Tales of Mighty Antietam

[6 July 2008]

By Jon Langmead

The fact that Opus Mixtum, album number eight from the New York by way of Louisville rockers Antietam, is a double album is perhaps the least interesting thing about it.

That so many reviewers have gotten stuck on the album’s song count shouldn’t cause it to be easily dismissed. Wide open and generous, Opus Mixtum is the band’s most fully realized, richly detailed, and complete statement. From their self-titled 1985 release on Homestead to 1994’s Rope-A-Dope, widely considered their masterpiece, they made giant leaps from album to album, adding and subtracting members, beefing up their attack and harnessing an explosive sound centered around Tara Key’s gut-tearing, emotionally main-lining, guitar work (In 2005, the Village Voice called her the best guitarist in the world). Part AM pop staple and part sprawling guitar slurry, Antietam fully coalesced on Rope-A-Dope, leading the Trouser Press at the time to call them out as “a juggernaut capable of tearing the roof off any venue on any given night.”

Antietam, as a recording concern, then went quiet for almost a decade (though an album of un-released material was recorded around 1997) before returning with 2004’s Victory Park, missing nary a beat. “When rock critics say something like, ‘Since they only put an album out every 4 or 5 years ...,’ they are missing some big elephants in the room,” writes bassist Tim Harris. “It sounds like we have the same resources as Radiohead or U2. It is a little like National Geographic writing about the wonders of China in the late ‘40s without ever mentioning the revolution. Throughout our career there has been no surety about when we will have the next chance. This is much different than say a tenured professor plotting publications from a stable position.  When people start discussing the aesthetic decisions they think we made (like, ‘let’s not put another record out until the next century’), they need to broaden the view. Some meanings come from things the artist put in; others from the fact and context of the work of art, from outside of it. It’s funny when reviews reduce a couple of years of your life to a paragraph and gratifying when people listen a little more closely.”

With 26 songs packed into 100 minutes, Opus Mixtum is Antietam’s defining moment. Though jam-packed, the album is actually lighter on its feet than any of their past albums: shifting tones and moods and crafted with a compelling level of confidence and craft that is immediately tangible. Long revered for their live shows, Antietam has finally come fully alive on record. It’s all in the way that you glide into the album’s second-half on the expansiveness of “The Moor”, in the late-album stomp of “You/I”, in the neat pop-perfection of “Turn It On Me”, in the soft-touch overlays that add-up to the full picture on “The Gate Closed”, in the kick-ass drive of “Arrowhead Syrup”, and in the gorgeous outro of “Shipshape” that takes the song to a place that is so staggering that it seems to even catch the band by surprise. 

I exchanged emails with Key and Harris over several weeks and it quickly became clear that the best way to write about this band was to allow them to do it themselves. They offered incredibly deep, concise, honest, and pointed insights on subsisting as a band for over twenty years, on crafting a life around music that never stops growing, and on struggling to create and maintain space to explore creativity in the face of hard financial realities and life changes. “I think the most important and exciting thing about the present for us,” writes Key, “is that our means and our drive and our focus and our honing and our evolution and all the detours and blocked shots and recalibrating have joined in a nice big fat power chord (I believe it’s an E) and it feels like a powerful moment—a booster rocket (Saturn V) at this stage of the game.”

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So, I think the first question relates to something that Tim said to me when I saw you at Cake Shop in January. I had commented about how good the album sounds, in that it feels cohesive and it has a variety of sounds and kinds of songs but also that it just “sounds better” than your past albums. He said something to the effect that for a long time people had said your live shows have always been much a better representation of the band than your recordings and that you wanted to try and change that with this album. Did you make any conscious decisions for this recording that were maybe different than ones you’d made in the past to get a recording that you felt would be of a higher quality, in every sense of the word?

TARA KEY: There are two points I’d like to make to set up the rest of my discourse. Ever since I started to take the act of making records seriously I have been trying to make a pop record that is the equal of the Raiders’ Spirit of ‘67 and a guitar record the equal of [Neil Young’s] Live Rust. That may not be the way the world has taken it, but that is the blueprint in my brain. I would also say I enlisted in this life’s work to be a lifer, so I have never felt that there was a limit on how long I would be in a band before I had achieved X, Y or Z and then would be the end of it—and I still am not sure what X Y and Z are! It has always felt like we are growing up in public to me, for better or worse.

Our entire career we have been fortunate in some ways and hampered in others. Every time it seems that we have been on the side of the road wondering what’s next, a kind and supportive presence has appeared. Often those ambassadors were long on spirit and short on funds! And the list of people who have recorded us have been phenomenal, but always under Dollar Duress. Couple this with the way it was for bands prior to the do-it-yourself-with-quality technology of the last 10 years and it seemed our whole career was spent with all eyes on the clock whenever we were recording. What worked live for us, our joy and abandon, was also a little harder to
capture when we were limited by, say, all chips riding on everyone being at their best between 4 and 11pm on April 6th, 1995 and not taking too much time to get it right. In fact, I always felt a pressure before Victory Park when I was recording to “get it right.” Because I knew the opportunity to be in a studio was not an everyday thing for us and the chance to do it again rode on how well we did it at that moment.

There was a point during the recording of what is our “lost” album from 1997 or so that I felt I needed to do several things. I needed to learn what I wanted from my sound and take responsibility for asking for it, or take charge of figuring out how to get it. I needed to create a space for the three of us to catch lightning when it struck, instead of spending what time and money we had forcing square pegs in round holes. We have always had structure and respect for form, but we are all capable of doing spontaneous and astounding things left to our own devices. I needed to find a way to give us the opportunity to do that outside the consideration of fiscal matters. And since no one was beating down the door to throw Major Dollars at us, it seemed like we would have to invent that for ourselves.

