To some extent, music is a product of an environment, but an environment is a complex thing. A city is sometimes credited with producing a sound - the Chicago sound of the late 90s/early 00s, Manchester's Madchester, Seattle and Grunge. These kinds of scenes can create a weird balance of healthy and unhealthy competition, driving creativity and determination and, ideally, driving innovation. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's sound has alternated between bar rock and "five-years-late". According to a number of national articles, Pittsburgh has benefitted from recent advances in medical ingenuity, innovative start-ups, high-end restaurants all with a high quality of life. It appears that Pittsburgh has maintained the small-to-mid-size city charm while catching up with other cities in the culture department. In a lot of ways, this is certainly true. But, where is the music?
Aside from Pittsburgh's rich legacy in jazz and some notable exceptions like Girl Talk's popularization of plunderphonics, Pittsburgh has not introduced a dominant sound or movement. There have been phases - a garage rock phase, a folk throwback phase, a kraut phase, a few electronic pop phases. Throughout these phases, there have been some genuinely great bands. In the cracks between scenes, there have also emerged unique acts that broadened the range of what can be done - thinking of The Johnsons, Kill the Unicorn, Microwaves, Grand Buffet, and I would argue Julie Sokolow's first (and currently only) record. So, Pittsburgh has at different times housed great music, but Pittsburgh is not a driving force in creating or promoting music.
One thing that Pittsburgh allows is the pursuit of an interest. Housing and other costs are still cheap enough to allow for focused involvement in a project. What the city lacks in record labels, promotion companies, any sense of critical writing, and other useful tools for publicizing and growing music, it makes up for in few expectations and a guaranteed or at least open-minded audience for any type of music. It is an environment that allows for craft building, placing the responbility on the artist and not the momentum of a scene.
Mariage Blanc is surely a band that pursues a craft, working outside trends, but surely within the now codified term "indie rock". (Also, the band is not necessarily a Pittsburgh band since guitarist/songwriter/producer/engineer Josh Kretzmer now splits time in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.) The band's 2010 self-titled effort was accompanied by stories documenting odesseys in recording to tape. That record was a pristinely recorded and performed record, full of big hooks and layered melodies. The guitar harmonies caused former Pittsburgh City Paper music editor, Aaron Jentzen, to exclaim, "Steely Dan, right?" to me at a show. I agreed. I don't think the band did, though. Two plus years passed before the Undercurrents EP emerged, showing a greater interest in parallel arpeggiated guitar figures while retaining the sweetly cooed vocal melodies. From my insight to the recording process, it takes a special kind of people to want to meticulously labor over a record for that long. The result was wonderful and no doubt a result of the process, but the process isn't for everyone. So, the band has been able to quietly craft their records outside of local expectation.
Here we are in 2015. No Autobiography is the band's new record. In a way, it is a hard album to write about. There are definitely technical things to note. The production is beautiful - clear, balanced, warm, real sounding. Guitar-wise, there are plenty of the parallel arpeggios from Undercurrents in the forefront, but some of the bolder, melodic statements are back, helping to add dynamics and to create space. The bass is fluid as ever, jumping in here and there like a temporary anchor. Rhythmically, the record uses acoustic guitars as a primary rhythmic device, allowing new drummer Rich Kawood to play with different drum patterns. The drum parts are economical without sacrificing interest or feel. The group charts a nice vibe that provides consistency and ease.
But this album is really about how much you like this type of music. A friend recently described the band as sounding a bit same-y. I can certainly see that argument. No Autobiography maintains a tone and a general volume level. There is a not a note out of place. There is no instance of bad pitch. There is nothing that would suggest improvisation or a spasm of movement. It is an album that is a refinement of a sound and a mood. These are simple songs with slightly more complex arrangements. What makes this record work is the balance between all the elements - the mix, the unbelievably consistent songwriting, the performance, the soundscapes and experimentation that you only notice after a number of listens. Personally, I love this record. I've listened to it 54 times. (I have the sense that my excitement for this record is not coming through in this half-review/half-critique of a city. But, believe me, this is a great record.) For me, it is an album that works as a focused listen or background music. It is an album that allows you to visit that place of melancholy and resignation and come back intact and with a little more knowledge.
