Mass Affect

Here we go again.

The last time I wrote about this band, they had a different name and only a single EP to show the world. I finished my last write up of them saying that I couldn't wait for them to put out a full album and wondered what strange new sounds they'd make. That full album by the rechristened Rags & Ribbons has been out for a bit now, and rather than keep it as personal treasure, I can't contain it any longer. 

You need to hear The Glass Masses. 

There's that sweet spot where a fresh band has clearly found their voice. I could name countless examples of bands that release some things, find their voice or niche and release a single iconic piece, thereby cementing their new-found identity. They hit the next level in their evolution, maintaining a core of self or DNA but growing and changing into a stronger, more fully formed iteration of themselves. That is exactly what happened with Rags & Ribbons on this heavy hitting album. All the same voices and styles are still present, but having taken another step in development. It's more nuanced, yet more sweeping. Heavier and more intense, but also showing lighter bits of delicacy that hadn't revealed themselves in prior songs. 
This evolution of ideas is present immediately in the first track, 'Even Matter'. In the first ethereal strum of guitar, the band shows they're playing with more dexterity and subtlety. It's an amazingly expressive track for how little sound they actually are producing. The quiet notes all add together into a dense, layered mesh of sound. To boot, there's a fantastic video for the track shot by Lucy Martin. The group has clearly been having fun with harmonies as well, as evidenced in the serene acapella breakdown of 'Marks You Make'. 
There is one particular section of a certain song, however, that I feel sums up not only the album but the entire ethos of the band. In the build up to the chorus in 'The Minds' all of the instruments drop out, except Neff pounding away a solitary, syncopated pulse. When everyone crashes back in to the proper refrain, it's everything turned up to eleven. Ben's guitar is low and crunching out thudding riffs. The drums are percussive blasts. Jon's cacophonous piano bangs away. It could be unrestrained madness but they deftly, elegantly tie it all together in a neat package, overlaid with wailing vocals. When Jon and Ben sing the line "You and me...", Jon's voice dove tails from this high point that illuminates how close they veer towards madness, only to drop right back into the pocket. It's all coordinated, detailed chaos. It sounds unbelievably good. 
As I hinted at in the beginning of this piece, I'm conflicted by the desire to keep these guys as my amazing secret while wanting to show them to the whole world. They've forced my hand though - they've been too relentless in their touring and too successful for me to try to shelter them at all. Rags & Ribbons are on an exhilarating ascent. In addition to this write up, check back tomorrow for a full interview I did earlier this summer. I've said before that I can't wait to see what they'll do, but if this is any indication, big things are already under way. Get on board while you can. 


Drop In

This past weekend I attended my 10 year high school reunion. 

It was...enlightening. 

I had no idea what to expect, beyond the venue. It was at a place I had waited tables during my junior and senior years, working with a bunch of friends who all happened to be girls. All that afforded me, beyond the expectation of mediocre pizza and where exactly the restrooms were located, was the reminder that I was an odd duck. From what I gathered there, I think that same nature persists. At one point during the alcohol fueled festivities I looked around the room at how people had congregated and remarked to my better half "...nothing changes - dudes over there talking shop, girls over there kind of dancing, me watching and waiting for an appropriate time to leave." While that statement may have been more than a tad reductive and overly simplifying, I stand by it. 

This isn't some self-pity party, I should clarify. 

I wasn't the ostracized, beat-down outcast you see portrayed in the media, like a taped-horn-rim-glasses dweeb or some trench coat wearing demon. No, it was much more innocuous than that. My graduating class was under 70 people in a rather isolated area, socially and physically. It was a small town before the internet really grew roots. It's only natural that you pick a group of 60 to 70 strangers, lump 'em in together and subsequently fail to really connect with more than a few. I am not disparaging anyone for the fate of being born and raised in a scenic place like ours. Rather, I'm just expounding on the realization that I'm okay with understanding I really only connected with a handful of kids in high school. It's no fault of mine or anyone else's - do I take umbrage as an adult that not every single person in my office wants to go to a happy hour? Of course not. Nor should I have any long-since irrelevant feelings of rejection over not being one of the guys back then. I just wasn't my scene. We had nothing in common, and introducing a fair number of people to the love of my life I became more aware of this - I thought she was the bee's knees, where as most of these people would have no common ground over which to converse. Different circles, different lives. Had any of my close friends from this epoch of my life accompanied me, they most likely would have had a similar experience. 

