lots of stuff happening, like parallel universes. I try to inhabit most of them. I am a fool.
Splendid: I promise to buy the latest works of whatever bands you name in response to this (so please, for the love of all things holy, no ultra rare imported twenty year old B-sides): What is the single most under-valued band you each know of, and why do they respectively deserve the whole world's listener-ship?
Shannon Fields: Shit, man, I don't think I can answer this one. Can we narrow it down arbitrarily? Say US rock bands that are currently active? Even so, I'll have to think about it. Can I give you one per state? How about two per decade since the '50s? How about you tell me the last thing you heard that blew you away and I'll try to recommend five underrated records that I think are related? Damn, I'm sorry. I know this is supposed to be like "'quick, first thing off the top of your head", but I can't do it. I just don't want to tie my or your butterfly net to one star. So many of them are deserving of that title, you understand. Give me five at least, and I'll try. I'll spend every dollar of disposable cash you have. Oh yes.
Montgomery Knott: OOIOO from the Boredoms. Town & Country. Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, and 10 from the Ethiopiques series. The latest from the Country Teasers. Stars of the Lid. And whatever White Magic puts out with Drag City later this year. Oh yeah, I'm currently on a Lee Scratch Perry binge. A friend let me borrow the Arkology.
Shannon Fields: Actually, let me throw in my second on the Town & Country. I intend to ask Ben Vida to contribute to the next record. Ben, you listenin' boy?
Splendid: Speaking of finding your audience, there's a snobbish assumption among American music journalists that Europe "gets" the music they "get", though other American citizens will not. Still, there is a noteworthy history of intelligent indie music acts faring much better on their side of the sea. Have you made any moves toward a European label?
Montgomery Knott: None yet. We're still waiting for the peoples of Europe to rise up. Their intelligentsia could clobber our intelligentsia, but we have ugly on our side, whereas they're completely mired in all their embedded culture and pretty houses with pretty ancient ivy and trillions of morning glories. Big whip. We've got 300 years of permissive zoning to be proud of.
Shannon Fields: When it comes to self-promotion, we're for shit. We haven't really done anything. I've thought about sending our first record to this tiny French vinyl-only label called Rectangle Records that I think will be sympathetic, not because it would necessarily give it lots of exposure, but I think they would make a good, loving home for it. There are a lot of good bigger European labels that are not unsympathetic to music in this territory, like Too Pure, Domino, City Slang, etcetera. But honestly, the same could be said for the US. In fact, I think I can easily name more great US indie labels than anything else. As far as attention, well, you know -- we all find our audience sooner or later. What's given more mainstream exposure has to do with a lot of stuff that I don't think has anything to do with the music itself. Our stuff has been played on a lot of independent international radio (Praemedia does promote it abroad quite a bit through independent press and radio, but I don't know if they're seeking European licensing, distribution or not). But independent radio and press in the US has been great so far, too. I'd probably be more excited to be on the cover of Wire then to be picked up by a UK label. As far as that stuff goes, I'm actually mostly intrigued by Japanese music these days -- mmmmm, Takemura, Haco, Hoahio, Otomo, Tujiko Noriko, Mice Parade, Dill, Tetsu Innoue, Taku Sugimoto... Tasty.
Splendid: If Ashton Kutcher can endorse a presidential candidate, you can certainly have your say. So here's a chance to piss on the administration or give Dean the finger. What's it like to watch the news today? Or do you try to avoid it all together?
Shannon Fields: Television news is a television commercial and it makes me angry and gives me indigestion. It's insulting and manipulative. Print news is only slightly better and only in certain regions.
Montgomery Knott: Watching the news on television is like watching Teletubbies, but without the wink of deep sophistication. Reading or listening to the news works better for me.