I find the production of an album fascinating, especially the mindset that is attached to the craft of making something from nothing. Mariage Blanc's principle songwriters, Matt Ceraso and Josh Kretzmer, were kind enough to answer a few questions on the process. Check it out below the album teaser.
David Bernabo: Personally speaking, when I approach the start of a new record, there is an opportunity that anything can happen and possibilities are endless. Scope is naturally narrowed by playing ability, writing habits, and resources, but there is a chance to build this new world or environment for the listener. How do you approach the creation of a record from a conceptual standpoint? Is format important?
Matt Ceraso: From our experience, starting a new record is a simultaneously thrilling and nerve-racking process, and both of those feelings directly relate to the fact that you have an opportunity to create this whole new sonic landscape for people to hear. The variations that can be used on a record to present songs in different ways are pretty endless. While that concept is very exciting and feeds our imaginative side when it comes to arranging, that blank slate can be pretty daunting because it seems like there is so much room for error as well. It’s natural to have a bit of apprehension early on because you want to “get things right” and make sure the songs come across as intended. From a conceptual standpoint, I think the biggest difference between the music we’re making now and the music we made when we were younger is that we don’t feel compelled anymore to try to filter the music through any predetermined sound or genre, per se. When we were younger, we had a habit of forcing our music into these self-imposed little boxes and very much felt like we had to adhere to a particular sound. As we’ve gotten older and grown a bit more as artists we’ve learned to just be true to the song and let it take us in the direction that it’s going to take us in. The golden rule these days when we’re writing and working on albums is to not force anything (and that if we find ourselves trying to force something, it’s probably not right). No Autobiography is definitely the most honest record we’ve made in that regard. We sort of just waited for the songs to reveal to us where they were headed and then mined whatever emotional territory that ended up being. This album very much sounds like us to me, and I feel like it’s taken us awhile to get to that point.
Format, overall, is not that important to me. If the songs are emotive and the feeling is coming through, that’s the only thing that really matters. I think people sometimes tend to put a little too much stock into whether something is analog or digital, for instance. Both have the potential to be rewarding or disappointing in the end because the format isn’t what makes a record good or bad. I love analog, but I also feel like some of the documentaries that have been coming out lately have been presenting working only in analog as this bizarre ultimatum. Some of it seems a little more like gear fetishism than a healthy enthusiasm for analog, but I’ll just say that I think both analog and digital have their strengths and weaknesses and leave it at that.
DB: Stephanie Armbruster's artwork has grace the past few releases. How does Stephanie's work relate to the music?
MC: I’m not entirely sure how it relates, we just think that she has a fantastic style and her work definitely has a certain emotional weight to it that strikes us in the right way. It’s abstract and familiar at the same time. There are a lot of great artists in Pittsburgh but for whatever reason we always seem to gravitate towards Stephanie’s work. When you look at it you just get the sense that a lot of feeling went into it, and I suppose that’s also how we hope people feel when they hear our music. It’s strange because we have a lot of mutual friends (including you) but still haven’t met her in person yet. I can say that she’s always been so easy to work with and genuinely seems like such a nice person. We feel lucky that she’s been on board with us using her work for our album covers and really hope that relationship continues!
DB: Food writer Jonathan Gold had an interesting talk about authenticity in food at the MAD3 conference in Copenhagen. The talk discusses how transplanted ideas (in location, in time) may or may not have authenticity. Already in the pre-release press for No Autobiography, there has been mention of the 70s and Laurel Canyon, Elliott Smith and 90s indie rock. What is authenticity in music? How do you balance influences with original, creative output?
Josh Kretzmer: This is an interesting question, and one that honestly places me a bit out of my depth to address directly. I can tell you that in our own creative process, we seem to be always chasing a feeling. It’s not entirely dissimilar to listening to piece of music that you find personally very affecting. The goal is just to get “there.” We usually don’t continue work on something unless the original idea has some inherent momentum or trajectory that we’re just trying to follow.
