We hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during these strange, strange times. How about some good news? We had the opportunity to catch up with Christoffer Franzén of Lights & Motion about sources of inspiration, isolation vs collaboration, life in Sweden during a global pandemic, and his brand new record The Great Wide Open - coming to vinyl this October on the one-and-only Spartan Records. Enjoy!
Can you tell us a bit about the journey that led you toward the Lights & Motion project?
Lights & Motion came out of a long period where I felt like I needed to get a lot of music out, but I wasn’t sure how to reach the point of being able to create what I could hear in my head. That threw me into a hard couple of months of severe insomnia, where instead of sleeping I would sit by myself in a studio all night long, learning all kinds of different instruments and trying to find the sound of what would eventually become my first album Reanimation. Looking back at that time now, it feels like a whirlwind. I used to leave the studio in the morning just before dawn and think to myself that no one was ever going to hear this music I was writing, and I questioned why I obsessed about it to such an extent. Today I am really grateful that I did all that.
When you began composing, was this the stylistic direction you intended to go?
I would have to say yes, although that is constantly changing in some ways for every album cycle. I am originally a guitarist, so I knew I wanted to incorporate that as a heavily featured instrument and blend it with ambient and orchestral elements because I also loved film music growing up. I initially had a very clear vision of what I wanted the music to sound like, and it was a matter of giving it enough time to develop it. It's been 7 years since I released the first Lights & Motion album, and throughout the following years I have experimented in different ways to keep the creative process fresh and inspiring.
Could you give some insight into your introduction to music and what steered you towards composing music?
My introduction to music was as a fan first and foremost. I got really obsessed with listening to music at a young age, and I could sit for hours just staring into a wall and listening intently on different albums. When I was 14 or 15, my next door neighbor got a guitar and all-of-the-sudden I realized that you could also play and create music yourself, not just listen to it. It may seem like a trivial observation, but it really opened up an entire world for me. I used to go in there everyday and borrow that guitar and slowly but surely learn how to play basic chords. I think in every musician's life the beginning is mostly about playing other peoples' songs. Then after a while you start to create stuff yourself, and that is the exciting bit. I never took lessons, and I didn’t grow up in a musical home at all, there were no instruments laying around the house, so in a way it came out of nowhere that I decided to do this. I played in bands as I grew older, and while it was always very fun it eventually fell apart like most bands do, and then I felt a bit lost in what to do next. I knew I wanted to continue writing, and even more so I fell in love with the process of production and mixing.
I used to hate relying on other people in order to do music because I wanted to do it 24/7. And somewhere around that time is when I began teaching myself how to do everything from initial idea to finalized song. It was a lot of trial and error along the way. It's easy to feel like you are getting left behind when every one of your friends is going away to get a proper education in preparation for having real jobs, whilst you are holed up by yourself in a studio, and I’m sure many musicians reading this will know what I’m talking about. I guess that is both the upside and the downside of having a passion in your life; you can’t really see yourself doing anything else.
Can you talk a bit about how your records have evolved over time? Are each of them completely distinct or are there any thematic throughlines that you've been revisiting across different recordings?
I would say that there are thematic throughlines running through the discography as a whole, but also for each and every release. They have pretty clear and distinct sonic trademarks for me personally as well. My first two albums were very crisp in terms of the mixing, with a lot of high-end clarity and a bit less bass-frequencies. For my third album Chronicle, I changed my mixing approach and the production on that album is much more ”full” and bass-heavy. Since I produce and mix the records myself, that part of the process is a very important one, and I don’t really separate it from the writing process; it's all part of creating the sound. Every time I start writing a new album, I will spend a substantial time thinking it over, trying to find something conceptually to tie it all down, and often there is a song or two that act as a foundation for the rest of the album to rest upon.
On The Great Wide Open, you introduce vocals for the first time on an album. What drove you towards making that decision and can you tell us a little bit about the two vocalists you collaborated with on the album? What were some of the exciting parts and challenges?
For The Great Wide Open, I took a long time to write and produce the album. I knew I didn’t want to rush the process, but rather let it bloom organically and see where it would take me. One thing people will notice right away is that there are two songs featuring lead vocals on the album, and the idea of doing this had percolated in my mind for quite some time. The first one written was ”Wolves," featuring the amazing Swedish singer and musician Johan Hasselblom. I was a big fan of his band The Animation, and I always thought he had a great voice. So one day I had written this instrumental piece and I sent it over to him by chance to see if it would inspire him to write something on top of it. I think he sent me a voice memo not long after and the entire first verse and chorus was there, and I was hooked straight away. He added something that I could never have thought of myself, and that is really what you are looking for in a collaborator. And then the last song we finished for the album was ”I See You," written with and featuring the Swedish singer Frida Sundemo. She has such a unique and ethereal quality to her singing, it's one of those voices that just takes you places. I had written her several months earlier and explained that I was a fan and asked her if she would ever be willing to write together. She was, and then it was just a matter of finding the right type of song for us to do together. Similarly to ”Wolves," I wrote an instrumental song, leaving space for the vocals, and sent it her way. She came back with this beautifully fragile lyrics and melody, and it was everything that I hoped it would be and more.
Other than that, the challenges in creating this album were similar to all the other albums I’ve made before it. It's always a huge undertaking, and you want to get your vision across in the best way possible, and getting the final 10% right takes months and months of tweaking. My biggest takeaway was that I wanted it to sound colorful, energetic, and fragile at the same time. It marked the start of a new decade for me, and the closing of the last one, and every album is like a time capsule of the time you spent making it.
What inspires you outside of music?
I am a huge cinephile and so films and tv shows inspire me a lot to create music. There are so many different vocations and art forms that collide when making a movie, and that fusion creates something that is bigger than the sum of its part. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and it can just be a little spark that ignites something much bigger. I guess that is the challenge and charm of creativity; you never know from where it's going to come.
How has living in Sweden influenced your art?
I have thought about this a lot during the past few years. Living in Sweden is amazing in a lot of ways; we have beautiful nature surrounding us, and in the summer we have days where it doesn’t really get dark until 1am, and then only for about 3 hours before the sun rises again. We also have the other half of the year where it gets really dark at around 4 in the afternoon, and the cold can be quite stifling. I think that is conducive to creating music though because there really isn’t a whole lot of other things to do but stay inside and work on your art. That might be one of the reasons why I have historically released new music early on in a year, because I have pretty much stayed inside and worked for 6 months straight. The cold, dark weather can be quite depressing though. I’m not sure if you can hear that in the music I make. I guess that is up for everyone else to interpret.
Typically are you working on your records in isolation?
Yes, my way of working is very isolating, and that is quite hard at times actually. I get up in the morning and head out to the studio immediately, and then I sit and write by myself for something like 10 hours. I try to be very disciplined and not really take any days off. I used to work all throughout the nights too, but I have tried to put a stop to that because it wasn’t really healthy or sustainable. But since I do all of the engineering and production myself, it's only me in the studio, with my instruments. I think people naturally need other people around them, so I have struggled quite a bit with that actually. At the same time I feel like I have to get all of this music out, so sometimes I describe it almost like a need and not a want to go and write. It's complicated.
Can you discuss your interests outside of music?
Well, like I said I really enjoy watching a lot of movies and quality tv shows. Some of my favorites these past couple of years have been The Handmaid's Tale, The Morning Show and Defending Jacob. More and more I like to get out to nature and just immerse myself in the forest and take long walks. I also play football, or soccer as you say in America, and that is something which I’ve done my entire life.
Does your approach or process differ when you are composing for film/TV versus Lights & Motion?
I would say yes and no. Writing for films and working with directors is such a different and extremely collaborative medium; you have to try and get inside their heads and understand what they are looking for, and then hopefully managing to produce that which serves the film. Compared to writing for Lights & Motion where I just do what I feel is right and go where inspiration takes me, film-scoring is much more of a structured craft. But that challenge is also what is rewarding about it; it's like solving a puzzle. I have written albums that I have released under my own name as well, Christoffer Franzén, and that is music that was never intended for a L&M release, but that I wanted to create regardless. Having my own name to put out stuff under is just another way to harness creativity and to not feel restricted in any way, musically or otherwise.
Any feelings that you'd like to share about the current state of the world?
It's a very strange time that we live in, with a lot of unrest in the midst of a global pandemic. I am not sure what to do to be honest. I find it hard to navigate. For myself, I just try to be decent and remember that we are all in it together. I think that is important not to forget.
Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on that you're particularly excited about?
Nothing in particular that I can really talk about right now. Covid has changed up a lot of things, so we´ll have to see how the rest of the year turns out. I have been locked inside my studio for many months now, social distancing being a natural part of a composer's life, and I have been writing a lot of new music, and it has definitely been affected by what’s going on in the world. When and where it will be released, not even I know. I’m just excited and grateful to be able to stay creative.
Lights & Motion's The Great Wide Open is available now for pre-order on vinyl here. This pressing is limited to 500 copies on two variants and includes an exclusive bonus track!
photo credit: Shervin Lainez
This week we caught up with Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) and had the chance to chat with him about Mountain Time, the music video for "Rosemary, Etc." (directed by Kasher), his foray into filmmaking, and the transitioning role of the music video. Check out the interview and don't miss the premiere of the "Rosemary, Etc." video below. Thanks for stopping by!
Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Chris? Have your artistic paths crossed in other ways over the years?
