Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I Could Lose Myself In This -- Au Revoir Borealis: Interview

"...All the complications of life kind of melt away when you're looking at a gorgeous starry sky, and as life and the world becomes more confusing and chaotic, the things that help us center ourselves and find peace become more precious..." -singer Stephanie McWalters

Au Revoir Borealis:
Jeff Milo

Detroit-based Au Revoir Borealis have been forging stark, affecting atmospheric rock and feedback-filled-folk for 10 years. Masters of song temperment, of feel and force...and, especially, reverb - the band, a collective of multi-instrumentalists including founding members Steve Swartz and singer Stephanie McWalters, Tom Currie, Philip Zott, Justin Van Slembrouck and Michael Carian formed back in 1998 and released their debut in 2000.

This week, they release their sweeping, sublime magnum opus, Dark Enough for Stars, on local label Utter East. The full-length, filled with soft acoustic nocturnal ballads and ethereal escapism has been in the works for a while and it aptly captures the evolution of the band into an incomparable song-crafting collaboration, with a mastery of tone and an overwhelming, cinematic vibe – the soundtrack to the bittersweet chill of autumn, those long moonlit-drives under the harvest moon.

Dark Enough for Stars is a perfect escape record, with hallowed walls of reverb, soft swaying tones that swell into these poignant crescendos of wispy vocals and slow-stabbing lighting guitars; it's a record that takes it's time, it feels its surroundings, it shuts the windows, draws the curtains and stops the world. A subtle storm courses through each song – the listener gets drunk on the hazy throng of atmospheric resonance and dreamy hovering vocals, but churning beneath is a rewarding composite of subtle statements, be it a steady spooky drum beat or a cavernous organ ring or a distant shadow-dancing guitar strum, maybe a pensive saw on cello or violin, with the ever-building-receding-rebuilding and exploding omnipresence of their characteristic reverb – paired with the staggering beauty of vocalist McWalters.

For Detroit, (and now hopefully for the world) they're a treasure.

Here's a very special un-cut interview - the story of Au Revoir Borealis (listen here)

Au Revoir Borealis: The Deep Cutz Interview

DC/Milo: We should start with how when did the band get together?--how long have you known each other how did you meet? I think the last interview I read from you was from 2003-ish..., so could you provide a bit of an update on membership changes, or returns and what the current roster is..

Well, Steph and I have been making music together since 1998. That's when Au Revoir Borealis officially formed. I met original members, Michael Carian and Justin Van Slembrouck while in college. We were mainly goofing around and experimenting with sound for fun. Once
some songs started to gel, we felt that adding some vocals would be appropriate. Justin knew Steph from high school and recommended her. So we had her come over and try out some stuff. We were pretty amazed and impressed by her voice and immediately decided that she was a good fit. As far as what we've been up to since 2003, the nutshell answer is that we've been busy about life. Everyone has gotten married and had to make some living decisions based on providing for their families. Plus there have been a few health issues thrown in the mix. We've still been hanging out and doing stuff. But not all of it has been music related.
I released a solo record in 2005 under the name For Wishes and played out quite a bit in support of that. That's where Phil Zott and Tom Currie come in. I needed some help performing the songs live, but the other members of Au Revoir were busy with other things and couldn't
commit to being involved with the project. Phil had already performed with Au Revoir when Michael had to bow out due to health concerns. So he was a natural choice. He introduced me to Tom and we clicked right away. Once Steph and I had penned some songs for this new record and were ready to take them to the studio, we needed some help since Justin and Mike were unavailable to be involved with the recording due to other commitments. We asked Tom and Phil to join us in the studio and they pretty much became fixtures within the group. So over time, we've kind of become a collective of sort.

Phil [also drummer in The Great Fiction]:
I wasn't a part of that, really. I started playing with them when Mike was getting sick. Steve and I have been friends for a long time. I think we first met in 1999 when the Great Fiction opened up for AURB at the Magic Stick.

Milo: What is the story of Dark Enough for Stars--the whole shebang, meaning behind the title, when you started working on it, what was the experience of forming it like?

