QC INTERVIEW: WHITE HINTERLAND

by zach fisher

In March of 2010, White Hinterland released their second full-length record Kairos on Dead Oceans. The duo, made up of Casey Dienel and beat maker Shawn Creeden, have been touring for the better part of the year. A few weeks back QC writer Zach Fisher caught up with Casey prior to their NYC show at Mercury Lounge. Check out the inspired conversation after the jump.

Artist: White Hinterland
Song: Moon Jam
Artist: White Hinterland
Song: Dreaming of the Plum Trees


Quiet Color: What was your approach to making Kairos?

Casey of White Hinterland: My approach was very calm, actually, it was a slow process, we took a long time with it. I started writing the songs about six months before I started recording them and we took about four months doing the tracking.

QC: Was that because you were using electronics? I understand that sound manipulation can be a very involved process.

WH: Actually, because of the electronics certain things went more quickly than they typically do. You know, like programming drums and things and doing the vocals, because I was producing it myself this time, came together more quickly. I just think I wanted to take the time to do it right. The length of time that we chose to spend on this project was an indulgent decision, to be honest, but it was also born out of practical necessity. In the past, I’ve made a record in a month. I think Luniculaire was recorded in two weeks. For me, the biggest chunk of time was spent writing the songs and I wanted to honor that time by not rushing the recording process.

QC: How do you feel about the album?

WH: I’m very proud of it. The message in the album, for me at least, is that you can do this, you can use your imagination to sculpt these really amazing creations, to take these ideas and really see them through to the end. In the past, I kind of adapted my ideas to my ability, where maybe I would maybe want a polyrhythm between two voicings, but would settle for just one voice. So in this case, even though there wasn’t a lot of money, we had almost zero budget, and not much personnel, you know, there were three of us in the room, we wanted to make sure that the ideas came through exactly how we imagined them.

QC: Does it feel more complete?

WH: No, when I finish something, I have to have a feeling in my gut that it’s complete, which is why I don’t put out a bunch of albums or write a hundred songs and pick the best ten. I wouldn’t say that it’s more or less complete, but I do feel that I really took what I had imagined and turned it into a reality rather than taking an idea and approximating its existence. And that probably has as much to do with experience as it does with discipline, because in the past I was a little less disciplined. Also, I had fun. It’s nice to have someone else in the room. I think I benefit from having someone else around because it justifies the choices we make and I don’t have to make as many arbitrary decisions. There also wasn’t a lot of intellectualizing because there was so much that was new territory to us. We were very cautious of over-conceptualizing it, like, the idea was to be more intuitive, so there were a lot of times that I felt like I wasn’t thinking, I was just making.

QC: So how’s the tour going?

WH: It’s been great. It’s been really great touring with Dosh and his bandmate. We’ve gotten into some hijinks with them.

QC: Do you feel like you’re learning anything from being on the road with him? Was he a big influence for you before?

WH: YES. Mainly, it’s really nice to see someone whose set is as reliant on loops as ours is. Especially some of his micing techniques I’m really interested in. Also, it’s really nice to be around other musical omnivores, like, people who are into everything. I’m learning a lot. We had a dance party the other night.

QC: Always down for a dance party. Boosts morale.

WH: They got their bass cabinet out and we were playing Blackstreet and R. Kelly.

QC: Nice. By the way, I like the way you guys have Wu-Tang Clan posted on your myspace.

WH: Yeah, we love Wu-Tang

QC: Ain’t nothin’ to fuck with. So there are a bunch of bands coming out that are just one or two people. How do you think that trend is affecting the musical atmosphere.

WH: I think what’s great about it is how many bands are just taking what they need and using that. I think it’s good to cut off the excess. Like, do you really need six pieces in your band to make a lush beautiful sound? I don’t think so. I mean sometimes you do, but for us we find that we benefit by working closely together, and now that I think about it, a lot of the band we like are two people, and part of it is that there’s just a refreshing economy of choice going on. I mean, in Johanna Newsom’s band, they have eight people and they totally benefit from it, but for us, we never really thought it was necessary. But going back to the question, I think it’s great to see bands taking what they have and making good use of it. You know, there’s not much money going around, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a lot of good music either. So, I like seeing bands taking control of the situation rather than letting it diminish their work. Like Sleigh Bells from New York are awesome, I mean, they have an ipod and a guitar and this girl Alexis and they just make it work. And that’s something that we are very inspired by.

QC: Do you see much of it in the Portland music scene?

WH: Yeah, it’s a huge thing in Portland. There’s just a lot of active young people in Portland making music. There are new bands every week. Every day. But the idea is that you make your own luck, you make your own opportunity and you have to celebrate that. In general, I think that the idea that doing it on your own means you have to compromise fidelity or quality it not really true. I don’t think that that’s what DIY is about. For us, we didn’t have a lot of equipment, like we had one microphone to record everything, but that shouldn’t mean we have to make a lo-fi record. I wouldn’t say that our record is lo-fi at all, I think we took lo-fi equipment and made a high fidelity sound. At least that’s what we tried to do.

QC: I guess that’s kind of what creativity is: making due with what you have.

WH: Yeah, the power of your imagination. Like listening to an Aurthur Russel record and the way he manipulates the music and it sounds like a disco track and the next minute, it sounds like a guy in his bedroom. I think a lot of awesome, inspiring convergences happen when there are constraints. For us, we have a lot of constraint because we aren’t a big band, but I’ve never felt like having constraints is constricting, you have to use that to your advantage and not get stuck on how you don’t have a specific machine or whatever.

QC: Are there any groups specifically that we should check out?

WH: Neil Morgan who is the percussionist for Johanna [Newsom], Alexis Gideon who helped produce this album, Explode into Colors, Cole Miller

QC: What albums are you excited about this year?