I'll always remember the night I first met Chris. Cursive was, I believe, first of four on a bill at the legendary Fireside Bowl in Chicago. I feel I'll botch this lineup, but I THINK it was Mineral / Get Up Kids / Rainer Maria / Cursive. Maybe around '97 or so. Okay, so I might not remember the specifics so well, but I do remember being so stoked and nervous to be playing on such an extraordinary bill. I was nervous a lot back then, as we were young and newly thrust into an underground music scene I was previously not terribly familiar with. As a self conscious kid, I found myself researching bands more and more often to stave off those awkward conversations where other scenester kids would rattle off band after band you weren't familiar with. I was feeling out of place.
BUT, I did love Mineral, had already seen them play back in Lincoln, NE a few months prior. One of the best shows I've ever attended, as far as opening my eyes to what was happening out there in the world and lighting a fire in me.
So, we hung at our merch table for most of that evening at Fireside, not really knowing anyone, but glad to be there. We also knew little to no one in Chicago, so were forced to get a hotel room for the night, a luxury we rarely afforded ourselves. It was the same hotel where Mineral was staying, and Chris was cool enough to pop over to our room to introduce himself and say thanks for the evening. Such a small gesture from the headliner, a band that meant so much to us. Clearly, as I relay this teensy tale, it had an impact on me. I know Chris must be terribly embarrassed when I tell this story! I've gotten to know so many good folk through the last 25 years of touring, but Chris and I have maintained a closer relationship, merely through the simple effort of reaching out and checking in.
When did you begin to pursue filmmaking/video production alongside music?
I started writing screenplays when I turned 30, as I had always daydreamed of working in film. Mostly, I just like storytelling in all forms, but film is our century's amazing blend of audio and visual technique, displayed larger than life in theaters. That's always been thrilling to me. Making videos is very hobbyist for me, a fun way to play around with friends and ideas. I suppose I first started with my dad's clunky consumer video camera rig when I was a kid, making ridiculous home movies, as many of us did.
Are there similarities in how you approach both filmmaking and songwriting?
Yes and no. I mostly want to tell a story in either medium, but the method of storytelling can be so different. That said, a video that compliments a song isn't necessarily so different from songwriting itself, as you only have a handful of minutes to get your idea across. I assume this is why so many songs and videos are abstract, haha.
Can you tell us a bit about the production process for the video -- it appears to have been shot in a number of different locations?
This is a very 'no budget' production, if you couldn't already tell, haha. But shooting without a budget can be a blast, as you pool whatever resources you have available to you. I decided to shoot this while on a Cursive tour so I could tell a story with various locations. Resourceful. My good friend, Jess Price, was out with us, and as she is an avid filmmaker herself, she was game to pitch in and even play the main character. She was returning a favor, of sorts, as Chris Simpson had already donated his time and charisma to 'star' in a video for Jess' band, Campdogzz, a video I had shot in and around Chris' home state of Texas while on tour a year earlier (also, very 'no budget'). Megan Siebe, who plays cello with Cursive, pitched in a lot as well, whether running the camera or playing various roles throughout.
We laid out a very loose storyline, then mapped out where we could relay the story via the various stops on tour. Some locales, such as Las Vegas, had to be city specific, others were more casual. We ended up shooting in Redding, CA, San Diego, Las Vegas, Fort Collins, CO, Colorado Springs, and it started and ended in Omaha. I may be forgetting one or two stops.
Can you talk about the decision to use the "traveling evangelist" as the protagonist for the video?
Chris and I lobbed a few ideas around before settling on this story. Chris had mentioned "Wise Blood", the Flannery O'Connor book we both admired. A lot of great imagery in that story, brought to life by the John Huston film starring Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton. I melded those ideas into what would become this loosely told tale of a young woman looking for a new con. I told the story in reverse because I liked the reveal at the end (er, beginning), and also for the mere fun of having this video bookend the Campdogzz video, which was also told in reverse.
Are there any other filmmaking projects/videos that you've been working on that you're particularly proud of?
Plug time! Yes, I wrote and directed a feature length film, No Resolution, released in 2017. I struggled to find decent distribution but did manage to tour it around the country, showing it at some venues and a handful of Alamo Drafthouse Theaters. The distribution I did end up using for online streaming has since folded, so it's currently not available anywhere!
Any insight on how the importance or role of music videos has changed over the course of your career?
I waffle on this a lot. Clearly, the video is not the mighty vehicle it once was, when it had cable channels devoted solely to airing and promoting them. But now that our world has fully acclimated to staring at screens for everything always at all times, one could argue that there is space and usage for the music video again. I love them, as I grew up on them, but I prefer the 'no budget' route more than ever, as I am unsure how much attention people are offering to them over simply listening to a song on whatever streaming platform one uses. Regardless, it's still a vibrant, unique artform, and I'm of the opinion that the less money spent on them, the more interesting they are. That's the epitome of classic videos from the early MTV days, when labels weren't sure if videos would really take off or not so they'd throw $150 toward some college kid with a camera.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, listening to Chris Simpson’s Mountain Time uncovers layers upon layers of artistry that may be unexpected to long time listeners of his prior bands Mineral and The Gloria Record. On Music For Looking Animals, his affinity for songwriters from the 60s and 70s is on full display and the album is a looking glass into some of the music that inspired him from a very young age. We asked Chris to dive deep and come up with a list of songs that have profoundly inspired him as an artist — and the end result is a fascinating look into his world and how the sound of Mountain Time came to be what it is today. Explore the full list below and follow the Spotify playlist here for future additions. Mountain Time's new album Music For Looking Animals is available everywhere June 26th.
David Bowie - "Five Years"
I first heard this song shortly after learning that George W. Bush had won his second term as President. I felt entirely alien in my own country. It was the first time I think a presidential election had hit me in this way, like a wave of depression and darkness. It wouldn’t of course be the last, or even the worst such experience I would have. Something about the lyrics at the top: “Pushing through the market square/ So many mothers sighing/ News had just come over/ We had five years left to cry in.” It was just one of those moments where a song comes to you across a vast expanse of time, plants itself firmly in the present moment and rips your chest open. It also includes one of the great lyrical stanzas in my mind: “Think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor/ Drinking milkshakes cold and long/ Smiling and waving and looking so fine/ Don’t think you knew you were in this song…”
The Velvet Underground - "Sunday Morning"
This was the first Velvet Underground I really took in. This opening track going right into, “I’m Waiting For My Man” is one of my favorite opening sequences of a record. These guys were just so open and vulnerable and tough and out there all at once. They could feel like the sun shining down on you or the world caving in. But there’s always such an honest pure child-like heart to what they’re doing. Esteemed guitarist Tom Verlaine of Television famously said that he was so depressed upon hearing this record because he realized he had already learned too much to ever be able to play the guitar like Lou Reed did.
Van Morrison - "Sweet Thing"
In the phase that followed the dissolution of The Gloria Record I was adrift in every way imaginable. I had started to explore Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s early records and felt like what I wanted creatively and musically was to return to this kind of acoustic simplicity. I wanted to write songs I could play on my own on an acoustic guitar or the piano. Discovering the Astral Weeks record by Van Morisson was among the most exhilarating experiences of my musical life. I kept listening to it transfixed. I couldn’t stop. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I liked it. It felt like I was seeing behind some sort of curtain into the horrors and ecstasy of human existence somehow. The whole universe felt unmasked in it. There was nowhere to hide in these songs. Sweet Thing is so much more than a love song. It became the anthem to me and my now-wife’s relationship at the time and evolved with us through many struggles, eventually becoming the song we used for our first dance at our wedding.
Leonard Cohen - "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes"
Around the time I was exploring all this music I was also exploring a whole world of writing and thinking that was equally fresh and astonishing to me. One of those writers/thinkers was Joseph Campbell and his book ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ about the universality of the hero monomyth. I had the feeling that Leonard had read EVERYTHING and was giving it back to me with a wink and saying, “Yes, but…” His grasp of the human condition in all its beauty and ugliness made him feel like a wise and compassionate elder. An adorable owl with an eternal glint in his eye spitting Zen koans and wrapping your knuckles with a stick when you got distracted.
Bob Dylan - "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"
This is the first Dylan song that facilitated a deep dive into his entire body of work for me. I had embraced the early folk anthems, in all their earnestness. This was something else. Blonde on Blonde was the culmination of the controversial “electric” period, which left his diehard folk fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. After this there was once again nowhere left to go but somewhere else entirely. The instrumentation and feeling of this record was very much what I was after on a lot of the earlier Zookeeper recordings. I couldn’t imagine a more exuberant and blissful sound.
Neil Young - "Harvest"
Neil always stood out to me for that angelic, feminine voice. He has worked so long and fearlessly in essentially the same form song wise, but his melodies and voice are always so singular and stunning they transcend the repetition of the form. His view of nature was almost mystical but the mundane and human was always his muse. Harvest is such a beautiful love song. This is one of the songs I always sang as a lullaby to my kids at their bedtimes. They still immediately recognize it now when it comes on.
Harry Nilsson - "Bath"
Harry’s voice is unparalleled. No one could sing like Harry. The harmonies he effortlessly added to his own vocals. The orchestration and arrangements on the records. Because of the greatness of his voice, and the fact that he reinterpreted a lot of other people’s material, I feel like he is often overlooked as a songwriter. This is one of my favorites of his. The way the chord progression just keeps coming. I love the image of Harry coming home early one morning in the middle of a bender just to take a bath and head right back out into the fray again.
