Matt Joynt of Anathallo talks about the band's unusual journey to its finest work to date, Floating World.
The Man Who Made Flowers Bloom
"And so it happened long, long ago..."
So begins "Hanasakajijii", a tale of the man who made flowers bloom. A Japanese folk tale, passed in the oral tradition, about a man who comes to great fortune and brings prosperity to his land, ending a long drought. The source of his fortune: An abnormally large dog.
According to the tale, an old woman washing her linens in the river notices an abnormally large dog and helps it to shore, rescuing it and giving it a home with her and her husband. The two embrace the dog as their own and are rewarded for their kindness when one day the dog unearths a large fortune. Their jealous, cantankerous neighbor borrows the dog in hopes that it will bring him fortune as well; instead the dog reveals a pool of garbage and vile insects beneath the treacherous yard. Angry, the villain shoots the dog through the side and burns the body.
The ash of the burnt, Christ-like canine fells the neighbor and, drifting into the kindly old man's yard, raises a great tree and causes flowers to bloom, ending the town's drought.
Cute isn't it? For years the story entertained Japanese children before falling into the hands of Matt Joynt, vocalist, guitarist, and keyboard player in Anathallo, a rock ensemble with seven multi-instrumentalists. While taking a Japanese culture class Joynt stumbled across the story. "I just read the story in a children's book and was kind of appalled at how disgusting it was." Eventually, a love affair blossomed between he and the story, inspiration struck and Anathallo's ambitious new album Floating World was conceived.
"The story is definitely a retelling. It isn't even true to the form that I read. But, in looking for that [specific] story, I found five or six different published versions of it, because it was an oral tradition. So I felt a sense of liberty to rewrite it and rework it and work the angles that I felt would flow into this idea of good and evil and perception of events and pull those elements out and highlight them for use in telling the story." The story itself forms the centerpiece of the album, the themes informing the remaining songs.
Beginning with the instrumental opener, "Ame", continuing through the delicate and sprawling "Genessaret," and crescendoing with the soaring horns of "Hoodwink," the first three songs of Floating World create a seamless introduction to a stunning album. "Ame" and "Genessaret" are essentially one song, with "Ame" serving as the fragile introduction to the album's most lyrically poignant song. Named for the Sea of Galilee, upon which Jesus walked out to his disciples while they were toiling in a heavy storm, "Genessaret" echoes the surrender and fear of the apostles when Jesus appeared. The song itself is a barrage of imagery, evoking the feeling of shock and wonder at the point of a self-awakening and the lingering emptiness once the wonder has vanished. "For a minute short, there was a wonder / A sense after the momentary weird blur / in the space of expectancy / when you wake / when you open your eyes," sings Joynt before concluding the song, "Stuck and stinging, I keep rolling".
"Hoodwink" is the album's most traditional song -- if traditional can be applied in any way to Anathallo. Opening with simple piano and vocals, it soon bursts at the seams with horns. As the song progresses, Joynt ventures into emo territory, straining the lyrics. Soon after, emotional catharsis gives way to classical arrangements and sublimely interwoven horns and guitars.
The centerpiece of Floating World takes place in four parts, each titled "Hanasakajijii", each recounting a different part of the story, each a musical representation of the narrative. "Hanasakajijii (one: the angry neighbor)" announces the arrival of the villain with operatic grandeur, while the dancing piano melody of "Hanasakajijii (three: the man who made dead trees bloom)" evokes images of an ever-growing, colorful garden. Similarly, the remaining parts bring the story to life in a flood of bells, horns, layered percussion, and handclaps. Music as complex as it is beautiful, all four of the "Hanasakajijii" pieces shift effortlessly between time signatures and tempos. In a word, they are compositions. To call them pop songs is to greatly underestimate them.
Anathallo employs an arsenal of strange instruments to generate a sound that is entirely unique and equally mesmerizing. That so many musical backgrounds and sounds dovetail to create such a fluid album isn't entirely lost on the band either. Admits Joynt: "It's kind of all over the place. We were pretty surprised that it sounds pretty fluent. It flows a lot better than we expected."
Eclectic Sounds From Eclectic Beginnings
"Danny and I grew up around Celtic music and, I think, in some weird way that comes through in our rhythmic tendencies and wanting to have a million different rhythms going on that create one fluid motion. Andrew came from a classical background. And everything from the Beatles and Zombies and the Beach Boys to Neil Young. So it's really just all over the place. Our percussionist, when we wrote the record, was really into hardcore and stuff like that, and within that scene he listened to a lot of technical bands ... Shai Hulud, bands with really insane rhythmic time changes and signatures. Somehow all these influences packed together and became what we did at the core." Out of chaos comes order.
