Jul. 25, 2012 - Issue #875: Shout Out Out Out Out
Yesterday’s Future… Today!
SO4's Nik Kozub on Spanish Moss and total analogue
Sat, Jul 28 (9 pm)
Shout Out Out Out Out
With Faunts, Kumon Plaza
Something happened to Nik Kozub on the road to Savannah, Georgia. He can barely talk about it. Or, he could talk about it forever. Either way, he's not entirely convinced he should. He gropes for words, face churning with expression.
"Aaaaah," Kozub sighs after several stumped beginnings, somewhere between reverie and frustration. Every prophet who's ever woken to have an especially vivid dream of Utopia snatched from him by daylight has made this exact noise.
Savannah is no Damascus. There is no conversion story. Just a deepening; sinking into a semi-mythical land, permutations of the American Dreamscape seen in film and felt in literature and conjoined in music. Kozub roamed where heightened emotions are written on the land—fecund, weighty, frighteningly lush, tangled like a fairy-tale forest, frothy grey-green tendrils rustling around trees that sat through centuries of superstition, snaking towards, around and through all the stupid, wonderful things we proffer against existential despair: malls, gun shops, gas stations, diners, paved roads. Weird, old America. Southern Gothic.
Shout Out Out Out Out, the magnificent hydra-headed sonic toy chest consisting of Kozub and five fellow dudes, writes about Dirt City. Mostly by implication, but nonetheless. They have songs about being trapped in debt cycles and about shitty real estate development; songs about self-destructive patterns, winter depression and all-consuming fatigue; songs about creative-class hustling and getting buoyantly lost in a writhing super-organism of dancing bodies, an irresistible beat and a bottle of fun. Weird, new Alberta. Prairie Gothic.
Now, the South intrudes.
"Have you ever seen Spanish moss?" Kozub finally asks. "It's just really beautiful."
Spanish moss gives those Southern states Kozub meandered through their haunted, primal mood, evoking the threat that everything we are, make, do and love will eventually surrender to the steady earth. Kozub's journey induced some interior shift, one of those occasional, personally intense selfquakes that rips the fabric of our worldview and weaves us a new one. He took the mysterious botanical presence blanketing Dixie back home, hitchhiking in whatever part of the brain deals in emotional resonance. Upon his return, it was set loose to grow into a song, one of the first seeding a new album.
Spanish Moss and Total Loss emerges in Edmonton's sultriest summer in years. Alongside usual formats, there's a mind-blowing two-toned vinyl edition with acid-fuelled interdimensional pinball art, basically pressed with 100% medical-grade Awesome.
Of the title, Kozub says, "I love 'beautiful' with that heaviness. I love that 'Spanish moss' is not Spanish and not moss. I love that it's this beautiful plant that people appreciate and an iconic thing for its area, but also a parasite^ that grows off these trees. It's got beauty, but also this dark undercurrent, which I find appealing, and metaphorically relevant to our band, how we play somewhat fun electronic music with a heavy, dark lyrical undercurrent."
Kozub exaggerates a Dumb Pretentious Musician voice. "I find it representative of my band and of my life, man!" He draws the last word out —"maaaaaaaaan!"—and sputters into laughter. "I don't know. The way the album's put together, it just makes emotional sense to me. It ties together, hangs together, makes sense."
Spanish Moss is less blunt and anthemic than SO4's debut, Not Saying/Just Saying, and not as angular and jittery as Reintegration Time, although it retains a kinship to these earlier albums. Kozub believes the differences simply reflect the band's growth, individually and collectively, between records.
"It sounds different because we're better now," Kozub laughs. "Every time we've made a record, we've refined our writing and recording process. Sometimes successfully; sometimes not. For the last album, we'd record way more than we needed and the production decision was determining what to cut; arrangements by deleting. This time, we kept pretty much everything. We had better ideas of what would work. But those decisions happened while the song was being written."
SO4 booked a block of time at The Audio Department, the local studio where Kozub works, and the band created the album there, mostly from scratch, but sometimes working from demos or snippets brought in. "A couple songs were me humming a melody line into the voice memo on my phone. The first song, 'Now That I've Given Up Hope, I Feel Much Better,' was a bass line played into my phone as a little sketch. I realized later it was in 7/4, which is a weird time signature, but I wanted to see if we could make a dance tune in 7/4."