To be fair, I also made little effort to be more like the typical dude. 

There were more than a handful of times it was apparent to me in high school (and earlier) that I didn't fit in, in that town. I was teased for being verbose, for dressing differently, for liking weird music, for playing the wrong music in my band, for not excelling at any sport besides (gasphorror) soccer. You name it. Did it stop me? Did it make me try to change myself to fit in? Nope, not a bit. I was stubborn. I also felt terrible about myself, but I didn't acquiesce - I just developed a healthy, mid-west WASPy sense of guilt about enjoying life and being happy. In their defense, though - I couldn't name a single other person I knew who liked Bjork or had seen Reservoir Dogs or loathed Bon Jovi. I was the statistical outlier, in this case, and I didn't make concerted efforts to find people around me who shared my tastes, although I did share some cultural overlap. There are still a number of albums that bring back memories of summertime road trips to cabins, a bunch of teenagers driving with the windows down, trying not to get ash on the car seats. These were the exception rather than the rule, though. I often questioned (and as a result, still do) my own taste. If I like something, does that mean it's terrible? 

Eh. Shrug. 

More than a handful of cats simply avoided the whole shebang. Even people who lived in town, less than a mile away, didn't attend the reunion. Some from spite, some from convenience. I don't know. I just know that any juvenile feelings of not belonging or being an outsider have long since dissolved. Not that they didn't influence me in a significant way, more so that they are vestigial, no longer needed in my life. High school was forever ago. I don't really care. There are people I stay in touch with and people I try to stay in touch with. It's on them just as much as on me to keep the connection. Similarly, when I walked in to the room I had a sense of heaviness. Not from dredged emotion or unresolved feelings, but from the realization I'd have to give the same story to about 40 people - I like who I am, I just get tired of the small talk. 

Maybe that's all it is, now. Realizing that even if you like yourself and are proud of who you are, you still have to grin and bear it. As I drove back to my real life, hours away and that whole part of my life in the rearview, I was surprisingly pleased with how I felt about the whole thing. It wasn't necessarily pleasant, but it wasn't torture. Getting older isn't always fun, but there are moments when you understand it's all for the best. Just play the hand you're dealt and try to smile as you do it. 


During, Go

Summer Vacation.

July's been nuts. I cannot be the only one to think so. The heat wave that's been oozing over the nation made a lovely, long stop here in the Middle West. It's had a diminishing effect on my ability to think. Not all hope is lost, though. To escape from the muggy misery of a 115 heat index, I accompanied my better half to Durango, CO for a wedding. It was, in a word, breathtaking. Durango, for those unfamiliar, is up in the mountains, far from...anything. It is wonderfully isolated, a serene place where the silence was broken only by the occasional train departing the station. While the wedding itself was in town, the reception was even higher up, roughly 7,000 feet above sea-level, at Blue Lake Lodge. It was even more isolated and astounding than Durango. Food, atmosphere and fellow guests were all fantastic, but like any trip I've come away with a short list of observations and lessons learned. Since this is my only trip this summer (due to the recent home-acquisition) let's jump in and break it down. Without further ado, here's what I learned on my Summer Vacation:
- The older I get, the more anxious I become while flying. I know the stats and how unsafe car travel is. I don't care. Rocketing through the sky in a a metal tube strikes me as defying man's place in the world, even if physics wants us to stay aloft.

- I abhor hotels. They are, in my neurotic mind, filthy places full of invisible evils that threaten to hitchhike home in my suitcase. I can't tell you the white knuckle neurosis I struggle with while checking in to a room.

- At some point since the development of the above-mentioned neurosis, I've also adopted the mind set that if I'm going to be miserable in a hotel, I'm going to console myself with indulgent food. This usually involves me sitting in bed, anxiously eating chocolate while poking my iPad like a lab rat.

