The L Magazine: How do feel about Ashes Grammar as compared to other things you’ve previously recorded?
Ben Daniels: It was a lot harder to make this record than anything else we’ve made in the past. It’s weird. I guess I kind of have ways of thinking about it, and then seeing what other people think of it is kind of funny. I guess I kind of thought it was a lot darker than our other stuff, but no one else seems to think that.
The L: On the first record it seemed like there were more “rock moments,” with big drum fills, or dramatic bits of guitar, and that this one might be oriented more towards dance or electronic music. Is that something you’d agree with, or were trying for?
BD: That’s one of the things that was sort of different from how I thought about it and how other people have responded. And most of the people I’ve played it for said what you just said. I thought this album was more rocking out. I guess I understand why other people are saying that now. I mean there are real drums on every song on this album, pretty much. It just felt like being in a rock band recording it. But I guess that’s where it sort of went. When we started it came on the heels of a European tour thing, and I always thought that live, we are more of a loud rock band rather than we are on record, which is a sort of ambient thing. We thought we were capturing a little of that, but maybe it didn’t turn out that way.
The L: It rocks out, you know, in the way that Stereolab might rock out, elaborating on a groove, and the vocals will be blown out and swirling around. Was Stereolab a touchpoint for you, actually?
BD: I don’t think it was something we were actually going for, but Stereolab is definitely one of my top three bands of all times, and I have every one of their records and have listened to them ten million times. I’ve seen them live, I don’t know, 15 times? I actually go to meet them too, which was crazy. I really love Stereolab.
The L: Have you been a fan of ambient music for a long time?
BD: Yeah, I guess so. I can’t even remember when…I used to have a roommate back in college who was super into Brian Eno and all that. So, yeah, a while.
The L: The new record is a combination of ambient pieces and more structured songs, do you see it as a sort of dialogue between the two?
BD: I think they work together, maybe sort of complement each other. We set up the album so that things sort of flow into each other, but it wasn’t a grand plan for it. Just as we went along, we’d have these more ambient ideas that we’d be excited about, and decided to put them on there. Sometimes bigger songs grew out of those, and sometimes they didn’t. But it made sense to align them next to the more structured songs, to stitch them together that way.
The L: With all these different bits, Ashes Grammar is a very long album by modern standards. Do you anticipate people listening to it front to back, or cut up into playlist fodder?
BD: It’s kind of up to them. We certainly broke it up a lot so it’s easy to jump around. And, obviously, if you buy the vinyl it makes sense to let it play. But at the same time the vinyl is two LPs, so I’ve been telling people to treat it like 4 EPs, where each side is its own different thing.
The L: At the most basic level, when you’re writing an ASDIG song, where do you start? With a little instrumental piece that then gets layer upon layer added? What’s the writing process like?
BD: I don’t even know that there is necessarily there is a “process.” It varies depending on the song. With some I’ll be fooling around, playing the guitar, and something will come out, and you’ll think, “oh that’s sort of neat,” and then you’ll record it, think about it for a while. Or using a different instrument, I’ll hear something that kind of interests me, and I’ll just keep going on that, letting it build and build.
For the first album all the songs were kind of recorded in my mind, I thought these are just demos I’m recording and at some point I’ll go back and record them for real, make them sound better. And then, when I started to rerecord the songs, it sounded awful, because maybe I didn’t really even know how to record something in the first place. And you kind of fall in love with the demos anyway.
So this time, I didn’t let myself record or really write anything all the way through, so I had really skeletal sort of idea-ish demos. When Josh [Meakim] and I started recording them is when they got really worked out. At that was good too, because we had a big space and we could be loud, as opposed to an apartment building where everything was on the headphones, and you plugged direct into it. I think that’s a lot of the reason this album was a lot harder to do, it really took like five months to record it, because we were writing as we went along. But lyrics and melodies and words always come last, that’s the hard part for me.
The L: About lyrics: Listening to the record, I’d say the vocals are probably clearer, clearer recorded, but they still sound really far away. You get the sound, the melody of the singing, more than the actual lyrics. Are you interested more in singing and the sound of singing than you are in conveying actual lyrical information?
BD: That seem to be what’s happening. I just like the whole of it all, nothing standing out more than the others. But yeah, I agree. I think this record is a lot clearer. It’s funny though, Josh would mix a lot of the stuff, and then I would go in and remix what he did on some songs, and he would always mix the vocals a lot louder, and I would usually turn them down. I guess that’s just what I like.
The L: When you write lyrics do you write them as something you imagine a listener eventually deciphering?
BD: I kind of think they’ll decipher it or even just come up with their own understanding of what it is. I kind of like that. I kind of hate, almost, to tell someone what the lyrics are. They’ll probably be disappointed. You have an idea of what you think they are, and then to find out it something else can almost ruin it for someone. So I’m happy for the listener to think whatever they want to think they are, I guess.
The L: I was a bit confused, the press materials made it sound like your sisters weren’t on the record much at all. Did they end up on some of the songs?