Shannon Fields: Political responsibility begins with educating yourself and seeking out independent and international sources of information to the point that you can make responsible, thoughtful decisions. If you look to TV, you're looking to advertisers to edit your vision of the world. That's just how it works. Politics should be foremost about protecting and caring for people in places that are difficult for you to imagine as real. That takes a lot of energy and it makes you frustrated and angry and helpless-feeling, sometimes. I think Americans tend to be too tired and under-educated about world politics and cynical and disinterested to do this, and they tend to choose their presidents/parties the way they choose their football teams, in a very emotional, knee-jerk kind of way. It's a sport, a religion, a gut reaction to candidates who are essentially the better TV personality. I think that's a dangerous problem. I don't like to make easy generalizations about any culture and I'd prefer not to go in for the easy generalizations about American culture, but in this case I'm afraid it seems mostly true. And while I try to engage politics as actively as I can, I suffer from the same illness. It makes me anxious and sick to my stomach and I'd prefer to avoid it. In general I find this to be characteristic of my American friends, while my non-American friends are always ready and eager to have critical discussions about world politics and to have differing opinions. I tend to want to avoid conflict in discussion and this is something I'm trying to get over. Anyway, I won't go on record as endorsing a candidate or even a party but I will admit that Bush simply must be removed from office. It does matter. I hate that it's come to voting against something rather than for something. But I think we're probably there. Which is, depressingly, sort of "square zero".
Montgomery Knott: George Bush will not be re-elected. The majority of the country knows he's an idiot. Anyone but Bush, even the Vidal Sasson guy from Massachusetts if we must.
Splendid: Your songs eschew genre at every turn, blending an extremely broad range of styles in a manner that is, strangely enough, amazing in its cohesion. Why do you feel it's so important to defy easy classification?
Shannon Fields: I don't, necessarily. It's not an end so much as a symptom of what we're doing. Classification is somewhat useful for sociologists and music critics, and it's generally interesting. I don't think it should be a platform for making music. But that's just it, for a lot of pop/rock musicians I know it is -- it's very important for them, the question about like "what kind of music do you make"? For us, we try to sidestep the issue entirely (though the context and community of the music is inescapably important). Most music seems so accessible -- we know where it's going, have heard it all before -- in part because the question of "classification", as you put it, is so intrinsically important to the musicians who made it. If someone sets out with the purpose of making "emo rock" or making "folk" or making "hip-hop", isn't that an incredibly conceptual way to approach what you do artistically? So what irks me is when people dismiss odd, "genre-light" music as being "conceptual", when it seems apparent to me that entirely the opposite is true.
I can talk about this for hours. Your editor will probably cut it. (Nope -- Ed.) Anyway, you're always working within a tradition and we're no different. I don't think we're really breaking any major ground, and that's not an objective of ours. We're just trying to make something that feels direct and honest. Not because our music is so much more pure and honest then Top 40, but sometimes your first choices feel so natural and obvious because they're kind of like culturally pre-programmed responses. I don't like that, so I try to keep that in check with Stars Like Fleas. If it's then difficult for some people to put the resulting music in a demographic bucket, that's cool, and I'm glad -- but it's not why I make music. I'm making the music that I want to hear that nobody else is making for me. It's not programmatic. It's a very inward facing process.
Montgomery Knott: It's not a defiance, it's an alliance. It just happens when you listen broadly and see music and sound as not belonging to time or geography. Classification is just taxonomy. It needn't be static. A flower arranger can combine many different flowers in a vase without disturbing the genetic pollen, my brother.
AUDIO: Good Enough Alone
Splendid: Still, when I've tried to briefly explain your sound to friends, I've found myself waving my skinny little arms frantically while their glazed, frightened eyes skitter across my face, searching for signs of intelligence. A little help on this one would be much appreciated.
Shannon Fields: Wow, that's awesome! I wish I could produce that reaction in my friends! So hey, the more you have to resort to dance and gesture to explain our music, the happier I am. Let it go, Mike. Resign yourself to the tic-ing flailing of your skinny little frantic arms.
Montgomery Knott: Glazed and frightened sounds great. That way we can attract more Black Metal fans. I'd hate to discourage that. Mostly, I think of this is a very difficult album, so descriptions are hard. Perhaps Experimental Soap Opera.
Splendid: This is something I always wonder about when a band uses a lot of instruments on an album: did you consciously seek out the sounds you utilized in recording, or was it just sort of a matter of using what instruments you had lying around?