Big Star - "Nightime"
There is just something about Big Star’s Third album. It will always be mind-boggling to me that this came out when it did. This record was very important in helping me visualize the texture and palette I was looking for in the early Zookeeper days. The acoustic fragility enmeshed with the more atmospheric and unsettling elements. The ominous start and stop of the cello. "Nightime" was a revelation to me.
Graham Nash - "Military Madness"
Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners was another big record for me in 2005/2006. Military Madness is such a perfect lead track. The growl of those background vocals, the lilting acoustic and piano, that crazy wah guitar. Graham’s singing is so crystal clear and just beautiful. And I loved the cover image. It was a record I held in my hands a lot as I listened to it. It felt at once homespun and otherworldly.
Judee Sill - "The Kiss"
Judee Sill came up a number of times in my explorations but never really sucked me in. Until… I was on tour with Mineral in South America. I was in a hotel room in Lima, Peru, exhausted and missing my family so much. It was the first day of school back home and things were very hard there without me. I felt helpless being so far away and not being able to be with my wife and kids. There was a coffee shop on a cliff overlooking a beach a short walk away which had been reported to be exquisite by my band mates and I had every intention of going there. But I was feeling so low, I was just lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep. I was listening to a playlist on my phone and it had ended and switched to Radio play mode based on the playlist when this song came on. It destroyed me instantaneously. All the walls were obliterated, inside and out. I ugly/beautiful cried uncontrollably as it unfolded. Across time and space. This song originally set down in 1973, 46 years earlier, and a year before I was even born. It cracked me open. Dissolved at once the barriers that separate me from both my inner self and the world outside. It felt like a vacuum was sucking me in and down and up and out all at once. And it was so heavy and painful and righteous and powerful. I listened to it on an endless loop for the next week as we travelled, trying to hold on to that experience and sensation as long as possible. It remains a profound emotional and spiritual experience anytime I hear it.
John Cale - "Big White Cloud"
John’s voice is so authentic. I came to him from the Velvet Underground record he features so prominently on. I think I actually heard some of his more esoteric later work first, but his 70s “pop” records became an indispensable part of my musical diet. This song was always one of my favorites, but there are so many. This one has that bright, sunny, pre-disco Bee Gees, reverby strings and plunky piano thing that just drives me crazy.
Leonard Cohen - "Avalanche"
This is the first tree that fell for me, leading me inexorably into the forest of Leonard Cohen. I had heard some of his more popular songs and liked them fine. I had the first record and thought it was very good. I was working at a 24 hour diner where there was a lot of music and drugs and literature going around. I was waiting tables one night on a graveyard shift and heard this song playing in the kitchen while leaning on the window where the cooks put the orders for us. I immediately went back into the kitchen and asked who it was and one of the cooks gave me a broken cd jewel case with that big font: SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE, and that picture of Leonard looking possessed or ecstatic. I stood there transfixed, ignoring my tables in the front of the restaurant and their orders waiting in the window. I made the cook repeat the song for me when it finished so I could hear the whole thing. I went the next day and got the record, and it honestly took me a long time to listen past that first song because I kept having to play it again every time it ended. There is such a literary and cinematic feel to it. I immediately picture some lonely hunchbacked creature on a blizzard swept landscape, living in a half underground cave or shelter, marching bravely out into the elements to address the world with his song. It was astounding. It still is. Leonard is such a master at painting a picture and leaving you holding the brush and mute with questions.
The Kinks - "Strangers"
When people argue about The Beatles vs. The Stones, my answer has always been The Kinks. Which is not to say that I don’t understand and respect what the other two accomplished or meant, or that I don’t enjoy their records as well (I do, quite a bit). But The Kinks always felt so scrappy and authentic and relatable to me. They were funny and fun and serious and meaningful all at once. This is one of my favorites of theirs. It also featured prominently in my wife and I’s wedding music and feels like an anthem for choosing togetherness and celebrating uniqueness.
Big Star - "Blue Moon"
The gentleness of the flutes and strings and arrangement, coupled with the vulnerability and fragility of Alex’s vocals on this track are chilling. And somehow, like in "Nightime" further up the list, there’s always an undercurrent that feels almost sinister or reckless, I feel like I can never relax into the beauty of it for fear that reality will drop an axe on me if I lose vigilance. It’s hard to explain, but so bewitching. And there are so many songs on this album that do that to me.
Bob Dylan - "My Back Pages"
From the opening lines on. These words are a blitzkrieg to the senses and consciousness. What a wonderful and truthful paradox . That we actually become less attuned to our own internal compasses as we age and get filled with ideas, less capable of seeing and knowing the truth. That justice is beyond optics and learned catchphrases, and that true education is visionary and experiential, not academic. That gaining wisdom and insight is akin to shedding layers of learned notions. That we can actually grow younger, closer to the source. This is Bob at his finest. Firing on all cylinders and busting at the seams of the form he embodied for his first four albums. After this there’s nothing left to do but go “electric.”
Harry Nilsson - "I Said Goodbye To Me"
Since middle and high school, when I wrote a handful of them myself, I have always been obsessed with songs about suicide. Harry’s incomparable voice is on full display here, playing with tremolo and vibrato like a cat plays with yarn. The delivery is uncanny and when he switches from words to woahs and ohs it somehow only heightens the emotional power of the narrative. I also love the whole doubling the vocal with a track where the vocals are spoken instead of sung. So goddamn good. The loss of Harry Nilsson’s voice is one of the great tragedies of American song in my mind.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young - "Our House"
This is one of those songs I grew up hearing on the radio forgot about and then rediscovered later (or so I thought) before realizing every note of it was already emblazoned in my consciousness. It has defined my vision of domestic bliss. I sang this to my children as a lullaby every night for many years. Sometimes they still ask for it. It will never not make me think of my wife and kids and be grateful for the life I have. It will never not make me happy.
Paul Simon - "Mother and Child Reunion"
One of the greatest gifts my mother ever gave me was Simon and Garfunkel. Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Bee Gees Greatest Hits Volume 1 were the two records in our family record collection I always stole and played in my own room. Years later the self-titled Paul Simon solo record was something I spent an inordinate amount of time with. I think Mother and Child Reunion is a perfect opening track. I was obsessed with the sound and the instruments, recognizing it as something different than Paul’s usual backing. Seeking out the source and finding that it was recorded in Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff’s backing band and members of Toots and The Maytals made me realize that maybe I didn’t hate reggae music at all. Much later I would actually take a deep dive into reggae and rocksteady, being able to listen to little else for many years. But I digress... this song is brilliant. The whole record is brilliant. I wish I could put the whole thing on here.
Van Morrison - "Slim Slow Slider"
The perfect end to a perfect record, or, as Lester Bangs called Astral Weeks, a “mystical document”. A song about seeing an old friend or lover on the street and not knowing what to do. Someone who’s gone now in more ways than one. Someone who’s dying and cannot be reached. Van is such a master improviser he makes planning or arranging feel cheap. Anyhow. Heavy, heavy beautiful stuff.
John Lennon - "Oh Yoko!"
Thought I’d reward anyone who’s made it this far with a light and uplifting final track. This song is not only one of the only explicit love songs of its sort that I can stomach, but also a master class in the simplicity of a great song. Only one word of the lyrics changes in each verse. Every other word is repeated each time, and yet I still feel like it’s too short. Like it could go on forever. (Surely there are some more things that John could be in the middle of when he calls out to Yoko?) Anyway, this song makes me happy to be alive and in love and breathing.
**I hope you enjoyed this list. I am not a music critic, and this is a small percentage of what I have loved and taken in and held dear musically throughout my life. I just wanted to share with you some of the specific music and artists that were inspiring me stylistically when I began this journey with Zookeeper and now into Mountain Time. Much love to everyone out there, I hope you find some joy here. It means the world to me to be able to connect with and share my work with you. - CS
Listen to the full playlist below.
Hope everyone is safe and healthy out there! Recently, we checked in with Scott from GIANTS CHAIR, who went down memory lane and uncovered ten records that had a profound impact on his life. Scott breaks down each selection in detail as part of 10 Albums/10 Days, and the combined narrative serves as a musical autobiography documenting the incremental steps that influenced his artistry.
Day #1: Willie Nelson - Red Headed Stranger
My mom played this a lot, I think. For me, at that age, it probably could have been any album, but it was this one — my mom has great taste. If nothing else, it has a very distinctive “dry," sparse sound that was far different from anything that was on the radio. He and his manager had negotiated complete creative control with his new label on this his 18th studio album. There was a lot of country radio in my house, too (KZNN Rolla, MO), and this sounded totally different to me, even as a kid. This album also happens to be maybe the first country concept album — it‘s a whole epic tale about jealous revenge and being a fugitive cowboy.
Day #2: Rush - Fly By Night
My prog-rock tendencies could be traced to Rush. Theirs was the first music that made me realize how music could surprise me. I love this album as a bridge between straight-forward classic rock and progressive rock, lyrically and musically. It was released the same year as Red Headed Stranger - 1975.
Day #3: U2 - Unforgettable Fire
Though I grew up with music in my family, I can say it was ultimately U2 who made me need to be involved and write music. This album was the first U2 album I owned before discovering and loving their previous three albums. I love this album so much to this day and can still hear new things in it.
