Memory Drawings: Being open to abandoning your original idea in favor of the new one is the key to successful collaborative composition
Memory Drawings are not your usual musicians who spend long months together, experimenting with endless possibilities and each other’s nerves. Besides some guest musicians every now and then, the Anglo-American group consists of Hood guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and sometime The Declining Winter main-man Richard Adams, Minneapolis-raised, Morocco-based hammered dulcimer player Joel Hanson and Lanterns on the Lake/Brave Timbers violinist Sarah Kemp. Despite being at least at three different places at the same time, the members of Memory Drawings have a remarkable pace of creativity. Today we are celebrating the release of their second feature album, ‘There Is No Perfect Place‘ – this time on Hibernate Recordings. For that very reason, we talked to Richard and Joel to see what they have been up to since they’ve released their first album, and to find out more about this unconventional way of working together as a group. Besides having the opportunity to check out some songs from the new album, you can also listen to a special compilation of influences made by Joel and Richard for the readers and listeners of Sounds Of A Tired City. After all, this might be the perfect place to find out more about Memory Drawings.
It has been two years since your first album ‘Music For Another Loss’, although considering the mature and sophisticated metamorphosis that we could discover in ‘There Is No Perfect Place’ would suggest that much more time has passed inbetween. What have you been up to during these two years?
Richard: I always think of records as a snapshot of where you are in a particular time. There was definitely a metamorphosis between the two records in that we wanted to explore percussive textures a bit more and make some bolder statements. Whether this is successful or not remains to be seen, but we aim to progress with every recording and let the music represent our thoughts and the place where we are at that moment. Practically the band is very difficult to organise, so years can pass pretty quickly without us really seeing one another. Other than Memory Drawings, I’ve been working solo as The Declining Winter amongst the usual work/life stuff. Sarah has been playing with Lanterns on the Lake and is doing her own music as Brave Timbers.
Joel: I’ve been doing some work for a language school in Tangier, but the beauty of the work is that I can do it from anywhere in the world provided I have a laptop and an internet connection. So I’ve been traveling quite a bit while I work and journaling about – and photographing – the places I visit. When I run out of money, I usually return to Morocco to reunite with close friends, teach English and give teacher training workshops, and save up money for my next adventure. Most of my money goes into plane tickets and travel experiences.
Richard, you live in York, Sarah in Newcastle and you Joel even further, in Minneapolis. Since your music requires your physical presence and synchronised collaboration, it is not something that you can just easily record and swap as audio files among each other. How did you overcome these distances, and what were the difficulties during the recording process?
Richard: It’s towards impossible to make it work as a going concern but we try. Joel will visit me a couple of times a year, we’ll put down ideas then I’ll go off and work on them or pass them to Sarah to work on. With ‘There Is No Perfect Place’ we actually spent a lot of time in a studio building up tracks which Sarah came in to play on. Due to Sarah’s touring commitments we had her for about 4 hours which wasn’t ideal but as Sarah says, sometimes you come up with better ideas that way rather than overthinking it.
Joel: I don’t have any recording equipment, so I’m not really capable of swapping tracks on the internet. I typically visit Richard in York three times a year to write and record new music, sort through the material we’ve recorded from previous sessions, and occasionally play live. However, working with Sarah, who’s only two hours away from Richard, is usually far more daunting mainly because she’s involved in so many other projects!
Tell us a little about the selection of instruments that we can hear on ‘There Is No Perfect Place’. Is there any considerable difference compared to the first album? The hammered dulcimer seems to be even more dominant than previously, at the same time it has more of a harmonious relationship with the guitar and the violin, becoming the backbone of the atmosphere.
Richard: On the first album we pretty much stuck to the guitar, dulcimer, violin axis with a few embellishments, here we introduced a few other elements in particular drums and percussion. It’s less of the three of us playing in a room (which the first album wasn’t either but may have sounded it), this time it was pieced together differently and with Sarah not always available we had to think of other ways to colour the sound.
