Closer to Glorifying Ecoterrorism than Neoliberalism: The Alex Reed Interview
Alex Reed of the band Seeming (and various other projects you may have heard about) was kind enough to provide an interview. You can read my earlier review of Seeming’s deliciously good debut album Madness and Extinction here, stream the album here, and part with your hard-earned money for a copy here and at various other places where one would expect to buy music.
Much as it’s a largely debased and meaningless term, at first glance Madness and Extinction appears to be something of a concept album. So, why madness, why extinction, and why together?
Right. I think both madness and extinction are viable alternatives to a world overrun by people convinced of their own rightness, and of their own right to control others, kill living creatures, and poison the sky. As options go, I’d even say they’re preferable, really.
One aspect of the juxtaposition between madness and extinction is that the album has a sort of apocalyptic confessionalism: of the ten songs you wrote for it, by my count, nine of them feature the first person, including “Convincing,” in which you break an unspoken pop taboo and invoke yourself by name. What’s the appeal of such personal engagement with the apocalypse?
Music is a way of connecting with people, but I’m not going to pretend that what we have to say on this record is a message that lots of other people relate to or would want to. Oftentimes the most rewarding art is the stuff that feels dangerous or risky, and so I made the choice with this album to give up on dance songs, on love songs, or on cheesy motivational ideas. I like making dance music and love songs and I’ve written some very honest and hopeful stuff, but if that’s what you’re looking for as a listener, there’s a whole world of music out there tailor-made for you, and I can’t compete with it. What I can do, though—and what I think we did with this record—is paint a picture that stares you back in the face with more than a hint of wildness and cold distance. The risk on this record is its uninterest in relating. It’s kind of a martian portrait. And I think that’s what makes it exhilarating for me, and I think that people are starting to get it.
Speaking of “getting it,” I saw an exchange on Facebook where someone suggested there’s a symbolic “side flip” to the album between “Goodnight London” and “Come Back”—a feature that you more or less confirmed. Can you talk a bit about the album’s sequencing and this two-sidedness? Is there a dramatic arc that you see to the album? Do some songs respond to one another directly?
Well, you talked about a “concept album,” and I can tell you that we never planned this to be a concept record as such. But once we had the songs assembled, certain patterns fell into place in the sequencing. “The Eyes of Extinction” always sounded like an opener, though finding a closer was harder. I write a lot of songs that feel like conclusions or epilogues. I think all pop stars should hire me to write track 12 on their albums. An example of something that fell into place, though, was how “New Year” kind of felt like the outside view of “Everything Could Change,” and so putting then back-to-back made a kind of thematic sense. On the flip side of that coin, “The Shadows” has a few lyrical overlaps with other songs and I wanted to cordon it off a little from the first few tracks to give those images some space. Other decisions like the transition from “Everything Could Change” into “Goodnight London” or from “Beautiful for the Last Time” into “Convincing” had more to do with how the music sounded. Those are certainly the record’s best two transitions, sonically speaking. We actually had a spreadsheet where we rated every possible transition and tried to optimize it all, like a Traveling Salesman problem, but in the end, track sequencing is kind of a weird, magical thing with a mind of its own.
I want to talk more about putting the record together, but let me digress for a minute. Given that the usual day-to-day fare of this site is British media, I have to ask about the British, and more broadly, European influence on the album. Obviously there’s both “Goodnight London” and “Come Back,” and the album keeps circling back to bits of European history and culture in things like “New Year” and “Beautiful for the Last Time.” Why Europe, particularly as an American yourself?
Hrm. In the book I wrote last year, Assimilate, I’ve got this whole chapter where I come down pretty hard against the fetishization of certain imaginary Europes. Long story short, its sketchy territory that can foster what are effectively fascist aesthetics. So let me start by saying with absolute clarity: I do not idealize Europe’s past or present, its political realities or its mythical lineages. I have zero patience with the entire concept of “purity,” no ideological attachment to the folklore or history of the north, the pre-industrial, or any construction of innocence that others might project onto past generations. And I think those who do so ought to think hard about the sources and effects of their beliefs.
