Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Interview: If These Trees Could Talk

MRD: How did this band realise that they could work together?

We have all been close friends since we were young. I think that is why we work so well together, because we understand each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses and since we were friends before we were band mates we have a strong bond. Everyone except Mike went to the same high-school and we all kind of ran in the same circles.  Zack and Cody obviously have known each other the longest being brothers. Zack and I started playing music together when we were about 14 I think. Then in high-school we met Jeff and Mike and Matt Socrates and we all had different groups we would get together and jam with. The five of us have been in various bands together playing stuff from Alt-Rock to Metal to Classic Rock in the past but this formation has been by far the most successful.

Did you have any lineup changes before you stuck with the current one?

No. Same five guys since day one. It would be really hard to replace anyone because we are so used to each other. There is certain chemistry, even things outside of music like just being in a van together with the same guys you really get a special bond that would just seem different if we brought an outsider into. 

Did you always play the same style of music as you do now?

Officially as the Trees Yes, it’s always been this post-rock-ish stuff. But growing up and being in different groups, No. I think we have all had some periods in which we experimented with other styles and genres. I was in a couple different punk-rock and ska bands. Then I started playing gigs with a couple different bands that Zack and Mike were in that were more Alt-rock I guess you could say. Cody, Mike and Zack gigged in a metal band together for a while. And throughout all that we all played covers of all kinds of different stuff. I guess between us we’re all over the place with influences like Punk, Jazz, Industrial, Motown, Classic Rock, Anything from the 90s, etc&hellip

How did you get signed to Metal Blade records? Was it at a gig they attended?

That’s kind of a weird story. We had always released our own music except for the vinyls which a couple labels helped us to print and distribute. So we have never officially been on a label before now. We just went out and did our stuff the way we wanted to, when we wanted to, and the music just kind of got out there. Eventually through different channels, mostly digitally and word-of-mouth I would guess, a chef named Chris Santos got a hold of our stuff and happened to be hanging with Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel in New York. He got Brian to listen to some of our stuff and then he got in touch with us. We chatted a few times and before you know it they gave us an offer and we couldn’t have been more excited to become part of their family!

Why don't you have vocals on your songs, is this a preference?

This whole style grew from a demo project Zack started while he was away at Art School. He was into stuff without vocals like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky and wanted to record the ideas he was having. Some of those tracks made their way onto our first EP. None of us are much of singers and we really were just into the music anyway so we never really cared to add vocals. With all three guitars working different parts it’s nice to just focus on that. We always get asked if we ever want to get a singer, and honestly if we ever did it would be something different. The Trees are going to be without vocals for the foreseeable future.

Your music is very progressive, so I was wondering if you have any prog influences on your music, like Liquid Tension Experiment for example?

With all the different genres that each band member is into I’m sure there is some prog-influence in there. I don't think there is any one specific band that we could point to as modelling our sound from. It just comes together the way it does. I think we all would say there is something unique about doing things in a manner other than the simple straight-forward 4/4, verse-chorus-verse thing. So if you want to call our creativity and ambition to do things our own way progressive that’s fine. I’ll be the first to tell you there are a ton of bands out there doing things way more “progressive” than us.

Malabar Front was featured in the video game Infamous, how did you feel when this song was picked for a game like that?

For us, that was the first major recognition that we had ever received. It feels pretty good to have someone come along and tell you that they like your music so much that it inspires them and they want to use it in something they are creating. That got us some more publicity I think because after that we started to get more requests and license offers. We like the artistic projects that come up the best. Obviously we feel like artists and want our music incorporated into more unique projects that other artists are working on. We had a couple of major motion film trailers that we've been in the running for but so far haven’t landed a big one yet.

You formed in 2005, but only got signed a few months ago; did you have any other encounters with record companies?

