TEN QUESTIONS WITH: RUN_RETURN
Hailing from Boston, Long Island, and Brooklyn, Raj Ojha, Kevin Dineen, and Tommy Fugelsang formed Run_Return in Santa Cruz, California in 1999. The group's rich blend of electronic (synthesizers, digital processing) and acoustic (drum kits, vibraphones, guitars) sounds is poised to attract considerable attention with the release of the superb Metro North (n5MD), a wide-ranging, eighteen-track foray into dub, post-rock, fusion, electronica, and hip-hop. The trio's live sound is realized marvelously on the album as it segues from intimate melancholy to epic grandeur with consummate ease. What further distinguishes the group's sound is that the musicians have so thoroughly absorbed their influences that they flow naturally back into the music, and the compositions—meticulous though they might be—never sound awkward or contrived, as if the band is academically filling in the genre blanks. On the eve of the album's release, the three band members generously provided detailed insight into the making of the album, 'prog,' their musical tastes, and other matters.
1. Let's head lazy critics off at the pass that might liken you to Tortoise simply because you both play instrumental music that features vibes, electronic textures, et cetera. How would you differentiate yourself from your Chicago brethren? Similarly, your material spans so many genres that encapsulating it with a single label is virtually impossible. When asked to describe it, what do you say?
Yes, we can understand the Tortoise reference, mostly because of the vibraphones. Naturally, we love those guys; a lot of people do. They are so informed about their own musical style, whether it's technique, instrumentation, engineering, electronics. Their sound is an amalgamation of many influences that we also particularly enjoy. Incidentally, Jeff Parker spends a lot of time in the Bay and plays with Scott Amendola. We've been lucky to become friends with him so when he's in town we always chill if we can. While we're into what Tortoise is doing, we'd really like our listeners to think of people like Brian Eno and Richard D. James or groups like Harmonia and NEU! when they hear us.
All three of us try to have very open ears so we're into a lot of different kinds of music, and Run_Return gives us freedom to bring everything we like about music and create something new with it. When people ask us what we sound like we usually say it's instrumental music with electronics and live elements because that in turn gives us more freedom with our sound. A lot of people refer to it as Post-Rock, and that's fine with us, because it is not by any means an exhausted genre, and it's very broad in scope.
2. Speaking of labels, 'prog' appears to be experiencing a rehabilitation of sorts. 'Fess up, now, you're closet prog fanatics, right?
Guilty. Progressive rock and Krautrock musicians have produced a lot music between the late ‘60s and early ‘80s that still seems new to us today. It's still viable mostly because the actual terms 'Prog' or 'Krautrock' remain rather vague in definition. It encompasses many musicians experimenting in multiple styles, using unusual recording techniques, and intentionally complex musical concepts. Many current electronic musicians owe a lot to these earlier bands simply because they helped bring these experimental sounds, synthesizers, and effects to a larger audience.
The absence of lyrics can also qualify as a point in favor of prog. They are often completely based in fantasy and have little to do with your average love, angst, or “Let's have a good time” tune. While singing about gnomes or the future or sentient trees does create a certain feeling of escapism that can be funny, we appreciate the conscious effort people make to dig deeper. This sort of palatable yet experimental music gives lyricists more freedom to write and sing about anything, making the mundane or abstract interesting. Damo Suzuki, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, even Peter Gabriel excelled at this. A rehabilitation of prog is certainly in order. What's exciting to us is that we can hear some prog rock aesthetics in current bands like Gang Gang Dance, Jaga Jazzist, Trans Am, Dungen, Savath & Savalas, and even Squarepusher.
3. What's your typical compositional process? Do pieces emerge from jamming, or do you compose individually and then convene to develop and arrange the material? Could you perhaps use the gorgeous piece “Louis James Corrigan” as an example by recounting its evolution and the emotional effect you were aiming for (and who, incidentally, is Louis James Corrigan)?
