Don’t Call ‘Em Post-rock: Do Make Say Think

Don’t Call ‘Em Post-Rock:
Charles Spearin of Do Make Say Think

“You know what happens after rock ‘n’ roll?” a good friend once asked me.  “All lead singers die.”  He was referring, of course, to post-rock, the catch-all term for diverse groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and Rachel’s, bands whose only unifying thread is a lack of vocals (although, according to Wikipedia, the term was first used in 1975 to describe a Todd Rundgren record).
Toronto’s Do Make Say Think are often mentioned in the same breath as Mogwai, Godspeed, and Sigur Rós as kings of the genre.  But where these other bands slowly build their albums into cacophonous crescendos that leave audiences screaming and unable to control themselves, DMST are much more content with the spirit of experimentation that birthed post-rock in the first place.  You, You’re a History in Rust, the group’s latest release on Constellation Records, may not provide the stained tear ducts of Explosions in the Sky’s All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, but it mines textures and territories that similar groups have not yet feared to tread.  Rust is a tender record, one that unfolds over many listens as being perhaps more emotionally mature than the instant payoff of its brethren.  Sound boring?  It isn’t.  The band moves at a pace that is quick without being hurried, interesting without being anxious.  And that’s not to say that Do Make Say Think are afraid of the big pay-off.  “The Universe!” bashes with the intensity of a split atom, cymbals and guitars and horns falling over one another to be heard.
Rust also marks DMST’s first use of vocals in two songs: the heartbreaking “A With Living” and the fuzzy free-for-all “In Mind,” which features Brooklyn’s Akron/Family.
ANTIGRAVITY rang up Do Maker (and part-time Broken Social Scenester) Charles Spearin to discuss the ins and outs of the human mind and why reporters should always check their notes before giving interviews.

AG: Your records seem to be more about textures and emotions than they are about stories.  From where do you take your inspiration when writing?
CS: We don’t have an initial motive for making music.  It kind of comes after the fact.  We work for a while and try to find what’s coming out of the music.  We’ll start with a sketch of the music, either from a rehearsal or another recording, and listen to it [and draw things from that].  There’s a kind of back and forth between playing the music and listening to the music.  You listen to it a little bit and then you have an inspiration from that and then you add to it.  There isn’t often, anyway, any kind of motive from the beginning.  But, as a record unfolds itself you start to understand what you’ve been writing about and what the pull is and that’s something you discover through discussion and listening as the record’s made.  And if we did a good job I think it feels like we’ve discovered what we’ve been trying to say.

AG: So when you start a record, you don’t really have any one story or sentiment in mind?
CS: Yeah, it’s really a sense of listening to rough sketches of music that can start out as nothing, basically; it can start as a simple melody or an accident or something.  You listen for qualities within that and hopefully find some hope or something in the music.  Hope isn’t necessarily what we’re going for – it’s not what we’re against, either.  Most of the time we’re trying to reflect life.  If you write too hopeful, it gets kinda candy and artificial.  In life there’s a constant back-and-forth between hope and fear and apathy and all of these different emotions.  And hopefully if we’re listening we can pick out what sounds too depressing; you don’t wanna get that way in life but it’s definitely healthy to explore some of that.  At the same time, you don’t wanna get too, sort of, idiotic with hopefulness.  You want to be able to explore every area of life but not indulge in depression and not indulge in ignorance, you know?

AG: Yeah, but at the same time, your role isn’t only to reflect; you have to keep people listening.  And I think that if you explore, say, apathy, which is a pretty common theme in life, you’ll only come across as boring.
CS: Well, you might, but that’s kind of a self-indulgent thing if you wanna do something like that.  We thought our first record was kind of indulgent in boredom.  I mean, the last song is like twenty minutes long and I play two notes on the bass for the whole thing.  There are definitely some qualities that come out of boredom that are really healthy.  Through a certain amount of boredom and repetition you can find some kind of understanding that things aren’t as boring as you might think they are.  But yeah, we’re not really trying to think about the audience too much.  Because we’re a collective, we have five different opinions in the band so one person wants to go one direction and the other person wants to go in the other, so we’re constantly discussing and trying to pull the music into a common ground.  We end up with something that’s not one personal vision; we end up with a “band” album, which is nice.  I think if any one person would have made the records they would have done things differently, but that’s what a band is all about: it’s about finding a common ground between all of us.