As I mentioned before, we have never been officially been on any other labels other than Metal Blade. The other companies we have worked with (The Mylene Sheath and Science of Silence) have been agreements to release vinyl records of the albums we had already released ourselves. These were small runs which is why until now we haven’t really had the ability to get our music in physical form out to all the people who want it. There have been a few smaller labels that we had considered trying to work with but to be honest Metal Blade is the first and only one that made us a legit offer that we felt would really help us grow and get our music out to our fans around the world.

Is it hard to make it onto the music scene in Ohio, and what is the music scene like there?

I think “making it” here is probably just as hard as it is most anywhere else. Outside of LA and New York I suppose. There aren't really any major labels around so it’s all about getting your music out there into the world. You've obviously got to have talent first and foremost, but I think there is a lot of coincidence that goes into it too. You've got to have the right person hear it at the right time for things to work out. 

The scene is pretty eclectic. There’s all kinds of stuff; metal, rock, punk, folk, soul there are a couple of cool jazz clubs in town here in Akron. It’s kind of all over. Most notably in recent years Dan and Pat from The Black Keys came from Akron which I’m sure you already knew. There is also a sweet pedal company called Earthquaker Devices who’s here in town. When you get into some of the big university cities like Columbus you see a lot more stuff from those crazy college kids.

Do you think it's more difficult drawing in a crowd being an instrumental band?

At times I think it can be tougher, but we have found by opening for all kinds of different acts that our sound connects with a lot of different people for the simple fact that we don’t have a singer. I mean, if we had a “metal” singer who screamed and stuff we probably wouldn't appeal very much to the people that aren't into that kind of thing. But at the same time, our sound would lend itself to that if we so chose and the more metal inclined fans probably would say that would sound good if we had it. I guess being instrumental has its pluses and minuses for that simple fact.

What is the key thing to your live performance that attracts the audience?

We work hard to make sure that we are tight and get our timing down. We like to play loud but it’s got to be tight or with as many guitars as we have it would just get sloppy. We want to continue to add to our live shows to make it more of an experience with lighting and other visuals, but it all starts with being able to play the music well.

Your last prominent recorded material you have was Red Forest, what is next for you guys on the recording front?

We have already begun tracking our next album, the first to be released as Metal Blade recording artists. It is as of yet untitled but I can tell you we are happy with what we demoed out and can’t wait for people to hear it. Hopefully it will be well received as we feel we are continuing to grow and develop our sound. The goal is to have it ready for a release in the latter part of the year.

Will you be gigging soon? You seem to be quiet on social networking when it comes to live performance.

For the time being, our focus is getting this album tracked and back to the guys at Metal Blade. We all feel really lucky to have the opportunity to work with them and we don’t want to let anyone down. So we are 100% focused on that right now. We have had a few things come up for some possible touring but the timing just isn't right for us. As soon as we get through our studio time, I can guarantee you’ll see us out on the road.

Do you guys find it difficult to make any money in the music business as it is showing a dramatic decline financially?

That is something we are still trying to learn the formula for. For us, thus far we have not had the ability to commit full-time solely to the Trees. We all work other jobs to support our families. The band has become somewhat self-sufficient at this point but we hope that it can be more. If you are able to wear more than one hat in this business you have a better chance of succeeding. If you can write, produce, engineer, create artwork and play you can certainly give yourself a better opportunity for success. Just playing an instrument occasionally at a gig or two isn't going to keep food on your table.

You have a fantastic following, with comments on YouTube ranging from “This album makes me want to smoke some weed” to “Their music consists of ultra-relaxing songs, which are great for daydreaming and piecing together landscapes”, how happy are you reading comments that compliment you in  different varieties?

It’s really great to know people dig what you’re putting out there. We are grateful to each and every person who has given us a chance and supported us. We’d probably still be making music if nobody was paying attention but to have been able to positively affect so many people is inspiring and keeps us going. We can’t wait to get out on the road to all the places we have not had a chance to go and continue to play our music for people.

