The Muttering Retreats – Originally uploaded by thegrue76 /TDAOC
This little Q&A with The Muttering Retreats‘ Tim Thornton unfortunately did NOT make it to (Internet)press on time, but far be it for me to deny you insight on this Cleveland-based little band that could.
Aside from playing their first Chicago venue show earlier this summer the day before Pitchfork, TMR has stayed busy this year… dropping their first proper LP (complete with adorable Wes Anderson-y art direction) and recently releasing a cover of Belle & Sebastian’s “Sleep the Clock Around” (Mediafire) – one of my personal favorites twee-as-fuck songs. They also just learned a bunch Beck songs to perform as America’s Most Acceptable Scientologist for a Halloween show at The Beachland.
If you’re in the vicinity of Ohio in the next few weeks, make sure you stop by to catch Muttering Retreats open for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone; the band that wouldn’t stop touring, on 11/22 at Beachland.
- The Muttering Retreats – “Sleep the Clock Around” MP3
- The Muttering Retreats – “The Capitalist & The Communist Vie For Our Hero’s Affection” MP3 (c/o A Cloud of Starlings)
- The Muttering Retreats – “Pastiche” MP3 (c/o I Rock Cleveland)
And now to go back in time to late July when Tim discussed “crusty” recording, album cliches, and being in a band while also living actual lives with 9-to-5 jobs…
Arms, Distance (Brian): First of all, congrats on the release of the self-titled full album! Though, this technically isn’t your first official release — The Muttering Retreats released a limited edition tape last year didn’t you?
Tim Thornton of The Muttering Retreats: Yes. Our initial release was also technically self-titled, but it came to be known as “The Letter Tape,” due largely in part that the alphabet was a bit of a concept with the tape. [The original "pressing" featured music on side A which was then played backwards on side B. The second batch was labeled side C and D, and so on].
Roughly two weeks before our first show in April 2007, I decided that we absolutely needed some sort of product/souvenir of the show, so we cobbled together 15 minutes of audio … and we made a super lo-fi collage and put it on a 30 minute tape. The other side of the tape are those same 15 minutes, only backwards. We did three runs of the tape … but we only have a couple copies left and aren’t making any more. It’s a real ramshackle affair, I wasn’t expecting to keep it in print this long.
As for the choice on the format, it was just a foregone conclusion by that point. We wanted to have something really simple and charming that was also an artifact of a certain point in the band’s career. The super-crusty sounds on that tape really sum up what we were early off.
AD: I wanted to touch on that, actually. It seems that the use of dated technology, like the cassette tape, fits well with the aesthetic of the group. Aside from the nod to indie pop history, making tapes instead of CD-R’s is just one of the voluntarily analog, or organic, or like you said “crusty”, processes The Muttering Retreats seem to take in crafting music. Was this cultivation of your sound just a natural process, or more of a back-to-basics type manifesto?
T: It wasn’t at all a statement about analog or digital or sound clarity or any of that. All of the material on the tape had entered the digital realm at one point, so it wasn’t purism in any form. Rather, it was done as a reminder to the audience that the material on the tape wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously, as it was something cobbled together in such a short amount of time that we couldn’t really even begin to approach it as a traditionally commercially viable product.
AD: How does that compare to the new CD?
T: We went a totally different route. We tried to make the full length more cohesive, more of a full length statement. We really went out of our way with what might seem like minor details, such as sequencing.
We didn’t want the album to sound like we had one or two ‘singles’ and put them first on the album. We didn’t want to have a slow, sappy closer. We still fell victim to a couple of sequencing cliches, but we’re still happy with what we came up with. Also, there are a few things about the physical CD that can’t be translated over to a digital format. I won’t go into detail as to what they are, but they are all compact disc specific “Easter eggs.”
AD:Sounds very cool, and a nice reward for buying the actual album instead of getting a leaked copy. Hmmmm, what’s the worst sequencing cliche you can fall prey to?
T:I think the biggest faux pas is putting your weakest song as the second to last track … I’d say that putting some of your best stuff on the second half of an album is such a great reward for listening to the whole album. One example I looked to for this album was the newest Spoon record. “The Ghost of You Lingers” is the kind of track most bands would put as the second to last track, but they put it as the second song! Such balls! Even though they put such a difficult song as track 2, they put (arguably) the best song as the second to last. “Finer Feelings” is by far my personal favorite on the record… it’s such a great example of how thought out sequencing can help an album a lot.
