Tales of Mighty Antietam

by Jon Langmead

6 July 2008

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell 

I’ve never really thought of you guys as a “guitar” band, just a rock band with a really good guitar player. I get the sense that you’re more than willing to let the guitar take a back seat, if that’s what’s called for. On the new record, specifically, as a song-writer, how did you balance the demands of the song with your abilities on guitar?

TARA KEY: In the past, by making different kinds of records. And, this time, applying that freedom to making an Antietam bumbershoot record. I telegraph my own “here and now” when I make a record. As stupid as it may sound, in my schema, the “me” is inseparable from “the wood.” There is no way to divorce my emotion or my mood from the way I play. I may be working something out, and I may change in the process, but it is definitely always of the moment.

Also, my tastes, circumstances, “issues”, impulses and impressions are mutable. I also enjoy having different collaborations. One of the biggest leaps of maturity in my playing was to become a more social musician, and have less of a circle-the- wagons mentality about having a band. I think every time I have a different kind of encounter I always bring something new back to my core outfit. Because the rock band is my beloved default. The needle will come back there every time no matter how long the tether stretches. Re-imagining keeps us fresh and not knowing what is next is incredibly exciting to me. I am excited that we will still probably be doing our best work next time! I still have the feeling of ascension.

So I know there are times when I just feel like making a strum-along song and times where I want to paint a picture and we all are capable of opting for terse one time and expansive another time in our playing. Antietam loves to bash in the door-out in four and, also, to have intoxicated meandering fossil-hunting rambles. On this record I felt like I wanted to make a atlas. Where you could cross our Antietam country and encounter a lot of different terrain and weather on one trip. Sometimes you need to reach the motel before 10 and sometimes you can stop to buy some cowboy boots (or play pinball at the truckstop).  “Uh-oh, the sky has those scary raggedy-ass low slung clouds-is that a twister? What! Snow in March!” OK, people we are just going to sit here and watch this sunset and I’ll cry if I want to!

I somewhat jokingly referred to it as the “Three-Mints-In-One” initiative as we were making it, because, for one time, I wanted to provide a pop, loop and stun gun record. Like the solo records, the Rizzo-record and Antietam Classic under one roof. And I’ll cop to the idea of a 2X/3X record amusing me. I almost intended for people to think of it as getting two records from us and pulling one out a couple months later for another dose, since many seem to think it takes us forever to make records. Of course, if someone listens to the whole thing at once I am pleased and impressed ... it’s the way we hear it and there is a meta-dramatic arc there that was carefully thought out. The vinyl is sequenced in yet another entirely different way; more like bricks instead of a river.

Point being, I have a love for making a contained succinct “Turn It on Me” statement and I love pop form and I am happy to revel in a strum. And I like to make guitar sounds that are like seagulls (“Tierra del Fuego”), the way it feels to scrunch your eyes to keep from crying (“Not About You”) and the equivalent of a sable brush laden with purple not straight out of the tube, but made from red and blue (“The Moor”). I’m never going to be able to choose!

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell

And, though I’m not sure this is anything you can put into words, how have you developed as a guitar player over the past 10 years or so?

TARA KEY: In the last 10 years I went from being 40 to being 50. In most ways I think my prime age, the one I feel like I froze at and maintain is 34. But it’s interesting to be this age (and be a woman-because yes, cute does sadly still count) and still choose the vernacular of what was a youth movement when it started, meaning both rock and punk rock. And, in terms of mass market, still is. Part of learning how to be a better human over the years is to fold-in loss, thwart, victory, yearn, erosion, attrition, humility, ambition befuddlement and gut-busting joy and it is no different on the guitar. I feel like I play deeper and richer and, since I am very aware of having less time than more, I feel a little more like I am using a laser-pointer and less like I am wielding a sandblaster. Of course if I need to sandblast I am still perfectly capable; I just have the patience and facility now to opt for it.

Yes, patience. Kids, if there is any bounty in aging it is this! I think I listen better, too, and in listening I am better at manipulating space, both by leaving it or by reshaping headroom; doing vast, choosing intimate. And there is still stuff I want to get better at.

I feel like I have been a fence sitter all my life. And I like that vista. I take strength from being fluid. I like being mutable, unstuck. I allow myself the privilege of shape-shifting. And having conflicting impulses has always been at my core. The generator. Frisson through collision, if you will. I guess that’s not most people’s recipe for success, to avoid the pigeonhole like the plague! But I find myself most interested in things that are not easily explained away. So I like my pop with a little conjecture. And, with sonics, I like to explore caves and dilemmas and deserts and bounty. But I like to keep a tether connected somewhere on the space walk.

