|Birds of oblivion, Birds of enlightenment.|
San Antonio composer/rockstar Marcus Rubio has been perplexing, delighting and inspiring local music lovers since he was practically a hatchling. His all-arts mind has made him an especially endearing performer/personality in the scene and his playing, of more than several instruments, has become impeccably agile across multiple contexts. It's songwriting and composing, however, that are Rubio's truest gifts... Just dig his latest effort None of the Birds, a self-described "album of pop songs". Recorded on the fly, in small spaces, and with unflinchingly giant ideas; None of the Birds is Rubio at his most capable. Rather than getting lost exploring the labyrinth of musical possibilities, Rubio steadies his focus here and allows the emotive and severe irreverence of the songs to laze about in hazy versions of the odd perfection he hears in his head. These songs, and this album, are intelligently anguished and curiously disillusioned... but buried in the warmth of the joy with which they were created- joy and an ever-sharpening sense of arrangement, voice, and texture. I sent Marcus some questions designed to get to the bottom of his developmental visions as a musician and writer (classical and popular) and to see where his intimate yet philosophical lyrics grow from. His thoughtful, exuberant, and candid answers reveal his gently wild complexity as a dude and as an artist. Read my review of the album (via the San Antonio Current) HERE and download it, and other goodies, HERE. Below: enjoy the interview, the album stream and a fantastic video of Marcus and the Gospel Choir of Pillows performing the title track off None of the Birds.
1. This is such a dangerous question, I have a feeling, to ask you... But who influences you most when it comes to writing this type of fervent pop music?
Ahh there’s so many! But in terms of this particular release there were definitely some aesthetic models I had in mind when writing and/or recording these songs. Jim O’Rourke has been a very prevalent musical and lyrical inspiration to me over the last few years. Musically, he pushes all the right buttons in terms of harmonic movement, production, arrangements, and rhythm but in a way, he’s most influenced my songwriting lyrically. The songs on his solo album Insignificance and on his albums with Loose Fur are so amazingly cynical, direct, and personal yet still cryptic, clever, and beautiful. He really manages to create this whole curmudgeon-y persona through his music and it really gave me the inspiration to say things in my songs that I had previously restrained. Musically, O’Rourke has definitely been a huge influence as well. He’s great at synthesizing disparate styles into a cohesive whole and his whole concept of treating pop music as a sort of cultural musique concrete is really fascinating to me and something that I feel like I identify with.
With a lot of the songs on None of the Birds, I was really into the idea of trying to take lofty arrangements/production and pull them off with my very limited recording means and I really inundated myself with bands that work in a similar style like the Royal Trux, Yo La Tengo, the Microphones, the Flaming Lips, Pavement, and all of Bradford Cox’s projects. I also - of course - love Mark Hollis and the late period Talk Talk albums and their philosophical recording practices definitely factored into my writing as well.
There was a definite shift in songwriting over the last two or three years of moving away from having the most complicated chord progressions to really focusing on generating interest and change through rhythm, texture, and groove. There’s a good bit of that on None of the Birds but I think it’s even more apparent on the next batch of Gospel Choir of Pillows songs that will be released soon. All of the afforementioned artists are responsible for that but listening to a lot of krautrock, Miles Davis and the Stones also contributed to that change as well.
2. Your obvious interest and participation in classical music seems to be somewhat less dominant on this album than some of your others, is that something conscious? Is there a split personality thing that goes along with working in these multiple distinct modes?
In all honesty, the decreased emphasis on orchestration really came as a matter of convenience in many ways. When I started the Gospel Choir of Pillows in high school, it was basically a chamber ensemble of mostly classical kids that I got together to play very exact music that I transcribed. When we all graduated, half the band moved away for college. So we went from being a 13 piece group to a 4 piece overnight. I really wanted to keep up the elaborate orchestrations but it was just hard to find permanent players and I found that I was spending all of my time writing really specific and integral parts only to have players cancel the day of the show. It became more trouble than it was worth and I finally decided that it was time to focus more on writing for a “rock” band. My perceptions on the way I arranged songs really changed because of this too. When I was younger, I was drunk on writing these thick Wagnerian arrangements with just insane voice leading that was meant to be the crux of the song. I don’t really think that way anymore. I definitely try to be more spare when I write arrangements for myself and others these days. I want do what suits the song or piece that I’m working on the best.
