interview by: Roberto Martinelli
The music of the ambient/drone duo known as The Stars of the Lid has the power to immediately reach out and grab you and change your emotional state to match the melancholically satisfying drift of its mood. This group's latest (double) album, The Tired Sounds of the Stars of the Lid, has the supreme quality of being what I like to refer to as "oceanic," that is, it reminds me of the awesome power and beauty of the massive movements of the ocean. In this case, the image is more akin to what I described in the review of this record as watching the aurora borealis at night while standing warm and safe on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
My interest in this group increased even further when I saw them play in San Francisco during the Beyond the Pale Festival in November of 2002. I caught up with the two members, Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride, to discuss their project.
Maelstrom: What do you get out of playing music that's as lethargic as yours?
Adam Wiltzie: The Lid is a strategy for calming, a way of reducing one's mental traffic, a moment of simplicity and a way to pay homage to the tearjerkingly minimal.
Brian McBride: I wouldn't refer to our music as lethargic, so it's difficult to answer the question as such. Sure the music is quiet but I hope there's an emotional element that keeps folks engaged. We don't set out to be the heroes of the drowsy when we're playing out - continuity and slow evolution is the best way for us to focus on harnessing sound into something that reflects the tearjerkingly minimal. It is often very challenging performing for American audiences who seem to depend heavily on obvious stimuli to keep them out. We go out to get up, you know.
Maelstrom: What is "the lid"? Is this like the lid of a jar?
Brian McBride: Yikes, no.
Maelstrom: Ok, so then what is it?
Brian McBride: It's your own personal cinema, located between your eye and eyelid.
Maelstrom: I got into your band because of your latest album, Tired Sounds of the Stars of the Lid. Since then, I bought every Stars of the Lid CD from Kranky. I like them all, but I think that Tired Sounds… is clearly the best. It seems that you have perfected your sound on this (thankfully) double album and are using a more committed sense of melody and structure than before, while still retaining that drone sound. Do you find your creative force to have been stronger when making this latest album?
Brian McBride: Come on now! If our creative force was "stronger" on Tired Sounds…, wouldn't that imply that we were lacking creatively on our previous work? If we were committed to anything when making this record, it was to make a non-ambient record. Both Adam and I are fans of contemporary classical music, which I'm sure the record reflects. The record may move like an ambient record to some ears but in our design we tried desperately to sublimate the drone to the melody.
Maelstrom: I guess you could look at it that way, but that's not what I meant.
Brian McBride: I think the Tired Sounds… benefited from a clearer sense of direction and a more developed vocabulary on the part of Adam and I. Prior to that record we had recorded around six records together. We both knew what each other could provide to our own individual efforts. We also benefited from the geographic distance between us. Instead of working in the same room, we both had ample time to digest the other's parts. I think the end result was a record that made more sense because we didn't have the pressure of the immediate environment where we're expected to come up with movements on the spot.
Adam Wiltzie: I think the force of Adam's stomach is much stronger on this one. If you listen real close to Gas Farming you can hear his tum-tum trying to digest a feast of late night crunchy bits.
Maelstrom: Especially on Tired Sounds…, it seems that you use a whole lot of stringed instruments, like violins, but add this unique aura to them. What instruments/ manipulations do you commonly use?
Brian McBride: It's all EQ really and how you record something. Some of Sara's strings are recorded super dry and up front and there's also some experimenting going on with mic placement. Some of the string bits were arranged over six years ago, so you may be noticing the madness and wisdom of age - it takes time for all of this to make sense. But there's not some magical effect out there that we have up our sleeve. The string treatments change depending on what's going on in the rest of the piece.
Adam Wiltzie: Sometimes the manipulation is in the recording. Instead of drowning everything in reverb we're trying to think about sound more as we record. I walked down a hall to get a decent horn sound, set up a mic at the end of a church to get a piano sound, and we found someone who can really play the cello. It helps when they know what they're doing.
Maelstrom: I like the sample of what sounds like the puppy dog whimpering and pushing his water dish. Whose dog is that?
Adam Wiltzie: It is my dog, named Frog.
Maelstrom: I was under the impression that you guys were from Texas. It turns out you're not. How did you guys meet and where do you live now?
