Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A Grave With No Name - Interview

After initially starting off as a purely studio band Alex Shields has turned A Grave with No Name into a formidable live band, and gaining new fans across the country with recent support slots with The Big Pink and Sebadoh. Taking time off from the recording of the new release from the group the usually introverted lead singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer of the collective answered a few questions for your reading pleasure dear followers…

You seem to have a very un-traditionalist way of writing songs, instead of playing a couple of chords then moving on to a chorus etc. You seem to prefer to build a piece up as a whole, almost like creating the whole song at the same time with layers of reverb and echo. Would you say this is the case or do you sit and worry about the ‘definitive middle 8’ as much as the next band?

On my first album ‘Mountain Debris’ I was simultaneously learning how to write songs and record. In most instances, each song would start with a very simple motif; a manipulated drum loop; a single chord; a keyboard drone or texture, and then I would build, sound-upon-sound until I felt I had a song. Reverb and delay are very easy ways of filling up the stereo-field, and smearing sound so its faults are less apparent, so I was reaching for them consistently, to hide my lack of confidence in my singing and musical and technical ability in general. For the most part, the tracks on that record are all experiments of some sort as opposed to “songs”. Since I have become more familiar with the recording process, I have been writing songs with more traditional structures, just to see where that leads me. I think some of the people who liked ‘Mountain Debris’ could potentially be alienated by the record I am making at the moment.

Are effects and sound altering equipment integral to the bands sound or do you think if you broke the songs down to acoustic instruments they would still have a life of their own?

My second album ‘Lower’ was pretty much written using acoustic guitar and piano, and recorded on a 4-track. Layering loops distorted guitars and reverb had become limiting for me, so I thought the best way to push myself creatively was to expose myself and the songs. I started recording my third album last week which again is a reaction to what went before it, so this time I am playing at the idea of being a traditional rock band, recording in a proper studio and tracking all the songs without effects, but once I move onto the mixing stage, I’m going to take these relatively straightforward songs I’ve recorded and fuck them up.

Have you ever experimented with different alternate tunings within your playing and writing as bands such as Sonic Youth would appear to be bunched in with your many influences?

I am not a very good guitar player, and I frequently find myself intimidated by the instrument, so at this stage I wouldn’t feel comfortable experimenting with different tunings as I do not feel I have uncovered its potential with the standard set-up. Part of me thinks that some lesser bands use these alternate tunings at the expense of satisfying melodies or interesting sonics because it’s a convenient excuse for not writing good songs.

Would you say your music and writing is strictly melancholic or is each song a freeze frame of your mood at the time?

My natural disposition tends to be inward-looking and melancholic, so it’s a constant presence in my music, even when I am trying to write more uplifting songs or explore other moods. It’s not always intentional, but it always creeps in there somehow. ‘Lower’ specifically explored melancholy, but the new album I have finished writing, and have started recording is way less defined by that mood.

Who influences your writing/production ideas?

I’m influenced by everything I hear to from the throb of sounds and feeling that occur in day-to-day life; the albums I am currently listening to; people talking in the street, music on the radio. It’s all sonically fascinating to me, and accordingly it all makes its way into my records. A few artists such as Mickey Newbury, Sparklehorse, William Basinski, The Microphones, and the production of RZA and Dave Fridmann provide constant and profound influence. There’s also a fifteen year old kid from Indiana called Trevor Fitzhugh who has recorded under the name Natural Numbers whose music I think is amongst the best ever made. He’s made a staggering amount of amazing music for someone so young, and that’s something I always find myself absorbed in. I’m really digging a record called ‘Constant Comments’ by a guy called Keith Freund recently too.

You’re known for your incredibly short live sets, some early shows never creeping past 20 minutes. Do you think this can limit the type of gigs you can play or get offered as even the most ardent promoter would expect a minimum of half an hour for a support slot let alone a headline spot?

It was never intentional, it’s just that when you are a new band, you only have a limited amount of songs, and when I started out, it was impossible to recreate some of them live because of the recording process I mentioned earlier, so that limited the length of the sets. I also think playing live is stupid and I get bored after 20 minutes most of the time when I watch other bands, so I guess I never put the effort into working out more songs as it just doesn’t interest me. Now I have accumulated more songs, I think I could probably play for longer, and when we supported Sebadoh on their UK tour, we were playing for 30 minutes each night, and could have done more. I really don’t care if promoters don’t want to give me shows – I turn down most of the ones I am offered anyway.

Are there any bands you have seen on the circuit or played with that you feel are on the same wavelength or journey as you that you could name?

I connect with Daniel (Blumberg) from Yuck on a very deep personal and artistic level. We met a few years back, and became soul-mates instantly. His girlfriend is always joking that I am stealing him away from her. I think Yuck are one of the best guitar bands around, and his solo project Oupa shows another side to his creativity. I’m also really in awe of Trailer Trash Tracys who I am friends with and have played with about a million times, even though they are really on their own wavelength.

The studio seems to be your haven as opposed to the live shows. Would you say you were a technology kinda guy or is the technology and equipment simply a means to an end?

I’m totally a means-to-an-end kind of guy, I like my equipment but my emotional connection to it is very non-committal, it’s just there to help me record my music, and look cool.

You have links to Brooklyn bands such as A Place To Bury Strangers, would you say your music is more American that strictly British in its overall sound?

Much of my music is an attempt to transcend my surroundings and, although I have lived in London all my life, my mum is Canadian and my Dad is from Austrian Jewish heritage, so I have no real cultural connection to Britain, in fact I feel totally dislocated from it and don’t find it inspiring as a source for my creativity.

A Grave With No Name are headlining CAMP Basement on the 17th February and are currently in the process of recording a new album which is due to be released later in the year.


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