Tim and I began to invest money in great mics and great gear. I took suggestions from all of the amazing people we had worked with. For once I could come home devastated by the death of a friend, be up at 3AM, sleepless, and pull off a hell of a solo that expressed it all without words instead of saying “hold that thought” and trying to recapture the mess and horror in a booked studio four months later.

Spontaneity and recklessness was the linchpin of our touted live persona and this was a way to put that element, missing for the most part, into our recording. But conversely, having the power of the gear ALSO meant that I could now spend weeks working to sing a song as well as I could, or weeks to sing a song badly to get that one 6AM take that would define the vocal forever for me. So I was granted freedom to strike like a viper and freedom to inch like a snail. It just took the clock out of the creative process! The act of recording Victory Park was about spirit and waiting for the iron to be hot and going to different environments and doing sessions until the material was magic. Not just one shot! (Unless that was “the one.”) And in the process of recording Dark Edson Tiger [Key’s 2000 album with Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo] I had learned how to make a record that was about sonics and less about having our age-old dialectic of live vs studio, can sing vs, ummm, not so well, to deal with. Just making good sounds. The combo of these two records put us in a good position to do Opus Mixtum right when the time came …

… and then we met Josh Clark. Tim and I have been blessed our whole career with youth finding us at crossroads. It happened when our 18 year old punk drummer joined the Babylon Dance Band when we were in our mid-twenties. It happened when [Antietam drummer] Josh Madell showed up to make us truly great when he was 20 and we were in our mid-30s. And now with Clark, it has happened again. The idea of fresh ears listening and caring about what we do was like sticking an IV of speed, confidence and enthusiasm in my arm. It also doesn’t hurt that he is a brilliant guitar player, we share some of the same rock touchstones and that we could speak about my playing without speaking.

The Seaside Lounge coming into our life is a huge development too. Because I have always wanted a clubhouse to hang at…I have always been attracted to the idea of a “Stable of Stars” like in Memphis or at Motown. Collaboration and hothouse and support from peers. We felt instantly comfortable there. So on this vector of discovering what we want and how to get it, we fell into this totally comfortable and supportive universe where we found real trust. I could still go home and do vocals in my spelunking way. I could still go home and record insane spontaneous guitar solos. I could go home and take the record’s other side-the material that is the woof of the fabric where the band songs are the warp, bring it to Josh Clark and, through his ears, make it all
a coherent statement of sonics and emotion.

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell

Photo: Dawn Sutter Madell

TIM HARRIS: After a rush of albums in the first half of the ‘90’s, Burgoo, Everywhere Outside, Antietam Comes Alive, and Rope-a-Dope, plus Tara’s Bourbon County and Ear and Echo and the Babylon Dance Band’s Four on One, we found ourselves in ‘96 and ‘97 with new material to record but no record contract or real support from the outside world. We recorded and pressed a single of our own, which was barely sold, and then recorded the lost Antietam album of ‘97 which was never completed or released and which cost us some money. At this point in history, along with the rest of the world, Tara and I began to invest in our own recording equipment, technology which we used to record both Dark Edson Tiger and Victory Park.

Recording Dark Edson Tiger was an experimental, exhilarating experience. My favorite moment was stripping the bathroom of our NY apartment of every single object – towels, soap, toothbrushes, anything – until all that was left was a tile-lined reverb chamber. This is, of course, most recording engineer’s nightmare, a reverb chamber that you utterly can’t control after the fact, but it worked beautifully for us. We put a mic and mic stand in the bathtub, and then had Rizzo sit on the toilet, closed of course, and play the acoustic guitar. This track was used as background on the radio show, “This American Life”, and their subsequent greatest hits CD. Other pieces on this short eight-song CD were used in a national campaign to finance the World Trade Center memorial, a different charity campaign, and a Hollywood movie. When the latter ran on HBO, it was really weird to watch a movie in our apartment and realize the soundtrack had been recorded ... in our apartment.

When we set out to record Opus Mixtum, we were set on recording the bass and drums in a recording studio. And a couple of other things happened. First of all, our producer Josh Clark of Seaside Lounge, a 20-something who had worked earlier with Madell’s band Tralala, proved to be both a recording studio genius and a sympathetic ear. So he really ended up recording our signature sound—that is, Tara’s guitar—better than ever.

Additionally, I think Tara and I were really quite influenced by the documentary we saw about Tom Dowd and how he recorded people from Bird and Monk to Aretha to the Allmans and Skynyrd. We were astonished to hear that the double leads on “Layla” by Duane Allman and Eric Clapton were recorded from little Princeton amps sitting on a piano with mikes added to the piano strings. We have a little collection of five or six mini-amps and some of these ended up producing some of Tara’s fiercest guitar work ever recorded.

We recorded things like acoustic guitar and cello and violin at home in our apartment (it actually has a great sound) with great attention to mic placement. And many of the instrumentals on Opus Mixtum started with something we did at home and took to the studio. Originally, Tara and I had planned to add a second disc of atmospheric instrumentals to our rock record, but eventually we decided to mix it all up together. We were kind of sick of doing one thing for Tara Key records, one for Rizzo/Key and one for Antietam. One misconception might be that we threw in every little piece we had written in the last few years. The truth is, the instrumentals were selected from a much bigger cache of instrumentals.

We also mainly worked at home painstakingly on vocals. The faults found with Antietam in the past have always been that we are better live than recorded and that our playing beats our singing. So we think we finally got Tara’s guitar in its full glory, showed a different side of us that has always been lurking there with the instrumentals, and if I may say so, I think Tara knocked out the vocals.

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!

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/tales-of-mighty-antietam/