So So Modern

So So Modern

Monday 9th August, 2010 1:39PM

A band that need no introduction, So So Modern have been treating Wellington, New Zealand and increasingly the world to their genre-muddling music for several years, and after a string of EPs, hundreds of local shows and several European tours have released their debut album, Crude Futures. Ahead of playing their album release shows, Under The Radar’s Ryan Eyers sat down with members Grayson Gilmour and Mark Leong to discuss the recording process, musical directions, failed utopias, changing environments and challenging expectations.

How does it feel to finally be releasing the first So So Modern album after so many EPs?

Grayson Gilmour (GG): It was a logical step in a very illogical process of releasing EP’s on a dripfeed basis, until releasing a discography of EP’s before having actually released a proper album.

Mark Leong (ML): We’re a very ‘live in the moment’ type of band, and one of the personal drives of releasing the EP’s was coming from the background of playing in a bunch of punk rock bands, who exist for a number of weeks, where it was like if we achieve something, we should get it out there. So it was very much a spur of the moment thing, without too much consideration put into the recording process.

Do you feel that after releasing the EPs like that and building up over a few years that there was any pressure or expectation on the first album?

GG: It was more that we just decided to go about making an album...I mean we could have recorded this album over many weekends, on separate occasions, and released it as EPs, but we decided to hold off and concentrate on making a whole body of work.

How was the recording process? Was it a different experience from recording your EPs?

GG: Well the EPs were just recorded in our living rooms or bedrooms, with one or two instruments at a time, fairly lo-fi and low budget...but the album had a lot of care put into it during the recording. One of the criticisms of our earlier recordings was that they didn’t really match up to the live sound, and didn’t have the energy that our show did, and the idea behind the album was to record the larger chunk of it live so that it did retain that energy and synergy of how we play live, and I think that for the most part it came out really well.

ML: There was also a lot of planning involved, where we had in mind how the album would be produced as we were writing the songs, and how they would fit in the context of each other, and how they would make a gesture as a whole. We recorded a lot throughout the process of writing, and really embraced the studio atmosphere as a way of reconciling our live performance with the accuracy and diligence of being in the studio.

So it was a very contextualised recording process?

ML: Yeah. We thought about things like ‘do we need a producer?’ and that got us thinking about what a producer we need a celebrity superstar to come in and twiddle a few knobs and rearrange our songs? But then we realised that really all it took was for us to stay in the studio for a while and give the songs and the album their own direction and be the driving force behind it. We came back from a lot of touring with a lot of inspiration and it was just up to us to filter through all these ideas and come up with a singular body of work.

Watching the ‘Crude Futures sessions’ video you guys put up on Youtube, it did seem that the process was much more deliberate and it seemed like it was such a meaningful thing for you, trying to build this singular piece of art...

ML: I think that the album’s recording process was the simplest way we’ve recorded, much more so than the way we recorded the EPs, because we tracked everything at the same time, and we put a lot of effort into capturing the sound at its source. We really tried to make the sound as simple and direct as possible, what you hear is basically what you get. We just basically used the gear we use live.

GG: And the inconsistencies give the record character I think. It funny because we listen back to the record and we’re like ‘Oh, that’s kinda wrong’ but at it sounds right at the same time.

I guess that strengthens the link between the recorded and live versions?

ML: Yeah, totally. I mean it basically was live for us, and in many ways it is a live recording.

Do you feel that the recording environment influenced the recording in any way?

GG: Yeah, I mean the concrete room, the ‘bank vault’ has a really big, harsh drum sound that I think really paid off for some of the songs, but I mean you kind of make do with whatever surroundings you have.

ML: It was an interesting experience recording there ( ) It was the middle of winter, and we were like a sports team, with our jackets on and everything, and when it came to playing we’d take them off, warm up, and as soon as we’d finished put our jackets back on to stay warm. For me that was quite a memorable experience, not just recording it but also the context of it being winter and constantly searching for heat in a concrete building that is impossible to heat.