Interview by Matthew Clewley, words by Tom Fihe.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free

A Grand Don't Come for Free - Mike Skinner's magnum opus under his pseudonym The Streets. It's all somewhat taboo labelling The Streets' sophomore album a classic, but remember it's been over 10 years now since its release with Locked On Records giving us the go ahead to review, admire, and praise. It's simplicity attracting listeners to Skinner's music, though the listeners are far from simple. UK hip-hop, the genre often associated in the scrub lands as 'grime' innit, but Skinner's hip-hop is leaned towards 2-step garage, as heard on the exceptional Original Pirate Material released two years prior to his Grand piece. His upbringing, Birmingham, rich in musical culture and multiculturalism as Skinner's musical influences would suggest - ranging from the reggae sounds introduced to the UK through Island Records' humble beginnings, to the smart rapping and production skills of the Wu-Tang Clan. His story on Original Pirate Material was street music for street people - electroheads and stoners united. It wasn't so much an album displaying the hard life youths often face in Birmingham, but the comedic and varying sounds of a period remembered mostly for Ronaldinho's chip - normal, day-to-day life for a 'lad'. Skinner took the lyrical realism to the next level on A Grand Don't Come for Free, creating a real world version of Deltron 3000's self-titled debut album; something hip-hop / music in general was in need of - the concept album hasn't been matched to this detail since.

"It Was Supposed to Be So Easy" - He failed on the DVD, he couldn't withdraw any money, or call his Mum for tea, or get his savings on the side next to the telly. Skinner doesn't have the best of days in A Grand Don't Come for Free's opening track; the protagonist tells the audience of his day-to-day failings, mentioning his initial problems such as failing to return a DVD to the video store (pre-Netflix,) and losing his £1,000. Those that have heard this album in full will know the story and know how it ends, but if you haven't... go listen to it before reading on. Musically, the opening track like most of A Grand Don't Come for Free comes second to the lyrics. This is typical garage fashion - with Skinner exploiting the simple structures, and often standard beats with his additional piano playing. "Could Well Be In" is the perfect example of this; simple beat, very thin structurally, with lyrics applied to the tone of the instrumental. It introduces the love interest - Simone - with the atypical Skinner refrain: "I saw this thing on ITV the other week. Said, that if she plays with her hair, she's probably keen. She's playing with her hair well regularly, so I reckon I could well be in."  Though, the cuteness of Skinner's lyricism comes to a swift end. "Not Addicted" makes sure the listener fully grasps the lifestyle of Skinner's protagonist. He explores the degenerate lifestyle of part-time weekend bettors, contemplating whether or not to bet his bankroll on one bet through his 'instinct'. He fails to put the bet on, then explores the highs and lows of being angry not being on, then relief through the realisation of losing his bankroll.

A Grand Don't Come for Free also stepped in to the innovative foundations of the dubstep genre which peaked a few years later. "Blinded by the Lights" explores subjects untouched in Skinner's previous releases. The club becomes the setting, drugs the content - with classic Skinnerisms throughout. As a story, "Blinded by the Lights" is right up there as one of the best on this album, spoken perfectly with just the right level of confusion and club life slang. Skinner's production here is flawless, hard hitting bass synthesizers reminiscing the sound of 90s trance mixed with the 2-step beat creating an original dubstep recording with faint whiffs of ambience backing the sharper synthesizers.

Skinner is quite simply an extraordinary musician from his lyrical poetry to the raw production skills. This album acts as a compilation of all his skills and stories from what he sees and hears from his time growing up and living pre-Original Pirate Material, and post-Original Pirate Material. It's the varying nature of Skinner's protagonist in A Grand Don't Come for Free which resonates with so many listeners, At times he's incredibly lucky to be in a financial position to have his drugs, alcohol, and relationship life - explored deeply as a level of stability in "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way", a tale of decision making and settling for the sedimentary lifestyle. Demolished on "Get out of My House" by the vocal introduction of his love interest Simone or C-Mone as the actual vocalist is known as. These are both examples of Skinner's extremely British lyrics; his use of slang terms and cockney rhyming may confuse the non-British listeners, but at the same time activates a specifically intended style of vocal delivery actually acted out in real life. This is delivered exceptionally well on "Fit but You Know It" - the ultimate lad song pre-Magaluf: "See I reckon you're about an 8 or a 9, maybe even 9 and a half in for beers time." Skinner's lyrics take place on what appears to be a holiday abroad where the beers are flowing and the birds are flying all over the pavement. It introduces the non-British listeners to the state of British women, or the perception British men have of women who put very little effort in to the pulling game, it specifically applies to cheap holidays in the sun.