The album as a whole gradually came together into a cohesive group of songs, rather than being planned to be thematic. A few of the songs, like Dark Western and The Key, were actually written years ago, but for some reason, they simmered away on the back burner until we
came up with a home for them during the process of writing for this album. It was interesting to realize that the new things we were writing--as well as those two older songs--all fit together really nicely.


The title of the record comes from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. It metaphorically states that sometimes we have to go through dark times in order to appreciate the things that are good and beautiful in life. And it's true. Most people begin to take things for granted when
everything is going ok for a long stretch of time. Adversity makes us cherish the things that are most fundamental and important. I ran across the quote one day and it really resonated with me. That night, I met with Steph to work on what ended up being the last song we wrote
for the album. It was a song about the night sky and finding your way back to a comfortable place. It gave me goose bumps and I shared the quote with her. She loved it and we all started discussing it.
Eventually we settled on the title Dark Enough for Stars.
The process began in 2006 actually. Steph and I were missing the collaborative part of our creative relationship. So we decided to get together and share some ideas. Well, we ended up writing most of the songs over a 2 week period. We were sort of operating in a state of
flow and not thinking too seriously about what any of the songs might mean. We were quite surprised to see what themes evolved. So from that point forward, we started to be very intentional about the process. Once we had the songs tightened up, we recorded demos and shared them with the other members of the group. By the time everyone had a chance
to digest the material and think about arrangements, it was the end of the year. So after the holidays, we settled into the studio in January of 2007. We spent most of the year writing and tracking between jobs and For Wishes shows. Then mixed the record through the winter and
spring of this year.
Making the record was an amazing time of revelation for us. We learned a lot about each other and learned a lot about what makes some songs work and others fail. Songs are these living things that tell you more about themselves as you let them evolve and we enjoyed getting to know these songs so intimately. I was telling someone recently that writing and recording songs must be like raising good kids. You've formed this being and now they're growing into their own thing and slowly informing you about themselves. And if you don't listen to them and react
appropriately, you're going to ruin them.

For me, this album came together relatively easy. We had some demos we had been working on and I had a few compositions that I had been working on by myself. It really started to take form when we had some friends contribute to the record.

Steve called me, told me we had some new songs. Emailed me some rough demos. I thought about what could be done rhythm wise, but nothing substantial was accomplished until we practiced the songs together during the sessions where the takes would be pulled. As far as the title and concept, I was left in the "Dark" on that :)

Milo: Tom, Steve, you produced this record, could you talk a little bit about the experience from behind the boards...and detail your experience in engineering, recording, mixing...(and, feel free to dive in to the story behind Utter East)

Over the last 12 years, I've been in and out of several studios and have always been fascinated by the whole process of recording. This group is very hands on. As we would be in the studio working on previous releases, several of us would end up sitting at the mixing
board tweaking things that we felt we just weren't able to convey to the engineer. So we started learning the ropes so that we could do more of it on our own. That put me on the path to having my own studio and also doing some composing and production work for some commercials and
documentary projects. This was the first recording project I've done where there was a lot of
psychology discussed before hand. There was a lot of talk and theorizing before we ever hit record in the studio. Normally I just focus on capturing the songs and getting the best sound I can when working. But this time out, we went further. Everyone really liked the
immediacy and intimacy of the demos we recorded in Steph's living room.
So we decided that it was important to protect that quality. We wanted to make sure everything we recorded served both the song and the themes represented. So instead of just setting up the drums or setting up guitars and playing whatever parts we arranged, we thought "based on
what's being conveyed in this song, what should the drums sound like? how should they feel? How much dimension do they need? Should they have a lot of weight and texture instead of crack and punch?" Stuff like that. It wasn't enough for something to sound cool. We wanted the
listener to feel a sense of the space it was recorded in. We wanted each part to help convey an emotion. So this led us down the road to a more organic sounding production quality than some of our previous efforts. Another thing that was key on this recording was mixing the
songs around Steph's voice. It's the best instrument in the group and in the past, we've had a tendency to mix her down into the music so that the songs sounded more like a group effort as opposed to sounding like a solo artist with a backing band. This time, we worked to find a
better way to let her be the center.
As for Utter East, it's the umbrella that facilitates the whole mechanism of what we do. It's the recording studio, but it's also our outlet for distribution, PR, promotion, etc.