In terms of the split personality thing, I used to try and separate those worlds as much as I possibly could but, luckily, I had some really amazing composition professors that made me realize that I can integrate those worlds as much as I want to. I’d like any semblance of a divide between them to completely dissolve for me-I feel like I’m close to achieving that but I’ve still got a little way to go. Conversely, I’ve always been into cross pollinating in my songwriting by using weird synthetic scales or ripping off Ligeti for a string arrangement. It just really hasn’t been until the last three years that I’ve started incorporating pop elements into my classical/experimental pieces.
3. As a follow up to the previous question... tell me about your involvement in classical music. What defines Marcus Rubio the composer (as opposed to Marcus the Rockstar)? And how do you see your artistic interests shifting as you continue to study?
As a composer, I’m very into the idea of challenging preconceived notions of how people perceive a sound or instrument, etc... I like to kind of push the extremes of that but in a very minimalist fashion. For example, I’m working on a piece for violin and guitar pedals now that has a movement where the violinist plays a single open string for several minutes before any other notes are added. This might seem boring to some but, interest is generated by the player radically changing their tone and rhythm through bowing techniques and the processing of the pedals. I don’t think that you need to write overly complicated music in order to explore new territory, you just need a good sense of timing, form, and texture. So, I guess my aesthetic is complexity disguised as simplicity or vice versa. As a songwriter, I think my interests are kind of similar in that I like to stretch the confines of what a pop song can do while still having it come across as a song of sorts. Eventually, I’d like there to be absolutely no separation between these two worlds. I’ve been discovering more and more experimental and/or classical artists that really walk the line between both worlds and it’s inspiring. I can’t overstate how much Blue “Gene” Tyranny’s album Out of the Blue really made me aware of the potential for this. Out of the Blue is just great because it has three absolutely perfect shorter songs and then a mindblowing 25 minute long piece that leaves you wanting more of each. I’ve also been fascinated with artists like Richard Youngs, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, and Christina Carter who do very similar things with their music. That’s essentially what I want to work towards.
4. Your lyrics on this album seem a bit more direct and certainly more biting than on Oceanic Tremors. I’m sure in part that is because this is not a ‘concept’ album... But there’s also a refined exactitude to the lyrics that gives them an air of deeper self-knowledge. Tell me a bit about your lyric writing process and to what extent it is something you work at.
Lyrics are kind of a funny thing for me. They used to come to me much more quickly when I first started writing songs. However, a lot of the stuff I wrote when I was in high school was completely reliant on imagery with little substance. I think about lyrics contributing to a much broader theme, concept, or even narrative nowadays. It’s not just some surreal variation on moon, spoon, June, etc...anymore. I think the exactitude you’re referring to really came about as a result of really intensely studying literature and poetry at Trinity. It forced me to think about linking ideas together even if they’re shrouded in layers of figurative language. All of this really allowed me to be much more direct and personal lyrically, while still remaining vague enough to be universal.
5. At what point, in the process of creating a whole song, do you write the lyrics? Does the music come first and then the lyrics? Which is the primary impulse? Do you think more in notes or in words when you’re feeling creatively charged? Discuss your relationship to writing and (without ripping out a page of your diary) the things that inspire you to do so.
I don’t know how to explain it, but lyrics and music are almost always tied together for me from the get go. Of course, I’ll sometimes have just one or the other to start with and it’ll develop from there. But the majority of the time, lyrics and music will typically start spewing out of me simultaneously. As my ear has gotten better, the process of marrying chords to lyrics has gotten much faster and I’ll frequently know what I’m hearing/envisioning before I even touch an instrument. However, I can never really predict what course the song will take based off of the original impulse and things will frequently grow and develop organically as I write.