Kozub's Spanish Moss production, occurred nearly simultaneously with the writing and recording, reinforcing the album's overall sonic unity. "It was a different way of working, and it worked for us. We were in the studio every day for months, and it was so fun! We didn't want it to end. I think the whole process was creative and successful."
The Audio Department was a playroom for the band. "That studio's amazing. The gear's amazing. The room's amazing. The way I was working there was amazing, mixing on a nice console rather than a computer. It all lends itself to how the record sounds."
And Spanish Moss sounds warm, airy, and very human—a remarkable feat for electronic music. It has a velvety mellow liquidity to it, rhythmic but not roiling, and contains kaleidoscopic echoes of the '70s and '80s, but not explicitly articulated, giving it a gentle undertow of nostalgia without a fetishistic edge.
"To me, this is our most summery, relaxed record," Kozub offers. "Others think it's our darkest record. It might be lyrically dark, but I don't think of it as a 'dark' record. It's a pretty relaxed vibe. 'Spanish Moss' was one of the first songs we wrote, and it's the slowest and most tropical-sounding song on the record. I wanted it to have this summer beach vibe to it, because it was inspired by the road trip, and it was hot and sunny and I went to beaches along the way. I wanted that flavour injected into the song, but as usual, there's heavier subject matter."
Other songs flourished in different ways. "We had just a way more open attitude to everything," Kozub says. "A lot of it has to do with the instruments and the sounds we used. Part of the reason this band exists is because we're into analogue synthesizers. That's what we like to play with, what's fun for us. A sound on a weird old synth becomes the basis for a song. We use a lot of weird old drum machines, weird old synths and weird modern synths, still analogue, based on nothing but voltage."
Their palette also expanded on Spanish Moss. Kozub cites "Never the Same Way Twice" as an example. "That song had been demo-ed by Jason and Lyle, and there was this distorted bass part that sounded like a saxophone. One thing I was conscious of was separating ourselves further from the dance-punk electro-rock thing, so I didn't want a distorted bass playing the part. The attitude we all had towards this record was, 'Whatever works, works,' and I suggested using a real saxophone, and that was instantly accepted. We brought in Brett Miles** and it worked out. His part is so cool, and I'm glad it happened."
The record is stuffed with similar moments, points where the dudes refused to make obvious, easy choices. It was experimental music, the way play is experimental—pure exploratory joy.
"We had an old Rhodes set up, an early technology electric piano, the kind of thing you plug it into an amp and it has a sound," Kozub remembers. "We'd set it up just for quickly sketching out ideas, so we could quickly bang out a melody while we're working on programming, or whatever. A few times we were surprised things just sounded really good on the Rhodes, so we'd let it be a Rhodes part. Some of the non-synth elements that became the more organic parts of the record came about with us using whatever was working and sounded cool."
For the instrumental final track, "Knowing," the dudes cribbed from vintage Kraut-rock, which Kozub professes to love. "It's pretty much a direct rip. A by-the-books Kraut-rock track. It has what's known as 'motorik' drumming." He spells it, in pseudo-stern Germanesque. "The drumming in that song is in 75 percent of all Kraut-rock tunes."
Spanish Moss's vocals are better than on previous efforts, more melodic and nicely embedded in the aural space. "We used pretty old technology," Kozub notes. "It's a '70s analogue vocoder*, and the whole thing was run through an analogue tape delay, so it's actually running through analogue magnetic tape to give it the echoes and stuff, and a spring reverb—it softens everything and makes it really saturated." Kozub laughs. "It's the old way of creating the future!"
The phrase is striking. It's an absurd thought, but the optimism of the machines' makers seems to come through in the music made with them today. These devices once heralded a new dawn for mankind—one where strings don't break, and you didn't need an orchestra to be a composer. Machine noises indicated otherworldliness or othertimeliness, or, used in their own era, represented a forward-looking nervy pioneer. We've lived with their legacy for so long, electronic sounds rarely shock or awe us. But listening to Spanish Moss makes them feel new again. After the past two decades of having digitized music hammering our ears, these future sounds of the past seem more connected to the human realm, rather than that of the machine. Nature always reclaims its own, in the end.
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