BD: Well, Lauren’s been in Colorado for about 2 years now, and wasn’t around, so she’s not on it at all. Robin is on it at times. With this album, Josh and I were working really hard on it all the time. Always. On weekends we were out at the space recording for the whole weekend, and during the week we were mixing stuff. Doing little things from home to work on it. Then when Annie [Fredrickson] joined the band, she was always coming out to the studio as well, working just as hard as we were.Robin was kind of always busy. Her job got kind of busy. In November, her boyfriend, who’s our bass player, he broke his leg really, really badly. He broke two bones in four different places. Literally, on the day he was coming out to the studio to start doing basslines. He was pulling a tool box out of the trunk of his car to put his bass in it, and somehow slipped on leaves? I dunno, it was a freak thing. After that happened, Bryce was literally confined to a bed for six weeks. He wasn’t supposed to walk around or do anything so the bone could set. But she was already busy, and then she wasn’t around at all.
And so much of what we were doing, was being improvised as we were recording it, we didn’t have set demos or anything. I had to go to her house with a definite plan of what she was going to sing. We had an hour here or there. But she did end up on a bunch of the songs.
The L: It seems like, in talking to you, especially when you’ve been getting ready to play live shows, that the lineup of the band has always been in flux, as long as it’s existed.
BD: Oh yeah.
The L: So it made me curious about how you approached the idea of what constitutes a Sunny Day in Glasgow song, since it’s constantly in turnover, who is A Sunny day in Glasgow?
BD: Going into this record I thought I knew what the band was more or less, and I was planning to write things for Robin, I didn’t think it would be any different. On tour Josh and I were constantly talking about how excited we were to get back and start recording. It was something we were constantly talking about. Then when got back it took me a few weeks, but I found the space.I remember I sent an e-mail to everybody saying, “OK I got this space, we can use it on weekends, and it’s gonna be great.” Robin sent an e-mail back, saying, “Oh gosh, I can’t really do anything on any weekend between now and December, I’m so busy.” And it was kind of like a punch in the stomach. We spent the whole summer together talking about this nonstop! I guess we didn’t think about it too much at that point, we just sort of dove into it. And then Annie came along which was great.
It’s just kind of like, at some point during recording, it seemed like everything was sort of falling apart or going wrong, and you were just trying to get something done, and from that it felt like Josh, Annie, and I very much came together as a band to get it done. That’s sort of how I remember it.
The L: You’ve been finished with Ashes Grammar for a long time, yeah?
BD: Well, we basically finished it in February, then the release date got pushed back, and that was kind of good actually. It let us remix and rerecord a few parts I wasn’t happy with. I think that was May when we sent it out to pressing plants. But the songs have been around for a long time.
The L: So have you done any recording since?
BD: Yes. We pretty much have, some songs are done, but basically enough songs for another album. Probably about 90% finished, I’d say. I think it’s about 12 or 13 songs. A lot of those, we started recording for this album, but then by like the end of October it became apparent that we were going to finish all of them, so we stopped working on a bunch of them.
The L: How many songs did you have originally?
BD: Well, the 22 songs on the album, we got mastered as 13 tracks and then we split them up further in Wave Runner, so there’s probably another ten that we cut, and a couple new ones we’ve done this summer. I think those are going to get released next year, but broken up into EPs. Probably not an album, but we don’t really know at this point.
The L: You’re moving to Australia soon, right?
BD: Yeah, in about a week.
The L: So do you have a plan for how the band is going to work now?
BD: Kind of. We’re going to go on tour in November and December, and uh, it’s kind of crazy actually we need to find another singer to come along with us. So that’s a little nerve wracking. When I’m gone every one else is going to practice, all the between now and mid-November, and then we’re also sort of planning to spend a lot of the first 6 months of next year on tour as well. We haven’t really thought ahead beyond that, I don’t think.
Annie might try to move to Australia at least for a little while next year at some point, and Josh I think is going to come as well. But that’s pretty far off.
The L: So, do you anticipate working on stuff on your own there that’ll end up being ASDIG songs?
BD: Oh sure, I mean everything that we’ve put out so far has originated with me doing stuff on my own, more or less. So that’ll still go on. I sort of hope that we’ll find a new singer actually in Australia, because that’d be great to have some one to keep working with down there. Immediately we just want to tour a lot in the next year. We have enough songs that we can at least put out at least two new releases next year, so, hopefully that will keep us busy for a while and then we can sort out what the Hell else to do.
The L: Are you a person who is really influenced in the stuff you write by your surroundings? Do you notice different sounds and ideas coming from your time in different locations?
BD: I mean everything I’ve written has pretty much just generated from my apartment. It’s weird, when I was living in England and Scotland, I never did anything musical at all in those places. Then I went to grad school in Montreal, and I didn’t do anything musically there. It’s like I only work on music stuff in Philadelphia. It’s kind of strange. Hopefully though, if I’m in Sydney for many years, I’ll get comfortable there, and hopefully start writing music there as well.
The L: Didgeridoos? Sampled didgeridoos, maybe?
BD: [laughs] Yeah, seems like an easy instrument to learn.