Julie Christmas, lead singer for Brooklyn's Made Out of Babies, talks about the "venemous" combination of screaming and restrained singing, ambiguous lyric-writing, and the making of the band's latest album, The Ruiner.
Three years ago, Brooklyn band Made Out of Babies put out its debut album Trophy on Neurosis' own Neurot Records, to little to no fanfare. Its debt to such 1990s standouts like the Jesus Lizard and Big Black a bit on the obvious side, the album's one glimmer of hope was lead singer...no, scratch that, screamer Julie Christmas, whose primal, cathartic vocal style hinted at bigger things to come. Well, it turns out that potential was realized a whole lot sooner than anybody, or at the very least yours truly, had expected; not only does the foursome now have a reputation as a critics' darling, thanks in large part to its attention-grabbing 2006 breakthrough Coward, but now, with third album The Ruiner already generating some serious buzz among metal enthusiasts and indie scenesters alike, the band is more than ready to make the next significant leap in its short yet already impressive career.
"The albums have been steadily getting more and more reception, but this one seems to be something that people are really responding to," says Christmas, on the phone from her home in Brooklyn. "Which is awesome, because we were not sure that that was going to be the case, because we did a few things on this one that we didn't do before. We didn't expect it would be anywhere near this strong a response. It seems that people like it, or can identify with it."
Whereas half of Trophy's tracks consisted of the band's first demos and the Steve Albini-produced Coward was hammered out in just five days ("We were still writing as we were recording," laughs Christmas incredulously), The Ruiner was carefully crafted over the course of four months with producer Andrew Schneider, and the difference on the new disc is significant. For once, the band doesn't focus primarily on sounding abrasive; while the tetchy, nervous energy of the music remains ever-present, the songs breathe more, the arrangements much more spacious, allowing guitarist Brendan Tobin to explore more subtle, textured sounds and Christmas to exhibit much more vocal range than she ever has with the band, furthering her evolution as one of the pre-eminent female vocalists in extreme music today.
And according to the friendly and humble Christmas, much of the credit goes to Schneider. "He really works hard when he's into a project, and he's also a really cool guy," she explains. "We just love the sound that he gets, particularly his drum sounds are pretty amazing. And he's close, also, which is a lesser consideration but still one that does seem pretty cool, because we could work while we were recording. We could work at home and bring stuff back and forth between our recording studio and his."
There are plenty of striking differences between an indie rock legend like Albini and Schneider, the band's close friend; although Christmas doesn't regret having Albini engineer Coward on analog tape, as a vocalist, she feels Schneider's digital touch works better for her. "For me, being with Steve Albini was sort of like watching an episode of The Electric Company or 3-2-1 Contact where there's this guy who does all this amazing stuff with tape, and you don't really understand how he gets the precision that he does, but it's fun to watch," she says. "With Steve Albini, it was harder because we had to be really quick about it. There was really not that much time to work on the vocals; with Andrew we had a lot more time.... His recording style is a little warmer for me. Also, tape is great, but Pro Tools is better for me. I would be interested in getting into a situation where everything was recorded to tape in the amount of layers that you can do easily with Pro Tools. I'd love to hear how that sounds, hear the difference, but I know that's very unlikely because tape is harder to deal with in a lot of ways."
WOLD, Stratification (Profound Lore)
The finest extreme metal export to ever come out of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the duo of Fortress Crookedjaw and Obey channels the harsh, frigid winter conditions of the prairies like no other band, crafting a highly disturbing, unbelievably abrasive mélange of lo-fi black metal, electronic effects, and waves of white noise. And if that wasn't enough, the band's third album is even more unrelenting than last year's jaw-dropping Screech Owl, as the songs not so much pummel as grind away with an almost mechanical deliberation. However, although it might come off as nothing but abstract, free-form wankery to some, there is structure to each of the songs, with riffs buried deep below the cacophony, which is as ferocious as a dry -40° wind in January. And not only that, the lyrics are surprisingly poetic, evoking the truly grim desolation of the terrain beautifully: "Wind seared kingdom / The frozen prairie is my fortress / And the driven snow / Is my legion."
Although the musical partnership turned out as well as the band had hoped, that's not to say there wasn't some friction between singer and producer during the recording of The Ruiner. "We had been working on vocals for a song, and he was making me do something over and over. I have a pretty strong work ethic, too, or I like to think so, but at one point he was making me do things that were very, very difficult...and when I start getting angry I bristle, it's fairly obvious, and he was talking about something else about the music, and I just said, 'I'm sorry, I hate you so much I can't even hear what's coming out of your face right now,'" laughs Christmas. "At the moment, it was a little tense!"
Judging by the nine new tracks, Schneider certainly knows how to get the most out of his musicians, as The Ruiner leaves the formidable Coward in its dust. The explosive opening track "Cooker" is a classic example of Made Out of Babies' intimidating, confrontational style, the vicious rhythm section of drummer Matthew Egan and bassist Cooper providing a lurching groove underneath Tobin's discordant, almost mechanical sounding riffs, as Christmas turns in a fabulously schizophrenic performance. Relentlessly, she shifts gears, moods, vocal styles, personae, spewing lyrics that are both bewildering, disturbing, and indelible ("Dragging and cooking and screaming...hands on the table right where I can see them...burns on my knees and scrapes...run for your life...the beating, the bleeding"). "Stranger" is even more harrowing, as the band alternates between stark tenderness and blinding, primal rage, Christmas' character sketch unflinching in its imagery ("Not a single tree in sight, fluorescent turns the skin bone dry...one heel is broken, her hands do shake...there's nothing they can do to her that hasn't been done before but it's worth a try").
