Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Swans in flight

You may not know much about Raised By Swans, and that's a shame. This London-based band released an album, Codes and Secret Longings, about halfway through this decade, and it was simultaneously critically praised and criminally overlooked. They took a break to give the proper amount of time to a follow-up disc, and now they're about to get loud again in a big way. Raised By Swans are playing the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on Friday December 11, where they'll be releasing their new album No Ghostless Place -- come out so you can say you saw them before they got huge.

1. How would you sum up 2009 for Raised By Swans in five words?

I'll use two for the first eleven months of 2009: hard work. Or maybe three, actually: brutally hard work. Which isn't to say that 2009 was like working in a coal mine - there was no black lung disease, for instance - but there certainly wasn't much sleep. There were many long, long days and nights spent writing, tracking, mixing, obsessing, practicing, worrying, perfecting.

Which leaves me with two words to sum up where we're at now, in the closing month of 2009: Elation. Pride.

2. There's a few years between this new release and your previous album -- what led to the gap and how did "No Ghostless Place" benefit from it?

The other guys in the band (Alex, Brady, and Andy) are mind-bogglingly creative and talented, and have amazing bands/projects of their own, but the truth is that Raised By Swans' songs are written without their involvement. So with that in mind, each song, once its core is written, has multiple parts that need to be composed and developed with the same sort of care and focus that, for instance, a bass player would devote to his/her bassline in a song, or a keyboard player to his/her part, and so on. Andy and I were talking about this the other day (likely trying to justify the near-eternity an album takes for Raised By Swans to come up with - hahaha) - keeping the above in mind, a five minute song ends up needing about an hour's worth of music written for it. Multiply that by thirteen (the number of songs on the album), add lyrics, a full-time job, and some laziness (deserved, I like to think), and you get around three years. Or four. Jesus, it's four.

The important thing to us, obviously, is that the songs needed to sound as exciting and beautiful and powerful after all this time as they did at their conception. And they do, in my opinion. None of them has been overworked. They're just right. They needed the time. And even if they didn't I have to believe that or I'll go mad.

Hopefully that answers the second part of the question as well. I think it does.

3. Do you plan do play a lot of shows in support of the new album?

As many as we possibly can, yes. Thousands, ideally. Millions.

4. How has the band's sound changed between "Codes and Secret Longings" and your new release?

Honestly, I think I'm too close to the music to know.

5. What is your favourite and least-favourite part of the recording process?

The whole process is kind of awesome and kind of awful. The awesome parts come from hanging out with Andy, and from the nights when we listen back to what's been done during the day/evening and feel our hearts melt. Some nights when I'm sitting on that couch in that dim little room at the House of Miracles I feel like I could die right there and everything would be okay. But then Andy would have to arrange for a corpse pickup, which wouldn't be fair. So I try not to die of happiness, for his sake.

The awful parts come from the exhaustion of working full-time and then having to summon the energy to either go home and write all night or head to the studio to sing and play. Not that I'm really complaining, it's just hard to switch gears sometimes. And sometimes the exhaustion leads to self-doubt, and blurry thinking, and guilt at being too bloody tired to record. None of that is much fun.

6. The band appears in "Chloe", Atom Egoyan's latest film. What led to that, and how was the experience?

Years ago, I watched The Sweet Hereafter and for the first time ever in my life thought how wonderful it would be to have a song included in a film, especially one that lovely and shattering. And of course I admired Atom Egoyan instantly.

So when I heard from his production company all of a sudden, a few years ago, asking if we wanted to contribute a few songs to Adoration, I jumped at the chance. It was a pretty shocking and magical thing, considering the thought I'd had while first watching The Sweet Hereafter.

That was amazing enough, but then I heard back from the production company about a year ago, asking us if we wanted to appear in a small scene in his newest movie, Chloe. Again, we said yes. (Although not without some trepidation - nothing to do with Atom, more to do personally with the idea of having my silly face on a really big screen, even blurred out and seen from a distance.) But no matter what, there was to be music involved as well, and even better than that, music from No Ghostless Place. I sent Atom rough mixes of the album some time ago and he chose a couple of songs.

At that point we didn't realize that Chloe was such a different sort of undertaking for Atom - we found out shortly after agreeing to be in the movie that it starred Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried (not to mention Liam Neeson), and was to be more of a Hollywood-type venture for Atom. We didn't really know what to expect at that point. The most surreal and excellent moment of the shoot itself, though, was playing We Were Never Young, a song from the new album, at the Rivoli for Atom Egoyan and Amanda Seyfried. In the middle of the afternoon. With a few crew members wandering about as we played, moving stuff around.

I haven't seen the movie yet. But we're really thrilled to be involved, probably most of all because of how cool it is that Atom Egoyan is a fan of the band. It's certainly mutual.

7. You've been involved in the Canadian music industry for a long time -- is it now easier or harder for artists to get established than when you first started out?

My experience with 'the industry' has not been great. My band of long ago was on a major label, (indirectly), and besides the fun we had playing shows and being friends with each other, it was a pretty debilitating and confusing few years. But keep in mind that we were involved in a very archaic and worst-case scenario version of the industry - a major label overseeing a subsidiary label, at a time when bands had little power to get their music out to a wide audience. Or at least that was what bands were led to believe. Our particular situation led to us either being exploited or ignored over the years - sometimes, both at the same time. So although it was 'easier' to get our music heard, because we had videos being aired and a booking agent and other help along those lines, it was harder to feel good about any of it.

Short answer: I think that it's easier these days (if you're talented/lucky) to get 'established' because one can make music quietly like never before. Creep up out of nowhere just on the strength of some good songs. That was a very rare occurrence before the internet entered the picture. Then again, it's also harder because there's an ocean of bands out there, and people are consequently generally more apprehensive about the quality of indie bands. Because everyone on earth is in a band these days. Animals too.

8. What does 2010 hold for Raised By Swans?

Ideally, lots of playing. Touring, if all goes well. We've worked so hard at making No Ghostless Place a beautiful album, now we want to share it with everyone.

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