AG: Everyone sounds like they’re having a great time in the background of the record, the sessions seem really loose.  Do you guys get along well in the studio?
CS: (laughs) Yeah, we do sometimes.  We definitely have a lot of laughs.  We’ve been playing together for twelve years so we’re basically family.  Some of us have known each other for longer than that.  We do get along well, but we’re like brothers and brothers don’t always get along that well.  We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve weathered enough chaos in the band that maybe we’re a bit more mature now and we can tolerate being packed into a van and traveling long distances because we know what’s on the other side.  But we do get along well.
AG: How do you guys write your songs?
CS: All kinds of different ways.  A couple of songs that we’ve done were mostly written by Justin on guitar, like “The Apartment Song” or “You, You’re Awesome” where Justin comes in and we orchestrate what he has.  And there’s other times when things come out of jamming.  Suddenly, you’ll find yourself in this place where everything feels pretty good and everbody’s playing something that’s unique and fits, and we stop and say, “Okay, do you remember what you’re doing?  Let’s stop and remember that.” Then we go into the studio ready to record it.  And other times we’re in the studio and one person will record something and another person will record on top of it and another person on top of it and the song will take shape that way, like a sculpture.  You keep adding or taking away later on.  For Winter Hymn we had this theme of “Fearlessly add, skillfully remove.”  When we went into the studio we tossed on any ideas and eventually just scraped stuff off to find out what was in there.  That kinda goes back to what I was saying earlier about finding the emotion behind an album.  You just have to be totally open and let any idea go in and find out which ones work best together.  And that’s easier now in the digital era where you have the luxury of having unlimited tracks and stuff like that.
AG: Where did you record the new album?
CS: We recorded some of it up at our drummer’s cottage, some of it in a friend’s brother’s barn way out in backwoods Ontario, and some we recorded in a normal studio.
AG: And you’ve done all of your records in untraditional locations, right?
CS: Most of them, yeah.  We do that for practical reasons.  You’re cut off from life and free from distractions and can focus on the music and not have to worry.  No phones are ringing, there’s nothing else on your mind.  There’s no show tonight.  Basically we set ourselves a week of rest and then we focus entirely on getting a good foundation for the music.  There’s no pre-production so we don’t know what we’re doing when we get up there.  We write and record the skeletons of songs.  Sometimes we have sketches, like I said.  We also hope that the environment works its way into the music as well.  If you wake up by a lake and it’s beautiful, that’s gonna affect the music.  If you’re sleeping on a hay bail, that’s going to affect the music.  We’re a little romantic about that kind of thing so it’s nice to allow yourself that option of spontaneity.
AG: I read an interview with you where the interviewer mentioned that Tom Waits doesn’t allow his musicians to listen to any outside music during sessions because he wants them to focus only on the task at hand, and you said that you guys take a sort of opposite approach and encourage outside influence.  Can you elaborate on that?
CS:  I don’t remember saying that (laughs).  You sure it was me?  Maybe it was Justin.
AG: I think it was you.
CS: It could have been.  Well, I’ll have to go back to the first question before I elaborate.  I kind of agree with Tom Waits, even though I’m contradicting myself, I guess.  I can see that the idea of not wanting to be influenced.  Because then you start thinking about fashion, about what other people are doing, when you really just want to think about the music that you’re making.  We don’t have any strict rules about listening to music.  We do, when we’re mixing, often listen to other music.  Maybe that’s what the question was about, mixing.  When we’re mixing I do like to listen to lots of other kinds of music to see how much low end people are using and that kind of thing.  You feel like you’re getting too crazy with the bass so you listen to a reggae record and realize that you can do that if you want to.  Or if you think that there’s not any bass at all you listen to some beautiful old Roy Orbison recordings where there’s absolutely no bass and you realize that you can also take it in that direction.  They both sound good and we now have complete freedom to do whatever we want.  But at the same time, you don’t want to be copying anybody.
AG: Yeah, I actually just found the article that I pulled that quote from.  It was definitely Justin.  My bad.