Shannon Fields: Well, it's probably a little of both, 'cause my apartment is full of instruments and musical toys and things that go boom in the night. But my choices are pretty deliberate. If I hear an oboe in my head suddenly, I make some calls and find an oboist. That's what's cool about being in NYC -- it's easy to find kickass performers on just about any instrument, kickass musicians who are also open to our process. I really don't use non-standard instruments just for the sake of novelty. It's just, you know, why settle for a limited palette of guitar bass and drums? Why use drums at all? Why run your guitar through an amp or why should a rock band have a bass guitar to be complete? Why isn't, say, the lack of baritone guitar seen as a gap in rock instrumentation? Why should dance music be based on loops? Why does the percussion have to be a trap kit? There are a whole lot of ways of saying what we have to say and show to each other through music. Why do we make cookie-cutter cartoons of our sentiments? Sometimes I might choose an instrument and a style specifically because of the way it's usually used, because maybe I want to reference that, fuck with your expectations a little bit. But I'm usually not that overtly tricky. Anyway, these days I do think about instrumentation and arrangement a lot. It's very exciting to me to hear, for example, the combination of processed pedal steel, bassoon, analog synth, vibraphone, piano, bowed contrabass and banjo. Those instruments blend very well and there's so much potential for expression in that. So why not? I'm interested in the kinds of challenges that orchestration presents and I'm likely going to be doing a lot more actual arrangement on the next record, though without losing the improvisational aspects of how we work. Also, I've seen free jazz groups or laptop shows that were way, way, way more hardcore and loud and angry then any guitar band I've ever seen. You know? So why limit yourself to one dialect? There are so many ways to move and feel. Not to mention ways to piss off your parents.
Montgomery Knott: This reminds me of Avram's work on the album. When he came over to play on what eventually became "On A Generous Day", he saw a Turkish lute I'd brought back from Istanbul for Shannon. I was in the kitchen drinking Lagavulin while they were recording and I heard this buzzing, kazoo-like noise. And I thought about all the transvestite bars in Istanbul. And how married men would pay for dances and blow jobs from trannies. And how East meets West. And the bathhouses and breakfast on the rooftop with the seagulls pinwheeling around the Blue Mosque.
Splendid: Along the same lines as the last question, what was the modus operandi for your production? A lot of people in your position would probably use a whole lot of effects, but there isn't much on yours that couldn't have been recorded and edited together with the world's cleanest cassette tape.
Montgomery Knott: That cassette tape would be totally fucked after we were through with it. Again, I'll defer to Shannon, but Pro Tools removes the need for everything, including microphones and instruments. Like how there were no actors in The Phantom Menace.
Shannon Fields: I use ProTools for mixing and most of the tracking. A couple of decent microphones -- SM57s and 58s, an APEX large diaphragm condenser, an AKG...that's mostly it. I do use a lot of effects but I cringe sometimes when I hear effects that I can easily identify and have heard a thousand times before. I'm not using a lot of delay pedals and stuff because I get bored with that shit pretty fast. For real-time electronic improvisation I use some beta software called AudioMulch, written by a Canadian composer named Ross Bencina, which is fucking awesome. We've used cassette tape, minidisc, damaged CDs...just bedroom stuff, really. But we're mostly digital because it's cheap and available and easy to use. I'm not an engineer and not really interested in that stuff for it's own sake. I just poke until I'm satisfied.
Great musical recordings are in no way, in my opinion, related to their production values. I mean, they are, in that great records are not just great music -- the production is part of what makes a record work. But great production in and of itself, I mean, who fucking cares? I care about that as much as I care about guitar technique. It's academically interesting, it can be a valuable tool to help you make something great, it's cool to gawk at. But for me it doesn't hold any intrinsic artistic value. I'm not impressed by technique on its own.
I do think that more often than not, big studio production values push people away rather than draw them in. But I'm not supporting or privileging DIY or lo-fi or any other little purist movement. I just don't give a shit about the whole digital versus analog debate, or other nonsense about "purity". A recording is not interesting to me except as an aspect of the music. Recordings don't "capture" music, they are part of the music, an artistic choice, never invisible, whether you like it or not. That may or may not be obvious to a listener, but it's there. This isn't a very popular idea and I have a lot of arguments about it, but for me it's a central belief that underscores all the recordings I produce. Which is why I'm ranting on about it. And hey, you asked.
Splendid: I certainly did. Just to play devil's advocate, there are a lot of people who have gotten their best work out by focusing on things like that. Not everybody can be comfortable or productive just letting these things happen. And there's definitely a bit of joy in finding out that your favorite lo-fi folk-pop album was recorded on a front porch with, you know, a rewired answering machine or whatever. Wouldn't you say that context has a role to play, even if it's more temporary than the recording itself?
