TEN QUESTIONS WITH CHRISTOPHER TIGNOR / SLOW SIX
Those who have been monitoring Slow Six's evolution will recall the dramatic change that occurred between its relatively introspective debut album PrivateTimes in Public Places (initially released in 2004, re-issued by Western Vinyl in 2007) to its more aggressive follow-up Nor'easter (2007). The outfit's new Tomorrow Becomes You is clearly a natural progression from the second, and a remarkable one at that. While the third album, a long time in the making, includes moments that are as delicate as anything on the first and as extroverted as the second, it also argues for Slow Six as a group entity more than any recording to date. Even a cursory listen reveals that the group is hardly leader Christopher Tignor surrounded by hired hands but rather a fully-integrated unit with all five members responsible for bringing Slow Six's material into being. Tignor recently spent some time updating us about the group's latest material, its distinctive instrumental makeup, and other happenings in the Slow Six universe.
1. First things first: go ahead and berate me for using the words Slow Six and “prog-rock” in the same sentence in the textura review of Tomorrow Becomes You. In my defense, I did so as a way of emphasizing the fact that the material is progressive, yes, but that it also rocks—a single listen to “The Night You Left New York” or “These Rivers Between Us” all the proof one needs. One could call Slow Six's style ‘instrumental music' but that seems woefully vague. What's your own label or do you prefer to dispense with them altogether?
Coming from you, it's quite alright. People grow up with an attraction to certain music and then end up hearing the world through that lens; it's perfectly natural. The thing about all these labels is that the words develop loaded meanings not extractable from the sum of their parts. Progressive-rock doesn't really indicate “progressive” music with rock instruments as much as a specific style of playing rock instruments and putting songs together. Just like “post-rock” certainly doesn't indicate an end to rock but now implies a very specific style of instrumental music made primarily with rock instruments. That word has changed a bunch since the days of Aerial M and the Dirty Three, which is the era of the term I personally resonate with.
But both aesthetics feel a bit awkward in describing what we do though folks from both camps get on board as well as those from modern classical and ambient music. Come one, come all. I save my words for song titles.
2. With Tomorrow Becomes You being your third full-length, I'm curious as to what ways it sounds to you like an advance upon or change from the first two recordings.
After Nor'easter Steve and I talked about what we'd be into doing next with Slow Six. It was clear we wanted to dig deeper into our rock roots, our own sincere exploration of those immediate ideas done in a way which maintained all the compositional and experimental nuance we're into. Slow Six has always been about slow changes over time both in song and out. And here we are.
3. You've managed to create music that's inarguably advanced yet also easily accessible—the album opener “The Night You Left New York” a prime example. Is that a balance you purposefully attempt to strike, and can you talk a bit about the classical compositional strategies you've subtly worked into the music? I'm thinking about the string counterpoint and hocketing in the opening piece and the hypnotic string figure that introduces “Cloud Cover (part 1),” for example.
In order to approach the aesthetic we were after sincerely it became clear that reading down completely through-composed scores as per the last records would work against the sound. We needed a tight band of players that would be willing to knock around ideas, charts, patterns, melodies and whatever else I'd bring in in order to really get a band sound that wasn't just some classical score for rock instruments. That always sounds forced to me; we needed the real thing.
It was a very challenging process to try and preserve all of the contrapuntal nuance that can only be done with scoring and also implement the flexibility that great bands evoke. It became a fine balance between composition, arranging, and even a bit of straight up jamming to get things right. It's only possible to achieve all of this with a very unique set of dedicated musicians.
4. The group's line-up is unusual: you've got two violinists, a guitarist, drummer, and Fender Rhodes player but no bassist. How is it that you settled on this particular mix?
The forces are the ones that typify the Slow Six sound with the new inclusion of drums in order to dive headlong into our take on rock. I've always been a big fan of same-instrument pairing, the way you can bend two near-identical voices around one another, that type of intimacy. There's a lot of that on Nor'easter and even in the guitar work on Private Times in Public Places . So I knew I wanted to tangle twin violins up with melodic patterns that would elaborate the grooves. I certainly didn't want to be some sort of violin soloist up there by myself like an instrumental rock crooner. I'm not quite built for that myself.
The Fender Rhodes has always been the heart of the band to me. It's where I start and develop the vast majority of what I write for anything. On this record, the Rhodes really is our bass—there's a lot of really wide playing—the left hand down low and the right up high, leaving room for the rest of the band down center.
5. The album's got an incredibly huge sound, as if it were laid down live in the studio, and the energy level often verges on combustible. Did the band familiarize itself with the material by playing the pieces live first and then record them?