Day #4: Bob Dylan - Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Like I said yesterday, I was really into U2 and, appreciating their Euro-ness so much at the time, I was surprised to hear they were covering Bob Dylan’s "Maggie’s Farm" at some shows. We were visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Phoenix and my Aunt had a bunch of Dylan cassettes. I started listening to some on my Walkman during this visit and immediately thought Dylan, on this particular album, sounded a LOT like I remember hearing my, by then passed, dad play and sing around the house when I was little. Probably the next Christmas my Aunt gifted me the Bob Dylan Biography collection cassette box set - a real trove of classics and rare stuff that I really loved. I was just starting to write my own songs and was impressed by his scenes and stories - heavy and humorous. This and John Wesley Harding are my two favorite Bob Dylan records. But this one came first.
Day #5: Repo Man Soundtrack
This 1984 movie soundtrack of “punk rock” made it’s way to a circle of forward-listening kids in our small town and it definitely turned me on to an entirely new set of sounds and ideas that still matter to me. Frankly, as a romantic, I was as afraid of “punk” then as I was intrigued by it - and it would be years later until I realized the education it gave me. If you’ve always wondered about punk rock, but didn’t know where to start, this helped me a lot.
Day #6: Robert Johnson - King Of The Delta Blues Singers
Probably because of Dylan and I may have seen Crossroads with Ralph Macchio around the time, but I was curious about folk and blues. I was probably also wearing a black fedora of my grandpa’s - but, anyway, I had finally made it to the legendary St. Louis record store, Vintage Vinyl. I was looking for a place to start with blues and when asked if I could be helped finding something, I told the clerk I was looking for a good first blues record. He suggested this one. It was, again, unlike anything I’d heard up to that point - it didn’t even really sound like what I thought “blues” was. Then it became my benchmark for blues. I’d like to thank that record clerk!
Day #7: Grand Masters Of Rap Compilation
This one isn’t quite in chronological order, but before I was a folky, Jesus skate hippy dabbling in punk and new wave, I was into break dancing. This album features Grand Master Flash, Sugar Hill Gang, The Furious Five, Whodini and others! Besides being great for breakdancing, it was a good early sampler of early hip-hop sounds that also primed me for the techno and electronica that I’ve come to love.
Day #8: Pitchfork - Eucalyptus
Byron Collum and I met on the first day of school at the Kansas City Art Institute - he had a really great punk & indie record collection with him. But a lot of it sounded like noise to me for a while. This record was in pretty frequent rotation by Byron when we became dorm roommates in our 2nd year and it was the first “post-punk” or whatever that really grabbed me. First, I thought the vocals (Rick Froberg) were interesting, more whiny sneer than gruff rant, which set them apart from some of the other punk things I was hearing on Byron’s turntable. But it was really the guitar that blew my mind. So much visceral texture. Every sound an electric guitar plugged directly into an amp with no pedals or effects of any kind could make was being found and used for full, absolute, frantic intensity. And the guitarist, John Reiss, also contrasts those crazy guitar things with a genius sense of melody, drive and ass-kicking sass - with no “solos” per se. The singer and the guitarist went on to form Drive Like Jehu, maybe one of the most influential “post-hardcore” bands of the 90’s - now they are HOT SNAKES and still making really great rock. It’s astounding. I listened to this album yesterday in the car and still totally feel it.
Day #9: Johnny Paycheck - The Real Mr. Heartache
Back to country here... George Jones was by far the biggest name in country music in our house growing up and it was a George Jones “Best Of” tape I picked up at an truck stop in Maryland while on tour with my rock band that solidified my resolve to want to step into the timeless stream of writing and singing country story songs about heartache. But years later, on tour with my country band in Texas, we were at the club early playing pool and the show promoter, now friend, Bruce Burns was playing this early Johnny Paycheck collection on the bar sound system. At first, in the back ground, it just sounded like more country music, but by about the 3rd song we were all looking at each other wondering what the hell this was?! The Real Mr. Heartache quickly became the pinnacle “Gold Standard” for the sounds and wordplay that IS sheer Honky-Tonk “hard country” music to me. If I’m Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Go To The Bottom) is my current favorite from this collection. And Johnny Paycheck had been in George’s band, so there’s that.
Day #10: Phantogram - Voices
So this one brings us up to now, and I’m just as confused by this list as you are, but variety really is the spice of my musical life. My wife Paula is my resident current-pop expert. Released in 2014, the first single, "Fall In Love," came on the alt radio station in the car one day. I noticed the song and she was like... “oh yeah, I like this one.” After a few more listens, I even posted something about this being the best song I’d heard on the radio in a long time. I downloaded the full album and couldn’t get enough! At only 8 years in, it may be hard to tell just how “influential” this album really is for me, but thinking back about the other pivotal album moments on this list, I have no problem considering Voices the most influential record I’ve had in my life in quite some time for a few reasons. First, I simply love all the beats, melodies and lyrics. Just good songs and production, in my opinion. And while resonating melodically and texturally with different strands of earlier musical influence for me, electronic-but-lush with great real guitar stuff, too - it also seems new and creative. If only because this album has renewed my hope in commercial alt pop radio music, it’s pretty influential, but it also marks a moment in my life as a music maker that, for the first time, it’s a musical style that I really love but don’t think I could make. It makes me want to make music, but I just don’t have the time or understand the technology to create like this. It’s harder than it sounds. So I just get to enjoy it! Also, as an album and band Paula and I discovered and love so much together, it’s extra cool to us. We’ve traveled to see them live a few times - some really good memories wrapped up in this band for us by now and we still love this album together.
The Spartan Profile series is back with an exclusive interview with designer Matthias Lackus, the force behind the artwork for Fallow Land's debut record Slow Down, Rockstar. In addition to designing beautiful layouts, Matthias also plays guitar in the German post-hardcore band The Tidal Sleep. Enjoy!
How did you, Fallow Land, and Spartan Records connect?
As simple as it is, Whit from Fallow Land contacted me directly over email and asked if I’d be interested in working on the artwork for their upcoming album. I couldn’t say no — and due to the fact that there is tons of water between our homes, we took a Skype call to connect and say “hi." He was on a car ride back from work in bad traffic, and I was almost sleeping, as it was super late at night. Now comes the interesting part of the story. During our talk Whit explained how he came across the artwork I did for our last LP Be Water. He saw the record from our Japanese label Tokyo Jupiter Records, so the record made its way to the US from the other side of the world. It’s actually quite unusual and crazy for a German post-hardcore band to land in the US, but funny at the same time. The rest of the story is told quickly — after sharing some thoughts, ideas, timelines, the mixes of the record, and a couple (actually tons) of emails, Whit connected me with John from Spartan Records. We wrote a few emails back and forth, and everyone liked each other and here we are.
Talk about the creative direction for the Slow Down, Rockstar artwork — what were you hoping to accomplish or communicate?
First of all, I hope the cover somehow attracts the eye of potential listeners or sticks in their minds when they stumble across the record. It is important to me that the artwork invites the listeners to incorporate their own thoughts into the design. The listener should be able to pick up different connotations while listening to the record, but the main idea is that sometimes you have to make a hard cut to get back on the right track of life.
How would you describe your creative process?
My creative process is first of all about absorbing the music; the impression from the different chats we’ve had and all information I’ve been given. Sometimes this takes a while. But during a certain span of time, the stuff spins in my head, gets forgotten during the day, and gets back into my head and mixed with new impressions. After having sorted out some thoughts and spent time in my sketchbook, I start crafting the basics of the artwork on paper. For this record, the starting point of the final artwork was Washi Tape on paper — in the end, I tried combine old school graphical craftsmanship with the power the digital graphic design.
As a musician and a designer, what creative intersection do you see between the two?
The intersection for me is the creativity. As a musician and a designer, you create things from scratch. Either songs or designs. Together with tons of different correlations you are creating something new. In the end, you are trying to find the right solution for your purpose. For me, audio is still the most honest and direct way to communicate. You can close your eyes, but you can’t shut off your hearing.
What is the latest with The Tidal Sleep — anything exciting people should be looking out for?
After touring with the last album Be Water and our following EP Be Kind, we’ve been keeping a bit quiet. Everyone got back to their normal life and we've been trying to make the best out of it. Nevertheless — and this might be the exciting part for people to know -- we are back in the process of sticking our heads together in the rehearsal room, collecting ideas, and writing new songs. Let’s see how it comes along…
Who are some artists (musicians, visuals artists, writers, etc.) who you really admire? What about their work do you connect with?
Oh, that is a tough one. Musicians who I’ve been following and who are inspiring to me – just to name a few are The Appleseed Cast (their new album is super nice), Broken Social Scene (super nice mix of a whole bunch of interesting people), Bon Iver (as he is as he is), Radiohead (the albums starting with Kid A and later, as their mix of different influences is outstanding), and lately, Neil Young again, which makes me a think that I am getting older now. Writers -- nobody really. I am mostly reading biographies and design books. Artists -- I love to go to good exhibitions for all different kind of arts and crafts; I really can’t name one who is outstanding for me.
What else inspires you as an artist / designer outside of the arts?
Life. As boring as it sounds. But inspiration for me is everywhere and pops up whenever and wherever. And, of course, my almost 3 years old little daughter. How purely she does things. That’s the fun part.
What else should people know about you or your work?
Well, maybe that doing artwork for me is not my full time job. Artwork happens for me beside my daily design job and family life. Basically during the night time. But I really continue doing it because it is super important to me, even if it takes some additional effort to stay up later at night. And…by the way, now it is 1 AM over here. I need go to bed now. Good night. And thanks for listening.