Brian McBride: We meet in Austin riffling through records at a University of Texas radio station meeting. I have lived in Chicago for four years and Adam has lived in Brussels for two years now. M: It's always interesting to consider how bands that play super slow, ambient music keep focus with other members of the band, or even stay awake for that matter. Do you ever fall asleep or get lost?
Brian McBride: We have a super deliberate structure that we've spent way too much time negotiating prior to playing. If one of us does fall asleep I think that would be a huge victory. Adam's been known to drool on stage before and if we can't pass out to a record while in production, it typically doesn't make the cut.
Maelstrom: Wait a minute. I thought you said before that you don't like to think of your music as lethargic. Perhaps that word has a negative connotation to you, and I'm sorry if it does. I meant lethargy as dreamy and emotive. I think it is pretty cool if you guys can fall asleep to it. I know I love to.
Brian McBride: Well's if that's what you meant then sure. I've rarely heard "lethargic" be used to describe anything emotive. But sure, we love lullabies, especially the nocturnal kind.
Maelstrom: It seems that Texas still has a big impact on you. One of the tracks on the latest album is called "Austin Mental Hospital." Indeed, the themes that appear in your music is often melancholic or depressing (like the track "The Lonely People are Getting Lonelier"), but in a way that makes you feel so relaxed and good (I guess kind of like the drowning girl). Do The Stars of the Lid have a message?
Brian McBride: Not one that you're gonna get out of me with that question. The message is like the music, maybe you have to drown in it before you can understand it.
Maelstrom: Why? Does the question suck that bad? That's how I feel about your music.
Brian McBride: We're hoping to communicate a bunch of different things at different times. Sometimes we're not even aware of what it is we're trying to do, it just seeps in with us for a while. The Lid has a lot of beliefs that inevitably influence the shape of a recording. It's too difficult to sum it up in a statement about our message. The message is like the music, maybe you have to drown in it before you can understand it.
Maelstrom: It was pretty neat seeing you guys play live. It was just the two of you, and I believe you both had guitars and at least one keyboard each. It was pretty amusing how Adam wears a spelunker's headset with a two flashlights on it to see what he's doing. Could you please explain to our readers how you manipulate the sounds from your records exactly? Do you record the string instruments onto a computer?
Brian McBride: Well it depends on the sound. I hate to be cryptic but there's no formula that we use. Do you mean in a live setting or recording?
Maelstrom: I'm mostly curious about how you pull off playing your stuff live.
Brian McBride: "Pulling it off" live is definitely the way to think about it. Translating what we do in a live context is probably one of the more challenging endeavors musically I have had the great ability to struggle through. We could take the easy route and start pushing play on some laptops but for some reason we're compelled to introduce more of a "live" element into a "live" situation. In the end I don't really know if we succeed in making the translation. Most of the time we're unsatisfied with what we do in comparison to our recordings, which I think a lot of musicians have to wrestle with. There are many recorded pieces that are near impossible to pull off. Since most of the record resembles single-instrument recordings we typically choose pieces that lend themselves to layering. We have tried to play pieces like "Piano Aquieu" during some shows in Europe during the beginning of the year: the piece has slowly evolving selections of simple piano melodies, which is incredibly difficult to play and keep the audience engaged. Since the piece is so bare, I think the silence presents too much of an opportunity for the audience to get chatty. This tour we sidelined that one and used our piano meanderings as just one instrument amongst several other instruments. Since there's only two of us, we depend on some live and preset sampling: a song may begin with just one guitar and eventually becomes 10 guitars, piano, pre-sampled strings from our friend Sara, etc. There's a lot to juggle for the simplicity of it. For example, we've tried to recreate the feel of some of recordings by sampling simple effected guitar chords onto a keyboard sampler and matching a separate guitar melody (all played live) along side a melody emanating from the keyboard sampler. The effect hopefully gives the impression of a strong single instrument or multiple similar timbred instruments speaking in a single voice.
Maelstrom: Tell us about your activities outside of music.
Brian McBride: By "outside" do you mean occupational or do you want to know about my girlfriend and my cats?
Brian McBride: Well I have two cats - Ead and Nadine. Ead is a rather large but solid thing and Nadine is a little on the nutty side. She loves to love and hate Ead and the humans around her. Occupation-wise, I'm a debate coach at Northwestern University. I have been involved with competitive debate on the college and high school level since I was a freshman in college. I also help inner city schools in Chicago develop their own debate programs.
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