Lately, a lot of my songwriting has been this weird self-excorcism of sorts-especially on None of the Birds and the upcoming album. I tried so hard on Oceanic Tremors to hide all of my anxieties and paranoia behind whale totems and eventually that just broke down because it was so affected. A lot of the songs on None of the Birds were written during and after several shitty break ups, including a particularly bad one that seemed to never end. Those events happened in conjunction with a lot of typical existential crisis stuff that made me really question the course my life had taken and if I was happy with it. I got cynical about many things I was doing and songwriting became a way to address a lot of that. On the other hand, during this time, I also realized how miserable I’d been in this relationship and in many social situations I kept forcing myself into. so, there was this eventual reassessment of happiness and love that occurred which inspired me to write as well. I started listening to just an insane amount of music and the songs started immediately coming out of me. On a slightly unrelated note, I also frequently find myself moved by scientific terms and philosophic concepts- so those items typically creep their way into this personal exercise for me.
I think songwriting and composing will always be major acts of catharsis for me. When I go a week without composing, I start getting extremely irritable! Consistently working on artistically satisfying work is really important to me and I don’t know what I would do without it.
6. How did None of the Birds come about as an album? Tell me a bit about the recording process and how these songs eventually became this rather cohesive album.
All of the songs on None of the Birds were recorded in very different locations and often used very different equipment. The main common thread between this group of songs was that they were all recorded almost immediately after the song itself was written, which is really my favorite way to work because it allows a lot of different writing/arrangement directions to be explored in the studio. I got really into Talk Talk’s idea of most accurately capturing the feel of a song by recording it immediately and having people improvise over the recording with little to no prior knowledge of what they’re hearing. Some people like to really meticulously labor over their records and I used to very much be one of those people until I realized that a lot of my favorite music is very ramshackle and sprawling and that the recordings I most enjoyed of my own were similarly conceived. So, most of these songs were captured as quickly as possible after their conception with whatever tools/performers were close by. However, despite often recording fast and in a kind of a lo-fi fashion, I still spent a lot of time arranging and mixing each song. Even though I would frequently just be multi-tracking myself, I’d spend a long time figuring out what each individual instrumental part would do and the spatial relationships of sounds in the mix. So, everything kind of goes back to the idea of trying to capture these very grand ideas but doing it within limited confines. I’d never intended for this to all be a cohesive album but when I listened to all these recordings as a whole they just made sense together and I figured it was time I stopped sitting on these songs and put them out!
7. Musically speaking, aside from moonlighting in several awesome bands (Bad Breaks, Cartographers, etc.), the recent past has seen the emergence of Loose Eel Ball. What is the allure of doing a project like that for you? I get the impression there is a sense of release.
Haha! Well, the Ball initially started as a joke, but then Chris booked a show so we had to do it! We literally wrote all of our songs in an afternoon and then played the gig. I like Loose Eel Ball shows because it is one of the only times I feel absolutely no pressure about what’s going to happen when I step on stage-I actually feel surprisingly calm most of the time! Even when people try to take off all of my clothes or throw Crisco at me. I could care less what the audience thinks at a Loose Eel Ball show because the people who want to play along will go nuts with us and those who don’t will be sad for the rest of their lives that they didn’t. I think it can be a release for both band and audience when the crowd is willing to let it be. Loose Eel Ball is a total ego destroyer for me (in a good way). It’s nice to be able to write very serious music but then go onstage with the Ball and flip off the entire audience while singing a song called “Pancake Horse.” It’s almost Dionysian.
8. I know you recorded almost all of the songs on None of the Birds by yourself, but you also (as always) have a long list of talented collaborators. Talk a bit about collaboration and the value that it holds for you.