Regarding balancing influences with our own creative output, I don’t think we tend to worry about it much. There have really only been a few instances in the history of the band where we’ve self-edited because we felt something was too close to an influence for comfort. There are actually several direct references to influences on No Autobiography, some lyrical - some musical.
DB: The Undercurrents EP saw Chad Clark (Beauty Pill) lending a hand to the mix and the sculpting of the record. Can you talk about the conceptual transition in how No Autobiography was recorded and produced vs. Undercurrents?
JK: Firstly, I should say that working with Chad was an absolutely excellent experience. He asked lots of thought provoking questions and would tell us straight-up when something wasn’t working. He encouraged us to take risks and definitely left a lasting impact on the band. Aside from all of that, obviously his mixes are impeccable and we hope to work together again in the future.
We had actually spoken to Chad about mixing the new record last spring. Originally we had wanted to release the album before I moved to San Francisco, but that didn’t work with Chad’s schedule. The impending move also made all of us nervous about the future of the band. If this was going to be the last record, I wanted to mix it ourselves. I guess I just wanted us to leave as much of our fingerprint as possible on the thing.
Frankly, we started recording Undercurrents before we had the songs ready. We had ideas and some rough forms, but not finished songs. The plan was to just record every idea and then edit together the structure after the fact. This meant recording everything very meticulously to a click, and recording a number of transitions from section A to section B for every part - as well as loads of parts that were never used. There were lots of frustrating sessions trying to figure out why X or Y wasn’t working, and how to resolve the problem without scrapping the existing recordings. It took us two years to finish 5 songs, and it felt like pulling teeth. We’re extremely proud of the results, but I highly doubt we’ll ever go down the road of attempting to collage our way from ideas to complete songs again.
When we originally started demos for No Autobiography, the plan was to double-down on the aesthetic of Undercurrents. We had no drummer. I was programming lots of (probably terrible) skittering beats and we were all laying down parts on top of loosely established grooves. To be honest, most of the material wasn’t that great. Nothing was horribly wrong or objectionable in anyway - but it just wasn’t particularly compelling. As obvious as it is in retrospect, we realized we needed actual songs to work from. Not having a drummer at the time, meant that Matt and I did quite a bit of the writing on acoustic guitars - sometimes on our own, sometimes together.
Once we had the songs - we would do a fairly fleshed out demo. In fact some of the tracks that made it to the final LP were actually from the demo sessions and were flown in against the final drums, bass, vocals, etc… Tracking was easily the best time we’ve ever had recording. We didn’t have to fight for the sounds. Everything just seemed to work, right out of the gates. We tried to keep the earliest takes possible, in an effort to not scrub the feeling out of the songs. The mixes followed the same philosophy - there’s really not any “studio trickery” on this one. All of the sounds you hear on the album were actually played in a room at some point.
We finished up the album at Treelady - on my 30th birthday (I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend the big 3-0). Dave Cerminara and Garrett Haines helped us bringing in stems from my Logic sessions, summing through the console and printing to tape. Garrett also did a lovely job with mastering.
DB: Were there discussions on the use of the "fade out"? A lot of these songs fade. It is intentional? (I find it allows me to listen to this record repeatedly since there are no natural endpoints, in a way.)
MC: Yes, there actually was a discussion at one point between Josh and I regarding the number of songs that fade out. When these songs were originally written and being worked on we were still in between drummers. Often times Josh and I would just work against drum programming to get the initial feel for a song, and then afterwards when Woody (drummer Rich Kawood) started recording the album he would take the beats that we were sort of hinting at and refine them (i.e. make them much better). Because we weren’t playing as a 4 piece band in one room when these songs were written, though, Josh and I often relied on the fade out to end a song just as a placeholder if nothing else. As Woody got further and further into the recording we realized that a good number of the tunes were ending with a fade, and while we didn’t want to be repetitious, we did feel like all of the songs that we were using it on were appropriate. I guess it was something that was originally unintended, but we ended up feeling good about our decisions to keep them where they were. Unintentional things that you ultimately become fond of happen all the time in recording, and it’s those kinds of little surprises that keep the process interesting.
Purchase (or listen and then purchase) the record here: http://music.mariageblanc.net/album/no-autobiography