Thanks for visiting the Spartan blog, and be sure to check out Fallow Land’s debut record Slow Down Rockstar, available everywhere now here!
Spartan Profile is back with a member of our own family — Fallow Land’s guitarist/vocalist Whit Fineberg. In this exclusive interview, Whit discusses the origins of Fallow Land, the process of recording the band’s debut record Slow Down, Rockstar, and working with acclaimed producer Matt Bayles (Isis, Minus the Bear, Pearl Jam). Dig in and get a peek behind the curtain!
What should listeners know about Fallow Land — how did this project come to be?
Fallow Land began when I was living in Chicago and my mental health was at an all-time low. My first guitar teacher and close friend had just passed away, my ex-girlfriend (who I had moved to Chicago to be with) and I had just broken up, my band back home in Ann Arbor had broken up, and I was pursuing a degree in jazz guitar that kept me locked away in a practice room playing music I wasn’t particularly excited about. I began spending all of my free time recording a demos in my apartment on 410 S. Morgan St. (thus the name of the song from our first EP) and these became our first single and EP. Evan Veasey and I had gone to high school together, but were many years apart so our paths had never really crossed. Nonetheless, I knew he was a fantastic guitar player studying at the University of Michigan and we began discussing rebuilding my previous band, Bad Television, with him as the guitar player. As we began to play together more, it became clear that Evan was capable of playing significantly more complex music than what Bad Television was currently playing and more suited to the demos I had been working on lately. We joined together with two other local musicians got a few tunes performance ready and embarked on a two-week tour a month after we had formed.
What were you hoping to accomplish sonically with the record?
Sonically this record is driven by texture and rhythmic nuance. While Pinscher was very much guitar riff driven, The guitar work on Slow Down, Rockstar is often based around washy arpeggios drenched in reverb and chorus. The addition of Scott Kendall on bass and Evan Laybourn has also had a huge impact on the band sonically. Scott’s bass playing is a lot more sparse and subtle than what you’ve heard from Fallow Land in the past. While comfortable, gluing everything together harmonically and rhythmically Scott also searches empty musical pockets and fills them tastefully. Evan Laybourn drastically shaped this record in his ability to subtly imply complexity while never losing sight of the general groove and feel of each song. There are so many moments on this record that could start to feel monotonous if not for little flourishes Evan throws in to add new musical interest. I also became significantly more interested in vocal harmonies on this record. Something that was almost completely absent on Pinscher.
Were there central themes or ideas you are exploring on the record lyrically or musically?
A huge theme of this record is self-exploration. Pinscher was mostly about the end of a relationship. I really wanted to try to avoid writing as much about specific people on this record. Instead, I wanted to check in with myself after the events that occurred during the last record and the years that followed.
Tell us about the production process and working with Matt Bayles.
Working with Matt was incredible. He is someone who’s work we all admire. Oddly, we all dig different stuff that he’s done. Evan Laybourn and Scott are super into the Fall of Troy record he did. Evan Veasey and I really like the Foxing record. He’s just been a part of so many important records. He mixed Pinscher for us and we’d talked quite a bit during that process. When it came time to think about making a full-length I contacted him and was interested in working with us on pre-production, production, engineering, and mixing. He made plans to come up to Michigan to spend four days working through the songs with us prior to recording. I sent him all the demos and he came prepared to pick the songs apart. Most of the tunes he didn’t think were too far off, he mainly pointed our sections where we were being too heady and what we were trying to convey wasn’t coming across. There was one song in particular that he had us basically re-write. After making these changes we rigorously practiced for a month before driving to Seattle to record. We booked 12 days in of Stone Gossard’s (from Pearl Jam) recording studio and watched the songs start to evolve into what they are today. Matt was wonderful to work with. He pushed us hard and believed in our ability to produce. We all learned an incredible amount from working with him.
Were there specific musical influences you were trying to channel with this record?
After Pinscher, Evan Veasey and I had both begun listening to Dealer by Foxing a lot. That record definitely influenced us. Additionally, my interest in chorus was sparked by the wonderful records that Will Yip has been producing for Run For Cover Records like Hyperview by Title Fight. I’ve also recently really been getting into Peripheral Vision by Turnover (another Will Yip Produced Run For Cover) but I discovered that record after we finished making ours.
Talk about the process of synthesizing all of your own varied musical backgrounds and experiences.
We all come from a similar place musically. We all studied music in college and grew up listening to emo music and math rock. That being said we all kind of have our individual tastes within the band. Scott plays in a funk group, Evan Veasey plays in a jazz guitar trio, Evan Laybourn is really into Owen, and I’m really into shoegaze. Also, there is a big self-imposed age divide in the band. Scott is convinced he’s old enough to be Veasey and my dad and constantly makes comments like, “oh do you guys remember… oh never mind you’re too young.” We don’t really think it’s that big of a deal…
Tell me about the title of the record.
When we were recording with Matt, our drummer, Evan went out and bought a huge 12 pack of Dr. Pepper and was trying to shove it into the fridge at the recording studio. Matt walked out right as this was happening and said, “Woah, slow down rockstar!” This was kind of a funny comment about our choices as a band. We aren’t wild party animals, we are just four people who want to make music we are excited about. I think this record represents a dramatic shift for the band since Pinscher. Pinscher was all about being wild and living in the moment and partying. I’ve kind of taken a step back from that and am trying to live a healthier, more subdued life. This record kind of picks up where Pinscher left off and narrates that change in thought process. Also, with the addition of Evan and Scott, the dynamic of the band has really shifted to become something more mature and sustainable. It’s wonderful to be making music with three musicians who are serious and dedicated to their craft and not distracted by a bunch of nonsense.
Are there any specific songs or moments on the record that are especially meaningful or important to you?
For me the two most important songs are "The Things You Say" and "The Hope." "The Things You Say" is without a doubt the most emotionally challenging song I’ve ever attempted to write. A while ago I experienced an extreme breach of trust from someone who I considered to be a close friend. It really altered the course of my life. I tend to experience and cope with my emotions via songwriting. I knew I would inevitably eventually write about this experience, but every time I tried to write about it I hit a block. When I was finally ready to confront the experience, the song came together in a matter of hours. It was the fastest I’ve ever written and demoed a piece of music.
"The Hope" is the only optimistic song on this record. It’s about a wonderful person, who came into my life at a time when I was incredibly broken. Her love and support is constant and unrelenting.
Any upcoming tour plans?
We plan to regularly tour the midwest and parts of the east coast prior to the release of the record after which we hope to tour the US more broadly.
Talk a bit about Ann Arbor — has the city influenced the trajectory of the band in any way?
The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area (I group these two areas because many artists who develop in Ann Arbor end up in Ypsi because Ann Arbor is so expensive), is full of unbelievably talented artists and musicians. I am actually surrounded by musicians of a much higher caliber in Ann Arbor than I ever was in Chicago. This was a big factor in my decision to move back to Ann Arbor. Ultimately the biggest thing that needs to develop in order for Ann Arbor to become a destination for bands is the infrastructure and the involvement of the community. There are not a ton of venues in town. There is really only one viable option for medium-sized touring bands. I also think that as a community Ann Arbor needs to become more invested in the arts. There are a lot of college students in Ann Arbor who would rather go to frat parties than shows. I believe the way to combat this is to start having shows earlier so students can go to shows and then attend parties afterwards.
Any particularly relevant or irrelevant thoughts on the state of the nation / world right now?
Don’t claim experiences that are not your own. Our country is incredibly polarized right now partially because of the slew of misinformation that our current president is so good at disseminating. When you speak for a group that you are not part of, you not only take away that group’s opportunity to represent themselves, you are putting ignorance out into the world. There is no way you can possibly understand what you are talking about when arguing about experiences that you haven’t had. Let marginalized groups lead the conversation of oppression and rather than jumping in right away… just listen.
Anything else we should know about?
Evan Laybourn wears almost exclusively Star Wars shirts. Evan Veasey is really into chiropractic videos (which we all think is weird). If Scott wasn’t a musician he would be a stand-up comedian. I’m a huge soccer fan and incredibly excited about the signing of Christian Pulisic to Chelsea and the USWNT fourth World Cup victory!
Thanks for stopping by! Check out Fallow Land’s debut record Slow Down, Rockstar here and if you're a vinyl fan, don’t miss out on the “Pool Party” variant; there are only a few copies left (get it here).
The Spartan Profile series returns with an interview with Landland designer Dan Black, the creative force behind The Darling Fire’s haunting album artwork. Below Dan discusses sources of inspiration, the design process, and creating a narrative world within and across his artwork. Also featured is an exclusive playlist curated by Black — enjoy!
How did you, The Darling Fire and Spartan connect?
Jolie from The Darling Fire reached out and kinda explained what was going on and what they needed. I'm really bad at doing the follow-up "How'd you find out about Landland?" thing, so I don't think I ever really asked...I'd worked on art for The Pauses' newest LP about a year ago, and they're another Florida band that recorded with J. Robbins, so I suspect that there might have been some crossover somewhere in there and my name might've come up, but I actually don't know for sure, haha.
Can you talk about your career path as a designer? What led you to Landland and music-centric design projects?