For Metro North, the writing process was quite long. Songs would start out as loops and short ideas on the computer, usually with few live elements at first. As we shared the files among us individually, they became more coherent in arrangement. As we played them together, and practiced them, they would flesh out and change. At heart, they are very personal pieces, thrice magnified. Louis James Corrigan is Tommy's Dad. He is resting eternally now but was battling cancer at the beginning stages of recording Metro North. He changed his name to his mother's maiden, probably to distance himself from his past. He lived alone for a long time in a shitty neighborhood in Brooklyn. His doctors told him to stop smoking and drinking, but he didn't bother. He had given up. It's rough watching someone die not even bothering to fight.
The song itself started out as a sampled violin track with a machine-backed beat Tommy wrote one winter afternoon after an emotional conversation with Louis, who had been doped on morphine for his remaining days on hospice. He dropped an old drum break Raj had recorded in his closet in Santa Cruz years ago. The break made a sad song sound more dynamic and alive. It was a pretty jagged juxtaposition. We later scrapped the loop and added live drums, and Kevin wrote the vibraphone part. Then we switched out the lead to the Moog Source and added piano, played by Drunk Horse's Joel Robinow. It grew into a more powerful piece. It was one of the first songs we recorded for the album and one of the few tracks we used from studio session we did with Doug Scharin (HiM, Mice Parade, June of ‘44). This happened a year before the focused recording of the album, once we knew N5MD had our back, so it captured the song in a slightly different and more 'raw' period. We were all able to maintain the gravity of the track because in the creative, recording, and mixing process, Raj's dad fell ill and died of cancer after a long hard battle. Kevin lost his aunt Susan back in L.I. His mom also developed cancer, but has defeated it. Death ruled the track, but not destructively. The act of coming together to make this song became not only a tribute to these people, but catharsis for us as well.
4. The cello-vibes combination on “Louis James Corrigan” and “OKC Dani” sounds so beautiful, I can't help but wonder if you've thought about adding a cellist (like Aria Disalvio) as a full-time member? Would adding another member severely upset the chemistry of the group's trio-based sound?
Aria blew our minds. She came to the studio after Kevin invited her to play on a few tracks. She picked her two favourites, which coincidentally we had already determined would play back to back on the album. “Louis James Corrigan” is about death and “OKC Dani” is about love. Love and Death practically beg for cello, and Aria wields it masterfully. She plays with a traditional strings group in Santa Cruz and has been studying music for 20+ years. We hope her contributions to Metro North were only a start. We're lucky to have met her and hope to perhaps take these parts live one day.
Unfortunately most of the songs we've written for this album tie us to a computer when we want to play out. Having a fourth person to play more parts that are normally sequences or to dub on the board or laptop is something we are currently working on with our new material. Since 1999, we've been a lot of things—a duo, a quintuplet, a sextet, a duo again, a trio, a quartet. We've had horns, guitars, basses, strings, computers, vocalists, MCs. All the guests on the LP and more have played live with us at some point. It's part of the same modus operandi that prevents us from claiming any one instrument as the thing we do. It's suicide to isolate yourself; we need to keep learning by challenging ourselves. We don't try to predetermine who does what and therefore remain ready to collaborate.
5. The opening track “Aerospace Lanes” marvelously segues from electronic dub to post-rock and everything in between, yet still retains a coherent sense of identity. How do you know when you've pushed a song far enough, or when to stop layering elements?
“Aerospace Lanes” is actually one of our oldest tunes. It was originally composed by Kevin in 2001 on his laptop, then developed into a track that Kevin and Tommy would perform live as a duo. We eventually laid it down as the leadoff track on our first record (Air Lanes). The current incarnation signifies the changes we've gone through as a group since our first album. Since that time, we've continued to play it live and rework it. Once Raj transitioned from only drumming for us to actively composing with us, the song changed considerably to reflect his aesthetics (microedits, dubbing, stretching things out) but we also seek to make the live aspects of the track the focal point.