Steve and I worked really well together producing this album. We experimented alot with backwards tape, reverb, delays and samplers. We used these old toy samplers from the 80's, a Casio SK-1 and Yamaha VSS-30. We ran those through alot of effects to create some really nice textures.I think sometimes you can get carried away with experimenting for experimentation's sake but I really feel that whenever we'd get a little crazy it always ended up sounding like us. The basic tracks were recorded at Steves place. I recorded some tracks in my living room to 1/4" tape that we later dumped into the computer. Other tracks were recorded in far away places such as Cambridge England, rural Maryland, a cabin deep in the woods of Evart MI, a cottage in Pentwater MI and Seattle.

Milo: how has song writing and/or recording changed for you, in approach/philosophy/collaboration?...or, at least, how does this latest work distinguish itself from your past works?

This was the first album where Steve and I sat down to very intentionally write a bunch of songs. In previous albums, Steve, Justin, Mike and I had all been in the same location, and in the process of noodling around during practice, songs had just sort of happened. The guys would find themselves falling into a pattern, and sometimes within a couple minutes, we'd have a song.
Since that time, we've sort of been scattered to the four winds, so we had to be very purposeful about writing and recording rather than just getting together and songs happening. On this album, Steve came up with guitar parts, and rather than poking through my poetry to see what
would fit as I made the melody, I wrote lyrics specifically for the songs. Once framework was recorded, Steve brought his gear down here to Cincinnati, and we spent a weekend recording vocals in my living room. Then the studio magic happened as Steve and Tom added all the
lovely stuff.
All in all, I would say the basic difference is that we've been forced to be more intentional and deliberate about the songwriting, because of the distance, and because of our ever-evolving lives. It's no better or worse a way to write, it's just what's happened over time.

Well, it used to involve a lot of jamming and improvisation that yielded ideas we would nurture into songs. Or songs would evolve while warming up in rehearsal. Due to busy lives, we've had to become more deliberate in our attempts to create. We've become more focused. More
intentional in our efforts.
I think the maturity we have experienced over the last several years will be the thing that defines this record from our past work. I'm still very proud of what we have done, but at the same time, I think this new record is the most cohesive statement we've made on an
artistic level. I think part of that comes from maturity over time. And I think the other part comes from the fact that we took our time to think about everything we did and tried hard to capture all ideas that came to the table to ensure the most interesting results were found.
One of the things we wanted to preserve with this album was the human touch. So many recordings these days are air tight and flawless. They tend to stagnate in my ears because so many songs feel like studio fabrications that are just not humanly possible. We worked extra hard to make sure this album felt like it happened in a room - which it did.
Unlike some of our previous work, this record feels more like a performance. We left some mistakes and stray background noise in. You can hear fingers swiping on strings, birds chirping outside the window, a foot bumping the pedal on a piano, the hard woods floors of the
studio creaking, etc. There's evidence of everything happening in the room. We even went through the pains of recording some instruments with so many mics that when you hear it, it sounds like the instrument is in the room with you because it is so sonically detailed.

This is the first time that I've really ever been involved in the song writing process as well as having a voice in the studio. This was a new experience for me. We write and form ideas really well as a group. If someone had an idea we would usually go with it and track it just so we'd have it in the end.

Working with AURB is a fine pleasure. Every personality in the the band is warm, accepting, open to new ideas. I really can't imagine better communication between collaborating artists. For the first record I did with them, which was never released, there was a lot more tension, but there really wasn't anyone specifically at the helm either, if you will. Steve and Tom have done a fantastic job caring the burden of this project and seeing it come to a logical end. A beautiful end, if I may add.