CS: (laughs) I’m gonna see him this afternoon, I’ll have to ask him about that.  But he does listen to more music than I do.  He’s got a Ph.D. in music, in pop culture.
AG: Literally?
CS: No, not literally.
AG: Because there’s this school in Liverpool where you can literally get a Ph.D. in pop culture.
CS: Really?  You can get a Ph.D. in pop culture?  Wow.  I can believe that.  Liverpool’s a cool town, actually.
AG: Why did you guys decide to have vocals on this record?
CS: I think because it’s a little scary.  We’d been making instrumental music for a long time and in the initial stages we wanted to make albums with just music.  Let’s not even bother with singing.  It was a brave thing to do for us.  That allowed us a ton of freedom and we felt great about it for four records.  Then we thought, “Well, we wanna try something different here.  Let’s do something that we haven’t done as a band: sing.”  Then everyone got really frightened by the idea: What about lyrics?  There are so many bad lyrics in the world that you don’t wanna have four records of beautiful instrumental music and then have shitty lyrics on top of it.  So we got anxious about it and it’s always fun to get anxious.  We invited some friends in who we etrusted lyrically and admired lyrically, like Tony Dekker [of Great Lake Swimmers] and Alex Lukashevsky [of Deep Dark United], two brilliant Toronto musicians, and they didn’t write the lyrics though Alex helped us with “A With Living.”  We got Alex to sing that one because we love his singing voice and we were too self-conscious.  Though when we perform it live, we usually do it by ourselves.  Then on “In Mind” we all sang it together as a band and we felt like we didn’t chicken out.  We’re all really happy with the vocals.  I don’t know if it’s a new direction or anything, but we feel good about it.
AG: Is it hard to continue to move forward as a band while remaining true to your own voice and vision?
CS: It has been hard because the more we tour the more post-rock we hear out there.  Everywhere we go our opening band is the local post-rock band.  There are so many bands out there doing this kind of thing.  So we wanna try something else.  Post-rock is a big thing now, and we don’t wanna get stuck in that genre.  I don’t know how it became a genre, but it sure did.  All over Europe, all over North America there are instrumental post-rock bands.  We don’t wanna pigeonhole ourselves and get stuck.
AG: I’ve also read that you’ve called post-rock “boring.”
CS: It wasn’t back in the 90s but now it’s 2007.  Some of it is and some of it isn’t.  I don’t think it’s fair to say that about any genre, though.  Like, you can’t say that jazz [as a genre] is bad, because there’s shit jazz and there’s great jazz.  You don’t like pop?  Well that’s nonsense because there’s shit pop and there’s great pop.  The genre’s just a media thing and there’s good and bad qualities in each one.  So I don’t wanna blanket post-rock at all.  Maybe I said post-rock was boring but – first of all, that’s probably Justin (laughs).  But, no, I don’t listen to a lot of post-rock at home.  I don’t have any Mogwai records.  I prefer listening to folk recordings.  I listen to everything, but post-rock has good and bad.  I love old Tortoise records.  I don’t even know what’s considered post-rock now.  I don’t know if I answered your question, I got lost (laughs).
AG: Yeah, and actually, I just looked it up and that quote actually was from Justin.  It was from the same interview as that first Justin quote.  Sorry about that.
CS: (laughs) Fair enough.
AG: One way that you set yourselves apart from other post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor is by avoiding the whole cathartic, emotional build-up thing in lieu of more nuanced shifts in the sound.
CS: That is something we definitely try to avoid because it’s an easy thing to do and it’s effective.  And when we play live our songs do that because it’s easy to start quiet and get bigger and bigger and bigger.  But when we write songs we try to avoid that because it’s a little bit lazy in a way because it’s effective and easy.  You don’t wanna deprive people of that emotional release when you get all big like that but it takes more imagination to come up with a different way of structuring the song.  We’ve been kind of cautious about that.  Sometimes we stick to it, though, especially on our earlier records, because it sounds really good.  We’ve really been trying to find other ways of getting emotion into the music or out of the music.
AG: Does that make it harder for live audiences to pay attention?