- Weddings are immensely more enjoyable to attend once yours is out of the way. Being at a wedding and thinking about planning your own (or talking your better half off a ledge from planning it) is an exercise in long-form torture. Now that the pressure is off, the really are a celebration of love.
- No amount of corniness can conceal it. I love seeing two people in love get married. I don't care about your politics. Gay or straight, if they're in love, let's all celebrate the fact that two optimistic, idealistic people found each other in this cold universe. How can someone not marvel at that?
- Hipsters are apparently omnipresent and of a universal quality, not unlike hippies. There's always at least two at every wedding and the are as reliable in their expected behavior as I am in mine. Nice to see how I could be dressing or living, but usually it's an affirmation I'm happy with who I am. That being said, they are very nice if you know how to handle them.

- Durango, especially higher up the mountain, is serenely beautiful. Long stretches of unbroken quiet. Views like you wouldn't believe. Landscapes that seem impossible constructed. No mosquitoes! A very relaxed pace at which the citizens live, a with a bit of cowboy/granola ethos. Hard not to drink the Kool Aid in such a place.

- High altitudes are much easier to handle when you've quit smoking and gotten back down to an appropriate shape. Had I not kicked the habit and been running, it would have been a miserable weekend. I remember being exhausted and winded when I would visit Boulder as a smoldering tub. This way, I could actually see the sights.

- That being said, at 7,000 feet, I'm a cheap date. No amount of starches and water can alleviate that bloated, red in the face feeling of a couple high altitude drinks crawling right on top of you. Considering how wonky one feels in a plane (cabin pressure is roughly equivalent to 8,000 feet) it's no wonder I had to take it easy when imbibing.

- Why did no one tell me about putting hot sauce in beer? Are we that repressed in the Middle West? How has such a basic concept never made its way here? I am disappointed at how much I missed out on. Tabasco, here I come.

- Connecting flights are the worst. It's stressful enough to have to deal with security and the airlines, but giving them twice the opportunity to wreck your travel arrangements? I've learned to just avoid these situations altogether.
A fantastic trip to a breathtaking place. Good friends getting hitched. Good food, altitude hijinx and airline dramatics. I learned a lot, and had an amazing time. Here's to enjoying the rest of the summer.


Rags On Paper

Welcome back! 

As promised, here's the interview I conducted with the band via email. For more info, check out their Facebook page here and follow them on Twitter for tour dates and dispatches from the road and studio.

So how'd the tour go?

Tour was amazing.  It was our first time traveling across the United States as a band and getting a chance to play a ton of concerts outside of the northwest.  Getting the opportunity to play shows every night for a month straight is perhaps the greatest thing an aspiring band like us can ask for.  

I know no band or artist likes to change moniker mid-career, but you guys seemed to make a natural move. Any particular signifigance to the new name, or do you simply like alliteration?

Ha!  A very well thought out question JT.  We got a little bit of frustration from some of our fan base who had been with us for awhile but after the first several weeks, everybody has seemed to survive.  When we first chose our original name, Galaxy Farm, we were starting to play shows in Portland and just needed a title to be known by.  We kind of settled on Galaxy Farm.  Then two years later, we started getting a lot of feedback that we needed to change our name and we kind of felt the same way.  We chose Rags & Ribbons because of the imagery it conveys and indeed, the alliteration is nice.  Plus every other name we thought of was taken.

How do the songwriting duties break down - is it collaborative or does someone show up with strongly developed concepts?

Each song is a little different but overall our music compositions are very collaborative.  There is no question that Jon has a big hand in the composition process because of his music composition background but often times any one of the three of us will come in with a rough idea and then between the rest of the group, a lot of the final pieces get smoothed out together.  We would say, Chris is definitely the rhythm master, Jon is the harmony master, and Ben just tries to screw everything up just enough to make it work.
What do you consider influences, musically? From your youth to today, what acts shaped your development?

All of our influences vary a lot and we think that is what gives us such a unique combination of musicianship.  Chris grew up with a lot of interest in progressive rock and will site bands like the Deftones and Dredge.  Jon has always been a huge fan of well crafted indie music like Sufjan Stevens, Keane, Rufus Wainwright, and a lot of classical music.  Ben has been a fan of big pop and alt rock bands from the Killers and Muse to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Overall, none of us really identify with a particular scene.  If the music is good, we can be influenced by any genre or band.  For example, Jon and I have been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean and the Weekend lately.  Totally out of our genre but super smooth and cool music.

Do you have a unified theme or vision for your sound, or do you follow an instinct to create 'whatever works'?