Joel, how does one discover this special type of dulcimer, how did you get in touch with it?
Joel: I grew up playing percussion (mostly the drum kit and some hand percussion) and tried the cello for five years before my nomadic lifestyle made it impossible to continue. I had never really heard the dulcimer until my brother Brad played Dead Can Dance’s self-titled album for me nearly 30 years ago and I bought the American folk version of Lisa Gerrard’s yang chin at a folk music shop in Minneapolis back in 1990. The hammered dulcimer was an easy transition for me, because you make melody by making rhythm. It fits in the overhead bin of most airplanes, but it’s become so cost-prohibitive to travel with it that I just leave it under Richard’s bed when I’m not using it. I find that I’m actually more productive with it when I only play it roughly 3-4 weeks out of the year. Part of that has to do with being more present and focused when I play because I know my time is limited. Also, the gap between visits and recording sessions (usually 4-6 months) means I subconsciously approach it from a different place because – mentally/emotionally speaking – I’m usually in a different place.
Although the result is definitely dense and quite complex, you don’t work with too many instruments. Could you imagine giving space to some new sounds, perhaps even more instruments? What would you find especially exciting for a future third album?
Joel: Well, we already laid the groundwork for a third record back in January and will sift through the tracks while we’re preparing for the upcoming tour. It’s too early to tell, but the newest pieces have a more spacious, sprawling quality to them that would certainly be enhanced with a subtle undercurrent of electronics. I’d love to see what Richard’s brother Chris (who I think is a wizard with electronics) could do with them if he was interested – and available. I was totally floored by the newest Bracken record! The remixes on the new record, particularly the contributions from William Ryan Fritch and Talvihorros, have a classical-music quality to them – and that would also be an enticing genre to explore despite my own musical limitations. I like the idea of using the dulcimer in the writing process and then removing it entirely from some of the compositions as they develop. I feel like there are a lot of things we haven’t tried yet, but I hope to hear even more strings on future records. I really love what Sarah brings to the music.
Richard: I’d actually strip it back again! I think you tend to react to what you’ve just done and with ‘There Is No Perfect Place’ being quite full and lush I’d like to explore space more and the silence between notes. Only time will tell!
Once again you’ve had invited some guest musicians to collaborate. Gareth S. Brown has already been featured on the first album, but how about Florence Fawcett and Chris Tenz? How did you decide to involve them into this project?
Richard: Gareth is a touring member of the band and a great piano player. He has a very instinctive style and seems to be able to play exactly what we want to hear with a minimum of fuss. As on the first album with ‘Drift Apart’, we used ‘In the House at Midnight’, – a solo piece by Gareth on the new album. I’d like to work with him more but as with everyone, he is very busy! Florence was recommended to me as a cello player as we wanted some lower end strings this time. She played some incredible parts, we wanted to have her playing on more of the album, but she has since seemingly disappeared of the face of the earth. Chris was in the UK to tour with us and he popped into the studio to help out with a few things. He created a gorgeous wash of ambient effects which really added something special to the track ‘There is a World Without You’.
Slowly it becomes a tradition that with your albums you also release a remix/rework collection. In this case, the first 200 copies come with a bonus CD containing remixes by The Sly and Unseen, Benoit Pioulard, William Ryan Fritch, Pausal, A New Line (Related), and Talvihorros. How come you always release these remix albums together with the original release and never later, after the listeners got used to the original versions first.
Joel: The most exciting part of music-making for me is the moment when you stumble upon a compelling melody and sit back for a moment and mentally experiment with all of the different directions it could travel. Sometimes the finished piece loses the vitality of the original raw idea, but sometimes – and this is the most fulfilling part of collaboration – your bandmate’s contribution takes the piece in a direction you never could have envisioned. Does that mean that your original idea has to be abandoned? Of course not. But being open to abandoning your original idea in favor of the new one is the key to successful collaborative composition. I feel the same way about the contributions of the remixers: I view them as additional band members who took the songs in directions I never could have imagined. I’ve always felt that it was a measure of a good song if it could be interpreted in multiple ways and I love that both versions are available. If we had the resources, I think it would be even more satisfying to tour with each of the musicians who contributed to the remix album on different days just so the songs were never presented the same way twice. It would certainly make it worthwhile for fans who decided to see the band on successive days of the same tour.