I've been working with my friend Jes as Landland since 2007, mostly making posters for touring bands like Arcade Fire and Phish and all points between...before that, I had a brief period of working for Target as a graphic designer and doing screenprinting and poster design as an afterhours hobby. Eventually, the hobby overtook the day job, and we've just been steadily building out our screenprinting studio piece-by-piece and making a TON of work ever since. The first few posters we made were for our own bands and bands that our friends were in, and that slowly and gradually led us to working for bands we didn't know, and then larger and larger bands, and expanding that to film posters and all sorts of self-initiated work. There's a lot of record packaging design peppered in there, but the posters and other work like that usually keeps us too busy to do record packaging as often as I'd like.
Talk about the creative direction for the Dark Celebration artwork — what were you hoping to accomplish or communicate?
There was a lot of back and forth leading up to actually starting to design the art for the LP; I usually like to ask a lot of questions about which parts of my work a band is gravitating toward, or what they were looking at when they decided to get in touch with me. We talked a little bit about some past posters I'd made that gave a point of reference for the kind of illustration they were hoping for, and Jolie sent over a lot of materials to give me the general feel of the album. They were really on the ball with everything, so we were actually talking about what the album would look like before it was recorded. Jolie sent over a list of adjectives to give a sense of the mood, and then her lyrics of course. I don't really like to rely on lyrics directly, but it definitely helps to suss out the themes that run through an album and the kind of atmosphere they're hoping to create. Somewhere in all of that, there was some direction that maybe it should be dark and show some sort of forest fire scene. I sketched up an idea that included an old fire watchtower and an indirect hint at fire off in the distance, and we just pushed on from there.
How would you describe your creative process?
That back and forth I mentioned is a lot of how it starts...most of the work I do is for someone else's band or project, so it's important to get a feel for what works for what they're doing. The other side of that coin, is that I'm also always pretty conscious of developing a body of work that feels relatively cohesive and a visual vocabulary that's almost like world-building in a way; even though everything is dealt with on an individual basis, it's not crazy to imagine that the watchtower from the cover of this could exist just down the road from the abandoned amusement parks in some of my poster work, or the boarded-up gas station that shows up on a Jeremy Enigk poster. There's always a real push to satisfy the design needs of whatever I'm working on while also creating a thing that fits within the rest of my lexicon.
As far as the actual execution, I draw everything by hand; first sketching it out in pencil where I can obsess over perspective lines and compositional details, and then once all of that is pinned down, I'll usually transfer that layout onto a piece of clayboard where I can dig into all of the fine detail work. Clayboard enables me to fill dark areas with ink (like most traditional illustration), but also to carve out light areas and create white space where I've already laid ink down. It's a really versatile way for me to work, and opens up a whole realm of technical possibilities that I didn't have back when I mostly drew on paper. The illustration is definitely the most labor-intensive part of the whole process, so I really like to make sure that the groundwork is laid and everyone's on board with what I'm doing before I launch into that. After that's finished, I'll go through and add color where necessary...that usually happens digitally, but everything that you see that looks like illustration is all always done analog.
How does music inspire your design work?
When I'm working on posters for a specific band, I try to make a thing that isn't derivative of the visual communication they're already doing (album art, merchandise, nouns in their lyrics or song titles, etc), but rather a thing that could exist within the world they've created. It's a step removed, but not wildly disconnected, if that makes sense. Album art is a whole other thing, where I really want to communicate with the band and make sure we're hitting all the points we can as far as what they want. Moreso than a poster, album art lives with the band for a lot longer; it becomes a part of their permanent discography, and when it's done well, it can help shape a person's listening experience when they sit down to listen to the album. I'm a little bit old, so I really have a huge soft spot for the idea of getting an album, putting it on, and having nice packaging to pore over and dig into as an accompaniment of the music. Thinking about how a person is going to handle the jacket and all of the parts of the record, and how they move through the packaging is one of the most fun things about designing this sort of thing. Like, I used to sit there and just study the thanks lists in these things, and the bands they'd mention in there were like little clues as to what else might be cool out there. A cookie crumb trail of nerd shit to build a cool experience around an album. With the jacket for "Dark Celebration," one thing I wanted to try to do was create a path where people would be pulled in by the front cover, and then moving to the back would work as sorta zooming in to the charred wood and bits of the aftermath of the fire that's happening off in the distance. The idea of taking in an overall scene and then spending time with it to notice the details around you.
A lot of Landland’s work seems centered around animals and the natural world — any particular reason?
That's definitely more Jes's thing than mine...I think her narrative tendencies are bit stronger than mine are, or rather, I go a much more subdued route with a lot of my work, where most of the narrative is in the implication of past lives in these places I'm drawing. It's all little bits of evidence that people have been around at some point, but not really holding anyone's hand to spell out exactly what's going on or why they've left. Jes is much better at creating scenes where you're seeing action taking place...schools of fish moving past weird islands, or birds perched on ruins of whatever thing's all caved in by something that happened long ago. I think there's some amount of crossover between her world-building and mine, but a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that we see everything the other one is working on all time, and part of why we're best buds and make sense working together is because we're attracted to a lot of similar imagery. I don't think I could do this stuff without her, or at least it wouldn't be nearly as fun or interesting.
What else inspires you as an artist / designer?
I try to build a lot of time in my life to travel a lot within the U.S., and am constantly wandering around in places where a lot of people don't usually go (or haven't in so many years), whether that's old logging roads up in the Pacific Northwest, or out in the old uranium mining territory in the canyons of Southern Utah. You end up in these places that used to have great utility to people, where they built towns and roads, and then completely left the whole thing to be swallowed up by nature and returned to the earth. It's really interesting to see the bits of evidence of the past and build vague narratives around it. I've also always looked at old signage and the way messaging works in specific environments...I've been into signs and old billboards and things like that since way before I could read—with almost an embarrassing level of obsession—and love integrating that interest into the work that I'm making for bands and things like that.
Who are some artists (musicians, visuals artists, writers, etc.) who you really admire? What about their work do you connect with?
Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie, for both his music and his visual/design work. It's all perfect. I share a studio with the Minnesota members of the Vacvvm (Aaron Horkey, Mike Sutfin, Brandon Holt & Mitch Putnam) and those guys are a constant inspiration...they push me to constantly try to step up my technical skills, and they're all great to be around. Ryan Duggan, Mike Mitchell, Aaron Draplin, Jeremy Enigk, Tim Kinsella, Owen Ashworth, Jay Ryan, Sonnenzimmer, Daniel Higgs, Marcel Dzama, David Shrigley, a million others. There's a bunch of people I look up to a lot, and a lot of them are friends, which I feel really lucky for. Tons of poster artists...there's an excellent community of people doing work that are constantly refreshing the medium, and it's cool to see that happening in real time.
What should people know about St. Paul, MN?
I'm actually still learning about St. Paul...I recently moved back here after about five years of living in Chicago, but when I was here before, I was mostly a Minneapolis person. There's kind of a big divide between the two places, or at least there was back then, where St. Paul was always sorta the sleepier and more residential city, and Minneapolis is where you go out and do things. This entire place is littered with references from The Hold Steady & Lifter Puller songs, which is kinda cute, but only important to probably a handful of people...super mundane landmarks like a specific Party City in a strip mall, and intersections that get name-checked as places where some desperate things happened that are actually just places where they put an Aldi or whatever. It's got a good mythology to it, and plenty of rock history. The day Prince died shut this entire place down and turned it into a metro-area-wide memorial dance party. The harsh winters scare everyone away, but it's secretly incredible here.
What else should folks know about you and Landland?
We're constantly working on things...so much poster work all the time, and art prints and weirdo little notebooks and pins and things. We've done a few collaborations with Field Notes, which was really some bucket list stuff to be involved with. I've also started a Landland record label as a sort of hobby thing to give myself more projects, haha...we've released a bunch of records by Slow Mass (an incredible post-hardcore band from Chicago that tours constantly), Chris Brokaw & Geoff Farina (from Codeine & Karate, respectively), Birthmark (Nate Kinsella of American Football), Tim Kinsella/Joan of Arc, and we're slowly getting ready to do vinyl reissues of all of Jes' band Best Friends Forever's discography, which I'm pretty psyched about. We use Instagram more than anything (we have separate accounts: @landlandcolportage & @_jseamans), but there's also a secret Facebook group that's kinda huge and a really good place to find out about our stuff as it's happening (search for "Landland Appreciation Society" on FB). We also travel around to SXSW and other music festivals, where we set up a booth and stand in front of the things we've made, talking about the things and selling them to people. The biggest takeaway is that we stay really busy, haha. I don't really know how to do it any other way.
Thanks for stopping by. Makes sure you check out Landland’s site to see more of Dan’s work (pick up a print or two while you’re there!), and buckle up for The Darling Fire’s debut record Dark Celebration, which is out everywhere now!
Hey folks, we’re back with Spartan Profile #4 — an exclusive interview with video director/editor Ian Fursa. Check out our interview with Ian below where he takes us behind-the-scenes of the production of The Darling Fire’s brand new music video “Saints in Masquerade.” Here at Spartan we are fired up about every piece of content we release into the world, but this video is something special — a dark and heavily stylized journey that perfectly captures the essence of the band. Please enjoy Ian’s thoughts below on inspiration, creating an 80’s aesthetic, nostalgia, and working with The Darling Fire.
What inspires you as a director?
Everything in life! I’m very into studying how metaphysical philosophy, psychology, and social psychology play into our art and daily lives. I think the most beautiful visuals and most powerful stories are just creative ways of showing what some deal with on a daily basis in a way that strikes that same emotion.