Like all our other records, we played this music live for a long time before hitting the studio. Probably a year and a half of refining and performing, all told. It's the only way to really get this approach to music where it needs to be, both compositionally and ensemble-wise. I think we were able to catch the thing right at the point where everything just came together. The live tracking was the backbone, and then I made a lot of choices in my home studio and then working with Steve overdubbing the guitar-work at his studio. I'm not afraid to push the arrangements hard after the live session if I feel something's lacking. The string harmonies at the very end of “The Night You Left New York” are one example; another is the fulcrum track in the middle of the record, “Because Together We Resonate.” I felt the record needed a sort of bridge and wrote and recorded the music for that work myself in a little under two weeks, even borrowing my brother's cello for a few measures.
6. I can think of all kinds of artists associated with particular genres—dark ambient, for example—but I really don't hear any other group doing the kind of music you're doing. Do you likewise feel Slow Six is a singular entity or do you sense connections to other groups? (I hear a plaintive quality in “Cloud Cover (part 2)” that's also heard in Balmorhea's music, for instance, but sonically your groups are hardly alike.)
We've always had some trouble trying to aesthetically fit onto bills with other bands. The new record though is much more in the playing field and it makes touring with cool bands like Lymbyc Systym aesthetically viable. A particularly wide range of folks have taken an interest in our music over the years with each new record. It'll be interesting to see where this latest invention leaves us.
7. Your self-designed MusicBox and Orbits softwares find their way into two of the album's tracks. How specifically did the software treatments add to the musical material?
The MusicBox software is a Max/MSP application that is in essence a series of tuned, resonant filters. I take AM talk radio at the end of “Cloud Cover” and slowly feed it into MusicBox which makes it resonate at the pitches I set to create the drone that starts “Because Together We Resonate.” The result sounds like a sort of AM radio tambura to me. But you can play the filter with a keyboard when you want to, say, move with harmony.
Orbits is a Java application I built for a laptop quintet of mine with the same name. It basically let's you use a Wacom tablet or your mouse to draw around the screen and create a stream of colored dots, each one representing a sample taken on the fly of whatever sound you feed into your computer. In the second half of “Sympathetic Response System” I fed the guitar, Rhodes, and Theo's ambient percussion into it. The direction and speed you draw changes whether these samples play forward, backward, and at what speed, and you can have hundreds of these little sample dots swirling about the screen at once if desired. The goal is to try and subtly bend our perception of the recognizable instrumental landscape by hearing the abstractions side by side with their sources.
8. A rustic quality seeps into the music at times (e.g., “Because Together We Resonate,” “These Rivers Between Us”) in a way that suggests strong ties to the American folk tradition. Is this a side of Slow Six's sound you consciously wanted to explore on the new album?
I really have no experience with Appalachian Mountain music or that fiddle tradition if that's what you mean. I grew up in Jersey. But a lot of that sound is built into our ears and the instrument for sure. For me and the musicians I knew coming up, our native American musical language—our American folk music—was rock and roll. Even Classical is some sort of inheritance at best.
9. Could you say a few words about how the playing styles and personalities of the other members—violinist Ben Lively, guitarist Stephen Griesgraber, drummer Theo Metz, and Fender Rhodes player Rob Collins—contribute to the Slow Six sound?
I'd say this record, even more so than our others, is rooted in the playing styles of the personnel.
Ben Lively is about as solid and creative a violinist as they come. It seems there's only a small handful of violinists that really understand how to be a great amplified player and use effects without sounding like you wished you played guitar. All the gestural electronic effects at the beginning of “Sympathetic Response System” are Ben plucking his violin into his battery of effects. And then at the coda he's the one with the heart-breaking lyrical hook. That's some serious range.
Stephen's guitar work is grounded in both in his preferred classical finger-style approach as well as his hard-rock playing youth. He prefers a clean, exacting tone except when poignantly choosing some overdrive or delay. He really knows how to extract as much meaning from the instrument itself as possible, a rarity within an often effects-crazed guitar world. We basically make him play Clouds...
Theo's the baby of the band but has more square inches of ink on his body than the rest of us combined. I've seen him take apart insane modernist marimba scores and educate us all on drum-kit in the same concert. Theo loves to dig in and get all angular and raw but the precision of his classical training follows him everywhere. He's what we call a full-range musician.
Rob Collins is a strategist. On Rhodes, he's always got his composer's hat on, seeing the big picture of how each gesture folds the fabric of the thing. He's got exactly the kind of thinking a band like ours needs and is often a step ahead of me with where the changes are going. If I could play the keys as effortlessly as Rob I'd likely give up the violin completely.
10. What else is in the works for 2010 with respect to touring and other projects?
On tour with Lymbyc Systym in March and April whom I'm also playing violin with. There's talk of doing the same with This Will Destroy You in May whom I did some playing and recording with recently for their exciting new full-length. Steve's band Redhooker just released their LP Vespers which I highly recommend for fans of ambient classical. My ever-expanding side project with Theo, Wires.Under.Tension should be finishing our record pretty soon. The songs are sort of wrestling me to the ground. I'll get back topside though—not out of tricks yet.