Formed six years ago, Anathallo is more of a collective will than a band. Sure, there are all the trappings of a band, instruments, songs, tours, etc, but these things are only the surface layer of a group of friends from high school who found themselves attending the same college; who began touring as teenagers; who self-booked ten national tours; and who have remained a band despite six member changes. "Those who decided they didn't want to keep pursuing it left ... It was kind of this process of some people needing to leave at certain times and some people being there to take their spot and having the same vision, artistically, as the rest of us ... over a slow process we've changed about half of our members." That's the kind of turnover that would make Jeff Tweedy blush.
Some of the turnover has had to do with the young age of the band, but a lot of it has to do with the demands placed on its members. "Everybody is there all the time for the writing of the songs," says Joynt. "It's a point of dedication." If the person auditioning is interested in joining they are told bluntly the band practices eight hours a day, every day. What? Yes, eight hours a day, every day. Joynt is only half-joking when he says, "Either they say 'yes' or 'hell no, I'm out of here.' Really though, we love being around each other because it is really like a group of best friends hanging out. So, it's more like hanging out. Some days we'll be at practice and write a ton and some days we sit around and talk about soccer and eat pizza."
It isn't as though the band is run like a dictatorship. Joynt explains that the rigorous practice schedule is to ensure every member is a part of the creative process. "Before we even [begin] to write, most of writing the song comes from planning the song first. Because there are so many of us, to do a real collaboration it kind of takes getting on the same page first so that everyone feels that they're playing an important part of creating what the song ends up being ... In general we spend probably two practices sitting and just talking about what we want to do and how he want to reflect certain things musically or try something different or stretch the sound ... trying to push our own abilities. And then from there, to the actual writing."
Some Uncertainty, Failure and Success
Though the idea for Floating World came somewhat easily, for the band, coming to terms with the subject matter was a different story. If there are three things that American rock audiences immediately identify as pretentious they are: songwriting about Japanese culture, concept albums, and mystical lyricism. Fully committed to the idea, Anathallo decided to combine all three. Joynt laughs thinking about those days of uncertainty when the band sat around its rehearsal space and thought, "Oh great, we're totally screwed."
"But," he continues, "At the end of the day we decided this is what we're actually interested in ... we were like, 'Let's just go for it.'" Commitment, however, is not a cure for the occasional crisis of confidence. There were still lingering doubts, "that everyone would think this is garbage and these self-gratifying guys are getting off on making noise for three minutes and singing in Japanese."
Then there were still the songs to write. "There is this middle point [of making the record, determining] how the album was going to tie together ... or is it? Is it going to flop and we're going to put it out anyway, because we had all these songs? In some ways it did fail, I think, which is okay. But in some ways I think it worked, so we learned from it and hopefully the next record, we'll just get better." Failure. A strange sentiment from a band that has just released its finest record and scored a distribution deal with Sony/BMG. Humility, however, is one of the virtues that drives Anathallo, compelling its members to push their own limits, both as musicians an people.
Joynt clarifies his thoughts on the album's shortcomings: "I think [the record] might be a little too all over the place. We wanted it to be a little exploratory, but at the same time there are some sections where I'm like, [laughing] 'Okay, that's enough ... why did we do that.'" After a little more thought: "Or that the theme may be too packed beneath very mystical lyricism. I don't know if that makes sense ... that the concept might be too buried and not in the forefront of the listening."
For sure, the music is exploratory, but it remains cohesive, even during the album's more ambitious compositions. And, some of the themes are buried, hidden beneath layers of music and cryptic lyrics. But it is part of the album's allure. It reveals itself slowly, but with enough tantalizing movements to coax the listener into its mystical world, like the promise of a breathtaking view that lures hikers further and further into the woods.
Those willing to take the journey deep into the album are rewarded by its surprises. A review of the liner notes reveals the lyrics to "By Number" are Psalm 139:5, sung in Japanese. And the aching "Cuckoo Spitting Blood" -- which contains the touching lyric, "Since I don't know my father / I won't be a son / In the morning when words rise up / like the echo of a stone axe / some demon in me wants to rise up / and walk away" -- includes references to a Japanese death poem.
With so many different influences guiding Anathallo's music, its intensely collaborative environment and everything goes approach to songwriting, it is a wonder that the music is not a disjointed mess. Somehow, through it all Joynt and his bandmates have created a beautiful and cacophonous album. Both breathtaking and incongruent. It is an album of contradictions and harmony. That it is has garnered the band the attention of rock audiences and major label distributors has made it all the more rewarding for the band. "It's interesting, because we always hoped we would have the chance to ... umm, not have jobs, and just work on music all the time and it's been great how it all came together ... We run our own label, we own all the rights to our own music, we put the songs in whatever order we want, and we're allowed to have five minutes of noise even if everyone thinks it's pretentious, if we want to."