Now, all that aside, I do have a personal, experiential knowledge and even love of certain places in the world, and many of them are in Europe. I was an exchange student in the Netherlands when I was sixteen. I spoke Dutch fluently and traveled to England, Belgium, Germany, and Czech. It was a wonderful, formative time for me, and when I was researching Assimilate, I traveled back to those places. “Beautiful for the Last Time” was inspired in part by the way that history is enacted and rewritten on the streets of those places. And I have other songs that engage with these places because I’ve come to know them, because I have family connections to them, and because I’ve been exposed to their art and literature in a way that I feel able to comment on—there’s a lot of it that’s compelling, well-preserved, and that was taught (for better or for worse) in the places where I was sent to learn as a kid. I’ve got two songs that aren’t on Madness & Extinction called “A Recovered Film” and “The Conqueror of England” that come from these perspectives. But for that matter, I’m compelled by New York City, Chile, Tunisia, and Trinidad, and I think some of these will be apparent in Seeming’s future music. And I don’t know if it counts for anything, but “Come Back” always seemed situated in Africa to me—that line about poachers. But that’s probably because I was thinking about the Western Black Rhino when I wrote it.
But there still feels like the album has a note of idealism, and the last line in “Come Back,” for example, hints at that. For all that Madness & Extinction is being called “the feel-bad album of 2014,” I can’t help but hear optimism, like in the cover of Alphaville’s “Welcome to the Sun” that closes out the vocal tracks. What do you say to critics who might suggest that you are actually a perfectly well-adjusted and basically happy person?
Okay. As I think of it now—and I didn’t write it this way, but let me to play analyst here for a second—it’s an awfully conditional kind of optimism, isn’t it? I mean, between “Come Back,” “Goodnight London,” and “The Burial,” we’ve sorted of wiped the planet clean, and between “New Year,” “The Shadows,” and “Convincing,” I’ve well and truly lost my mind. Any hope that “Welcome to the Sun” offers up more or less relies on a totally clean slate. In this context, it comes closer to glorifying ecoterrorism than neoliberalism. As for being well-adjusted and basically happy, I find a decent amount of happiness in the gaps and cracks. Maybe they’re part of the bigger system, but if that’s the case, then at least they’re an inconvenient, grudging concession that’s been made for the likes of me.
You’ve started a new band for this album, and killed off your previous band, even though “New Year” had a previous version on the final release by your old outfit. How did the decision to move on change how you thought about and made the album?
It was mostly the other way around. The music I was making, to say nothing of the people I was and wasn’t working with, didn’t have much to do with the material I used to put out. Plus it’d been a while since the last record, and so even though I hadn’t thought much about ThouShaltNot running its course, Aaron and I found ourselves very much in the midst of something new. If fans of the old band find this record and like it, more power to them, but like I said before, it’s definitely not intended for the same crowd. And once we made the decision, it was really freeing. I don’t miss the past at all. “New Year” was recruited because it started making a lot of sense in the context of the other songs I’d written. Reshaping it felt like we were doing a cover song.
Speaking of past work, you closed your book on industrial music, Assimilate, with a meditation on the future utility of noise as a transgressive force. Obviously, this is a very political record, but it’s easy to focus on the album’s politics in terms of lyrics alone. How did you conceptualize the politics of the album’s sound?
I wanted to locate the album sonically in a hidden, lost space. We reverberated ourselves until we forgot who we were. We took really catchy demos that had a rock edge and erased the guitars. We slowed drums to half-time. We cut lyrics that were too obvious. We listened to late-60s psychedelic records and early-80s space rock. The point here wasn’t pretense or esotericism, but it was a kind of discipline. There’s a deep, terrifying emptiness bigger than you and me, and it’s not going to show its face in a chilled out synthpop number or a dubstep break. We were training ourselves as musicians and producers like it was the first time, because that’s the only way we were going to find a new language.
While we’re at it, you’ve also said that “when I’m putting Big Statements into music, I really like working in crystalline forms that invite repetition; I like recording.” This calls to mind William S. Burroughs—whom you also write a lot about in Assimilate—and specifically the idea of using repetition to imbue symbols with power and meaning, and of this as a magical process. To what extent is Madness and Extinction an act of magic?
Inasmuch as it’s a bald-faced and dead-serious refusal of “reality.”
That’s all you’re going to say?
Bringing up some of the themes of materiality that both of us have focused on, can you talk about the material composition of some of the songs—like what instruments you use, what you build the songs in, or any interesting sounds or samples you integrate?
Sure. We record in Digital Performer, mostly, but that’s not where it starts. Method-wise, I’m a pretty old-fashioned songwriter. Usually I sit down with a guitar or at a piano. Sometimes I’ll free-write beforehand if I’ve got a basic idea of what I want to say but need to spin it out a little. Production decisions will sometimes occur to me while I’m writing, but a lot of time they’ll develop through playing the song, demoing it, experimenting a little. With “The Eyes of Extinction,” for example, I wrote it initially in a straight 4/4, and it took a little bit of messing with it before the triplet rhythm emerged as a better choice. To keep that from feeling too laid-back or bluesy though, that meant we had to be very careful about the percussion and steer clear of anything resembling a backbeat. It also meant that the main repeating instrument—that weird synthesizer that opens the whole album—needed to be really out of this world but without ever getting intrusive.
