Catching Trout & Minimalist Composition: S. Carey Interviewed
, September 23rd, 2010 06:50
There's nothing The Quietus respects more than a man who's handy with a fishing rod, which is why we asked Daniel Ross to chat to S. Carey about catching trout - as well as his debut album All We Grow and drumming with Bon Iver
Sean Carey’s debut album, All We Grow is a refreshing listen for a number of reasons. First of all and rather unlike the usual touchstones of Peter Broderick, Hauschka and Johann Johannsson, he uses his formal musical training sparingly rather than make a feature of it. Consequently, we hear sensibly voiced arrangements and instruments flourishing in their most natural registers and minimalist cells tempered rather than hammered home. Second of all, Carey has managed to write and record it during downtime from drumming for Bon Iver. Most importantly, though, it is an album completely disinterested in anything other than conjuring bliss from frosty aural climes. It has been said on more than one occasion that it is the ultimate headphone album.
The Quietus was more than happy to call the Wisconsin native to chat about the wonderful album, its gestation and his musical training as well as a small diversion into the intricacies of freshwater fishing…
First things first, Sean, how on earth did you fit this in? There can’t have been too much free time from drumming for Bon Iver.
Sean Carey: It took about two years, so it was a very slow-going process. Whenever we were not on tour with Bon Iver, I’d store up some ideas and a friend of mine who was the most laid-back guy… "Hey Jamie, can I come over tomorrow and record?" "Yeah, sure!"… it was that sort of process. When we were on the road it gave me a chance to listen to the stuff, get more ideas and add more layers, really figure out what needed to be there. With Bon Iver we did a lot of touring, but we were pretty smart about it. We didn’t get too burned out so when I was home I didn’t feel like I wanted to lay around the whole time.
Does having such a big commitment in Bon Iver take the pressure off the release of All We Grow?
SC: Definitely. It took the pressure off and it showed me what to do; it gave me the confidence to try to do something, take chances. Seeing all these bands play live at festivals and touring, it made it very real where, before that, it’s easy to think, "that’s never going to happen to me, I won’t be able to do that, I can’t expose myself in that way." I never felt pressured, I just wanted to record some songs, and didn’t really have any expectations. At some point I realised I didn’t want them to be stored away, I wanted to share them with people.
The clarinet is an important instrument for you; it provides a lot of the chordal texture and you use it in its deepest, most resonant chalumeau register. What made you want to do that?
SC: I don’t really know where that came from. I’ve always liked woodwinds, so the clarinet was just what I was hearing in the songs. I know a lot of really good saxophonists, so I asked them if they played clarinet. No specific thing really… I don’t really know about that.
The song titles are all rather clipped and mysterious – 'Move', 'Action' and so on.
SC: I like really simple song titles. Some of them had other titles and it never seemed to fit. A lot of the songwriting process was over a long period of time, so I’d either go with something simple just to start off with or I would pull from the lyrics what I thought was one of the main words. But I really like the simplicity. I guess that’s natural. I have thought about that, definitely.
What role does nature play in the record? There are references to water, being wrapped in ferns, that sort of thing...
SC: A big role, I think. I draw inspiration from really simple nature things, and it’s really easy for me to write about that stuff because it’s so simple and beautiful. I think that’s really cool for the listener too, because they can associate that with any meaning that they want to.
Half of it I wrote while touring. You know, while you’re touring you have so much free time that you can drift into these dream places. Part of it I wrote at home, in Wisconsin, which is a very simple and peaceful place. It takes me a while to write lyrics. I would maybe take a walk, I’d have some melody in my head and get maybe one line. Then it would sit there for a couple of weeks. 'In The Stream' I actually wrote while I was fishing in a stream, so that’s probably your clearest answer.
What do you like about fishing?
SC: I do a lot of fishing, and draw a lot of inspiration from it. You’re alone for hours and get in this meditative state.
Listen to 'In The Dirt' MP3 here.
What do you catch?
SC: It's mostly trout fishing. There’s tons of stuff. In the lakes there’s walleye, pike, bass, tanfish… there’s different territory with the different rivers, then there’s lake fishing, small stream fishing where the water’s colder and stuff like that. It’s a good place to live if you like fishing.
How big was your biggest catch?
SC: [Laughs] Not that big, actually. I caught a couple of nice brown trout that were up to four pounds or something like that. That was in Arizona, though… I guess there’s good fishing up in Scotland. There’s definitely an addictive quality to it, to catch more or bigger fish. You’re always searching for the perfect day, the perfect afternoon where you’re catching all these fish.
So the only competition is yourself?
SC: Well, my wife says I’m a pretty competitive person… Competing with yourself, that’s good. I like that. I like being outside, having some solitude either by myself or with a buddy, and being out there for a while. Seeing what happens. Being surrounded by water is always soothing and inspiring.
Some of the songs on the record are quite lush and others are sparser, but they all sound complete. How do you know when a song is finished and doesn’t need anything more added to it?
SC: That’s probably why it took such a long time! Eventually you just get to a point when you’re… I guess I just had to make a cut-off time. Last October is when we finished the tracking and started doing the mixing, but another friend of mine who does sound for Bon Iver was helping us finish up with recording, and he kind-of made a deadline. I stopped adding stuff.
Does that mean there were things you wanted to add still?
SC: Not really, I’m pretty content. I like the balance of everything. Sometimes I knew before, like 'Move', that one was finished a while ago. 'Broken', that one came together really quickly and stuck around for the whole ride. It’s tempting [to add more] when you have really good musicians…
Could you explain a little about your formal musical training?
SC: I got a degree in classical percussion performance, and in that degree I had to take music theory class and music history and stuff. But I never took composition lessons or anything like that.
You can hear the minimalist influence on the record, certainly. I suppose that’s what happens when you study it?
SC: A lot of the percussion stuff we studied, especially for percussion ensemble and some solo stuff definitely influenced me. Steve Reich, he writes a lot for percussion. So we would pieces like 'Clapping Music' [a piece in which slowly phasing cycles of clapping cells go in and out of line with each other], 'Music For Pieces Of Wood' and we did 'Electric Counterpoint' with percussion instead of guitars. As you can hear, it’s a huge influence. A lot of the other percussion repertoire is very… a lot of it is minimalist and focusing on different textures. More simple music than some solo repertoire for woodwind or something like that.
Percussive pieces, as you say, focus more on textures than melodies, yet your record is full of melodies – how did that happen?
SC: I guess I played a lot of marimba, piano… Listening to a lot of jazz probably helped. My friend and I were talking about this the other day. We’re both jazz musicians, and I think I naturally go to the melody and he goes to the harmony. He won’t be able to sing back the melody, and I’ll have no idea what’s going on with the harmony! Listening to jazz and improvising melodies, I guess that’s where a lot of the stuff came from.
With the album, a lot of the stuff had a less compositional thing. More improvised. With all the woodwinds, I’d have them play and shape what I wanted to hear, but I never wrote anything down. I started to last fall, like actually writing stuff down for whatever, like, a percussion quartet, for some jazz groups I was in, trying to get better at that. I have a degree in the academic stuff, but I wouldn’t say it’s my forte.
All We Grow is out now