Skinner's protagonist often comes to his senses throughout A Grand Don't Come for Free. He's constantly making self-reflecting comments, questioning his own thoughts and desires. "Such a Twat" has an angrier tone - the fun and games of "Fit but You Know It" are coming back to haunt Skinner, and what seems like the listener for partaking in his moments. This track acts as a buffer for the remaining tracks bringing A Grand Don't Come for Free to a close. "What Is He Thinking" carries on Skinner's self-inflicting anger. It's passionate spoken word questioning, in a Silent Witness / Midsummer Night Murders fashion - loosely. Skinner comes to the conclusion of his 'mates' betrayal, in a typical human hypocritical fashion after the events of "Fit but You Know It" and "Such a Twat". His passionate love for Simone falls to desperation on the penultimate track "Dry Your Eyes", the soul searching tear-jerker on A Grand Don't Come for Free - it just had to have one to complete the story, and Skinner executes it well. Acoustic guitar, the repetition of the word "please" and even more realisation that the protagonist's life has taken another, massive hit - leaving the listener in a state of mourning for his woes.

The closing track is a remarkable end to Skinner's sorrowful concept album. It's a classic The Streets track, Utilising basic structures to create a masterpiece right after delivering what’s come to be known as The Streets' most known and successful single "Dry Your Eyes". On the album closer, the audience is exposed to different endings. The first ending is what Skinner's previous 10 tracks would realistically ask for - confusion, self-inflicting anger, and the passage the protagonist would rightfully take in the real world. The second ending is what the listener wants, what Skinner's protagonist wants, and what would be considered unnatural, and fanatical for its fairytale ending. It's seen as an anomaly on A Grand Don't Come for Free because of its length (8:15,) and content. "Empty Cans" involves the listener more so than any of the previous tracks, its intention is to close the album, and complete the story arc in a typical Hollywood linear cycle. The first half of "Empty Cans" doesn't do this - and it's not the only reason why A Grand Don't Come for Free ends there. Skinner's not finished. The sound of a vinyl being rewound can be heard before the same opening to "Empty Cans", only with piano accompaniment - heard previously on "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" when the protagonist was last in his comfort zone. Of course, he does end up in his comfort zone as expected. The second half of "Empty Cans" brings together the characters, finally united as one. It closes A Grand Don't Come for Free with an answer to the £1,000 problem. Again, he thinks, deciding on allowing his mate back into his life to have a look at his TV: "It's the end of something I did not want to end, beginning of hard times to come. But something that was not meant to be is done, and this is the start of what was." Skinner delivers this with such conviction. He really does make you want to get up off your arse and do something, be it reconciling with a lost friend, or completing a set goal you made five years ago. The ambient synthesizers and piano increase in volume, the strings enter, and the bass becomes more dominant. Skinner finds his grand, completing the cycle he started in "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy". Choosing to forgive his mate, and realise his life can only be decided and looked after by him, and as he says it, the refrain enters, bringing together the cinematic vibe A Grand Don't Come for Free cries out for in its raw percussion and spoken word poetry. And it's in the dying seconds of "Empty Cans" when the protagonist finally sounds at peace - which resonates with the audience who have been involved in Skinner's first hand events throughout the album. It's not only a complete circle for Skinner's story and The Streets, but for you and I who put so much time and attention in to this music; music, it's so much more than that on A Grand Don't Come for Free, that's why it's a classic, and that's why it deserves all the plaudits - truly innovative right from the start.
~Eddie Gibson