Each Song Is a Thought, Flying Across the Ocean for Do Make Say Think's Charles Spearin

by N. A. Cordova

11 May 2017

Charles Spearin discusses the themes and processes behind Do Make Say Think's latest album Stubborn Persistent Illusions.
Photo: Norman Wong 
cover art

Do Make Say Think

Stubborn Persistent Illusions

US: 19 May 2017

Review [23.May.2017]

Do Make Say Think’s (DMST) latest album Stubborn Persistent Illusions was constructed in a flurry of musical activity by Toronto’s post-rock experimental band and berthed at the edge of an emotional ocean, a crow circling above.

In its conception, recording process and execution, it is an expedition. Charles Spearin, Justin Small, James Payment, David Mitchell, and Ohad Benchetrit recorded the album at the same time Spearin co-produced albums with other artists, and recorded with Broken Social Scene on their latest album, while the other members of DMST worked on other projects and soundtracks.

“We had it in mind from the very beginning to have a sense of narrative for the record,” Spearin tells PopMatters. “All of our other albums have had a story-quality to them. We wanted to take that further on this record by having recurring themes. We tried a lot of potential storylines ... we ended up settling on the story based on the Buddhist poem.”

Spearin finds the arts and music communities of Toronto especially stimulating when working out aural ideas. “There is so much great music. The best thing is that people really encourage each other to be experimental. It’s not competitive ... for the most part.” Spearin described a music co-op called The TRANZAC, a venue that features “bizarre nights of free jazz” and other events.

“The Woodchoppers Association ... is this guy Dave Clark from Toronto. It’s been running for years and years, and it’s once a month, anyone can come, and they do this big improv free-for-all. Dave will stand up there waving his arms and pointing at people and encouraging certain melodies to the forefront. But the whole thing is improvised. Sometimes it’s absolutely transcendent and incredible,” he paused, “sometimes it’s just squonks and squeaks, and nobody listens to each other.” Spearin noted that improvisation played a large part in DMST’s recent album, the band chopped out and shaped raw tunes that made up the vessel of the album, working out the frame, rigging, and sails of their general story.

While the theme and affect of the album is derived from the poetic line “Be like the ship captain watching her crow fly,” the structure is a gloss on Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition, a composition about Mussorgsky attending his dear friend painter Viktor Hartmann’s memorial art exhibition, after the artist’s death. “So, it starts with this trumpet line, then it goes to this musical description of the painting then back to the trumpet line,” he continued that each piece of music represented a painting, moving back and forth from the trumpet line to the fuller pieces until the final painting titled The Gates of Kiev. “And the music just gets bigger and bigger, and you think this must be some incredible painting and then you realize he’s no longer writing about paintings but the love of his friend. It’s the most beautiful simple way of presenting a musical narrative. So we were looking for something along those lines.”

Spearin is no stranger to circuitous routes to sonic results. In 2007 and 2008 while being a stay-at-home dad, he recorded interviews with his neighbors. “I spent a lot of time on the front porch with my kids. I got to talk to my neighbors a lot. And the idea of making music out of the melodies of speech was something I had been toying with for a long time. My neighbors are interesting people ... and they said really nice things and they sang them in a way.” The resultant album The Happiness Project features the most melodious bits of the interviews set to music, the speaker’s harmony accentuated by musical lines underneath their stories and musings, breaking down the demarcation between speech and music. The attentiveness to sound and texture present in that album can also be heard in tracks like “Schlomo’s Son” and “Bound” on Stubborn Persistent Illusions.

“When you’re mixing an album you’re constantly thinking about the stereo image,” Spearin said. The band was interested in how the stereo image can change at a venue when a listener moves around the room while listening to a live band. “[Sound is] behind you and above you and around you. I was trying to find a way to emulate this sort of more exploratory moving—you are moving through a bunch of instruments.” They considered recording a whole album attempting to capture this sense of movement but decided that the intensity of the labor would be excessive and so settled on one song.

For “Her Eyes on the Horizon”, the band recorded each instrument part of the song separately at the Bathhouse recording studio in Bath and converted each recording to a stem track. At the Music Gallery, a former church in Toronto, they set up a speaker in one room and played one instrument track. “Then I had these little microphones tucked into my ears and I walked from the little room to the hallway, to the next room, to the little kitchen and then ended up in the big sanctuary, by the time I got to the end of the song.” Repositioning the speaker in each room, then repeating the path and his head movements through the rooms in the former church, Spearin and the band performed a series of physical repetitions.

“Then we layered the instruments on top of each other and eq’ed and compressed them and everything like that,” Spearin continued, “but the result is that you feel like you’re moving ... if you listen with headphones you are taken on a journey from one room to the next.” Much like a mourning composer contemplating loss, or a crow skimming the surface of the churning waves on its return to its captain, the band enacted a sort of ritual to the transformation of sound.

Other tracks on the album were recorded differently, to different effect, but still express the feeling of expanding out, then retracting in. The album ends with the track “Return, Return Again”, a looping guitar line that hops, bounces and soars over drums then disintegrates into a fog of tones similar to the hazy chords that begin the album in “War on Torpor”.  Spearin said, “that each song is a thought ... the idea is that you’re going across the ocean in a boat, and the crow would take off and go as far as it wants to go, but it actually has to come back to the boat. It’s kind of like your thoughts, no matter how much you daydream, you always have to come back to your ordinary life, and then your mind can go off again.”

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