Because we're so interested in studio production, we always think something else will make it sound better or that we have a better take in us. We have to catch each other and stop each other. It's easy to get overwhelmed in all the details of a track. It's usually deadlines (and we need them) that tell us when something is done. We employ a continual process, so it's really tough to stop on a track and say “There, that's my product.” Because the music is performed live there's a certain part of us that does not want the song to remain static but we also want to make a track as perfect and 'done' as it can be on record.
6. The huge, spacious sound of the album is one of its most distinguishing characteristics and fantastically showcases the material. How deliberately did you fashion that epic production sound?
During the recording process, we are all able to intelligently engineer sessions in our project studios and at our practice space. We were especially fortunate to have Doug Scharin spend a few days with us at Closer Studio in San Francisco, recording some tracks to tape. The actual sound we attempted to achieve is a combination of the production values we've grown up admiring (loud drums from hip-hop, house, and electro, saturated sounds from recordings from the 70s, et cetera). The bulk of the recording was done at Raj's house over the course of about one and a half years. This amount of time gave us flexibility to experiment and learn new techniques of recording and mixing which were entirely done on a computer. Some songs have upwards of 30 tracks: pads, percussive sequences, found sounds, et cetera. To fit all this in a musical way and not overpower the listener, we had to figure out ways to place things in appropriate frequency ranges and use the stereo field to separate sounds. The large and lush sound might be a result of this, combined with the fact we could have been unconsciously trying to disguise the fact the live elements were recorded in Raj's bedroom. While there is a lot of digital editing, home-made software synths, and dsp that went into this album, we still used mic placement techniques and live room reverbs to obtain some of the sounds' character. During the mixing phase of the tracks, Raj made careful steps to protect dynamic range and eq so that when we gave it Shahin at Medicine Man, there was plenty of room to warm it up.
7. How do you decide between synth bass and electric bass, or drum programming and conventional drumming? Is it a matter of what's first at hand in the studio or is the selection process more deliberate?
It's a combination of both. Most tracks start off as contained loops with the basic elements (bass, beat, pad, lead) present. Since any one piece of software is not a total compositional solution, we usually try switching out these parts to other software environments, navigating endless sonic possibilities. And some of our songs are composed in real-time in the studio where we have a limited amount of gear at a given moment. In the end, electronic elements stay because they compliment or augment their live counterparts. There are just some things that drum machines do better than drum kits and synths do better than basses or guitars.
While composing together, we usually stop and discuss arrangements. Some ideas see the light of day, and some don't. The three of us are good at being honest with each other about the music we make; if we don't like a part or song, we're up front about it, and seek consensus. Even though electronic music lends itself to solitary production and writing we still need to create a cohesive piece together as a band. This unfortunately goes against the very nature of most 'laptop' or 'electronic' music and sometimes might slow down our songwriting/recording process, but sloppiness is generally not tolerated among us. It's funny, because if we go back to work on pieces we have not touched for a while, we often have to learn everything from scratch. We've never assigned roles to ourselves. All of us can play to a degree and do it different from the next guy. Raj and Kevin excel at drumming. Tommy has taken vibe instruction, so we tend to gravitate to what we can do comfortably. But we also like the challenge of each having control over all our gear.
8. Given your apparent affection for multiple genres, I'm wondering if you might name one electronic, one jazz/fusion, and one prog album you believe every Run_Return fan shouldn't be without and why.
One? No way. There are a few essentials...
Sowiesoso by Cluster: The warmest electronic record ever made. Conceived and written on the Harmonia commune in remote, Germany, Moebieus and Roedelius revolutionized electronics and busted some stuff that sounds easily 30 years ahead of its time. Amazing combination of textures, electronics, and pure atmospherics.
LP5 by Autechre: One of the few Autechre albums that has such a natural mixture of song arrangement, melody and abstract sound. It was definitely a gateway to more experimental and electronic modes of making music.
Sweetnighter by Weather Report: Because of the breaks and Joe Zawinul's infinite skills on the dual ARPs.
