Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spanish Prisoners - Dream Pop For The Soul

You have to admire the panache of a band who describes their sound as “tremolo-haze headphone symphonies.” Such is the case with Brooklyn’s Spanish Prisoners. Their album “Gold Fools” is set for an October release, and contains a number of outstanding tracks. “Los Angeles Guitar Dream” weaves deep toned single note guitar melodies with lively cymbal rushes. Notes struck with authority and pitch bending tremolo are emphasized. Lyrics tell a story of plans gone awry: “She put a cigarette in the tip jar. But she – she never phones home. Acid blue smoke rises. His temper gone broke. Los Angeles Guitar Dream – was a hoax.” Clear glockenspiel-like note accents (so popular these days) contribute further to the melody. There’s a spoken word segment in the middle, giving the whole thing a cinematic quality to it - as if you are watching a film. “Rich Blood” evokes a breezy, soul-inflected world (dream like atmosphere, falsetto vocals). “November Third” makes effective use of various keyboard tones allowing for dramatic sonic buildups from quieter passages. Lyrically the subject of “life and death” come up.

Spanish Prisoners are Leo on guitar and lead vocals; Amberly on keyboards and backing vocals, Michael on drums, also lead and backing vocals, and James on bass and backing vocals.

In addition to seeing them play live twice during this year's CMJ Marathon here in New York,
I conducted this interview with frontman Leo:

Is the story to your song “Los Angeles Guitar Dream” based on any kind of personal experience? Or does its lyrical content come from an observation of someone else? Or purely from the imagination?

“Los Angeles Guitar Dream” was written when I spent a few weeks one summer living in Los Angeles with my girlfriend. She had moved there for an ill-fated internship at a record label that basically amounted to her working in their factory, taking orders, and sitting in traffic. I spent most of the trip driving around by myself, getting lost in LA, and wondering if all those who had flocked to LA found what they were looking for. I began to imagine this female character that had been promised fame and fortune but upon arriving, she got trapped in this really abusive relationship and ended up blaming this “dream of making it” for her personal situation. I get very caught up in the myth of LA, especially when it comes to movies. A lot of my favorite movies take place in Los Angeles and involve the city very deeply in their plots.

What sort of inspiration might lead to the creation of your song “Rich Blood?” Is some of the softer 60’s soul music ever on your listening playlists?

I definitely love older 60’s soul music- OV Wright is a particular favorite- but I wouldn’t say that kind of music was inspiration for “Rich Blood.” This song was more inspired by a lot of 4AD / Factory records- Cocteau Twins, the Durutti Column, OMD- music that puts a lot of emphasis on texture. It was my attempt at creating this really detailed atmospheric land for you to get lost in. The lyrics are very similar to “Los Angeles Guitar Dream” in that there is an unnamed act of violence and an underlying tension, which is why we placed the two songs next to each other on the album.


One would presume the song title “November Third” refers to a significant date. Can you shed some light on and explain a bit about what this song might be about?

The date in the title is actually completely irrelevant to the lyrics. It’s just the date I started writing the song. We tried to come up with another title but that one kind of just stuck. Lyrically its one of the more ambiguous songs- a lot of our songs combine very specific imagery with very abstract situations. In this case, again there are two people who are being pulled apart- you could say the hurricane is metaphorical. Notice any trends developing?

Check out the band performing "November Third" live on the final night of CMJ- October 22, 2011


“Slow Decay” rises from the ether on cymbal rushes, clean slightly reverb enhanced guitars and crisp snarecrack. “Everything I write is a letter to the future,” is one revealing lyrical turn, while the repeated (and therefore emphasized) refrain “else, else – something else” follows. The track ultimately devolves into less-defined atmospherics. Talk a little bit about what your mindset was when writing, then recording this song. What would you like the listener to experience when hearing it?

The song was written and recorded simultaneously- most of the songs on the album were written that way. I very seldomly think about what I want the listener to experience when working on music- that’d make the process much harder. I suppose if I had to say, I’d want the listener to go on the journey this song takes- to be a willing passenger in the voyage and evolution / devolution of “Slow Decay.”
Listen in as the band performs "Slow Decay" live on the opening night of CMJ
- October 18, 2011


“Lipstick Under The Table” has a slow shuffling rhythm with alternating call and response style vocals. There are hints of funk guitar lines merged with additional atmospheric textures. Falsetto vocal segments continue the impression that an attempt at what has been commonly referred to as “soul music” is being made here. Is this a make out song?

I’ve never thought of it as a make-out song but I’d be thrilled if anyone was making out to any of the songs on this record. I think experiencing music with others is the best way to listen to music in any sense.

Some of the band “interests” listed are “rooftops,” “the ocean” and “national parks.” All are done outdoors. Even though you are city based in Brooklyn – do you consider yourselves the “outdoor type?”

