Take a little travel across the country from the evergreen-clad, rainy Northwest to the Southeastern United States. You may have seen these guys atop our Top 50 Albums of 2009, or caught one of the many features or reviews we’ve passed their way over the past year and a half. Today FensePost phoned up Venice Is Sinking for a rare interview; rare for us. We were pretty excited about it as, after all, we don’t do many of these. But questions were easy to conjure up for last year’s favorite.
Fense: Along with AZAR being my #1 album of 2009, one of my favorite videos was that for “OKAY”. I thought the concept was brilliant. Was this an idea concocted by director Jason Miller and assistant director Ethan Payne, or did you have an idea about what you wanted to create for the song? Does this follow the path you’ve traveled on other Venice is Sinking videos, like “Ryan’s Song”?
Thanks for that #1 album, Andy! It really meant a lot to us. We worked so hard on that album, and it was nice to see it validated. As for the “Okay” video, I’m not sure who came up with the concept, but I’m pretty sure it was Jason, with input from us and Ethan. Wait…let me backtrack. The first step in our video-making process is to see what Yo La Tengo did a decade ago and then rip it off. I’m kidding here, but I realized after we made both videos we did for AZAR were somewhat similar (mostly in theme or tone) to some past YLT works. The “Ryan’s Song” video bears a slight resemblance to Hal Hartley’s “From A Motel 6” video, and “Okay” is in the same wheelhouse as Yo La Tengo’s rock school, Mr. Show-created “Sugarcube” video (which might be my favorite video of all time, truth be told). But, seriously, we weren’t really ripping them off. We do that with our music. Haha!
Anyway, we had another concept for the “Okay” video, one that was going to be a lot dreamier and perhaps a little more dour. We were gonna take on of those Flip HD cameras and float it around the greater Athens, GA area on balloons, something that one of Jason’s pals had done over Central Park. We spent a day roasting in the sun working on this video, trying to get this camera to float with a bazillion balloons, even getting it very, very stuck on the top of the State Botanical Gardens. And we ended up with maybe 15 seconds of footage. It was a crushing blow, and Jason and Ethan were really excited about it and worked really hard on it. When the idea came to do a montage about montages we didn’t want to get too Wet Hot American Summer with it, so we hit upon the idea that we would have some sort of “life coach” following us around. Jason (Miller) showed us a picture of Jason (Martin), and we were floored. He was perfect. And he was waaaaay into it. When he showed up in costume at the gun range we knew we were onto something special. I really wish you could hear the audio of what he was saying because it was hard not to crack up the entire time. His favorite phrase was “Accelerate your dreams,” and I have no idea why it’s so hilarious to me, but it is. He spent half the shoot touching James in a…special manner and making comments that could mildly be called homoerotic. Not much of this ended up in the video, though you do get to see them silhouetted by a sunset, sharing a pelvic thrust together. That was a fun but challenging shoot for us, given that we were in those infernal (literally) sauna suits in 90 degree weather for much of it. I sweated out ten pounds, which all told wasn’t a bad thing. And the Ryan’s Song video was no slouch, either. Karolyn was in a boxâ€“taped upâ€“for, like, two hours or something!
The “Ryan’s Song” video concept? Actually, I can’t remember who came up with that one. I’m going to go ahead and say it was me.
Fense: I have to say, Jason Martin was outstanding as the band coach. So now you have a new album out on One Percent Press. Any plans to create videos for any songs on Sand & Lines?
That’s a tricky proposition because the songs were recorded live onstage at the Georgia Theatre. Doing a video for something that has a bit of a “live feel” seems rather odd because almost immediately any video idea you might have goes to recreating the creation of the album. And because the Georgia Theatre burned down, we also have to worry about veering into bathos and sentimentality. I’d love to do something that references the Theatre and Athens, but I wouldn’t want it to be mawkish. I guess time will tell. Also, making videos means having money, and, in case you haven’t heard, it DOESN’T grow on trees. I know, right?
Maybe we should go the animated route? I have a great idea for a video about the star-crossed love between a vacuum cleaner and a chicken.
Fense: Now that’s something I would definitely watch, especially now that I am the proud owner of a vacuum cleaner and not one, but four chickens.
The recording process for Sand & Lines was a bit different. Tell me a bit more about how the album was put together and what makes it different from prior Venice is Sinking releases.
We’re definitely a studio band. I don’t think that we’re a crappy live band or anything like that, but we certainly aren’t renowned for barn-burning, bat-eating live shows. We spend a lot of time working out our live show and balancing between making it congruent with our album sound and having it be a compelling dynamic experience. I think we’re pretty good at that, but I’m sure it’s not for everybody because overall we’re fairly slow and dreamy and whatnot. So we’ve always worked pretty hard in the studio to make our music grow out of that environment. We are layering and overdubbing addicts. No track can be put to bed without first being embellished by a pan-African drum run through an octave pedal. Sand & Lines was completely different than this. It focused on us, as performers, in a live setting. We recorded with only two mics onstage at the Georgia Theatre. We recorded it totally analog (although it should be noted that we have recorded all of our albums on tape!), using only 1/4″ mixdown tape. Two track! Basically, when a take was done, it was done, besides some mastering at the end. It was Georgia Theatre owner Wilmot Greene’s idea, based loosely on the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session stuff, but ours is a lot louder and more rocking than theirs…dare I say more dynamic? Take that, Cowboy Junkies! Beef!