As well as a change in the style of recording between the EPs and the album, there also seems to be quite a large musical shift. Is there a new musical direction you’re specifically trying to take?

GG: We’ve kind of talked about how this change came about, and it sort of came out of spending so much time on the road together that we became more aware of our introverted side, and our shared experiences, as opposed to just bouncing crazy ideas off of each other.

ML: Our experiences as a band immediately became more intimate, and I think what we wanted to do was retreat a little bit, retreat into ourselves and into the studio and the music, and find something more whole, more human, in the sense that we’re drawing from a much larger emotional spectrum. We wanted to take a snapshot of our experiences overseas, doing all of this intense stuff together, and there were times that we were thinking that ‘nobody knows what we’re going through, not even if you’re in another band, you couldn’t even grasp some of the stuff we go through together’ and I think that is what we’d like to share, you know, the anxieties of being overseas, the distance, but also the exhilaration of doing something in a foreign place that’s so close to your heart.

It seems like there is a lot more space on the record, and ideas aren’t jostling up against each other so much and being crammed together. Do you feel that you wanted to try and make something different?

GG: I don’t think that there was a conscious decision to do anything different. It was more that we started finding more space and more clarity, different rhythms and started working on new things that was quite different to earlier stuff. For me the album pushes any extreme we had in the past in a different direction, and also more so in that same direction, so it’s more fast, more slow, more quiet, more just seems like a really extreme version of us. For me the album starts where you might expect we’d be and by then ends somewhere completely different, and the last track leaves things open for where we might take things.

ML: Yeah, and I think that’s a reflection of how we work, and even in our songs, they don’t necessarily follow symmetrical structures. They can start off one way, and follow a different logic to the way a normal song would go, and can follow more of a narrative structure than a verse/chorus structure, and I think that’s how we work, you know, our songs kind of...catapult in gestures.

I think the diversity is really cool, and to me it sometimes feels like listening to different bands...

ML: (Laughs) I hope that there’s a consistency to it, that there’s something that...transcends the diversity. It’s still us, we’re still playing the same instruments, you know, but it’s not like there’s one tempo or song structure throughout the album, like so many albums.

GG: A lot of people have said that there are quite a few sides to the album, and that there’s too much to digest. Personally I think that there’s a really common thread from start to finish, but maybe I’m biased because I was part of the creative process! (Laughs)

ML: Yeah, because people say, ‘Oh, they’re going from this to this to this’, and naming all these different genres, and it’s weird because it’s the last thing that we thought about. I guess I see them as snapshots of vignettes of our experiences, and any inconsistencies [are a result of that].

Do you think that there’s been a switch, in terms of what you’re trying to achieve, from a being a live to a recorded band?

ML: We had to make an effort to bring the recording process into us.

GG: Yeah, because in the past it was really just like ‘throw some amps into the room, throw a drumkit into a room, and record it’, but this time there really was a conscious effort to make a proper recording. But as for the future, it could really pan out either way.

Has the recording process changed the way you approach live performance?

ML: I think what I learned from recording the album was that if you’re a live band, and you write live music, and it’s not quite captured in the recordings then perhaps it’s not just the recordings but also the way you write music, whether it’s written in a way that everything comes together really well on record. I think the way we wrote, knowing that it was going to be recorded, made the production and mixing side of it quite easy, and it felt like the record ended up mixing itself, where every instrument kind of had its own frequency that it fitted into.

GG: Yeah, I remember one day we opened up the session, and the engineer was like ‘we’ll that sounds pretty much alright as it is’, without touching anything.

ML: I guess it was all happening at the same time, so as we were writing music we had recording in mind, and as we wrote we were also playing shows as well, and we were becoming more open to the idea of not being a band that people had certain expectations of.

So you wanted to challenge people’s expectations of So So Modern?

ML: Yeah, I think so. We were beginning to break our own rules, which was quite an important process, and I guess that the audience then becomes guinea pigs...

GG: And it challenges the audience as well, because then you have people that really like the new stuff and people that only like the old stuff, but then eventually you’re left with the people in the middle, who just like music for music.

