Stars of the Lid’s tale stretches back about a quarter of a century. Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Brian McBride met in university in Austin, Texas around 1990 and bonded over weird music and Twin Peaks. Their first release, Music for Nitrous Oxide, came in 1995 and two more recordings followed in quick succession before they found an eminently suitable home on Kranky, a Chicago-based record label with a distinct aesthetic, based on experimentalism and avant garde.
Eventually Wiltzie ended up living in Brussels and McBride in California, but their artistic relationship had often functioned with both parties working separately and remotely taking turns to contribute to a piece after some time in private contemplation.
Their two signature works – 2001’s The Tired Sounds of… and 2007’s …And Their Refinement of the Decline – were both released as triple-vinyl sets, and their slowly surging popularity caused Kranky to reissue both those records in 2015. As well as expanding in scale, these two records introduced further orchestration and move away from concréte sounds that had punctuated their earlier releases. The compositions on both albums are bright slabs of tone, hovering and vibrating like an intangible, immersive Rothko painting. Consisting largely of processed electric guitars with horn and string arrangements, it becomes impossible to tell where one instrument ends and the next begins, or who even could make such a sound.
In some ways, very little happens. However, in their simplicity, their compositions open up emotional spaces the listener can inhabit, and, in a sense, the pieces speak to the gap between music and language, and music’s innate ineffability. Despite titles suggesting a black humour to undercut any over-seriousness (e.g. December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface, or Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage, which references Brian McBride’s namesake who played upfront for Fulham), there’s definitely a haunting intensity to these simple and graceful musical movements, and a lingering feeling that there’s some dark personal history entwined in their overtones.
Since that last release in 2007 both have spent more time on other musical projects, with Wiltzie most notably working with pianist Dustin O’Halloran on A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and the soundtrack for the film Theory of Everything with Jóhann Jóhannsson. When we caught up with Wiltzie, he was preparing for a short European tour with his old friend, and we talked about his drive to produce beauty, trusting his gut, and transcending the mundane through performance.
I watched a recent performance, I guess it was last year, from a church in Brooklyn that was on Boiler Room. There was some new material that was being performed and I was wondering were you continuing to make new music as Stars of the Lid?
Yeah, well, we never really stopped. Because we’ve always been a little bit vague about what we’re doing – I don’t know if that was a concerted effort early on – but some people think we’ve broken up, everyone’s got a story about us because we didn’t really make it clear that “this is what we’re doing next” and “this is what’s happening,” except for, you know, we’re just going to do some shows. We haven’t put out a record since 2007, but the truth is we’ve always continued to work on music but we haven’t really found this moment where we want to release another record. It’s not that we won’t, I think we will someday, but after the last record, I got busy working with A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and doing a lot more films. I kind of got sidetracked, so a lot of it’s probably my fault.
[But] we are continuing to work on new material, and we’ll be playing some of the songs on this tour. But we’re playing a handful of shows this year, because we’re all good friends and we still love working together.
At this show I gather there is going to be a couple of other people with you and Brian.
Yeah, we’ve expanded the line-up. We’ve got this guy called Francesco Donadello who is the guy that I’ve been working to record my records for the past few with years as A Winged Victory, and he’s really an expert in the field of modular synthesis. So he’s operating the Moog System 55 that we’re bringing on tour with us, which is kind of a complicated, old, giant piece of furniture with no presets. This thing is really temperamental but it sounds incredible when you can get it to stick in tune.
We’ve also got Bobby Donne from Labradford who’s going to be playing some modular synths, and then a regular line-up of the string quartet [the Echo Collective] and then me and Brian also playing guitar.
Is the addition of the two players on modular synths something that has happened before? Is that brand new?
That’s pretty much brand new. Essentially, Paul Smith, who ran the Blast First music label, started working for the Moog Music people and he got a hold of some of their gear, and it’s been going around to artists that he likes and he’s been trying to curate them to use this collection of Moog synthesisers that he has, and do some experimentation, some recording, some touring if possible. So I was lucky enough to have an avenue to use this Moog System 55, because it’s huge and it’s a very rare piece of equipment, it’s very expensive… it’s a beast! Sometimes there are these windows that open in your life and you either jump through it or you stay and do something safe.
Like I said, it doesn’t have any presets and it’s old and it comes from another time, but if you touch it the right way, oh my god it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. In a strange sense it fits really well with our drones. I was lucky enough to have it in my studio for a couple of months to try it out to see if it was going to be possible, and it was so that’s what we’ve decided to take it on tour.
And you have some kind of visual presentation as well I believe.
Yeah. Ever since our first show, we’ve always worked with the projectionist Luke Savisky, and this time we’ll also be bringing a lighting engineer, Marcel [Weber], also known as MFO, who’s worked for a long time with Ben Frost and Tim Hecker. So it’s kind of a really big light show… I mean, it’s a big show. [Laughs]
I was really surprised to read that yourself and Brian work largely apart from one another. I was wondering what are the means to keep that musical conversation going? Does one person start something, and then the other reacts and react back and react back?
I mean, generally. There are pieces of music where we’re in the same room playing together – but even in the early ’90s when we lived in the same city we tended, more often than not, to have a new piece of music and then we’d invite the person over and have a glass of wine and listen to it and the other person would leave with the tape. Back then we used four-track cassette and reel-to-reel, that’s how we recorded everything, so one of us would leave with the tape and go home and work on it.