Initially, no.  It took us about 2-3 years to figure out a unified sound that we were going for.  Additionally, we are just now starting to figure out how to craft songs that share a unified vision.  After writing our first record, seeing how people responded to the new material, and seeing how people responded to our live show, we are now really starting to define our vision and sound.  Everything is very intentional and thought out.  We spend a lot of hours analyzing and critiquing ourselves.
What are your earliest musical memories?

We all started playing the piano when we were young.  Jon started when he was around 2 or 3 and he was the only one that ended up sticking with it.  Chris picked up the drums when he was 12.  Ben remembers being forced to take piano lessons by his mom.

What was the first piece of music you bought?

Jon- Boyz II Men
Ben-  Michael Jackson-Dangerous (on cassette, Oh Yeah!)
Chris- YES

Name some (musical) guilty pleasures. 
Ben: Last summer, I got free tickets to Kesha, Britney Spears, LMFAO, and Usher.  I definitely went to all of them, and I definitely loved them all.
Jon: Is it too soon to like Chris Brown?
Chris: Djent-weird nerdy drum stuff.

You seem to be a pretty sincere, earnest group. Does that set you apart from some jaded, world weary scenesters? 

We're just really excited about what we do.  We're aware that not everyone gets this kind of opportunity where you can share your music with people.  That experience keeps us far away from ever feeling jaded.  We hope our optimism translates to our audience, and helps them connect with us.
Do you try to recreate the sounds of the album live, or did you try to capture the live sound for the album?

We really think of the studio and the stage as two different worlds and we try to make the best of both environments. The studio exists to create the best sonic record of our music in a controlled environment.  The stage exists for a raw, human presentation of the music through performance. 

Name a modern sound/group you adore. Name a modern or recent sound/artist/movement you wish would go away.  

Jon: I adore Sigur Ros and Sufjan Stevens. There's a little bit of music that I love, and the rest of it doesn't have to go away, I just won't listen to it. 

Ben: There's some top 40 that I love and some top 40 that I hate.  If it's done well, I can get down with any genre; if it's done poorly, I'll tell you that I don't like it.

Chris: I love anything techy.  With that kind of stuff comes amazing musicians, and most often GREAT drumming.  The band has really been loving poly-rhythms at the moment, and we're working on a song in 7/8 that really grooves.  I dislike a lot of music.  I love some lo fi indie stuff, but being a musician, there's some new thing going on where it seems like people like singers that sound terrible and sing out of tune, believing that they are so original.  Country lyrics often make me laugh.  

A couple songs from the EP reappeared on the album. Why those tracks and not others? 

Prelude and Lady In The Midnight Sun were songs that we felt combined well with our new material and could continue to have significant value to our audience.

Who do you consider your contemporaries/compatriots? Any acts you wish would get a wider audience?  

No Kind of Rider and Tango Alpha Tango are other local Portland bands that we are very close with and have had the privilege of going on tour with.  Their music is fantastic.  

There's a real sense of light and heavy alternating and coexisting/competing in your work - is that intentional or a manifestation of different influences/voices? 

It is intentional.  We like contrast and the musical roller coaster ride that sometimes comes with it. 
Talk a bit about the excellent video for 'Even Matter'.  

We had some concepts slightly fleshed out, one weekend with the lovely Lucy Martin, and we went and filmed one of the ideas on some family property.  We had new ideas while filming, and got a lot of content and left the final product up to Lucy, her vision, and her editing.  We lucked out with Jasper, the boy in the video.  He looked great in the film, and his acting was so genuine.  The weather even turned out in our favor.  It had snowed the night we came up, and the snow and ice in some of the scenes really gives it an excellent look and feel.  Much of what that video is came down to luck and good fortune!

Who decides who sings what part? 

Chris does.  :)   We don't have a specific method on choosing who sings what, but we do try to have our songs alternate nicely from "Jon" songs, to "Ben" songs, and dual vocal songs.  
Do you practice on your own time, or do you try to only work as a group?  

We all practice on our own time, and I think that's integral to the sound we have as a band.  Each member practices different techniques and songs they love from genres all over the spectrum, and those different influences come together in the practice room to make something special.  

Name some non-musical influence.  

We all owe so much to our families for support and influence.  Friends, coworkers, relationships, work, play, nature, tour.  There is so much that influences us, it's hard to even think about cataloging it all.