What were the central themes or ideas you were exploring with the video?
I’d say fear of change, how that can breed within some family dynamics, and how media plays into it. This video’s story was actually inspired by my girlfriend’s family. She is a first generation American, so there is a constant duality between traditional and modern ways of living in her home. I was actually really happy when I thought up the idea of using new versus old toys to symbolize the fight against change.
Visually, the video reflects such a specific time period — what elements were important in creating that aesthetic?
I think we really got lucky with locations on this project. Some scenes are almost solely lit by the neons and arcades that were on location. This really set the tone for the video on the first day. I tried to bring that same feel to the house scenes by always having this one teal spot light shining somewhere within the scene, but since that color of light wouldn’t normally be in a house setting, it gave us a more stylized look. That lighting mixed with our choices in props, I think tied everything together to give the video a more time specific aesthetic. 80’s baby!
Can you talk about the process of acquiring all the props and setting pieces?
I am really thankful to members of the band that put a lot of hard work into the masks and some other props we used. The masks were simple white masks that Jolie and Jeronimo took the time to paint and age based on the character that would wear it. The handheld video game was treated in a similar way too. Also, thankfully the owner of the house location was a vintage collector, so the process of dressing the house set was really picking and choosing what these surreal characters would actually have in their home, while also trying to keep to a certain color scheme and time period.
The use of lighting and projections is really striking throughout the video — can you talk about the feel you were trying to create with those elements?
Well, we knew from the beginning that we wanted it to have an “80’s vibe” with the look of neons and drastic light to dark contrast. Once we decided that we were going to go more surreal with how we told the story, it opened us up to the idea of using the projector to show the media broadcast being almost imprinted onto the parents through these bright beams of light. It became a really cinematic way of blocking the TV when you want someone's attention.
Are there certain music videos that have been especially influential in your directing career?
I’d say this video was very influenced visually by films like Blade Runner 2049, Poltergeist, ET, and Close Encounters. I do try to keep up with watching current and older music videos so there are definitely some that inspire me to this day. Just to list a couple that come to mind: Jon Hopkins - "Breathe This Air, Childish Gambino - "Sober," and Kendrick Lamar - "Humble."
Can you describe the process of collaborating with the band during the production?
I had a great time working with The Darling Fire on this. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a band that was as involved with the process as they were. Like I said earlier, Jolie and Jeronimo were such a big part of designing the props, finding locations, and just being on set with great ideas. This video wouldn’t be what it is without their help!
Are there any behind-the-scenes stories from the shoot that you’d like to share?
Ok, so the only thing I can think of is how the first filming day went! My plane landed the evening before so I hadn’t been to any of the locations before we went there to film. I really didn't think we would have been able to get all of the shots/angles we wanted for the band performance scenes with the time we had allotted at the arcade. So, morning of shoot day comes, with a lot of scheduling still up in the air, but after a fairly quick setup we got every one of the shots we wanted. Things just kept going smoothly and we were done hours before we had to be out of the location. Everyone kept talking about how it felt like time stood still for us. It really was nice and was an inspiring way to start the day.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?
Well I am pretty excited for the release of this video! Besides this though I have a few commercial projects I directed and two short films I did cinematography for that I am excited to see how they do! You’re just going to have to keep your eyes out for them.
What was your favorite arcade game growing up?
Honestly I didn’t really go to arcades growing up, but I can tell you that my favorite now is the Star Wars Battle Pod. I’ve always loved fast paced racing games and sports like go cart racing, BMX, and I even got really into building and racing drones for a bit. So, the Battle Pod seems to be one of the only games that can hold my attention for longer than a game or two.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned to Spartan Records for upcoming Spartan Profiles and updates on the The Darling Fire’s debut record Dark Celebration, available June 14th.
Spartan Records teamed up with mixologist Andrew Schools to create the label’s first original cocktail: El Espartano. Check out the recipe below, as well as an exclusive interview with the mixologist about the inspiration behind the drink, a featured artist playlist, and photos and videos documenting the creation of the drink. Stay thirsty, my friends.
1 1/2 oz reposado tequila
1 oz lime
3/4 oz blue Curacao
1/4 oz cointreau
1/2 oz of simple syrup
1 barspoon of St. Germaine
Add ice to shaker. Shake, rattle, and roll, then pour over crushed ice. Garnish with Black Sea Salt. Enjoy!
What’s in an El Espartano? What’s the process for creating the drink?
I am not sure how most people create cocktails, but for me with the El Espartano, I was focused on a few things: the color, the look of the drink, and the flavors. I wanted the color to represent Spartan with the blue and black. Living in North Carolina, I might have subconsciously made it a little bit Carolina blue. Once I decided on that, I wanted to find a good flavor profile for summer time, and what's a better summer drink than a good margarita? I started with reposado tequila because that's a personal favorite of mine, and then I added lime and Cointreau, which are the usual suspects for a margarita. After that, I wanted to get the color right, so I went with Blue Curaçao which really brought this concept to life. I sampled quite a few and decided the drink was still missing something. I added in a bar spoon of St. Germaine, and to me that's what really took it over the edge. I think the slight floral notes really enhanced the overall beverage. When garnishing, I have always loved black sea salt, so it seemed like the right choice — but you have to be careful with it because too much will overpower everything else. I was really pleased with the end result and overall balance. The only real problem is it goes down too quickly.
How are the qualities of Spartan Records represented in the El Espartano?
Spartan Records represents a label that is putting out music they are passionate about. It's not bound by genres and is a free-spirited. They also seem to put a lot of time and attention into the quality of the vinyl and the releases. I hope I’ve captured the label’s character and attention to detail in the drink; I think I hit the mark, but you'll have to be the judge.
Is this something that can be made at home, or does it require some knowledge of mixology?
I had the everyday home bartender in mind when I was making this. I didn't want to use hard to find ingredients. I wanted anyone who wanted to try it to be able to pick up everything at their local liquor store. Creating the drink does not require any real knowledge of mixology and can be enjoyed by just about anyone.
What led you to bartending / mixology?
I have always been into cocktails and craft beer for as long as I can remember. There is one event in particular that really put me on a course to learn more about mixology. I was visiting friends in Denver several years back, and on one of the days, we did a distillery tour at Leopold Brothers which really opened my mind to what's possible with distilling. That same day we took a drive up into the mountains to a little town called Silver Plume, specifically to a bar in an old corner store called Bread Bar For lack of a better word, it was a magical experience for me. The space was incredible, and the way they handcrafted cocktails was eye opening to me. I would just give the bartenders a spirit I liked, and they would come back with the most delicious things I've ever had, every time. I knew this was an outlet I wanted to pursue, and once I got home my learning experience started.
What is the most vivid memory you have attached to a specific drink?
There is a bar in Charlotte, NC called Dot Dot Dot and the bartender Stefan had a drink on his menu called a Truffled Whiskey Sour. It was a traditional whiskey sour with truffled egg whites. When I tasted that for the first time, I had two thoughts — this is what a whiskey sour should be, and this is how you elevate something. That was a benchmark drink for me, and I try to capture that in anything that I create.
How would you describe your artistic process in crafting original drinks?
My approach can happen in one of two ways -- I think about flavors and flavor combinations a lot. Some of my drinks come from me just thinking whether certain ingredients would play well together and then starting the trial and error process. Another way I can create is to try something somewhere and come up with an idea about how to riff or do it differently. However, most of the time I'll be doing something non-cocktail related and an idea will pop in my head.
How could you compare the creative process of crafting original cocktails with making music?
I really find the creative process for me with cocktails and music about the same. I work when I feel inspired and ideas just come to me. It's nice for me to have multiple outlets and different ways to express myself.
Where is mixology heading?
I think mixology is heading down a good path right now. A lot of places are putting an emphasis on local and homemade ingredients and getting away from premixed stuff. I think it's becoming more of a community all the time with the bartenders guild, and everyone seems to be pulling for each other.
When you are sitting at home on the couch, what are you drinking?
I have been on the biggest Manhattan kick lately and trying out lots of variations of that. I love how few ingredients it has, yet how it is packed with flavor and delicacies. It's also very boozy, which I am a fan of. I can also find myself sipping on a Miller High Life or Coors Banquet at times, as well. It's not always about the fancy drink.
What are your thoughts on the nation’s growing interest in home brewing and home distilling? Is this a good thing, or leave it to the pros?
I have mixed feelings on this, but more in the craft beer world than in distilling. I think craft beer is becoming oversaturated in some places, and instead of having a couple breweries doing really good stuff, you now how have to sort through a lot of mediocre beers to find diamonds in the rough. I think eventually that will even itself out through competition with the best breweries surviving. As far as distilling goes, I think we can see that market continue to grow, and it definitely has not reached its peak yet.
Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your work?
I do this because I love it and that's the important thing. Pursue what you are passionate about, keep learning, never be satisfied, and enjoy the process. You can check out my cocktails on Instagram at @bwc_cocktails and my latest music project Old Faith here.
Welcome to "Demons’ Discourse,” a new, episodic blog series featuring Zach Gehring from the band Demons.
In each installment of the series, Zach will share some thoughts on a topic related to the world of music and art. Readers will then be invited to respond via email to begin a dialogue on the topic. Select responses will be shared and discussed in future installments of the series. Zach will also share relevant media and an audio playlist inspired by the topic to create a fully immersive experience. The idea is provide a platform where artists and readers can push past the typical content that exists on band/label blogs and really dig into some substantive topics. The hope is that, as a result, some meaningful conversations will emerge.