But, yeah, the process was this strange mixture of live and studio, and you were really out there, really vulnerable, in this kind of setup. If one person really goofs, you had to rewind and start over. If someone was too loud, You had to move their amp and their instrument away from the mic. We mixed things by moving people around onstage. It was stressful, and we had to practice at the Theatre for a few months to get our chops up for it. It was very nearly the opposite of the AZAR recording process, wherein one musician went in isolated to work on stuff. This is the sound of Venice is Sinking as a unit playing together (with help from pals, of course).
Fense: Was the ideation and inspiration processes behind these songs different than that on your last two records?
I don’t want to call these songs orphans or suggest that they weren’t good, but a number of them had been lurking around for a few years. I’d like to think that we’ve made cohesive, thematically consistent albums thus far, and some of the songs–like “Sidelights” and “Lucky Lad”–had been in our live shows for years, but never really felt at home on either Sorry About the Flowers or AZAR. Same goes for the cover versions of “Jolene” and “Tugboat”. Other songs were very new, and we had to scramble to get them up to snuff for the recording process. Remember that we were just finishing AZAR. All of a sudden, we had to have a whole new record…and fast. It was fish or cut bait time for a lot of these, which had only existed as tiny puffs of ideas beforehand. Daniel, Karolyn, and I worked pretty hard to get the, and then the whole band arranged a lot of these on the Georgia Theatre stage in the rehearsals leading up to the record. It was perhaps the most collaborative and democratic record we’ve done, and that aspect of it really invested everybody in the record, I think. With the first album, Daniel brought in songs, we learned them, and then added our on individual spins on them where we could. With AZAR, things got a lot more collaborative, and Sand & Lines is even more so. AZAR had pretty specific song themes, like transportation and moving and human events played out against geography (I think…haha). Sand & Lines picks up a lot of these, for sure, and continues along these lines. I guess it’s just what we like writing about. There are songs on there about failures of urban planning and Augusta, Georgia, though I won’t tell you which ones!
Fense: On top of dire economic woes, Athens seemed to have a rough year in 2009 which I am sure affected each of you personally. Was it an immediate collective response to decide to donate all funds acquired from Sand & Lines to the Georgia Theater after the fire or was it more a gradual decision to do something to benefit your hometown?
We started raising money to put out Sand & Lines the week before the Theatre burned down, so we had to reconfigure the project and make it about raising money for the Theatre. It was something someone proposed to everybody else, and everyone said “yes” pretty quickly. Honestly, we probably won’t make enough money off this record to affect much change, but we felt like the Theatre had given us this record, so we needed to give back to its rebuilding. Athens had a terrible 2009, what with Randy Bewley, Jerry Fuchs, Jon Guthrie, and Vic Chesnutt dying, not to mention the tragic Zinkhan murders and the fire at the Georgia Theatre…just awful. It felt like a series of gut punches. Even if you didn’t know these people personally (I really only knew Randy), you knew someone who knew them very well, and we take our music scene in Athens very seriously. Music is the central beating cultural heart of this town, and the Georgia Theatre was right in the middle of it.
Fense: I’ll attest to Sand & Lines being a great album. That proceeds go toward rebuilding Georgia Theater merely solidifies the fact that the album should be added to any listener’s collection. Being all the way on the other side of the country, I’m curious to hear if there’s been much movement in the rebuilding of the theater?
You know, I’d have to refer you to Wil Greene on this one, but I know that there are some great plans drawn up and rebuilding should start by next year. And thanks for saying the album’s great! Glad you like it.
Fense: I’m always interested to hear what musicians do outside of their respective bands. The typical answers seem to lean toward teaching and working at record stores. What do you do outside of Venice is Sinking?
Honestly, it’s fun for me to update Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr, but it can be a bit of a challenge, keeping track of everything. And just when you think you’re really “with it,” along comes some new thing that you’ve gotta create a login for and a new password and add your bio information, etc. etc. etc. Sure, we’ve got a greater connection with out with our fans, but sometimes I feel like I’m preaching to a 1000 person choir and just annoying other potential fans with my constant haranguing. Christopher Weingarten said, in a recent speech, that bands now have to be digital hustlers these days, and that’s just so, so true. I feel like I’m a guy in a stereotypical Middle Eastern bazaar yelling about how great my product is while tons of other equally loud vendors are selling the same thing around me.
Fense: So I have to ask — what’s next on the horizon for Venice Is Sinking?
We’re jamming a lot, writing new songs, working to get back up to snuff on the Sand & Lines stuff (we had to tour behind AZAR, so we lost all of our “chops”), playing Black-Eyed Peas songs. You know, the usual. I really, really, really hope we can get on an album a year schedule. We’ve got a lot of ideas right now, and we’ve gotta sit down and make them happen. We really wanted to try to make a reggaeton-inspired album, without all of the homophobia stuff. That hasn’t gone as planned.
Fense: We’ll that would certainly be an interesting concept if it does come to fruition. Well, that’s all I got. Thanks for sitting down and taking the time to “chat” with the ‘Post.