When I was a kid I loved listening to the radio, to the Monkees and the Raiders and the one-hit wonders ... well, I know now my excitement was more about drafting a blueprint for expression and not just about being entertained. I mean, my heart would just go off the rails when I heard the opening of “Just Like Me”; I would gasp. AM hits were the key that unlocked my verve when I finally found myself with a guitar in my hand and the recognition that it was the conduit for someone as shy as me to speak. Trust me. I was crushingly shy.

So I made punk rock. No rules meant I could hear the blue in gray and the red in green and the soothe in clamor. I wanted to deliver the goods in a burst because it seemed like I had been given a very urgent directive. And everyone in my band had grown up with the same call to action borne out of love of the AM.

Eventually, I melded molecularly to the Les Paul and it became my mouthpiece. As it became clear that I would spend my life growing up in partnership with a guitar translating for me, I needed to express sentiments that were probably not the normal fodder for the pure pop moment. (I never saw making music as having a shelf life for me.) On Live Rust, Neil Young stopped time and, concurrently, made it seem boundless.  I wanted to convey being unsettled, heart-sinkingly besotted, wry, stunned, and having some swagger—all at once—without having to say it. Some times in one note, other times in a solo. I always viewed this as doing my audience a favor because it leaves room for their reality. My sad could be your sad but painting it with sound lets you see your own image of that.

And when I use words, I like there to be some space there too, to make your own story out of the clues I provide.

Sometimes I want the pith. Sometimes I need the groove. When we write a song it can be either be birthed in sprawl and grow into coherence or it can stem from a special delivery to me at 4am on my acoustic guitar in a terse package, then land in an acid bath of the trio and come out the other side with patina and texture. Or we may decide to leave the skeleton as is and put a prom dress on it. The songs always seem to divulge their pH to us and there is no Antietam mill they pass through to come out homogenized. My cohorts are equally sensitive to the needs of each song.

I would describe my growth in this process, then, as being able to know when to shut up, when to blow up, how to faint, and as getting better and better at shifting between pinpointing and abdicating. And, always, trying to be more and more successful at connecting.

I don’t set out to be obscure, but emotions are messy. I don’t really see the literals of my life as being that interesting, but I don’t deny taking pleasure in playing the roles of alchemist, ghost, town crier and emotional midwife. Some times it feels right to do that with succinct power chords, some times with washes of tone. I always hope the balance is right and the form is as pleasing as “1-2-3 ” by Len Barry or “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James. I hope there is a sonic moment as laden with emotion as the harmony on the chorus of “Walk Away Renee” by the Left Banke and that there is something refracted a little differently every time you listen.

Photo: Tara Key

Photo: Tara Key

Some of the reviews of the new record, including Magnet and Pitchfork, imply that it’s just too much to take in. Was there ever an inclination to boil it down to a small, 35-minute statement, especially given your AM pop format leanings? Also, is there a fear putting out a record that people will invariably flip through, take in in bits and pieces, sometimes start in the middle of instead of the beginning?

TARA KEY: I really don’t have any better answer for this other than we did it because we wanted to. It’s really hard to answer without getting riled up because I believe in this record so much!

We had been writing a bunch of music, all different kinds of music, and I saw no need, as Tim has said, to “ghettoize” it any longer by making it fit a mold of side project A, B or C. At this point in all of our lives, why not make Antietam music fit a broader definition? I certainly was not trying to be annoying nor was I implementing an aggressive pre-design.

I always did intend it to be a lived-with record. It would be presumptuous of me to assume everyone has 90 straight minutes to devote to us in rapt attention (if you are not my mother), but I thought you could leave it on, wander around the house, clean the house, doze, stare, smoke, drive fast, drive slow, ignore half the songs today and have your head ripped off on the 10th listen to a song that never grabbed you before. Nuggets. Surprises. I intended these songs to be lived with. Some of them are subversive.

Sometimes I want to be in the Raiders, sometimes the Stooges, sometimes accompanying Eno and on occasion, backing up Andy Kim. Why do I have to decide? We like to make different kinds of songs and sounds. And I thought just one time it would be cool to throw it all out there. Who knows what will happen next time? I may make a record that lasts 25 minutes!

Originally we thought we would put out a two-record set, but that it would be an instrumental one and a rock/pop one. But once we all talked about it, we decided to blend them together. We perceived a unity and a flow. I never thought of this record as lacking focus; once it was decided, we thought a lot about what went on it and how it was sequenced. You can hear it as two distinct records, and you can fold that into a more meta-record. And, ya know what, if you really need to find the “rock gem” inside, yes, in this universe, you can sequence what you want to hear. That does not offend me. It may make me a little sad ...

