The Devil Lives in the Details
Molly Sheridan: I want to talk about the construction of the albums, but first, just when you have a single track, how do you tend to work—from the idea to how it ends up on a performance or on a record?
M. C. Schmidt: It sounds pretentious to say, but it’s been wildly different from album to album. For our second record in the ’90s we recorded the sound of a vivisected crayfish in a children’s science museum, and people were really, really interested in that. And we were really, really interested in that. We realized this is a rich territory to mine. Of course, other people have done it before us—the whole Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry sort of thing—but that became a core of our working methodology where we would find a sound that was either an interesting sound or conceptually interesting, and then build around that.
So let’s say the piece was about this squeaky fish. I would play—that’s sort of my role, I’ll play the actual object—and we’ll record that on DAT, something that it doesn’t stress you out to waste a lot of, and then we go through the tape.
[To Drew] Do you want to take over? You’ve got that look on your face that says, “You’re talking for too long.”
Drew Daniel: Nope. Nope.
MCS: We’ll listen back to that tape, find the interesting passages of that—either rhythmic, melodic, or whatever—and cut those out. Isolate them. Some of them go onto a sampler and become rhythmic passages, some of them go onto the computer in longer phrases and become—I can’t help but think about the longer ones as if they were vocal lines. Then we listen to that and think, well, gosh, what would be good with that? Either conceptually or just sonically, or in the case of some records, specifically The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, we were working biographically.
DD: I could describe one of the songs there that might walk you through the process. We were making a biographical portrait of the writer Patricia Highsmith. The first thing that we did—which is quite corny, but I think it produced something good—was I simply took all of her books, laid them out on the table, and Martin slowly caressed them with jazz brushes. We were literally stroking and rubbing her books. That produced a kind of shuffling, noir-like jazz rhythm which was, period-wise, appropriate to when her fiction started. She published her first novel in ’53. From that we had a tempo, and we had a kind of vague genre—jazz. It didn’t come from thinking, oh, jazz is perfect. It came from literally just encountering the object.
Then, as we thought about what else this arrangement needs, we looked into Highsmith’s life and a bunch of details started to emerge. She really loved snails. She collected snails her whole life, wrote short stories about snails, so we knew we wanted to collaborate with snails somehow or get snails involved in the process of making the music. The first thing that we thought of is that the shell of the snail is shaped a little bit like a French horn. So we got somebody to play a French horn. But then I thought, well, that’s not good enough. We need to really work with snails directly, but they’re very quiet so it’s difficult to get a snail to, you know, pipe up. You could crush one, but that would be sort of wrong, ethically. I decided to set up a situation in which the movement of snails would have a musical outcome. We got a light-sensitive theremin that I bought on eBay, and we aimed a laser at it. Then, in a totally dark room, we put the snails inside a glass tube. They would crawl up the glass and as they would interrupt the path of the laser, that would affect the pitch of the theremin. We then sped that up and turned it into a sort of crazy solo that is played by snails.
Then in terms of thinking about the arrangement, I wanted something quite romantic and something to further the noir aspect of the drumming, so we added a bass part. And I cut up a bunch of early music pieces for harpsichord, because Patricia Highsmith’s great literary construction is her character Ripley, and Ripley likes to play Scarlatti pieces on the harpsichord. We shaped the whole piece as a sort of biography, and so we needed to represent sonically her descent into the crack-pot, alcoholic, anti-Semitic madness at the end of her life. It’s an illustration of somebody. It’s also quite abstract in that the notes of the theremin don’t melodically express anything about Highsmith. They’re the outcome of a situation that actually is pushing off from a very, very tiny detail.
MCS: I think that sound does a great job of creating this mounting unease which is such an omnipresence in her writing; this sort of rising disgust with humanity generally.
We have this portrait that we had done of Patricia Highsmith out of snails and cigarettes. It’s completely illustrative of what we were saying. It’s like one of those mosaic things where if you look at it up close, it looks like cigarettes and snail shells. And then when you pull back, it’s a portrait of her.
MS: So how important is it to you, then, that the listener knows this information?
DD: They don’t need to know it. I think the music has to fight for its life in a world of ignorance.
MCS: Hopefully it works both ways. We never want to keep anything secret, though we curate the information. And I genuinely don’t mean we keep a bunch of dumb stuff secret. There’s some information that’s just banal. And we even include that, honestly. It should be able to be listened to and enjoyed with no background information at all, and then when you have the background information, it opens up further.
DD: Somebody online was saying that our music always has Easter eggs in it. I think that’s a good way to refer to it. Easter eggs are like hidden features of technological gadgets or software environments or gaming environments that you’ll discover if you really poke around. But you can use the environment or the tool or the software without stumbling on the Easter egg. That said, I don’t think the Easter eggs are the meaning of the music any more than the meaning of a cake is its recipe. You know, the cake is only real in your mouth. Does it taste good? You don’t need to know if there’s sauerkraut in it to get it.
MCS: Well, then, why are people making cakes look good?
DD: Well, because there are so many ways to feel pleasure. Why not? Why restrict yourself to just one?
MCS: I thought you said it only matters in your mouth? Isn’t all art conceptual?
MS: Clearly, though, you put a lot of effort into these details, and if you didn’t tell someone, “This is a snail,” they would miss it.
DD: I wondered if we should make an album where we go to insane lengths, but then tell no one and just test whether the conceptual dimension does impact people at some level. Listeners listen with a kind of stance. They can lean into sound or they can pull back from it. And if you dangle some information, that makes people want to dig inside the sound to hear what you’ve told them they’re going hear. We like to play with that.
MCS: We live in a society of short attention spans. I don’t know if it’s not maybe just a little bit of extra waving of like, “No, really listen. Over here. Don’t just have it on in the background.”
DD: Some people think that makes what we do gimmicky, and that it’s just novelty music; that it’s just part of this discursive problem of art that coasts on a press release. I think that’s up to other people to decide, and if I said more, one way or the other to defend us or to confess, that would just be more discourse, wouldn’t it?
MCS: I certainly wouldn’t deny how ridiculous it is. People sort of expect me to poe-facedly say, “No, it’s very important that it’s made out of snails. Don’t you realize how significant that is?” It’s like, no, that’s ridiculous.