These reconstructions are almost all so different from the original ones, creating a whole diverse mood. How do you feel when you get back these new versions from the reworkers? Which one caused the biggest surprise?
Joel: I was in Spain when Richard passed along most of the mixes, so I heard most of them for the first time at the same time. I loaded them into my mp3 player and spent an entire day walking around Madrid, marveling at them while trying to determine a song order. What I especially appreciate about them, in addition to the surprising sonic (e.g. symphonic) directions, is that they feel like an entirely separate piece of music to me now. I like them all, but William Ryan Fitch’s majestic reworking of ‘There Is No Perfect Place’ was the most surprising. When I listen to it, I’m reminded of Brian Eno’s famous adage (in rough paraphrase) “Try to generate ideas that are better in other people’s heads than they were in yours.”
You play around a lot with the vocals. ‘The Island Of The Day Before’, ‘Golden Afternoon’ and ‘There Is No Perfect Place’ have an instrumental and a vocal version too. After listening to the original, it feels a bit unusual to listen to the same but with vocals. Why do you feel the need to have both versions featured on the album? Which version do you prefer personally?
Joel: Yvonne’s vocals on ‘There Is No Perfect Place’ are probably my favorite of the three vocal versions but, honestly, I don’t have a strong preference between the instrumental versions and the vocal versions. It depends on the day and the mood I’m in. I view Yvonne’s vocal mixes like I do the remixes and reworkings – another compelling version of the original. They also allow me to maintain the illusion that she and I actually play in a band together (a prospect we’ve relished for most of the 25 years we’ve known each other). I can definitively say that the last minute of Yvonne’s vocal version of ‘Slump Sundays’ is my favorite moment on the first album, though.
Richard: The vocal ideas was one of Joel’s and one I’ve had to get used to as I primarily see us as an instrumental band. Having said that it’s a strange feeling when you play the instrumental version after the vocal version and you expect a voice to come in. The track seems suddenly empty without it. I have to say I was very pleased with Yvonne’s work on the title track ‘There Is No Perfect Place’, I think this is the perfect amalgamation of the voice within the context of our music.
Could you imagine switching instruments between yourselves and trying to do something like that? If you could choose, whose instrument would you choose and why?
Joel: I’d love to play violin or cello if Sarah or Flo were willing to give me lessons! I’ve always loved the sound of both instruments by themselves and in duets and string quartets (e.g. on Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major). But Sarah, who is by far the most accomplished player in the band, will always be the one who does the writing and recording, as long as she’s willing. For the song ‘Wheatfields’ on the ‘Music and Migration 3’ compilation, I actually played Richard’s guitar with the dulcimer hammers – and I may try that again on a future composition.
Richard: No, I once tried to play the dulcimer on some of my own stuff and it took me all afternoon to get four notes out of it. And as for the violin, I’ll save the world from listening to my violin playing and leave it to the experts. I’m happy strumming a guitar and doing the admin.
What are your plans after the album release? Where can we see you perform? First, you are doing a little tour around the UK… Can you tell us some details about this?
Joel: We’re doing four shows in the UK and then I’m returning to the US for a year of grad school in my hometown. I’d love to return to the UK in the winter and play more shows if there’s time and interest. Inexplicably, a significant portion of the album sales have been coming from Japan, so I’d love to play there if it were possible.
Richard: We are doing a small UK jaunt – Monday 18th, York (today!); Tuesday 19th, London; Thursday 21st, Manchester; Friday 22nd, Bradford. Previous shows have been nicely received and the interplay between us is always an enjoyable facet that we don’t really get in the studio. We don’t get much opportunity to play live so we have to try to grab it whilst everyone is available.