It was never really strange to do it like that, so for us living halfway around the world from each other, it’s always been pretty easy to keep working on music. You know, we’re old friends, we go way back, and we always know that, as things move in and out of life, we’ll continue to work on this together.
In the music, there’s a lot of stasis and relatively little harmonic change. In terms of the starting point for a piece of music, where do you begin? Do you have a conceptual idea, or a visual cue? Or is it more like, I’m going to sit down with my guitar and a few pedals and create something and then work from that recording?
I’ve never really been much into conceptual music, that’s always been like swimming through vomit for me. It’s always been a lot more simple [than that]. It’s sitting down at a piano or sitting down with a guitar and I find a chord progression or a note. I’ve always had this feeling in my stomach, if I have this feeling, I always trust myself, I don’t second guess myself. That’s how it starts.
For this question I’m bearing in mind given that you said you don’t really like conceptual music…
Well, I’m just saying for myself. You know the thing about conceptual art is that it really only means something to the person who created it, a lot of times it can be completely lost… For me I’ve always been into art that’s just beautiful. For me that’s always been enough. It doesn’t have to have this really deep meaning for anyone other than the person who created it. Sometimes you can go see a piece of art and you can have a very intense emotional connection with it, but a lot of times you have no idea what the artist went through to get there.
I feel that’s a quite pertinent description of your own music. There’s a lot of space where the listener can put his or her own personality into it…
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s coming in to the line of subjectivity: it means a lot to someone, it means absolutely nothing to someone else.
Bearing that conversation in mind, with the last two records, even though quite a lot of time has passed now between them, was there a conscious movement away from found sounds and more dissonant sounds towards more consonant sounds and a kind of purity of the tones? It seems to be a bit part of the music, it’s very clear and colourful, whereas the earlier stuff was a bit darker, more abrasive.
I’m not so sure how conscious it was. Everything you do, every single moment of your life influences the next thing; your just musical ability, your compositional ability, what you learn. Learning to write music is a little bit like learning another language. I didn’t really know how to write music in 1993 but I’ve slowly learned it over the years, over the year, so that’s helped develop my palette of sounds, my ability for arrangements. I think a lot of it is just growing up, learning a craft.
It’s so hard for me to look outside myself sometimes to know exactly what I was thinking at the time when I was doing it. You just follow your gut. Like I said earlier, these moments that you have, at the beginning of, at the basis of a song, if I have this feeling in my heart, my stomach, I always have to trust it. Don’t second guess yourself, otherwise you’re never going to get anything done.
I was talking to a colleague of mine, a good friend of mine, Jóhann Jóhannsson, the other day, and he said he always feels like none of his music is ever finished. Which I can kind of see in a way. You just reach a point where the song is done, it’s finished, it gets released. But at the same time, a song could be incomplete forever; it could go on and on and on. And I remember in those early days I had pieces of music that would go on for years, you know, one that started in ’93 and I didn’t finish until ’97 or something. But now I’ve learned, for emotional stability, [to let go]. They’re like little children and you want them to go off to school, because otherwise they’re never going to grow up. [Laughs]
One of the questions I had on my list was, “How do you know when a piece of music like this is finished?”
Yeah, that is the million dollar question my friend, it really is!
I’m making the assumption that, especially on Tired Sounds and Refinement, the music has a lot of emotion in it, and there’s a lot of space for people to fill with their own emotion. Is it still very emotionally intense and draining to perform music like this? Or can you divorce yourself from it?
If anything, I feel like it’s hard to make a connection to the music sometimes. I feel like that’s the thing that has always drawn me to live music. I would say out of ten shows, I really only have a connection at two or three if I’m lucky. But at those two or three, it’s that strange moment of living in the moment, where you can really feel this strange connection with the audience. It sounds kind of hippy-dippy but it’s impossible to describe in words, it’s just a really special feeling. So that’s what’s pushing you on for another round of it, because it’s different to recording in your studio and releasing something, because your connection is so indirect – not to say that it’s not powerful too – but you don’t feel exactly what they’re feeling because they’re not there.
At the same time, we’re playing a couple of old pieces of music at the shows that are, you know, very old, and they’ve evolved over the years. The basis of the pieces are still there, but as the band changes, personalities come in and they add their little splashes of emotion to it, which I think is a good thing because you want to find ways to keep it fresh, which is another reason I brought in the modular synthesiser – because of its randomness, its inability to play the same thing over and over. I was looking for a way to be improvisational… I’m not really very good at improvisation. So we have the structures there, but bringing these new personalities in, it’s really going to add a new lease on life for me.
I’m glad in a way that you said there are some shows where you don’t get that feeling. As a performer, I know there are some shows where it feels like I’m just doing one thing after another, but there are some shows where there’s something transcendent happening.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s more because I really struggle to have a connection with most people in general. Maybe it’s in connection with that, because I really struggle to enjoy playing live a lot of times, but that’s really, ultimately what pushes me because those rare moments when you do feel that connection, that changes everything. One of those nights can make you go on for years to come.
Stars of the Lid play the National Concert Hall’s Main Auditorium as part of their Perspectives series on Sunday 9th October at 8pm. Tickets cost €25 from nch.ie
Words: Ian Lamont
Photos: Stars of the Lid