I don’t really consider myself an “outdoor type” even though I love the outdoors. I think I’m influenced by images of the outdoors and experiences I’ve had outdoors even if I don’t spend much time actually out in nature. I’ve been camping once and frankly the experience sort of soured me on the activity- my best friend and I went for a few days with only one small flashlight and the battery went out the first night. In general I think I’m very influenced by my surroundings. I’m a very in-the-moment person, as opposed to a lot of musicians I know that are much spacier and live in their own heads. My brother is an architect and I think many discussions we’ve had make me much more aware of the space I’m in at all times. I need to be really comfortable with my home recording studio and everything needs to be set up just right before I feel creative. Having a window by my desk is invaluable.

How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?

Almost all of our recording is done at home- no clocks, no time limit. We feel pretty comfortable working on our own.

If you use a studio, what do you record there and what do you record by yourself and why?

We recorded a few bass and drum parts at Seaside Lounge, where our bassist James works. Everything else was recorded and produced in one of our apartments, usually while drinking coffee. I like recording while not wearing shoes.

What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring when recording at home?

I like Apple’s Logic Pro a lot- been using it for a while now and know it inside and out. Unfortunately my bandmates are Pro Tools users. We’ve had a few heated arguments about DAWs.

What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup (cost not an issue)? Why?

It’d be great to have a nice, one channel preamp. Something like that the UA 610 I’ve coveted for a while.

Do you use rack effects or guitar pedals to forge your own sound?

I’m a huge guitar pedal geek. I’ve spent way too much time playing with various fuzz and overdrive pedals. My bandmates make fun of me for how many different pedals I’ve had over the years. I’ve actually had several pedals custom made for me in the past. I think having a good overdrive pedal / amp combination is one of the most important things for defining a band’s sound. Specifically I like pedals by Fulltone and Throbak.

Is there a piece of equipment that you find particularly useful on stage?

One of my favorite purchases is my 1982 Roland Juno 60- a very popular synth for very good reason. It’s hard to make it sound bad. I’m a big proponent of buying a few pieces of gear and knowing them very well. It’s very comforting to me that I can get whatever sound I want out of the Juno quickly. We’ve had a few digital synths with menus in the past and I never realized how much of an obstacle that is to creativity.

Amberly, Croms and Leo

Amberly, James, Michael and the Croms_____________________________

Find out much more about Spanish Prisoners at these links:

Twitter: @span_prisoners

Saturday, October 15, 2011

EXITMUSIC - An Agitated Dream

Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church make a dreamy rock music under the name EXITMUSIC. Brooklyn based, the married couple play in a style that often starts out quietly, but ultimately winds up grabbing you by the throat. Their impressive live shows have been garnering them much deserved attention, and now the finely crafted recorded works they have been meticulously constructing will be released as their debut album "From Silence" this fall.

Listening to these recordings in advance of the release via their website, one can't help but be captivated by what you hear. On their leadoff song titled "The Sea," a tension is noticable at it lurks throughout the quieter moments. There is an unsettling pulse that is mysterious and moody. The direction seems to travel down sonic areas running against what one might associate with a more "upbeat" music.

"I don't think you can decide where your creativity comes from," Aleksa says. "I feel that there is a place that I write from, a place that needs to be revealed. And this is the mood and the tone of that place," she continues. "People often say our music is 'dark', and there's truth to that, but I don't feel like we're 'dark' people or even that our music is all that dark," adds Devon. ":We're just trying to express our experience of life as honestly and as compellingly as we can. Sometimes I get creeped out by how 'happy and upbeat' most music is. We are in the middle of 3 or 4 wars and a mass extinction, after all. After a point, this obsession with pop (especially in the indie world) begins to seem kind of insane."

Listen to their live performance of "The Sea"

On stage, Aleksa commands attention as the bands lead vocalist. She also alternates between playing guitar and keyboards. Devon stands tall as the primary guitarist, and shifts effortlessly between providing power chords, quick riffs or melody lines and even employs at violin bow on the strings at one point.

Much of their show has a solemn quality to it all. Frequently the vocals are presented like someone almost going into a trance. Of someone losing themself in the moment. "The feeling of being on stage is a really hard to remember clearly afterwards," explains Aleksa. "It's almost like you have to find the spot where you can lose yourself in the moment while still being totally aware of where you are in time. I'm not in a trance, I'm just singing the words as weighted as I feel them," she concludes.

Their live show also presents some interesting guitar interplay between them. While Devon tends to play the longer, extended melodic notes (sometimes with slide) Aleksa will execute bursts of quick, forceful strumming, that creates a fuller sonic wash. "For me, I try to combine rhythmic and melodic elements in my guitar parts, so I'll play chords that incorporate a traveling counter-melody that supports what Aleksa's playing or singing," says Devon. "I think of myself more as a rhythm guitarist than a lead guitarist, though I do play some "leads". But I almost never strum the guitar - just a few times during the set. Mostly I play arpeggios or deconstructed chords."

"It's a language that I keep developing… it's like a cast of characters or a palate of colors, each with something to say," adds Aleksa. "I often play melodies by picking one string really fast, like a mandolin. I think this tremolo style - those explosions are just as emotional as the human voice. And I use those parts to sing with my guitar, and to disrupt the certainty of measured time."