Tim thought at one point, ala Cortazar’s Hopscotch, that we should include several suggested sequences. I thought it would be cool to give people—especially people who were big fans in the past—a lot for their money and something to come back and bite them on the neck a little ways down the line when they least expect it. Maybe “Red Balloon Waltz” doesn’t speak to you like a rock song does on Wednesday, but, by golly, maybe on September 19th, 2009 you will experience something in your life that makes it kick you like a mule. And I thought that if you liked one kind of music we made, you may understand us better by hearing everything with the same DNA but with different colors of hair all sitting next to each other.

I am baffled that it is an issue. I never wanted to boil it down. Remember: AM pop, but guitar jams too. I want it all. Greedy Tara. One dumb review said we hated our fans! And I thought I was doing just the opposite!

You mentioned in a previous answer that you were a lifer, and I really think of you all in that respect. How has it been to stay with music through all of the career ups and downs that you must have experienced, and keep a relationship together that seems intricately woven to your music as well? You must have seen some contemporaries become successful, others struggle and be screwed over by the business….how have you kept a focus on music through everything you must have experienced and kept what, i think, is a real joy and passion that seems to be central to what you do?

TARA KEY: It seems that ever since we have started making records we have been fortunate enough to get attention and be recognized, yet there has been a theme of scrambling for resources that has run like an undercurrent. We have always landed on our feet cat-like, spinning throughout an eight-story fall, by having the luck to encounter people passionate about what we do, but, in most of those cases, not able to free up the kind of funds from the banker for relaxed, open-ended recording. That was the path that led us to home recording. And now with Carrot Top [Record]‘s support, we can probably think about making all those kinds of records—and not all at once!

In this case, though, beyond feeling a need to get out all of what has been in our heads for years, I just plain wanted to do something special and out of the ordinary for us by releasing Opus Mixtum. After having inadvertently created the illusion that we had broken up by not recording for 10 years, I got a small perverse pleasure out of firing a salvo that says, “Here, laden like a ripe blueberry, get used to it.”

I would not be the one to know why the resources did not fall into our laps the way it did for some of our peers (Normal looking chick? heady tunes? Unassuming dress and carriage? Not enough bad behavior? Bad at icon-making? Too open? Not enough front wo/man focus? Not [being] pop/noisy/threatening/pinpointable enough?). If I could have unlocked that code I would have saved myself a lot of internal dialog for 25 years.

I used to think about it, but that is such a dangerous thing. I figured out a long time ago that I didn’t want the energy of writing to be so reactive and scattershot; to think about what kind of song would get us signed. To write a song like coloring between some imagined lines that represent “industry.” Or, put on the yoke of the sexy dress. Or, get a lead singer. Because, obviously just doing what we do, didn’t do it.

I did my share of playing the New Music Seminar and CMJ and standing in an open field under a tree with a golf club barefoot during a severe thunderstorm waiting for Mr. Big $$$ to sign us. I talked to lawyers and trotted out my demos and tried to overcome my earnestness and shyness and “sell the product.” It was the 90s! People were getting signed! We could quit our jobs!

But I guess anytime I tried to put that in any musical equation it just became subsumed by the “usness” of us; like adding a couple of drops of blue food coloring to the yellow icing and having it barely turn green. And, honestly, that is probably why we are still playing today. Sticking to our guns and trying to never move false let us, at some point, leave the scary evil forest of contrived disappointment according to one set of standards and spit us out on the green meadow where there are no rules except to stay true. Exhilarating!

One last thought, to answer the question about being a lifer and Tim’s and my relationship. I can’t imagine any better way to lead this life than to be able to share our rocket rushes when it’s good and to understand the inky disappointments and the blurry, gray uncertainties at other times; and I mean understand in a molecular fashion. No need to explain.

Our energies somehow have always permitted us to do our best to Yin/Yang the difficulties. Usually when one of us is challenged by anything, from a puzzle about a part in a song, to what to say to the mean club promoter to wondering what alchemy will be needed to find a way to get a record out to psychically tying up one or the other’s hands with a very thick rope to not answer the critic that has totally missed the point. The other can give perspective in a constructive way. A way that the other half of a breath does. In needs out. Out needs in. I would hate bringing home the goodness in my rock life like a cat carrying a snared bird to my owner. It’s so much funner to share in the snag!

A propos of Madell too ... why would I want to do anything else with my life? When it’s good it’s so good ... the feeling of speaking without words and telepathy and sound surfing and buoyancy and time shifting and power over our moment, at least. Being able to share the joy of lassoing a situation for a burst of time and trying to give the audience a similar weightlessness and voluptuousness of being. Those roller coaster rides together are so awesome!

Topics: antietam
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