ML: It’s been a really interesting process to see how people have responded, and how we’ve responded to the people...I think we’re in a place that’s better than we’re we’ve ever been in terms of there being a mutual challenging with the audience, and there’s this exercise in listening going on, where we challenge the audience. And I would love [for us] to be a band where you can just come along, and maybe not know any of our songs, and just appreciate it on a primal level.

Do you feel that there’s a unifying theme of the album?

ML: I think the theme is four boys trying to write an album after being on tour for four years (laughs). Actually I take that back, there’s no theme, it is just four boys, in a band, trying to make an album after being on tour for four years. Everything just is what it is, it’s not what it’s about, and I think that all of the joys and struggles are in there as joys and struggles.

I think that with the strong link to the John Lake exhibition, people could perhaps read a theme into it where there may not be did that partnership come about?

ML: As a band, we’ve known him for a long time, and we’ve always talked about doing a project together, because he’s taken photos of us in the past, when we’ve called him up and said ‘John, we need a photo yesterday’, and he’s really good at working on the spot, but we wanted to do something proper. We were looking around for someone to do the artwork for the album, and coming off our overseas travels we knew we wanted some kind of photography and some form of documentary realism, and so John was a pretty obvious choice. And it turned out that he was working on a pretty major exhibition, that’s going to be at the New Dowse, and we thought that we should try and see if we could cross paths, and see if there’s any commonality, and there is a lot of that between our projects, so we decided to let each other’s projects infiltrate each other. John’s concentrating on documenting teenagers in the Hutt Valley region, which is this kind of veiled utopia, where on the one hand its suburban but then kind of ghetto, and it’s been a site of experimentation for these utopic visions, from state housing to the first New Zealand mall, and it’s kind of failed in this big way, and we see it as this strange area with strange people.

GG: It’s like this strange city that never happened.

ML: And all the artwork for the album comes out of the Crude Futures exhibition, which is all documentary photography that focuses on youth in the Hutt Valley and their response to this failed utopia. And the encounters he’s been going on are very similar to the one’s we’ve been having overseas, seeing these failures of civilisation and the new shoots coming up. We kind of chased the financial apocalypse, seeing all the banks closed, and we were seeing the lives of ordinary people through unfamiliar eyes, and it’s been a similar experience.

Tell me about your most recent European tour. How was it? What was the mood?

GG: All of the other ones have come under the category of adventure, but with this one we realised that we actually have an album, so we should go revisit our old contacts and friends and play a good run of shows.

ML: I think this time we were trying to tour more sensibly, in the sense that it was five weeks instead of five months, but it was also the most intense tour we’ve done in some ways, because we routed the tour with a strong sense of visiting friends, where we were driving around visiting people and playing shows.

GG: It was pretty much a show every night except for the odd day of, with 31 shows in 36 days.

Did that test you as a band?

ML: I felt pretty tested!

GG: Yeah, it tests your health, your mental health, how organised a person you are. For me it felt like the most rewarding tour we’ve done, where after having made three trips to Europe in the past, with this one I felt we had the best response from crowds. When you’re overseas and playing a show every night, you come across the dreaded Monday, Tuesday night slots where there the audience could be 20-40, but this tour was really good, and every night was pretty packed.

How did you feel that the European reception was?

GG: Really good, yeah. I found that in France and Germany they describe the emotions and feelings they get when they’re listening to the music.

ML: It’s like they have a fresh pair of ears, and that’s how they go about deciphering the music, whereas in other places, particularly English-speaking places, they only know your music through what they know of other bands, which can be fine but also lazy in some ways.

GG: And people are quite honest over there as well. For the most part it was good responses, but I remember one of the guys who organised some shows in France saying ‘I really don’t like some of your new songs’. And that’s refreshingly honest, that someone who works with you can say that.

Is the European musical scene different to the New Zealand one?