So without further ado, let the discourse begin.
Demons’ Discourse #1 - “Selling Out”
We’re music fans, and we’ve all been involved in discussions about music and the topic of selling out. To be sure, at this point, the conversation is perhaps tedious and tired. The notion of selling out is almost an anachronism. I would argue that it doesn’t apply in any descriptive or categorical way to this current era of the music industries or cultures. Digital media tools, and social media platforms have radically altered the playing field and opened up a proliferation of avenues through which musicians and bands can maintain creative and business autonomy. The reductive framing of “selling out” is no longer a productive litmus because so much of the labor is placed upon the artist.
That being said, I think that there’s a symbolic dimension of “selling out” that still maintains a cultural influence, albeit indirectly — it still functions as a pillar of underground music culture, a culture that Spartan Records, despite our ambitions, is ultimately rooted in. And to be sure, it functions in mainstream music culture as well. I’m interested in why the residue of “selling out” is still relevant (yes, I do believe it’s still relevant), and why its various forms still inform our interactions and exchanges.
When we talk about selling out, we reveal an underlying shared idealism — a shared belief and recognition that music is crucial to our understanding of how we see the world, and how we think the world should be. I’m not trying to say that music can change the world - that’s naive. What I’m saying is that for people like us, music stabilizes us in a problematically unstable world. When we talk about selling out, we aren’t talking about money or bullshit notions of authenticity or being “real” — we’re drawing from a map world we’re imagining or remembering, a world we were once a part of that has since been colonized by everything it was immune from and opposed to.
British sociomusicologist and rock critic Simon Frith wrote that our opinions about music and artists are “almost always entangled with social explanations.” When we talk about the music we love, and the ideal environment in which it should be experienced - we’re talking about more than music explicitly, we’re talking about more than the record label it was released on, the producer, the way it was recorded, etc. (which are just symbolic stand ins for something larger and more abstract). Rather, as Frith goes on to claim, we are talking about “a more inchoate feature of the music itself, a perceived quality of sincerity and commitment” that is “ related to the ways in which we judge people’s sincerity generally; it is a human as well as musical judgment.”
Ultimately, what we are talking about are the subjective, ethical, and cultural dimensions that drew us to music in the first place - and we impose those values on specific symbolic manifestations of music culture - the song, the artist, the rock club, the labor and revolutionary potential of creativity, the shared fabric that centers around art and rooted in community. It works differently for each of us - but we all understand. We all get it.
Selling out is a betrayal of rules. We don’t agree on the rules, but we understand that there are rules - and our conversations, the shows we go to, the music we listen to and create, the strong opinions we have - it all informs the culture and moves it forward.
Check out this interview where Simon Frith addresses the notion of authenticity in popular music.
Also, check out the first Demons’ Discourse playlist, titled "Selling Out Sounds Great" - a collection of songs that deal explicitly with notions of authenticity from different angles - sincere appeals (Mineral, Tom Petty), sarcastic takes (Jawbreaker, NOFX), resentful takes (Lagwagon), wise takes (The Clash), and attacks in the name of authenticity (The Vandals, Propagandhi).
Don’t forget to respond here to continue the dialogue on the topic of “Selling Out.” Again, select responses will be shared and discussed in the next installment of the series.
Thanks for reading!
In anticipation of Surprises' debut release Natural Disaster, Spartan Records caught up with graphic designer / illustrator Sophie McTear to discuss the album’s stunning artwork. Below McTear walks us through the creative process, shares behind-the-scenes illustrations, discusses sources of inspiration, and even shares a playlist! Enjoy.
How did you, Brooks, and Spartan Records connect?
Spartan reached out to me on Halloween (spooky, awesome omen!) about a new record they were putting out. John, the owner and CEO of Spartan Records, told me he loved my illustrations and was working on releasing something with a band called SURPRISES. I was super interested, and from there our email creative process started to evolve!
How did the creative direction for the artwork evolve? Was there a defined vision going into the project or was it something that evolved organically?
John of Spartan and Brooks of SURPRISES had the perfect mix of a clear direction and vision they had in mind as well as the clear intention that they would like me to stay true to my style and my artistic vision. Personally, that balance helps me so much. Too much direction can become micromanagement, and not enough direction can be a bit daunting. I think that the direction that John and Brooks brought to the table helped me to evolve my idea and vision within my artistic style organically. We talked about a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” look, which really inspired my vision for the record cover art. It was so fun to add pinches of chaos, and little “Easter Eggs” that I’m hoping listeners enjoy.
How would you describe your creative process?
I think I tend to have spurts of creativity and motivation. I like working with a client’s vision, powering through a sketch, and working from there. I’m definitely more of a sprinter than a marathon-er, or whatever that old saying is. I like to start something and finish something, so breaking the process into tangible goals really helps me. It was really fun to work with Spartan Records and SURPRISES on not only the big picture of the artistic vision and direction they were aiming for for the album, but also working on lots of different components of the package! It was exciting to be able to work on single covers, buttons, interior layouts, and more. It really exercised my ability to work on different types of projects within one central vision. I honestly really love hearing feedback from people that I’m working with, especially when it comes to something so personal like an album (especially a debut album!). This is their baby, and I want my art to translate perfectly to their vision, as well as my own personal vision.
Did the “Natural Disaster” concept resonate with you in any way?
Definitely. I’m constantly panicking about the state of our climate, our planet, and my role within the universe! I thought it was fun to bring a bit of comedy into something so dark. I liked that about Brooks’ lyrics too. They made me laugh, but they made me think too!
How does music inspire your design work?
I think music inspires a lot of what I do. There’s not a day in memory that I haven’t listened to music. I’ve been playing music since I was six years old, so music has always been huge for me (I play violin, and now I also play synth and sing). When I got a bit older I started to get into the DIY scene, emo and punk, and a lot of that really got to me. I felt like I could really connect to it. Especially when I am creating something for a band or a musician, I am definitely inspired by the music itself. I take time to listen to the music while I’m creating, and I think that’s part of why the art for this album has really worked with both my vision, SURPRISES’ vision, and Spartan’s vision. (Oh, and by the way, I’ve had “Natural Disaster” stuck in my head all day. Thanks, Brooks!)
Talk about your style, specifically the hand drawn “doodle” aesthetic — is this something you’ve always done?
I think that my style is constantly redeveloping itself, sometimes because of external factors (i.e. when I bought myself an iPad Pro, my style completely changed! Previously I had only been illustrating using graphic shapes because the only tool I had was my laptop’s mousepad), and sometimes because of internal factors. Sometimes I just want to try something new! In the past sixth months or so I’ve really invested myself into my artwork and my personal business and I’m so glad that I have! I think even within that amount of time my style has evolved. As far as the doodle style goes, I’m not sure it’s something I always advertised, but I think that I’m embracing it more. I find that when I am more candid and a bit less polished, people seem to love the emotion that I can express. I think we can all relate to the silliness and simplicity that doodles offer. I was definitely a doodler in school growing up, so it’s funny to think that this college dropout is earning some money for the things I used to get scolded for growing up.
What else inspires you as an artist / designer?
I’m definitely inspired by color in general, creating palettes, seeing beautiful color combinations in my everyday life. I recently moved to Tucson, Arizona (well, almost two years ago), and I’m very inspired by the nature I’m surrounded by… the mountains, the sunsets, the monsoons. I’m also really inspired by the other amazing artists that live in this city, the great friends and relationships I’ve formed. I also love graphic novels and comics, specifically ones through more “indie” publishers like Image Comics or Dark Horse Comics. I also love horror movies, and I like to think that a lot of my art has a sort of whimsical, fun approach to it combined with some darker and sometimes creepy themes.
Do you have a favorite individual illustration within the artwork?
I am really proud of the illustration that I did of Brooks! I’m honestly just beginning to get into portraits of people, so I was very stoked about how the portrait of him came out. I loved the icy blue colors we were working with. Originally this actually wasn’t even on our radar, but after seeing a portrait I had drawn of an awesome drag performer online, John suggested I try illustrating Brooks. I’m so glad he suggested that because it was one of my favorite parts of the whole series. I also really enjoyed the entire record covers, front and back. I really liked the back of the cover because of the colors I was able to use (lots of purples, electric greens, and oranges). I also incorporated aliens and a demon, so that’s pretty damn cool.
Are there any other particular projects, past or present, that you are especially proud of?
Honestly this probably sounds cheesy, but I am so proud of this project! I feel like I know John and Brooks and I have literally only ever communicated with them via email and social media. I am really proud of this team for putting this altogether. It makes me really excited to see my work on the pieces that I’ve helped create, but also to see my handwriting on music videos and promotional pieces. (Should I make a font?! I’m thinking about it.) Personally, I’m also really proud of myself for putting my all into my freelance business and my online store especially because I’ve been battling with chronic sicknesses these past four months or so. I’ve been working on putting my artwork out there, especially in Tucson, and I’m really glad I have, because I have met so many amazingly talented artists, musicians, and people here.
What else should folks know about you?
I guess just that I am always happy to hear about new freelance projects, especially for other musicians, artists, and LGBTQ+ folks! I am available on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Dribbble, and email at email@example.com. Talk to me about a project you’re excited about, or just like, your cats or something!