Words by James Taylor. Photos provided.
Red Sparowes’ latest, The Fear is Excruciating, But Therein Lies The Answer, is their best recording to date, an expressionistic opus that spans a range of music and emotion that previous efforts fell short of. Enough said.
Damn…. You want more?
The L.A.-based quintet, formed in 2003 by Isis’ Cliff Meyer, made a name for itself writing sprawling, crushing, epic (and epically titled) songs and touring with the likes of Pelican, Big Business—even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But whereas previous full-lengths At The Soundless Dawn (Neurot, 2005) and Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun (Neurot, 2006) tended to start loud, end loud and only get louder in between, The Fear is Excruciating exhibits more of a dynamic range, an attention to detail and storytelling that the other albums lacked.
Greg Burns’ slide guitar is as honest as any heart-on-his-sleeve vocalist on “A Swarm,” while “Giving Birth To Imagined Saviors” is cinematic in scope, the album’s centerpiece and most inspiring performance.
Red River Noise sat down with Burns prior to Red Sparowes recent Red 7 show to discuss the new record, touring Europe, L.A. vs. Austin and more. Here’s what he had to say—or, the good stuff at least.
The new record has been out as of April 6. How has the response been thus far?
Greg: It’s been really good; it’s exciting—by far the best response we’ve gotten for any of our records. I was a little bit nervous because I feel like [this record] was a bit of a switch in directions.
Oh, totally—definitely sounds that way to me.
Greg: Yeah, and I’ve read reviews that say, “Well, it’s still Red Sparowes.”
But there seems to be more dynamics on this one. On other records, some of the songs started in the “loud” range, which leaves you only so much room to work the dynamics, whereas songs on The Fear seem to start quieter, so you have more to work with.
Greg: Definitely. We tried to push that, the dynamic range and also the emotional scope of the song. Not just have it be “dark” or “sad” but try and encompass a little bit more. There are ways that I have to try and rate what people think of the record, in the reviews I get off Google or Last.fm comment boards.
I’ve spoken with friends in bands similar to Red Sparowes, “post-rock” bands or whatever, that have toured Europe a lot recently, and they always talk about how great the response is to what they do over there and how it’s almost better than the response in the U.S. So I’m wondering what your response to that is—you’ve toured Europe a lot. Is one better than the other?
Greg: The response to what we do in the States has always been great. Maybe we play to 100 more people at some places in Europe, but playing in L.A. is pretty comparable to playing in Paris. It’s also been three years since we did a full U.S. tour though, too, so maybe I’ll feel different at the end of this six weeks. I wouldn’t want to ever not tour the U.S.; I always resented bands that just went to Europe. If it was a band that I liked, I didn’t care if there were 15 people there.
With some of you guys being in other projects, Red Sparowes has always had this “side project” feel to it. Do you think that, and maybe this is reflected in this being arguably your best record, you really tried to hone in on what Red Sparowes’ sound was and what direction you wanted this record to go in?
Greg: They way we approached [recording] wasn’t any different. We’ve always had those challenges and it does make it hard. We started writing this record two years ago. But then there was all this weird stuff with having to replace Josh [Graham, formerly of Neurosis, Battle of Mice] and it wasn’t until we found Emma [Ruth Rundle] our new guitar player that it felt real solid. There was a real friendly, great environment to practice in. We became real motivated and it was just easy to go in and play a bunch and really hash things out. ‘Cause there’s two ways it can go: I can hate practice and just go in and get whatever we need to get done, or love being there and really try and do something good and enjoy it. That was the best I’ve ever had it with a band lately—so maybe that is reflected in the record. It was never, “Oh, we’re all home—let’s try and record something.” We have a studio set up in our space so we’re constantly recording and writing stuff, so we never try and “fit things in.” If it takes three years, it takes three years. But we’re always working on something.
In the few years since your last record was released, there’s really been (for lack of a better term) an explosion of bands in the post-rock genre, instrumental or otherwise. Did you feel a push to put out something really great that wouldn’t get lost in the fray of a genre that seems to be sort of a buzz thing?
Greg: I was talking to Andy [Arahood, guitars] about something similar the other day. I know we’re considered a “post-rock” band—I mean, we are a post-rock band—but that’s not how we approach it. The music we listen to is so outside of that, that when we get in there, it’s coming from somewhere completely different. Honestly I didn’t even know that there were all these new bands out there until we started looking for bands to tour with. A lot of the reviews that trash the new record kind of trash post-rock in general. So maybe people are burnt out on that. So to answer your question—it’s not that we wanted to put out a record that stood out from all that. We wanted to put out what we felt was our best record. There were so many other things with our other records that we had to compromise, we just said, “Ok, we’re gonna do this one right.” Which is probably why it took so long.
How long was the writing and recording process?
Greg: As soon as we were done with the Aphorisms EP [Sargent House, 2008] we started writing again, but it wasn’t until we found Emma that we became super focused on it. We spent about three weeks recording and mixing it. But we’d worked with Toshi Kasai [Melvins, Tool] before so we knew right away how to work with each other, and he really knew what we were going for.