On one of the songs in their live show, Devon used a violin bow across his guitar strings, creating a unique sonic tone and effect.. "I used to play a lot with an e-bow, but I wanted something more expressive, and more guttural sounding," he offers by way of explanation. "I like the deep moaning sound that you can produce by dragging the bow over the low strings of the guitar. You risk a lot of dissonance and feedback playing with a bow and a lot of reverb and distortion, so the intent is ultimately to wrest something beautiful out of what could potentially be kind of ugly. The influence for me is more Sigur Ros than Jimmy Page, but I also think of the violin bits in early Velvet Underground," he concludes.

The two of them self-directed their video for "The Sea," using footage from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film The Mirror. "We'd seen a lot of Tarkovsky's films, and when Chris Swanson (who runs their label Secretly Canadian) suggested we try cutting an existing film into a music video, we thought of him. But we hadn't yet seen The Mirror," says Devon. "When we did a google image search for 'Tarkovsky' this stark, beautiful image of a sort-of deranged looking woman standing over a basin of water came up. Then there was another image of a woman levitating and a man standing reverently beside her. They were both from the Mirror. We youtubed some montages of the film, and it was just incredibly rich with imagery. Especially the wind stuff is amazing. In a way, Tarkovsky's wind is serving the function that the sea, the water, does in our song. His images, together with the stock footage of war and revolution that he used in his film, create this incredibly menacing, dream-like, apocalyptic feeling that seemed to fit perfectly with the music."

Since then the band has released another video, this time for their song "The Hours." Directed by Will Joines, the imagery finds Aleksa singing against her reflection and possibly coming to grips with a polar opposite version of herself. Devon supports by way of slo motion guitar strumming and the overall effect is transcendent. With sonic production qualities that put emphasis first and foremost on the vocals (multitracked and uniquely enunciated) guitar lines are the appegiated deconstructed chords Devon describes, combined with a sparse percussion that makes its inclusion all the more dramatic.

The couple came together from disparate backgrounds. Devon came to New York by way of Winnipeg, Canada, while Aleksa grew up in this city. In addition to the music she has always made, Aleksa has an extensive acting career, and is currently featured in the HBO drama "Boardwalk Empire."

The band's name is a reference to the music one hears as the credits roll at the end of a film. "Everyone always mentions radiohead, but that's not where we got the name from," states Aleksa. "Exit music is the name for the last piece of music to be played in a film… the song that ushers people out of the theatre… the last piece of that 'world' they take with them. That's what we heard when we played our songs back," she continues. "Music that suggests a transition from world to another. My grandpa, Tony Palladino, is a graphic designer and has always had a unique way of making letters and words speak for themselves (he designed the lettering for PSYCHO). Anyway, he took out the space between exit and music… it fortified the whole concept. EXITMUSIC."

Cromwell chats with Aleksa post-show

Find out more about EXITMUSIC via these links here:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Invisible Days/Crawl Babies/Shana Falana/Heaven - Live in Concert

A record release show is always a special occasion for an artist. It serves as a celebration for all the hard work and creative drive that goes into producing recorded works. On Thursday October 6, 2011 singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Shana Falana threw just such an event at Brooklyn's Shea Stadium. Joining her on this night to help mark this achievement were friends and colleagues. Specifically the bands Invisible Days, Crawlbabies and Heaven.

Opening the show was the wonderful dream pop band Invisible Days.

I had been enjoying their song "Daysleeping" for a few months now.

This band successfully blend gentle atmospherics, FX laden guitars, slithering basslines and appropriate rackety-tackety percussion with a vocal harmony that sets them apart from many other bands attempting this genre. Combine that with songwriting that shows thought and precision and its becomes clear (or less invisible) as to why their sound resonates so well with me. On their song "Stewards" the vocals are placed far back in the mix, echo tinged, with strummed guitars more out front. It continues to build cathedral-like, while the drums stay routed in the here and now.

The aforementioned "Daysleeping" takes the superior vocal harmonies even higher, bringing to mind the gold age of "gaze" bands like, Ride for example.

I had also been enjoying their track "Solitary Time" for a while now - ever since picking up their CD at a previously attended show of theirs.


Good News! The band is now offering this track as a free download, which can be gotten here:

Next up was the trio Crawl Babies

Their psych rock sound and visual presentation gave them a bit of a Jesus & Mary Chain feel.

Especially their drummer who played in the stand up style of Mo Tucker and Bobby Gillespie.

Listen in:

Their 60’s tinged sound points to a band like The Raveonettes as possible sonic reference point.

Finally it was time for the headliner.

Shana put on her typcially dazzling light and sound spectacular.

As expected, the set relied heavily on material from the "In The Light" EP

Listen in to this night's performance of "Tragic"



One more from the EP, a live performance of "U.R. Everything"



Following Shana's wonderful performance, was another band that presents a blended dual male vocal front - Heaven


Listen in to the single "Mountains Move"

The song is moody, dark and dreamy (all rolled into one). Of note is guitarist Matt Sumrow's outstanding guitar work, which alternates between clean-note arpeggios and wah-wah effected chorusing.

Essential Links: