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Take Flight: An Interview with Red Sparowes

Jennifer Kelly

Majestic, monolithically heavy yet full of light and air and structure, Red Sparowes' music may have been informed by metal and hardcore, but it has ended up somewhere else entirely, exploring new territories of shifting dynamics and cinematic scope.

Red Sparowes

Every Red Heart Shines Towards the Red Sun

Label: Neurot Recordings
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
UK Release Date: 2006-09-18

Metal kids. Punk kids. Indie kids. They've got different clothes and different hangouts. They listen to different radio stations and speak in different cadences. They don't even like the same chords or melodic progressions. And yet, they all show up at Red Sparowes' genre-bending shows, the metal lovers for the pure sonic aggression, the punks for a certain uncompromising assault, the indie kids for the experimental edge. You could even make room for a film school contingent, given the Sparowes carefully orchestrated video backdrop, and behind that, for lovers of post-rock, jazz and even classical music. And that's just fine with Greg Burns, who plays bass and pedal steel guitar for the band, and who has no patience for genre boundaries.

"When I was growing up and playing in hardcore bands, there was a similar marriage of metal and hard core, even though there were some very defined boundaries," he recalled. "A punk band could share a stage with a metal band, and it wouldn't be weird. That went away for a while." Now, once again, with a whole raft of bands imbibing metal and punk and all kinds of other music, scenes have become more fluid. "I really like that we can play with Dillinger Escape Plan and then turn around and play with Grails," Burns added. "For us, soaking up this whole range of possibilities has been great."

The founding members of Red Sparowes -- guitarists Cliff Meyer and Josh Graham, Burns, Jeff Caxide and Dana Berkowitz -- came together in 2003, almost by chance, as members of a loosely knit east coast hardcore scene found each other in Los Angeles. Burns explained that one of his first bands in Connecticut played shows with Jeff Caxide's band when both were barely high school age. The two lost touch for years, until they both found themselves at loose ends in LA. "I just ran into Jeff in a bar one night. I hadn't seem him in years," Burns remembered. "That's the same night that I met Josh and Cliff. And we just kind of got to talking about music."

"We were all frustrated trying to find people to play with," Burns continued. "We had a similar musical aesthetic. We had all grown up listening to Slint and Jawbox and a lot of old DC hardcore. At the risk of sounding over dramatic, there was this kind of unspoken bond, I guess." Yet though the band members shared musical history, none of them felt locked in by it. "We had all moved from that to an appreciation of more ...diverse music," he said. "We can talk about Swans or any number of bands, Tarantel, just all these bands that while they're not linked to that directly, that kind of upbringing, they all stem from this. Again, it's like an appreciation for musical sincerity and just like love for music. And not so much like, getting laid or whatever it is, any other musician would do."

The four of them started playing together, at first casually. "There was never an idea to start a band or anything like that. It was just kind of the fact that we liked hanging out and wanted to have some kind of musical relationship," said Burns. "It just snowballed. The momentum was crazy. I've never seen anything like that in any other band I've played for. It came together so quickly."

"In the beginning, we were just jamming to make whatever happened happen," said Cliff Meyer, the band's guitarist. "Once we started playing, we figured what kind of direction we were going in, a more melodic and instrumental sound. It just ended up sounding like it did. It certainly wasn't any conscious direction we all wanted to go."

By 2004, Red Sparowes had recorded a demo, signed to Neurot Recordings and embarked on a tour with Dillinger Escape Plan. The band returned to San Francisco in May 2005 to record its debut album At the Soundless Dawn. The debut had all the hallmarks of the Red Sparowes aesthetic: huge dynamic shifts, slow yet complex rhythms, extended instrumental explorations, conceptual unity and the fact that if you strung all the track titles together, a story would emerge. (It was: "Alone and Unaware, the Landscape was Transformed in Front of Our Eyes. Buildings Began to Stretch Wide Across the Sky, And the Air Filled With A Reddish Glow. The Soundless Dawn Came Alive as Cities Began to Mark the Horizon. Mechanical Sounds Cascaded Through the City Walls and Everyone Reveled in Their Ignorance. A Brief Moment of Clarity Broke Through the Deafening Hum, But It Was Too Late. Our Happiest Days Slowly Began to Turn into Dust. The Sixth Extinction Crept Up Slowly, Like Sunlight Through the Shutters, As We Looked Back in Regret.")

Following the release of At the Soundless Dawn original members Caxide and Berkowitz moved away from LA and left the band. Andy Arahod from Angel Hair joined, playing bass and guitar, and Dave Clifford (ex- of Pleasure Forever) moved in as drummer. Soon after the line-up had solidified, the band began recording, this time at Louder Studio in Cotati, California.

"That was kind of a weird barn, farm situation," Meyer recalled. "It was cool and it was a different environment than I was used to working in." The band worked with producer Tim Green who also recorded the Melvins and his own band, The Fucking Champs, there. "We had a great time. It was totally laid back," said Meyer. "We had a couple of technical issues up there, but then once we got the basic drums and stuff done there, we went down and just hung out at Tim's house where he had his studio in the basement. That was really easy and comfortable and we were really able to get a lot done. We got a lot done in three four days."

The new album builds on the shifting dynamics and subtle instrumental textures of Soundless Dawn, but adds a layer of experience. "To me, the most obvious difference is the songs," said Meyer. "They make a lot more sense. We had a lot more time and we knew what we were doing with the band at that point, and plus Andy and Dave had a lot more input. With the first record, it was mostly me and Josh and Greg doing most of the writing. On this one it was all five of us. We had a more focused direction and we were all able to spend a lot more time getting the songs together, so that they weren't just these meandering things that the first record involved. I think all around, everything stepped up a little."

But though the recording process for Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun went smoothly, Burns said the album itself is full of tension. "That record reflects where we were terms of our musicianship, our relationships with each other and also our emotional state. It's very hectic and it changes dynamics. I think that may even put some people off," Burns admitted. "There are so many changes and movements. But I think that's where we all were. Josh was thinking about moving to New York. I was internally frustrated about music and work, and I play in several different projects and I don't have time. There are all these life things...that came across in the record."

Once the music was mostly finished, work began on one of the most distinctive part of Red Sparowes' art, the concept that would tie the album together. Guitarist Josh Graham (also of Neurosis), who created the album art and the video component of the live show, found a unifying theme in China's Great Leap Forward, a late '50s/early '60s forced industrialization of China's agricultural sector that killed 20 to 40 million people. Because of the band's name, perhaps, Graham zeroed in on the image of the peasants systematically killing sparrows, as their leaders exhorted. This time, the six track titles combine into a desolate story that reads like this:

"The great leap forward poured down upon us one day like a mighty storm, suddenly and furiously blinding our senses. We stood transfixed in blank devotion as our leader spoke to us, looking down on us with a great, raging and unseeing eye. Like the howling glory of the darkest winds, this voice was thunderous and the words holy, tangling their way around our hearts and clothing our innocent awe. A message of avarice rained down and carried us away into false dreams of endless riches. Annihilate the sparrow, that stealer of seed, and our harvests will be around; we will watch our wealth flood in. And by our own hand did every last bird lie silent in their puddles, the air barren of songs as the clouds drifted away. For killing their greatest enemy, the locusts noisily thanked us and turned their jaws to our crops, swallowing our greed whole. Millions starved, and we became skinnier and skinnier, while our leaders became fatter and fatter. Finally, as that blazing sun shone down upon us, did we know that the true enemy was the voice of blind idolatry; and then only did we begin to think for ourselves."

Although the music was largely finished by this time, the band worked in post-production to fit its songs with the thematic storyline. You can hear something like moaning winds in "Like the Howling Glory" and just a hint of insect whirr in "And By Our Own Hand" among the plaintive piano notes. Although the connections are not overt or over-obvious, there is a definite arc to the music, a frenzy in the early cuts, a quiet despair mid album and a sort of slow-burning resignation in the final track.

"I think a lot of people assume that we write the music to the concept. I've actually read reviews where people will say, well, I don't see how this part matches that part of the concept," said Burns, in struggling to articulate how the music and the story are connected. "To us, it's more general, a kind of feeling that the music and the concept might in some way relate. But for us, the record will be complete and then at that point, he will very carefully and through the art work relate everything to the concept. There's a very descriptive story, and obviously it was an event that really happened. Like with the first record, there was a feeling of this horrible event, and then in some places there would be hope."

The stage show incorporates videos that abstractly refer to the album concept. This filmed element of Red Sparowes is, band members say, an important part of their aesthetic and, again, all down to Graham. Meyer explained that the band was not trying to force certain imagery on its listeners; indeed, they'd be happy if people would create their own internal movie when they listen to the CD.

"We certainly aren't trying to make everyone imagine the same things," he said. "That would be the total antithesis of what we're trying to do. Hopefully everyone can have some kind of independent thoughts. But I do think it's important to have something else to create some kind of whatever direction that might take you. That's kind of the history with instrumental music. Pink Floyd and all those bands always had some kind of visuals, something going on to fulfill that other aspect of the music, that needs to have some kind of meaning."

Burns added that sometimes when he shares his musical work with strangers, he'll get the reaction, "Well there are no lyrics. I don't even know how to react to it." He added, "That kind of amazes me sometimes. I don't hear people saying that about classical music or jazz. But I think a lot of the video treatment is our way of trying to relate how we're feeling about it, and if people want to use that, they can. And if not, then that's fine. It's another expression but it's not so forceful that it guides people in one way or another."

Or maybe not. Meyer said that he sometimes finds himself transfixed by the images on screen. " Sometimes it's a little bit start fucking up the music because you start getting into those, but yeah, it's awesome," he said. "I'm excited to play again in a couple of months."

Red Sparowes had just finished a couple of weeks of shows in the UK when we spoke in early December. They'll be off for the holidays, then have a couple of West Coast shows with Neurosis in January. Isis' winter tour will force a break -- the downside of playing in a super-group is always the scheduling -- and then the band will regroup for a spring tour of the US. Meanwhile, there's a planned EP in the works, one with guest vocals on every track. Though no names have been confirmed yet, band members are tossing around ideas like William Elliot Whitemore and the singer from Oxbow. An eclectic effort, but then, what would you expect from a band whose members drop names like Hatebreed, Tortoise and even Stravinsky in rapid succession as they attempt to define their sound.

Asked if classical music played any role in Red Sparowes sound, Burns began talking about the visceral impact that Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" had when it premiered in Paris in 1913. "People rioted because he was using, basically, parts of the scale that were banned by the Church. It's called the Locrean mode, sometimes 'the devil's scale.' You hear it all the time now. It's really dissident and very tense," said Burns, explaining that the music in the shower scene from Psycho made heavy use of this disturbing, off-kilter sound. "But for me, I remember sitting in a music class and hearing that and I was finally paying attention because here was somebody who worked on something new and really stirred things up."

And, bringing it back to the many kinds of music Red Sparowes draw on, Burns added. "What's interesting to me is that people increasingly segment themselves off, just because of the way music sounds. Say a piece sounds like pop music, and we could get into the technicalities of it, but for whatever reason, whatever chord structures, whatever structure there is to the song, some people just aren't going to like it. And they're going to make a point of not liking it, by the way they live their lives and the way they dress and the things they do. I think all of that stems from this weird connection to music that we have."

So Red Sparowes will continue to make music that you feel in the pit of your stomach, in your soft organs and bones, music that envelopes you and changes your mood, music that can't be confined by genre categories. Call it post-metal or post-rock, cinematic distortion or orchestral hardcore -- or stop thinking altogether and just let it carry you away.

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