Shannon Fields: Absolutely. In fact, we're not at odds, that's pretty much what I'm saying. Production provides context, color, and sometimes announces allegiances. For me the studio is a tool, and recording on a front porch is as valid a way to make something artistically valuable as is going into a studio and doing it all correctly. If I sounded like I was dismissing your question about how we made the record, I didn't intend to. But part of me is just reacting to people making religious laws out of their own production values, which a lot of people do, and which I find myself defending against all the time. And I wouldn't say context isn't temporary (though it may date and change more actively than the songs do over time). Some of it you can control, some of it you can't but it's part of the total work.
Montgomery Knott: Yeah, context is absolutely everything. The space and time that we created this album reflects heavily in the final product. But as far as the context of our production "values", anyone who believes that tape is better than digital is a moron. It's all fakery. It's all compression. Everything is filtered. The most expensive, beautiful microphone in the world still needs to vibrate through a ribbon or a diaphragm and travel through a mic cord to get to that magnetic tape. Bad analog mixes suck just as much as digital. If you can't master your machine to create the sound you want, then no amount of warm two-inch tape hiss is going to get you street cred or make a flaccid song better. Working at home allows a lot of luxury and access, but it also has its downsides. We have nothing against the analog world. Most of our best friends are knobs and reels. Whatever context you're working in, production or otherwise, the context is a retroactive by-product. When you're actually creating the stuff, context is just a set of limitations, some positive, some negative. The key is to make context your slave before it enslaves you.
Splendid: That's beautifully put, and it turns out we aren't at odds after all. So, speaking of tape hiss, something a lot of people probably won't actually think about is the comparably severe lack of fuzz in Sun Lights Down on the Fence, considering how many electronic sounds have found their way in. What do you think of fuzz as a musical tool? It seems like it's fast on its way to becoming The New Flange.
Montgomery Knott: I'm not sure I know what fuzz is.
Shannon Fields: Oh. I can't say I've ever considered that until now. I mean, there wasn't an active choice not to have fuzz on the record. I guess it just didn't happen. There were just better options available to me to express what I wanted to do at the time and I guess fuzz didn't happen. So are you saying there's some kind of distortion that defines a new school of mainstream rock that I'm not picking up on, like the Big Muff did with "grunge"? Again, I try to choose my sounds in a more deliberate way. Our music isn't about anything if it's not about trying to make something that is emotionally direct without resorting to canned musical gestures that say "happy" or "sad" or "cool" or "angry" in flashing letters three stories tall. Am I off track now? Er... Do I like fuzz as a tool? Well that's like saying do I like a hammer as a tool. Sure, I like it okay if it fits my current purposes. Otherwise I don't give it much thought.
Splendid: Fair enough. Another thing I really like about your music is that while it could be called "experimental", it's consistently easy on the ears. It prefers to twinkle and float soulfully, where I think a lot of other acts would pummel the listener. A lot of bands, love them though we might, seem to really have it out for us as listeners. Can you get into that stuff at all?
Shannon Fields: Look ma, we're easy listening!
Montgomery Knott: To coddle as well as pummel, these are not contrary desires.
Shannon Fields: We've been known to get pretty noisy live and maybe the next record won't be as "dreamy", but yeah, in general we tend to drift towards the "sad motherfucker" end of things, or that seems to be what comes out when we open the sludge gates. Anyway, if you're asking about brutal, confrontational noise bands like Sightings, Borbetomagus, Wolf Eyes, Black Dice, Lightning Bolt, etcetera, I actually kind of love a lot of that music. Sometimes I want to fucking rock, you know? Throw myself against the wall a few times. I think it's healthy. I think we need that. It's cleansing and it's not an unhealthy way to tap some of this aggression we have to deal with. I also like harsh noise and dissonance in a pop/rock context, like with Deerhoof, Liars, Sonic Youth, Need New Body, Xiu Xiu, The Sick Lipstick, Arab on Radar, Gang Gang Dance... I just think that stuff can be thrilling and fun, and really less grating to me in some ways then hearing the same old chord progressions banging me over the head with how I should feel about the music. As long as the noise is interesting. Power chords through a Boss Metal Master pedal will probably put me to sleep. And of course I have to be in the mood. I recommend much of what's on Troubleman, Load, Skin Graft, and Bulb Records for all the angry rockers out there. Toss your major label bubblegum "pop punk" records and rap-metal/death-metal into the street. That stuff is all television commercial Disney cartoon nonsense to my ears. It makes me giggle.
Splendid: Wait, wait. You say you have a live show? I didn't find any mention of tours on your website, I just assumed SLF was a studio only thing. What's the live show like?