WH: The new Sleigh Bells record that’s set to come out this year. I just think that Derek, who’s producing it, has an awesome work ethic and I think it’s cool that he records everything at like 80 bpm, which is really slow for a hip-hop beat. Usually everything is at like 120-140. I’m also really into the new Beach House record. We’re playing a couple shows with them. It’s really great make-out music. Toro y Moi, the new Sade.

QC: I wanted to ask you about your lyrics and being a lyricist. How do you approach a song and what is your process from concept to your final draft?

WH: It’s changed a lot over the years. Initially, the words would come before the song and I’d have melodies as their own separate, disembodied entities and I’d try to graft these pre-existing melodies into the melodies. Now I find that they come more at the same time. Usually now a good melody comes first and the lyrics just seem to appear. Lyrics are really interesting, and I’ve approached them a couple different ways. Like on Luniculaire, there are a couple songs that are not in English, which I think necessitates a different approach to language, like choosing things that sound good but also things that mean exactly what you want them to mean. As I’ve come along, being oblique isn’t as interesting to me as being refreshingly honest. But for this record, what I did was go through piece by piece and cut back almost sixty percent of the words until only exactly what needed to be there was left.

QC: So kind of staying on the minimalism route.

WH: Yeah. And just so I wasn’t shoehorning in syllables, cause I thought it was interrupting the melodic continuity. Because once you get into syntactical rhythm, if you have a lot of words, that becomes more of the focal point than the melody and I think these songs, just the nature of what they’re about, it felt like a disservice to have really florid elaborate language, so when I pared things down, suddenly things would just lock into place.

QC: Would you consider yourself a poet?

WH: I’d like to be. I write freestanding poetry that no one ever sees except for maybe reading my lyrics. I love poetry, I read a lot of poetry, I studied a lot of poetry when I was in college. I’m definitely word obsessed, just finding the right word. Even though the lyrics on this record are so minimal, I really labor over them and I think that not just lyrics, but just in general, that’s been something I’ve been into lately. There’s so much more that you can say when you’re not trying to say everything at once.

QC: Would you say that there is a theme that runs through this album?

WH: There’s a couple. The title refers to the notion of ephemerality. Whether that refers to the ephemerality of love or time, I mean time is a huge force on this record, like, the idea that time that is non-sequential, that it fits out of chronological turn. Also home, desire. I would say that it’s a very sensual record, which wasn’t intentionally intentionalized, but it just kind of crept its way in and we chose to leave it. I think because we recorded everything at 80-90 bpm, that there’s a sort of blue flame running beneath it. It might seem cool and removed at first, but there’s a kind of slow burn of desire to it. There’s a lot of different themes. It’s weird talking about it in retrospect because when we were doing it, I don’t think we conceived or stuck to any thematic development. There isn’t any narrative arch to the record, whereas the past two records, there was more of a narrative.

QC: So you’re saying there’s more like a common feeling that comes from the record?

WH: Yeah, if anything, the atmosphere was the most important part. I feel the same way with books that I love, like, if I read Tender is the Night, I’d rather feel like I spent some time in the author’s atmosphere than come away with a really awesome story. For some reason I’m more sensitive to it. Kinda like David Lynch films, there’s just a very clear tone that’s being set, and I want to swim in that tone. I want to live there. Maybe that speaks to the escapist in Sean and I, but again, I think that the atmosphere is the most important feature.

QC: What kind of atmosphere does this record have for you?

WH: Well there’s a few things that happen, like when something really important happens, or when something really bad happens, at least for me, I feel a pause in emotional inertia where everything is very still and clear and calm. I have the same reaction to both, where everything just seems to be floating, everything is soft, and for this record, all the fun, for me, takes place in that moment. I’m really interested in the internal life. I feel like I have a very rich internal life that I’m always trying to reconcile with my external life. I have very vivid, imaginative dreams, and sometime I find that I dream while I’m awake, which can be awesome, or it can be bothersome. I’ll be trying to do something important, like driving, and then I’ll just go off on a tangent.

QC: That’s the state of the artist, isn’t it?

WH: Yeah, I guess that’s what draws people to make art. There has to be some kind of tenuous duality. To make art, by nature, you have to be connected to dreams because you’re making something out of nothing. Even though an adjective for someone like “dreamy” could be bad, I guess artistically it could be a good thing. When I was younger, it was far more pronounced, but as I’ve grown I’ve been able to engage it more artistically. Like I can still use it creatively, but still pay my bills on time.

QC: Funny that that’s the balance. Dreams and bills.

WH: Yeah

QC: K. Well, my last question is, if you have any, what advice would you give a young artist? How did you use that youthful dreaminess to create what you’re doing today?

WH: My advice is that you can do it, but you have to work. There’s a Spanish proverb that says “take what you want, and pay for it” and I think that’s so true. Anything you think or dream is entirely possible as long as you clock the time and get down to brass tacks about it. I think what’s most inspiring and also frustrating is that we’re at shows and young girls especially will come up to us and say “I wish I could play in a band.” Thank god it’s starting to change, but it used to be that girls just weren’t in bands. It’s great to see a bunch of 16-year-old girls at an all-ages show who just came from band practice. But the idea that you are closed off to you, I never want anyone to think like that. I want everyone to feel like if they dream it, they can do it, which I know is very Michael Jordan of me to say, but I seriously believe it. I was a very quiet, spacey kid and I think if you had asked anyone who knew me then, they would never have thought I would be doing this. I don’t know if I would have. It’s just a matter of starting a band. I get people writing to me saying that they’re waiting for a producer or a drum machine or whatever. You don’t need anyone to give you the green light, all you gotta do is get a recording-program and go to town. The more people do that, the more incredible music bubbles up to the surface. I think it’s a really exciting time to be music.

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