As mentioned above, the common thread throughout None of the Birds is that most of the songs were recorded very shortly after they were written. As a result, my collaborators were frequently people available at that particular moment in time to help me realize the song. In particular, Jackson Floyd and Hanna Campbell were really superstars in this department. We had an amazing night where we recorded both “Boss Vegas” and “The Light is Green...”. I laid down a very bare skeleton for “Boss Vegas” and then we went to the house Boss Vegas, which was this insane somewhat dilapidated mansion that Jackson lived in at the time, and proceeded to flesh everything out. I don’t think either one of them had heard the songs but I’d tell them what I wanted them to do and they were both willing to oblige and in many cases contributed their own very creative ideas. We worked with whatever we had available too and made it work which was great. “The Light is Green...” was recorded at like 2 in the morning that same night and I basically just showed them the song and then we tracked it. It was a great way to work and I wish I had the opportunity to spontaneously record like that more. In terms of writing, collaborating with Chuck is also great and the next batch of songs would not be at all the same if it weren’t for his percussion expertise. I’ve always loved working with Chuck because he’s an amazing improviser and I can give him the vaguest of guidelines and watch him come up with a near perfect realization of what I want.
Collaboration outside of my own songs is very important to me as a learning process. In terms of the experimental/classical/improv world, it’s really opened me up to working in a number of idioms and taught me a lot about pacing and listening, while often forcing me out of my comfort zones by necessity. I’ve also learned a lot from playing with Jackson Albracht in Cartographers and working with him has definitely impacted my approach to songwriting.
9. You mentioned previously that the months before you left for school are going to be full of musical performances and releases. What’s the latest on that? Parting gifts for the people?
Well, first and foremost, the Gospel Choir of Pillows will be playing several shows before I leave. We’ll be at the 1011 on August 11th, 502 Bar on the 17th, and the Josephine Street Theater on the 24th. I think we have the best lineup maybe ever for these shows. My friends Jen Hill and Eric Montano will both be joining the band and they’re incredible composers/multi-instrumentalists that have opened up a wealth of arrangement opportunities for the group. Additionally, Jackson Albracht will be rejoining as a guitarist for these shows and my bassist, Matt Thomas now has a plethora of fun electronic toys/pedals so we’ll really be able to maximize our sound like never before. Additionally, the Gospel Choir of Pillows will be recording another album before I leave that will also hopefully be released before my departure. This next group of songs are what I refer to as “the krautrock songs” because they are often very minimal but extremely epic in length and production. I’ve been wanting to record them for a while but a lot of them require the energy and the instrumentation of a full band as opposed to me just constantly overdubbing everything.
I’m also working on a really exciting collaborative project with local poet/Kendra Steiner Editions founder Bill Shute. Bill is a fantastic poet and a tireless champion for experimental music. His label has put out a staggering amount of great music and literature that’s gotten attention everywhere but San Antonio! Essentially the project involves three tracks that I recorded of Bill reading his poetry and then four electronic pieces that I’m creating by warping Bill’s spoken text. I’ve been getting some pretty crazy results so far! Bill gave me some fantastic material to work with both in terms of literary inspiration for the direction of each piece and in terms of the actual audio itself. Bill’s speaking voice is booming and full of musical cadence to begin with so by altering it, the hidden melodic qualities are brought out even more. The project is about halfway completed now and it should be out sometime in the fall.
Finally, I’ll be working with the director Kyle Gillette on the score to the original play Open Sesame! by Rick Stemm. Kyle and I worked together on The Bacchae last year which was an incredibly rewarding experience and this piece will definitely retain some similar stylistic elements to that- but it’s looking like it’ll take some pretty great directions. Right now, I’m splitting composition duties with my friend Jamie Rameriez who’s a fantastic composer and songwriter in his own right. The score and songs look like they might become a pretty rad combination of electronica, hip hop, Indian music, and Westernized appropriations of Eastern music. The show will begin its run sometime in October.
10. Gotta do this... for Feli... but also for me; you always look so fresh, where do you meet your haberdashery needs?
Ha! I really don’t have a particular place-I just sort of buy what I like and try to find combinations that more or less work. I’m a big fan of Buffalo Exchange of course and I typically find treats at various vintage stores. There’s no one particular place though, I don’t really have a “go to” shop. I’ve always been a fan of looking fancy for shows though! I think that somewhat stems from spending a lot of time in a theater as a kid-I always really liked costumes and/or dress up time.