Montgomery Knott: The live show is evolving. We've played at my space, at Monkey Town, a couple times, but those were fairly under-rehearsed and had mixed results. These days we're working with a guy who's doing live processing of Ryan Sawyer, our drummer, and Shannon's guitar and my vocals. He's really talented and knows how to create the layers of sound we're looking for. Eventually, we'll add pedal steel, bass, and some woodwinds or horns. We're mostly trying to mix set pieces with controlled improvs -- a lot like how we record, except with grander passions and, most likely, bigger mistakes. We'll see. I'm sure it's going to be a long process. My skills on the Fender Rhodes are very limited on the set pieces, but I'm decent when all the experts can bend my rhythmic noodles into harmonic shape. But we plan to play out several times this year, in whatever form.
Splendid: Sounds interesting. Now, I don't want the whole puzzle, but if you could just name one or two bands you "want to be when you grow up"...
Montgomery Knott: John Lee Hooker. Talk Talk. Morrissey. Skip James. The Fall. And mostly, I just want to be Nina Simone. Please. That's the formula for my part of the perfume. It took me 53 attempts. But you can definitely smell the copy toner.
Shannon Fields: You know I'm not gonna give it to you, don't you? I could name ten easily but one or two is sort of impossible. But you know what? To hell with bands. When I grow up I hope to be a well-adjusted, well-socialized human being. Today I'm not even close.
Splendid: Yeah, I was pretty sure you'd be cryptic like that, Fields, you fiend! Time for a Behind the Music moment: have you two ever been in a fist fight? Ever felt close? I have a pet theory, that goes like this: Montgomery could kick Shannon's ass.
Montgomery Knott: I could certainly send Shannon back to the dental Ice Age. We fight often in the editing process, but mostly we work on a consensus model, or its cousin, the mutual assured destruction model. We have too much material to get too precious or protective.
Shannon Fields: No comment. I'll just say we're not typically given to hugs and conversations about our feelings when we're together working. I'm awfully prickly to work with and I know it. We're both strong-willed and opinionated and in the end, if we can't find common ground, the idea has to be ditched. That can be really upsetting when you've worked on something for months and months and you become attached to something the other person can't appreciate. We work by clashing, to some extent. But then we have to negotiate a common territory. Anyway, Montgomery's out of my class -- he's much too tall. Wouldn't be a fair fight. And he has a beard right now. I find that people with beards usually win in these situations.
Splendid: On the first SLF album, Montgomery sacrificed a lot of clarity for the sake of emoting. There was no question as to how he felt at any given second. But now he seems strangely difficult to interpret -- listeners will really have to sort of make an active decision if they want to assign him an emotion. It's a fascinating effect. What led to this ambiguity?
Shannon Fields: Scotch or bourbon, depending on the day. Actually, I don't know that I've ever really thought about it that way, but that's a valid, interesting comment. It doesn't bother me. Do you think that maybe it's not so much that you're making an active decision about how to feel with our music so much as you're just more conscious of the subjective aspect of identifying with the artist when you listen to sun lights...? I think there's a bit of that in all music that we tend to take at face value. Anyway, on the first record we were just beginning this process of throwing out the map, you know? We were still not sure what this Stars Like Fleas stuff was all about -- we were along for the ride, not sure what we wanted out of it. We weren't sure we were making anything that was ever going to make sense to anyone but us. By the second album, I think we knew what we were about a little more, and what we had to say that had not quite been said in this way. We're slightly more confident now, given that it seems to actually be resonating with people.
Montgomery Knott: It's all id. My id always equivocates and dodges and then it lashes out. It's the mild Midwestern Protestant that never left me. I like the grayness, but I long for clarity. I mean, charity.
Shannon Fields: I guess it's true that confusion and ambiguity tend to be aesthetically part of a lot of things I end up deeply appreciating -- at least these days -- so maybe that's something I do gravitate towards when I mix. If I walk out of a show, like the first time I saw Animal Collective perform, saying, "what was that all about? I don't know at all how I am supposed to read what I just saw", if it takes me a while to come around to something but it at least seems to gives me some reasons to want to wrestle with it, like US Maple or early Kevin Drumm records, it usually ends up being a record or performance that is really important to me.
Splendid: Yeah, there's a definite quality of... I don't want to say vagueness, but, indeterminacy, I suppose. The lyrics in particular. I spent a long time looking at that lyric sheet wondering if I was really understanding it at all, and finally I just said, "Okay, they're doing this to me on purpose."