This new record and the EP came out on Sargent House. How did you hook up with Cathy Pellow [Sargent House mastermind]?
Greg: She initially was Josh’s agent for his video stuff. So she heard us through that and approached us as a manager. So we had worked with her for a year before she started putting out our records. Honesetly… I’ve never seen anyone with her work ethic. [laughs]
Yeah, she’s pretty intense. [laughs] I’ve booked some of her bands in the past—she definitely looks out for her artists!
Greg: Man, it’s intimidating. With her as a manager, we know we’re going to be taken care, let’s put it that way. So having worked with her as a manager, it was kind of a no-brainer to put out a record with her. It’s not a criticism of other labels, but that work ethic was so far beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. Between how she runs the label, the management, distribution, the PR—the fact that it’s all in house. Sargent House is a very forward-thinking label.
[Opening band My Education start playing in the background]
Have you heard these guys before?
Greg: We’ve played several shows with them.
Their new record, Sunrise, is a soundtrack to an old silent film [F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”]. The are other bands, even other bands in Austin like Calm Blue Sea and Balmorhea, that have done this—write new soundtracks to older movies. You guys clearly have a cinematic approach to your songwriting. Is a project like that something you’d ever consider?
Greg: We would love to do that. This show The Othersiders [Cartoon Network]—that’s sort of a ghost show that uses one of our songs as its themes songs. I would love to push that more and more. Ultimately to be able to write for a movie would be a dream come true, for me.
When you write do you think about that, not just the audio but the visual elements? Live, you obviously have pre-recorded video stuff that plays during your set, but does that factor into the writing of the song at all?
Greg: Yeah, we have visuals live, but [when writing] I don’t think that we picture a story being told in the songs necessarily. We are definitely conscious of the songs trying to express something, to the point of even talking about what is it that we’re trying to convey, but it’s nothing as explicit as a storyline. There are emotions we try and convey but it’s not “Let’s write a sad song” but more “How do we write a song that expresses sadness but then becomes hopeful.” Especially in terms of the whole record, we try and think about how it’s all going to fit together and to hit those emotional points and expressions.
So, overall, you would agree that this is the best Red Sparowes record?
Greg: That’s how I feel—definitely. While I feel proud of our other records, every time I hear them I hear things I wish we did differently or things we had to shortcut. This record I can listen to, and I feel like we really accomplished what we set out to do, and I can really stand behind that.
What’s next. How long does this tour go on for and what lies ahead?
Greg: This tour ends in May, take a couple months over the summer to start writing, then Europe in the Fall—maybe Japan and Australia in the Fall as well or, if not, more U.S. dates.
Do you always take that path, where you start writing as soon as the record comes out?
Greg: No, it hasn’t always been like that, but there’s more momentum now, because of the people in the band now and just because of the way were all feeling—there’s sort of this rededication that we’re all inspired by.
I’m sure having someone like Cathy in your corner helps that.
Greg: Yeah, knowing that there is someone who backs you up but who will also call you on your shit helps a ton. But more than anything, it comes back down to the fact that I love being in a room playing music with those guys, and girl. And I’m excited to do that and start writing. As soon as the record was over, we had a bunch of new ideas. We played a show recently under a different name, this sort of weird improv thing, to try out some new ideas.
That’s pretty rad, seeing working professional musicians get together and make music in that sort of jazz sense of just doing sessions and trying new shit, working on your craft.
Greg: It’s cool because in LA there is a lot of that and we’ve been trying to push that along with some other people, make those sort of connections. The show we played was under the name “The Mockingbirds” and we opened for a friend of ours, Imaad Wasif—he played in Lowercase in the ’90s and the New Folk Implosion—he’s done a lot of cool stuff. I’ve been doing some stuff with Imaad outside of Red Sparowes, including some tours, so we did this show and he sang on a song and I sat in with him. Emma’s got her hands in a lot of different things. Cliff is pretty busy with us and Isis. We’re all just trying to play as much as we can with as many people as we can.
You guys were here for Fun Fun Fun Fest. What’s your impression of Austin?
Greg: The festival was amazing; it was run so smoothly and there were so many amazing bands. Austin is a place we always look forward to on our way across the country. People seem to be excited about music here in a way that they aren’t in a lot of places. I’ve never lived here, so I don’t really know. But LA is strange. LA is very cliquey and bands can do well, but there are people that live in Hollwood that never come to Silver Lake where we all are and never go to these clubs for shows and people in Silver Lake that would never go to Hollywood, including myself. People are narrow-minded about where they go to expose themselves to new music. That record that Liars put out, Scissor World—I’ve read interviews where they talk about that, that it’s so easy to live in LA and do what is easy and obvious, but there are so many things in LA that are there to explore and try out, fucked up things and amazing things. To me it’s a source of frustration. Austin doesn’t seem to have that mentality.
HA! We can argue that point another time…
Red Sparowes is currently on tour with Caspian and Fang Island. Find out when they’ll be in your city on MySpace.