Throughout the entire record, Christmas' performance is mesmerizing, her screams kept to a minimum compared to the last two albums as she continues to sound more secure in her ability as a singer. Her range often rivals that of Kate Bush and Björk, and she sounds equally as eccentric and soulful in the process. "I definitely trust myself a little bit more, though I need to have people around me whose opinions I trust, as well as my own," she admits. "It's not just that I am singing more confidently, it's that the whole band is working together better. Going in, in our decision to try things that were different, one of the things that we decided to do was to try some things with less high-velocity tempo. So that always gives anyone's voice more chances to experiment, and that's sort of the reason the vocals felt more developed. Plus there's definitely the fact that this is the first album where I've written the vocals where I was able to actually listen to the music separately from the band and write to it.
"On the previous ones I've been writing while I'm in the room with them and gotten very little chance to try to perfect things or even give myself a moment to think about it, but for this one, Brendan moved into an apartment that was over a partially built recording studio, and he worked to get the recording studio together, which gave us another place to try things. What ended up happening was that the boys, Matthew, Brendan, and Cooper, would start to play during the week and they would start to craft songs, and I would be able to take those and listen to them, which I'm learning is the way that I need to work. I need to listen to stuff over and over and over."
So what's more of a challenge, then, the screaming or the more restrained singing? "When you do them together they're equally venomous," Christmas says. "It is just simply really hard to do both at the same time and not make one of them sound terrible. You really have to be emotionally involved to do it, and there's no other way to accomplish it. It's very, very hard to do, at least for me. I don't know if anybody else finds it the same...for me it's extremely difficult, but I would never do it any other way."
Two of The Ruiner's key tracks serve somewhat as the album's centerpiece. With its vibrato guitar and sparse arrangement, the brooding "The Major" seems to evoke the darker moments of 16 Horsepower or Calexico as Christmas paints a portrait of a mysterious solitary character. Meanwhile, "Buffalo"'s melancholy tale of two lonesome protagonists, punctuated by Tobin's acoustic guitar flourishes, heads in a completely different direction from "Cooker" and "Stranger". "I would say ["Buffalo"] is kind of the love song on the album," explains Christmas. "It's about two characters that sort of have been looking for each other and have been through a lot to finally get to where they want to be, and have suffered a great deal to do so, and finally prevail. I can see that all in my head, that's one of the more emotional songs.
"'The Major' is actually my favorite song on the album, I think," she continues. "I like the way it came together, there's repetitive, slow, churning vocals...Andrew Schneider was calling that the 'spooky rap', which is kind of correct," she laughs," but that wasn't the intention. I don't know if we decide beforehand exactly how things are going to come out in the end, but the way that song came together just seems right to me. The boys filled the imagery with their sound, and I think that I respond to that. Usually my lyric writing style is to try to sing a song in the perspective of a different character for every song, and this one just came out as being like this sort of surly, broken down, ex-military figure who's drinking and hobbled, but still with some kind of regiment, just really a character that is almost so odd he can only live in my imagination or some kind of fiction."
Julie Christmas (photo by Damon Allen Davison) (partial)
Christmas' lyrics, intense as they are, can be challenging in their ambiguity as well -- rare for metal music, which tends to be very direct when it comes to lyrical content and themes. "I think I have to be [ambiguous], because sometimes I don't know how to say it any other way," she acknowledges modestly. "I would rather that I really had a great brain and a working knowledge of vocabulary, but sometimes I just don't have it, so I have to resort to things that are a little bit more ambiguous. I also think it's very important for people to be able to draw their own conclusions and to be able to relate to any kind of art from their own perspective. That's part of what makes it enjoyable. Sometimes I go back and forth, sometimes out of inability, sometimes out of wanting to draw the audience in more."
What will ultimately draw audiences to The Ruiner is its brave move towards slightly more accessible sounds, as heard on "The Major", "How to Get Bigger", and especially the eerily gorgeous "Invisible Ink", which audaciously avoids falling into the quiet-then-loud trap many like-minded bands fall into, the ominous verses ("crawling on the floor has never been less fun") giving way to choruses that sound damn near pretty, pedal steel interweaving with Tobin's chiming notes, Christmas' performance restrained and endearing. It's the kind of stuff that screams "indie crossover", and could very well introduce a new crowd to Made Out of Babies' music.
"We decided to make music where we tried different things, irrespective of whether they were appropriate for the kind of music we had been making," explains Christmas. "We just decided to say, 'Fuck it', and just try a bunch of stuff, even if it made us feel like we were being a little too out there with any kind of positive emotion. It seems in heavy music there's a real penchant towards leading the emotional content of the album in the more ferocious feelings, like hate and anger, and I get all that, and I feel all that too, but anybody who's actually been through the world at all knows that that's not all there is to it, and there's other stuff that makes you feel very strongly. That's just as important, if not more so. So I think we decided to try to make songs that had some passion and honesty and love and these other things that are left out in heavy music."
Along with the new album, it's going to be a busy year for Made Out of Babies, as several members are involved in multiple side projects, including Christmas, whose acclaimed band Battle of Mice is releasing a split CD with Jesu this summer; a new project called Spylacopa, with Candiria's John LaMacchia and Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato, is in the works; and if that wasn't enough, a solo album is due in 2009. But it's this band she and her mates return to, and according to the vocalist, all these various collaborations can only make Made Out of Babies stronger.
"Even if something falls to pieces or doesn't really work out, you can sort of get something from every experience. I know that I do, anyway. I've been really lucky, and I think Brendan and Cooper have as well, because all the people that we're working with are actually very cool and not bullshit at all about music, no fake frills. It's all treadmill, no fishnets. The people we're all playing with, they're not putting on any airs."