CS: I don’t know.  It is easier to pay attention, but I think we do a pretty good job of keeping people’s attentions.  We put a lot of thought into the set list and which songs go well into which songs and that sort of thing.  We try to make the whole show an experience without getting too jumpy; you don’t want it to sound like prog rock.  You lose people with constantly changing moods, but you don’t want to overkill people with the bigger-bigger-bigger-end thing.  So we are aware of that difficulty and it’s kind of a fun challenge to find [the middle ground].  Because we’ve all had great, cathartic experiences listening to Godspeed and stuff like that.  It’s a tempting direction to go into because it feels so good and you well up and everything.  So we appreciate that but don’t copy it.
AG: How do your crowds typically react?
CS: We get a lot of compliments and cheers, and that feels good.  We see a lot of smiles and sometimes we see people crying which is always nice.  It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen.  People really seem to appreciate it.
AG: I’ve never seen Do Make Say Think, but I’ve seen Broken Social Scene before and one of the things I love about seeing them live is this sense of chaos, that the music is barely hanging on by a thread and could derail at any moment.  Do you carry that same live aesthetic over to Do Make Say Think?
CS: Yeah, I think so.  We don’t over-rehearse, that’s for sure.  There’s this sense of always just holding on by your fingernails.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But there’s definitely room for accidents.  They don’t happen too often but you can feel them about to happen sometimes.
AG: I read a review of a Do Make Say Think show that mentioned you – actually, let me look at this real quick to make sure it was you that they quoted and not Justin – yeah, they said that you walked up to the mic at the start of the show and said, “I hope you enjoy the show, because we are going to play our hearts out for you.”  Do you find it hard to conjure up that much emotion every night?
CS: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t say that every night, that’s for sure.  But we do try; we try every night because music is useless without emotion in it.  It’s wallpaper.  So we really try to feel it when we play.  When it’s something you do night after night it’s hard to feel those same emotions that you don’t necessarily want to feel every night.  Sometimes there’s a hesitancy to feel it rather than watching your  fingers and letting other people feel it, but it’s always better when you allow yourself to really feel the emotion in the music, and we try to do that as much as possible.
AG: One thing that colors your music is this sense of positivity, this overwhelming power of love that shines forth in your art.  Most critics mention words like “glorious” or “blissful” and all of these other religious adjectives when describing your music.  What’s behind that?
CS: Probably suffering and depression (laughs).  You know, you get hints of depression; everybody does.  When you experience sadness and pain and suffering and you pay attention to it and understand it and move towards it and explore it and get through it…I’m not a therapist at all, but you have to trust that there is something on the other side.  I’m a Buddhist and I’ve studied Buddhism and I practice meditation quite a bit.  I believe in a fundamental goodness in people and living things, and when shit gets bad it’s because there’s some sort of mistrust or something like that.  I believe that the music can go anywhere in any kind of depression or dark place and that it’s totally healthy.  But that’s not where you live, that’s where you explore.  It’s like going to the North Pole; it’s nice to see, but you don’t wanna live there.  So the positivity in the music is having faith in the basic goodness of something that allows you to explore different emotions fearlessly.  Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with music.  But I’m the only Buddhist in the band so everyone would have a totally different answer on that one.
AG: There’s a quote on your web page that says, “When you die, you’ll have to leave them behind.  You should keep that in mind.  When you keep that in mind, you’ll find a love as big as the sky.”  What’s that from?
CS: That’s the lyric to the last song on the record, “In Mind.”  It’s kind of a Buddhist sentiment.  There’s a Buddhist song called “Eight Things to Remember” by this famous Tibetan yogi, and this song is just about remembering that fame and fortune is temporary and your body is temporary and eventually you’re going to die and all of this stuff will be gone.  It’s a very somber song, but at the end he says “Keeping that in mind I practice dharma,” which is truth.  If you remember that all these things are temporary, then you can live a more meaningful life.  And that is what brings you to love.  From my practice there’s truth to it, but it’s also easy to forget.
AG: I agree.  I’m not a Buddhist – I’m a Christian – but I’ve also found that our realization that we’re all going to die, that we’re all equal in that sense, causes us to have much more love and respect for the world.
CS: Yeah, it’s just a basic fact that everything is temporary.  It’s true that we’re gonna die, it’s true that everything is temporary, and if you try to live with that in mind then I think you’re living with more truth in your life, right?  So that makes you a little bit more real of a person, I think.

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