ML: I think because were local here, we have closely bound appreciation, where all the musos know each other and live in close proximity to each other, so there’s an awareness of what goes on and a lot of cross-fertilisation of ideas. Whereas in Europe it a bigger territory and it’s hard to get a sense of communities, and that’s one thing I long to discover [in Europe], that intimate social network, and we have come across a little bit of that, where bands aren’t bound by geography and there’s this wider musical context.

The DIY ethic is something that seems really important to you guys. Why is that?

ML: I think it all stems from common sense. It’s an ethic that we agree with but it’s not fixed. Sometimes we will be DIY and sometimes not, and when there is an opportunity to get help from other people, we’ll take it, and we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot by perpetuating obscurity, because we’re of no value to anybody if we’re an obscure band that nobody knows about. There’s this belief where some people only like bands that nobody’s heard of, and that’s part of this myth of DIY where if a band gets popular they’ve sold out.

You’ve been a part of the Wellington scene for a few years now. How do you feel that it’s changed?

ML: There was this stage where there was a reaction against what was popular in Wellington at the time, your stock-standard cafe dub, and people pitching us against that kind of music.

GG: I specifically remember it being about dub and hardcore. At Orientation, when I first came here to study, Fat Freddy’s Drop was playing Orientation and Somerset was playing at the Valve, and I was like ‘I’m not going to Orientation, I’m going to Valve!’

ML: I think it’s amazing how diverse music in New Zealand has got, where people are willing to accept strange bands with strange sounds. But in terms of where we’re at right now, I’m a little out of touch, but I would love to see new bands coming up with new and challenging ideas, and I hope that there’s a building process, instead of bands coming up in reaction to other bands.

It seemed that for a while you guys were being used as a sort of rallying point for difference, but that’s changed as the scene has grown and become stronger.

ML: We’ve never really tried to perpetuate any kind of myth about us; we’ve just done our own thing and let people say what they want about us. It’s been great that we’ve had such great support from certain people in the media, but it’s almost been funny the amount of enthusiasm we’ve seen...the media works in funny ways, and sometimes shoots itself in the foot by propping bands up, and letting them fall down as well.

You’ve gone from being one of the young, up-and-coming bands to one that is more established, and your album is probably one of the more major NZ releases of the year. How do you see yourself now in the Wellington/New Zealand scene?

ML: I think we’ve come back to Wellington but one of the differences from when we were a young band is that we have a more international outlook now. The world is now so small to us, and we could go around the world now quite easily. Conceptually, we could be anywhere...

GG: Song quote! ‘Conceptually, we could be anywhere...’ (laughs). But yeah, that’s a totally valid point. In the day-to-day dealing of the band, we’re constantly talking to people all over the world about releasing records and interviews etc, and we treat Wellington as our base.

Do you see yourself based here in the future?

ML: I think we’ll always be a Wellington band in terms of that is where our roots are...I mean, home is where you’re born, but I think we’ll be a local band that has an international outlook. In terms of the way that we fit in locally, I think we’re no longer just a regional band, and people should expect a band that brings experiences home, and that has stories to tell, of other worlds. I feel that in our first couple of years we were so influenced and influencing our immediate crowd and surroundings, so much that we were really tied in with the local context, which was great. But now we’re drawing from different worlds, and that’s the main difference in our relationship with the local scene, in that we keep going away and going back, and I wonder how local people will relate to us, and should perhaps expect something different.

Have you started thinking much about the future now that you’ve finished the album?

GG: There’s always rolling ideas, stored in our minds, or our laptops.

ML: They get incubated for long amounts of time, digested, and then shat out, and then become songs (laughs)

How does that songwriting process work?

ML: We try to be open and fluid with everything we do.

GG: It sort of goes through a panel of discussion, and we jam, get to a next level, record it, change it...

ML: Just like everything else we do, we have no set formula; we don’t have one head that need separating or anything. We have a fluid arrangement, with multiple leaders, multiple managers, we’re kind of like a terrorist organisation, not centrally organised (laughs).

Like a Medusa?

GG: Yeah, a musical Medusa!

ML: A musical Al-Qaeda!

Ryan Eyers

Photo Credit: Straton Heron

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