We really tried to emulate that brave approach, putting an atypical song as the first track, then putting a completely opposite song as track 2 and so on.
AD: To that point, it’s obvious T.M.R. has put a lot of thought into this album. From how you’ve progressed as a band, to the sound production nuances, to the art direction and liner notes. Is the release of this album a turning point for the band? … Any thoughts about the progression of
T: Well, the band is still relatively young. We officially formed on the second to last day of 2006, and didn’t play a show until April of last year. Releasing this CD isn’t really a huge step, but rather our biggest project so far. We’ve already got a few new, small projects in the pipeline already. We’re planning a couple of new small-run releases, including a quasi-live cassette collecting a bunch of our favorite performances and adding new material right on top of it. Also, we’re contemplating a possible collection of remixes and a 7″.
The three of us have very normal lives with the responsibilities that go with them, including 9-5 jobs, student loans, and upcoming wedding plans. [Tim and Cari are currently engaged]. We can’t live the life of a ‘career’ band, at least not in the sense that you can expect us to pack up and go on tour for weeks on end.
Right now we’re happy to play Cleveland regularly and make day trips out to surrounding cities. With gas prices the way they are, we might even be trailblazing a whole new model, but we can’t really say that it was our intention.
As far as “progression” in the band, the CD is a definite raising of the bar for us. I’m already looking forward to the next one. But we even know it’s not time to quit our day jobs.
AD: Wow, lots of stuff in the works. That is an interesting point, too — that the cost of a “proper” tour must be astronomical now with gas prices. Maybe gas sticker-shock will foster stronger musical communities, supportive hyper-local scenes, etc.
So, you’re multi-tasking this weekend too — attending the Pitchfork Music Fest while you’re in town. What bands are you most excited about seeing? Which of the bands on this year’s docket would you most want to play with? Besides Spoon I guess.
T:Personally, I would really not ever want to play with Spoon, they’re just too good. I’m excited to finally see Spiritualized. They’re a perfect example of the kind of band we’re trying to be … Spiritualized can make their songs work with a 100 piece orchestra or just a guitar and a vocal. We’re really interested in that sort of songwriting.
An obvious choice would be The Apples in Stereo, but it’s warranted, they’re a great band. Most of the bands I’m really excited to see are the ones who dare try to pull off something really unique live. Health, High Places, Animal Collective, Atlas Sound, !!!, Caribou, etc etc… all of these bands have a lot of nerve to go up and try to present (to a festival crowd, no less!) a really unique live set, and I really hand it to them for that. It’s hard enough to try to play a simple pop song to a crowd, let alone a song/set of something completely different.
Oh, and Public Enemy… just because that set is going to be the most fun moment of the summer.
AD: It’s going to be a nice three+ days of music (and people watching).
You mentioned Spiritulized songs can work simply or with lots of components–in that way, how does a Muttering Retreats set work? Your music has elements of both straight-up pop but I know you’re also big into sound experimentation. You feature a fair amount of guest instrumentals and some of the production can also be quite dense: how does all this work live?
AD: Well, sometimes it just doesn’t work. But we try, honest. Our live setup at the very beginning was very convoluted and complex, it just led to a lot of technical difficulties. We had a laptop up there, midi controllers by the drums, wires everywhere, headphones… all this stuff. That didn’t last long.
Our live set depends on our resources. Sometimes there’s a drum set, sometimes not. Sometimes we’ll need a sax, other times a clarinet will do. Recently, we’ve even been messing around with completely re-arranging songs… adding new parts, having someone else sing, playing it faster/slower/on different instruments…
A lot of bands are out there with six or more people up on stage and we simply aren’t one of those bands, though I could see people making that assumption listening to some of our songs. Every once and a while we’ll get someone extra to come up and play drums or trumpet or something, but it’s less often than you might assume by listening to the CD.
We’ve all been getting into the business of making a bit of a soundscape under our songs. There’s a bit of that on the record, but it’s something I like to create in a live setting using loops and such. Chris is currently working on a setup that will allow him to make loops/soundscapes of his violin and piano, but that project is still in the works.