Montgomery Knott: Well, yeah, it's both. It's purposely indeterminate and also very specific. What you wrote in your review was both an embellishment of the facts and an unusually perceptive, spot-on reading. I'm a fan of all sorts of lyrical forms -- the Motown message songs, the wordy story songs like Morrissey, the clever hip-hop wordplay, and unfathomable expressionist stuff. I tend towards the expressionist, but I'm ready to be clear. It's odd, 'cause you could say that the expressionist approach isn't as generous to the listener because it makes them work and it forces them to project their own lives onto the text. But you could also make the case that the more transparent the lyric, the less the lyricist trusts the listener, and so it's more classically pedagogical and much less generous. It's the classic storytelling maxim: show don't tell. I show more than I tell. And even as I say that, I think that's a very twisted and nearly perfect summation of my personality.
Y'all recently had an interview with a band from Brooklyn and the guy was saying that he hoped that a particular song that he wrote about a particular person wouldn't be perceived as "mean-spirited" but might be taken as a sort of "fun kind of chagrin." But that's the catch -- you can be mercurial or forthright with your lyrics, but either way, if you're mean-spirited and full of bile, that energy will find its way into the listener's heads. If I write about the complexity and derangement of sexual desire in an obtuse way, the listener should be able to run with it where ever they want. If I'm true to that complexity and derangement, then that energy should get into your head and hopefully that highly concentrated emotional residue won't permanently derange me or condemn someone to their mean-spirited ways. The spleen is a tender organ.
Splendid: Do you two discuss your music a lot as you're working, or do you both find that it's easier to simply let your performances and compositions speak for you?
Montgomery Knott: We discuss a lot. I tend to get more mushy, whereas Shannon's always making things complicated. And then we switch.
Shannon Fields: While we're making music, I think it's probably true that we avoid discussion. Particularly about the vocals -- what we're after is something that sounds a bit more indeterministic. No background or foreground. I don't think we could force or plan this stuff too much if we wanted to. I mean, we do agonize over every word and combination of words that we keep or toss when we're mixing vocals. They're not casual decisions. But we're not sitting around saying, "yes, right, now why don't you take the 6th on top of that augmented IVm chord and I'll have it doubled in octaves on the French horn -- Monty, a little more legato please." The stuff that excites me resists that kind of language and formalism. We can't take so much credit. The way we work, it's more like we just act and act and act and wait for the things to happen that grab us both by the throat, and then we trap those things and make them beg for their lives. It's like found art, except we generate our own garbage to pick through. But as far as talking about where we're going next, and picking over where we've been, talking about what we want the music to do, sure -- I mean, we talk a lot. We're trying not to repeat ourselves and at the same time trying to relax our control over the direction of the music, and it actually takes a lot of considered thought to get yourself to a place where you can give up that control. We try to keep each other honest.
AUDIO: Isabel of Lilac
Splendid: So you talk a lot, but you avoid it... I'll let you two figure that one out between yourselves later. More for Montgomery, again: the assumption that you're writing about your own experiences is extremely strong in music, to the point where people sometimes actually become morally outraged to learn their favorite musicians didn't really do or see the things their songs describe. Now, being an enthusiast for a little mystery in art I'd prefer you didn't say one way or the other on that one, but do you find that a lot of people make that assumption in regards to your own lyrics? Do you get a lot of hugs?
Montgomery Knott: Me and 50 Cent get lots of hugs from thugs. My lyrics are both incredibly intimate and preposterously obtuse. So if people make assumptions, there's a good chance it's all in there. I'd like to believe the hugs are warranted because it's a struggle to get through our music. So give your thug a hug, yo.
Splendid: Finish this sentence: "Ideally, a Stars Like Fleas listener will walk way from our album thinking..." And no cheap cop-outs involving the phrase "want to give them twenty dollars," please.
Montgomery Knott: "...what the fuck was that?" Or, "...I loved that one song." I still want to write one great stuck-in-your-head song. Either the next album or the one after that will have one of those. I guarantee it.
Shannon Fields: " ...I have no idea how I felt about that music at all but I want to go back and listen to it about twenty more times" or "I don't think I liked it, but I can't quit thinking about it" or "I totally want to sex Shannon up."
Splendid: In that same vein, what is the most surprising reaction you've received to your work?