Milo: have much of your influences endured---your inspiration by and reverence for the natural the stream, my brightest star, maps of the sky, the world is too much with us....or, as steph once noted, a fascination with snow, ice...the winter room, after the snowstorm.......has the experience of forming these hallowed walls of sound changed?

In some ways, the influences you mentioned have become even more dear over the past few years. All the complications of life kind of melt away when you're looking at a gorgeous starry sky, and as life and the world becomes more confusing and chaotic, the things that help us
center ourselves and find peace become more precious. Those are certainly things that emerge when I write lyrics, along with anything I've been thinking a lot about at the time--books I've read, or subjects I've been curious about.

We've always been inspired by the natural world around us. Tom disappears up north as often a he can. Steph goes for walks, loves parks, loves very visual literature and allegories and even lives in a neighborhood that looks like it could have come out of a fairy tale. As
for me, growing up, I loved to be out doors and my family would often go on vacations out west in the Rocky Mountains or go to the beach while visiting relatives in the Carolinas. When I discovered echos and reverbs for my guitar, I was finally able to make sounds as big and
encompassing as the world around me. Of course bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive eventually became part of our musical diet. However, it's never been our aim to imitate those bands by any means. Ultimately, appreciation for the grandeur of the world around us has
been the thing that has inspired us most consistently and probably
always will.

Phil said it pretty well...Love of nature is a common ground for us. There nothing like being in Northern Michigan with your friends, a tent, a six-pack of Bells Two-Hearted Ale and a fishing pole. I grew up at cottages, in tents, on beaches and walking the shores of Lake Huron. A love of the outdoors is just instilled in me.

Yes, I think it has. Hiking, sleeping on beaches with Tom, these are all things and memories that I cheerish and continue to. Love of nature really is a touching point, a common ground for us, besides our love of sounds and expensive beer, of course.

Milo: album opener, "The Winter Room" - feels like something to escape to....and then, after the duration of the record, we close with 'After the Snowstorm,' is this the return to wilderness? Were there specific themes or concepts to the album?

A bit to our surprise, a theme did emerge as the songs came together. The last few years have seen quite a bit of turmoil in our lives and the lives of people we love, which makes it difficult to stay hopeful sometimes. It seems the album has come to represent that yearning for peace, and that hope that keeps you afloat even during dark times.

You'll probably get different answers from each member. But for me, it is a sort of return to the wilderness. A return to a restful simplicity of being after a trying journey. A place of solitude. It's the sigh of "hallelujah" that comes after a time of struggle and it's finally over. But often, struggle comes with a sense of loss. And there is some sadness in the ending of this record, but also resolve. A gratefulness in the ability to move on in the light of a new day.
As far as specific themes for the record, they made themselves evident as we were working. We didn't really intend to have a particular set of ideas represented in these songs, but life has a way of working those things into you if you're willing to tap into them as an artist and be
conscious of what's going on around you.

I guess you could say that "After the Snowstorm" could be the return to the wilderness. It's the end of a journey. An ending where you look back and say "This is all I had to give. Thank you for spending your day with me. It's time to go". As far as specific themes or concepts...I don't think we formulated any concepts or themes making this record. I think this album truly describes who we are as individuals and as a group. We share similiar interests and it's only natural for that to show on this record.

I don't know.

Milo: What's next--are you anxious to get back out playing live/touring again?...when might we expect to see you?

We are very excited to have something new to offer everyone. We would love to play some shows and see some faces we haven't seen in a while. We're trying to figure out how possible that is at this moment since we're kind of scattered right now due to life circumstances. I
have a baby coming in October so I'll need some transition time. But if we get things figured out, there's the possibility we could do some shows after the first of the year. Hard to say at this point.
But we know there will be more coffee and chats in the studio while we continue to create stuff. That's definitely in the future because those are some of my most favorite times ever.

If the right opportunity came our way, I think we'd probably figure out a way to make it happen.

I'm pressuring Steph through Steve about coming home for a show or two. We'll see. I'd like that very much....

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