02|24|09   Cupcake Monsters Zine interview with Alex Mitcalfe Wilson

The following piece is a slightly abridged version (not kidding!) of an interview I did with Alex Mitcalfe Wilson for the Cupcake Monsters Zine Issue 6, featuring: Xiu-Xiu, The Enright House, Ladybird, Polka Dot Dot Dot and Punchbowl. The full interview is available in Issue 6 (November, 2007).

Alex Mitcalfe WilsonAlex

Cupcake Monsters: I think of the The Enright house as a soundscape band. Soundscape and its cousin Post-rock are genres in which few bands have narrative in their work, instead, they generally focus on themes. Do your songs have stories in them?

“I love post-rock music, but I don’t necessarily think of The Enright House as being primarily a post-rock or soundscape band. Of course we wear those influences on our sleeves quite openly, but that type of music is only one of many influences. One could, of course, listen to songs like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, “Scattering the Sun Like Gunshot” and “Remember The Stillness” and without much reserve label us post-rock, but if you were to hear only “Broken Hands”, “Darkwave = MC Squared” and “We Might As Well Have Stayed Young”, you might just as easily label us good old pop music.”

“I take most post-rock bands and soundscape artists, for example, to be primarily concerned with some form of instrumental music. Now clearly there are a lot of longer instrumental sections in our music, but if you look carefully at our three releases to date, only 1 out of 20 songs is actually instrumental; and that track – “Rain” – is the shortest track we’ve released so far!”

“So, to come back to the question, yes, our music indeed features a great deal of narrative content. It certainly isn’t always the driving force in our music, but narrative content is to me not something one should deliberately wish to keep out of one’s music. The need for hearing and telling stories, after all, is a strong natural tendency for human beings – and, in general, I think it’s always a rather bland and futile academic exercise to try and rid art of natural human passions, for the sole benefit of some pure and messianic notion of avant-gardism.”

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Cupcake Monsters: Some of the lyrics to songs like “We Might As Well Have Stayed Young” seem almost autobiographical: “Listening to Skinny Puppy, we tiled our bathrooms in mirror shards”… Do you find stimulus for your songs in personal experience?

“Yes, absolutely. In fact, pretty much every line in that song is lifted straight out my teenage years, from tiling my friend’s bathroom with mirror shards to the music of Skinny Puppy, to rolling up powdered caffein tablets into cigarettes. Pure nostalgia, really.”

“Generally speaking, I often find myself looking backwards in trying to figure out what kind of person I want to become. And in the sense, that music is often an act of self-exploration for me, my past life experiences tend to figure heavily into my music and lyrics, as well.”

Fitzgerald, for example, ends The Great Gatsby with the following line: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” To me this is one of the truest statements I’ve ever come across in literature, and it certainly pertains strongly to the way I write music.”

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Cupcake Monsters: If it was possible to create The Enright House’s music live, without the input of other musicians, would you choose to? Do you think that creating such personally based music with the assistance of other people dilutes it through compromise or enriches it with new insights and directions?

“Honestly? If it was possible to create an exciting live show that would capture the spirit of my recordings without getting other musicians involved, I would have done it at the time. Now, having played with Simon, Evan and Thomas, I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Some of the ambient stuff, of course, could be done alone with computers and tapes and the like, but to perform songs that have drums, multiple guitars and so on without other musicians is a challenge that’s very hard to pull off convincingly. I just can’t see how it can work. It’s either in danger of feeling like karaoke, or it ends up being a performance that has to be vastly stripped back. I couldn’t settle for either, so I reached out for help, and it’s been uphill ever since.”

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Cupcake Monsters: You were trained as a guitarist in the classical tradition, at what point did you begin to play or write music that (although still informed by compositional ideas) deviated from that tradition into more experimental areas?

“Well, to be fair to classical music, I think that’s where 90% of all western musical innovations stem from. Take for instance modern electronica and it’s tendency to incorporate glitches, and slicing and rearranging beats and musical material (think Autechre and Squarepusher etc.). Almost everyone making music like that thinks these techniques are largely the result of modern computers and audio software. However, the foundations for this lie in tape compositions dating as far back as the 1940’s, where people like John Cage were taking tape recordings and chopping the tapes up into hundreds of tiny fragments and gluing them back together out of order. Now you just download some free-ware plugin that automatically chops up your audio for you in seconds. But being avantgarde was hard work back then!”