Montgomery Knott: It's very gratifying to put something out there with shrinkwrap and bar codes. Our listeners are much more perceptive than we are. Unintended consequences are super-cool.
Shannon Fields: Acceptance? I'm surprised every time someone says they like our records! Especially if they respond emotionally.
Splendid: Have you two started thinking about what's next?
Shannon Fields: Yes. We actually finished Sun Lights Down on the Fence almost two years ago, so a lot has been happening since then. We're working on the new record and we're planning a few live shows in NYC over the next year.
Montgomery Knott: More of the same done completely differently. We are wiser and stronger and older now. We must prevail. It's the Year of the Monkey. And that implies certain obligations. But mostly I think we're focused on earning an NC-17 rating.
Splendid: Do either of you have any non-SLF related works in progress you'd like to plug? These days everybody and his one-armed drummer seems to have a side project.
Shannon Fields: Nothing is a side project; it's all in the soup. Incidentally, have there been other famous one-armed drummers besides that guy from Def Leppard? If so, someone should definitely compile a list.
Montgomery Knott: I'm an actual-existing video artist and I hope someday that my music work and my film work will get married in one of those Walker Evans churches and never divorce
Shannon Fields: I am the audio editor for an online literary/arts journal called DIAGRAM. I publish work that focuses on the poetics of language. A fancy "high art" name for what I do with the Fleas, except in this case, I act exclusively as curator -- i.e. I keep my own hands out of the sandbox. I also work and play with Justin Russo from Mercury Rev/Hopewell in a band called The Silent League. Our debut is coming out on the excellent Chicago label File 13 records on March 23. I just finished producing a record for a great songwriter from Philadelphia named Jon Cay. I'm working on a record with NYC improvisers Daniel Carter and Matt Lavelle -- my contributions are mostly in electronic transformations of their improvisations. I perform regularly in NYC as an improviser. I just did a noise remix for Matthew Shipp/Gold Sparkle Duo that's out on Drimala. I'm working on a remix record with the Gold Sparkle Band. An electro-acoustic record with Lance Grabmiller and Martin Nieznanski. That's about all that's worth mentioning now, I guess.
Splendid: What was your favorite non-human thing or animal as a child? Bonus points for nostalgic reminiscences!
Montgomery Knott: I loved baseball cards and I cataloged them obsessively. I also loved our Maltese, named Barley, and I chased him obsessively.
Shannon Fields: All my favorite things were non-human. I wasn't ever very good with humans. But some of my best friends are humans, so I've come a long way. Anyway, nostalgic animal stories...um... first thing that pops into my head is I had a series of box turtles named Jasper. When Jasper #1 died I was devastated. I made a tombstone that curtly stated, "Jasper is Dead". I was convinced that every subsequent box turtle I found was somehow a reincarnation of Jasper and they became Jasper II, Jasper III, etc. I think I had a good 14 Jaspers before I grew out of that. When I was four years old my mother was involved with a Christian public television show in Kansas City and I was placed on the show as one of the kids; it had this clubhouse theme...4-6 year old kids sitting around with puppets telling them about their original sin -- in song! Somewhere a tape exists of me telling the Jasper story on the show. But they edited out the bit about reincarnation. I don't think they were too happy about that. I remember someone praying with me afterwards that I would learn how to distinguish between the good "still small voices" and the stuff Satan was whispering in my ear. But anyway, there are no turtles in heaven so what's a Jasper to do with his poor wanderin' soul?
Splendid: That's, um, wow. I'm just going to go to my next question. The best part of having creepy fans -- and I think you two can count on a couple once the word is out -- is that they can be called upon at any time to remember your favorite food, color and romantic history. Are there any really mundane details you'd just as soon leave to the creepy fans?
Shannon Fields: Yes. Lots of them.
Montgomery Knott: I love creepy fans. I can't wait for them to frame my life for me. I always wanted to be framous.
Splendid: Let's end this on a positive note: name one simple pleasure you can't do without.
Shannon Fields: The answer is "simple pleasure". Of the physical variety. Though simple pleasure has a way of complicating itself no matter how simply it starts. Um yeah, the thing I can't live without that is also responsible for all the bad turns my life has taken. Hurray for me. Oh wait, this was supposed to end positively ...
Montgomery Knott: My friends. I'm not kidding. My strange and incomprehensibly splendid friends.
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Mike Meginnis puts on women's clothing and hangs around in bars.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - kindly provided by the band :: credits graphics ]