Sound follows content—though a song’s content of course goes beyond its lyrics. A song like “The Shadows” is, at least to me, more about its buildup than about any particular lyric, and so as the melody gets higher and as the chords veer further away from the home key, we turned up the reverb and added in more layers. Finding the balance is important. We did a lot of versions of “Everything Could Change,” for example, and some of them got too obvious at times in the way we were handling the whole “voices-in-your-head” business. The final version, especially with the sudden piano and vocal distortion on verse two, and also with the choral ending, really felt like cutting the Gordian Knot. We hadn’t ever figured out how to end the song before that. It’s a thrill when you can just stumble on the solution to a problem.
And along those lines, I should say that sometimes there are little serendipities and surprises. “The Burial” really just went through one version. We laid down some drums and a one-take playthrough of a simple analogue synth to help me guide the vocal takes, figuring we’d find something more nuanced for the final version. But it was pretty clear once the vocals were in that the song didn’t need much more. It was the last song recorded for the album, and it’s one of the few places where we said, “You know what? Screw subtlety. Let’s have giant gothic death bell ring every four measures. And a ridiculous prog-rock synth solo.” So the demo really was the final version there. Or another one of my favorite unintended moments on the album is in the “getting over” section of “Welcome to the Sun.” There’s a siren blaring in the background there, which was simply the sound of a police car outside my apartment on Bleecker St. where I recorded the vocal. I think it lends a little whiff of fear to a song that (as you say) is more optimistic. And it’ll always remind me of that time and that place.
Let’s stay for a minute on the way that the records’ songs developed over time, especially since you talked earlier about moving away from obvious or natural choices. I know that the Seeming fan page on Facebook talked a lot about “Goodnight London,” which is probably the catchiest song on the album. Was that something you wrote and recorded quickly or was it more laborious?
I wrote it pretty quickly, but like I said at the start, that’s just the beginning of the whole process. I think this one was mostly dreamt up on guitar initially. I remember the first real challenge was figuring out the shift in key that happens on the line “the bombers have been sighted over Paris.” But yeah, to answer your question, “Goodnight London” was laborious. There was a version with the sound of marching footsteps and a military choir, and there was a big dumb synth-rock version that was stylistically outdated the moment we finished it. We learned—probably not for the first time—that you shouldn’t force a song where it doesn’t want to go. My wife Meredith loved the acoustic demo and hated all the big versions we did after that, and so when we were nearing the end of making the album, we set out to find a way for “Goodnight London” to keep its intimacy and emotion while still making good on its chorus, which is a giant, catchy rock gesture. I think allowing the song to percolate for a while and being able to hear it in a few different ways helped us in the end, because once we knew what we wanted, the final album version came together very quickly.
And you just did a video for it, yes?
Yes we did! It’s up today at https://mishkanyc.com ! We worked with a very talented director in London named Michele Turriani. We all agreed that going with a literal apocalypse scenario would be too direct, prone to bad clichés, and stupidly expensive. So instead he made a very intimate little armageddon that matches the song rather nicely. Aaron and I liked the treatment enough as a short film that we opted not to appear in the video at all. We did, however, learn the interesting lesson that if you pay someone on another continent a fairly modest sum of money, they will blow up a BMW for you.
That’s an excellent thing to remember. Okay, finally, because I have to ask, in what ways do They Might Be Giants influence this album?
Hah. One of the best things about They Might Be Giants is that they feel always free to invent, subvert, and tear down little worlds and realities left and right. It’s part of why they seem “wacky” on one hand, but its also a really personally invigorating, magical thing. I know you meant the question as a joke, and yes, let me take a second and plug the book that you and I wrote about Flood—it’s charming and worth a read. But even though Madness & Extinction sounds nothing like They Might Be Giants, I keep coming back to music’s power to remake whole universes. And I keep hoping somehow this can show us how to remake our own.
April 11, 2014 @ 12:19 am
How can I see this video?
S. Alexander Reed
April 11, 2014 @ 3:31 am
Video is delayed a few days because the site slated to premier it just had rough transition to its new format. That's what they tell me, anyway. We'll keep you posted!
April 12, 2014 @ 6:17 am
you break an unspoken pop taboo and invoke yourself by name
You are now now rocking with will.i.am and Britney, bitch.
April 15, 2014 @ 12:51 pm