“Anyhow… when did I get into all of this? During my college years really. I studied music composition for a few years, so I was getting hit with all kinds of experimental classical music. In addition, I was living in Chicago and working at one of the sweetest indie venues in the entire midwest, so I was getting to see some of the best bands of our time come through there. In short, inspiration was nonstop and everywhere I turned.”

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Cupcake Monsters: The Enright House has a very complicated structure of loops, sequences and drones. Why did you choose such a complex way of making music? Does it express your intentions better than an acoustic guitar?

“I think the answer to this has to be two-fold. One the one hand, our live set-up is very much determined by the recordings. When I sit at home in front of my computer and write music, I try to make the most out of the tools I have available, and this usually vastly exceeds the kind of resources a traditional live band can draw upon on stage. So when I started looking for other musicians to play with, I knew I only had two realistic choices: either we could play stripped down versions of the recordings at shows, or we could try to integrate the tools I had available at home when I record, and integrate them into our live performances. Needless to say, we chose the latter approach.”

“Now, from a less technological perspective, the reason I use loopers and the like is simple: it’s suits the way I like to structure musical material. I firmly believe, for example, that a piece of music only has two fundamental ways to move forward in terms of structure: a) either by thematic development (i.e. variation and contrast), or b) through various techniques best described as additive processes.”

“Let me give you an example of what I mean: 19th century symphonies are basically developmental in nature. That is, the reason this music keeps your attention is that the music is constantly shifting from one section to another; one theme comes in and is later replaced by another and so on and so forth, until finally a kind of resolution is achieved by returning to the original statement of the theme. It’s basically a grammatically complex arch form, and the form that has probably produced the most popular and enduring music of the Western world.”

“Now, the second way to develop themes – and this is usually the one I prefer to use – is something that Philip Glass refers to loosely as additive. Its essential premise is thematic repetition. However, this is only the beginning, for if nothing else happens aside from repetition, the music soon turns trivial and becomes excruciatingly tiresome to listen to. This is where the additive process comes in to give the music forward momentum. Essentially, instead of replacing one theme with another, one simply adds a second theme to an already present one, and continues this over time to create textures of ever-increasing density and interest – a structure, for example, which often forms the basis of eastern music, western minimalism, and contemporary electronic music.”

“The latter form of writing music is hard to pull off if you only have three musicians on stage. There are only so many hands on our bodies to create layers with, and frankly six ain’t a lot of hands if you plan on taking this structure past the first two minutes of your songs. So, I thought “screw this”, there is no way I want to turn a rock band into a mini-orchestra a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor – what an organizational and interpersonal nightmare that would have to be! – so I bought a nice floor-based looper which is essentially three separate loopers built into one pedal. That, in addition to the computer, took away a lot of the sonic constraints that I wasn’t prepared to deal with. Electronic musicians, after all, have been using laptops, loopers and samplers etc for years now in their live shows, and although bands use them to record, they still tend to be a bit shy about using them on stage. We thought we would give it a try, and, although we have only been playing this way for a little while, I can safely say that I won’t be looking back on that decision anytime soon.”

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Cupcake Monsters: You have had a education in academic aesthetics. Does that knowledge interact with your training in composition as you write The Enright House’s music? Are your musical and aestheic interests similar?

“Most definitely. My M.A. philosophy thesis deals with the aesthetics of ruins and derelict objects, et cetera, and although that might sounds a tad abstract, the topic is very much alive to me. Both, my music, as well as my thesis, essentially deal with one central question, namely, “How come certain human beings find things that are old, used, and broken beautiful, not despite their defects, but because of them?”

“The explanation, of course, is inexact and multi-faceted, and I am really not sure if I am any closer to a good answer now, than when I started exploring this question about two years ago. However, that has in no way halted my fascination with the question, itself. In fact, I am completely obsessed with this question in my music. For example, whenever I decide to use bottle caps, scraping sounds, distortions, over-exaggerated delays, inarticulate vocals, or noisy tape loops in my recordings, I am in a sense trying deliberately to sabotage my music, by attacking and subtly undermining anything beautiful, only to discover afterwards, that what I thought I had destroyed, ends up being even more beautiful to me when I am through with it.”

“So yes, aesthetics is very important to me in terms of my music. After all, any aesthetic values held would be nothing but pretentious gibberish, if one didn’t actually try to translate those values into something tangible, like art or music.”