Sextant by Herbie Hancock: Herbie Hancock was trying to materialize all that was going on in his mind in those post-soul-jazz-Miles years. He joined African influences with a song structure guided by Moogs that is tight but, at the same time, feels like it could fall apart and explode in a minute.
The Unstable Molecule by Isotope 217: Jazz-fusion by post-rock beat heads with Mat Lux on bass. It's tough as nails.
Another Green World by Brian Eno: It's been talked about and talked about, but what Eno did on this record can't be pigeonholed into any one genre. He destroyed regular singer-songwriting structure and employed some of the most amazing musicians of the time to make music that Kevin wants to hear in his last moments on earth (along with John Coltrane).
Tago Mago by CAN: The actual recording of the band makes up a good portion of their sound on this record, that and the experimentation with melodies, moods and rhythms has been something we've been trying to recapture in some way since we heard it for the first time.
9. The intro and outro on “Metro North” evokes Boards of Canada so much it might be taken for a subtle nod to Warp's revered group. Is that the case or is the similarity purely coincidental? In general, are there any current artists and/or albums exciting you at the moment?
We can see it now but it seems like one of the unconscious acts in the studio. We can't really deny being influenced by them, like many electronic acts are these days. Those guys blew a bunch of lids with Music Has the Right to Children in 1998. It's an album we can always go back to and never tire of. They've made such a mark on downtempo beat science that they've become ubiquitous. For any musician to compose within that cadre, BOC will certainly be in close orbit. Influences can never be denied. But musicians can only define sound, they can't invent it. And definitions evolve amongst different users. However it may seem, BOC did not fall from the sky. They have a history of musical linkages and influences and ideas to which any informed musician is entitled. So if one or two songs end up with a similar feel, definitely count it as homage, as they pay homage to those before them.
Current artists? TV on the Radio and Explosions in the Sky are making rock really interesting; Madlib and MF doom keep hip-hop fresh. Some Electronic artists we're into currently are edIT, Deru, and Dabrye. Hood, M83, Broken Social Scene, and Album Leaf have emotional manipulation down to an equation and aren't afraid of electronics. Juana Molina make us want to learn Spanish. Adelaide, _Only_, and Roots of Orchis are our local favorites who are fun to play with because they compose really beautiful, beat-driven music. Mr. Rath of Subkrew is a tight producer/lyricist in our area.
10. An obvious question but one I must ask: How did you come up with the band name and how obsessive are you about ensuring the underscore is included (I've seen the name displayed with and without it)? Finally, are you planning an extensive tour to promote Metro North? Who would be your dream act to pair with on a double-bill or concert tour?
Run return was a name we developed by digging into our past with computer music. Originally we were toying with the idea Load"*",8,1. It's the command used to run a program off a floppy disk on a Commodore 64. This was our first interaction with computer programs, which encompassed some of the earliest MIDI concepts we learned as children. We almost went public with that name but there was a band in SC called Loadstar at that period. I have no idea what they sounded like, but their posters around town indicated that we should not even entertain the remote possibility of being confused with them... So to execute the command listed above, once prompted, the user typed run, then hit the return key. Run, Return. We liked it. It got all your programs running. The underscore, that non-hyphen of digital age, indicates our affinity for digital composing, but since we use Macs, it's really frivolously excessive grammar. Ultimately, it's not necessary. We are not married to it at all, but we dig the way it looks.
As far as touring is concerned, we have not thought that far ahead. This is kind of a 'hold your breath' moment in the life span of the album. Now that the recording is done, and the mixing is done, and the artwork is done, and the mastering is done, and the pressing is done, and the advertising is done, we are awaiting the response. So far it's been positive, which is encouraging. We have a few dates in major west coast cities this winter. Hopefully we'll make one or two of the conferences. We have toured before, so we know that we'd definitely like professional help if we go out this time. And that we really want to do a supporting gig. Any band or performer mentioned above would be wicked. I guess we'll know eventually. And we'll let you know at www.runreturn.com when it happens.