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INTERVIEW: DM Stith
Wyndham Wallace , June 6th, 2016 14:21

After touring with Sufjan Stevens, and working on The Revival Hour’s debut album with The Earlies’ JM Lapham, DM Stith discusses the difficult genesis of his long-awaited second album with Wyndham Wallace. You can also stream his new single exclusively below

Seven years since his acclaimed debut, Heavy Ghost, on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label, DM Stith has announced his return with Pigeonheart, due for release by his own Octaves / Outset Recordings on July 29. It finds him expanding his horizons, embracing a far deeper electronic element than on its predecessor, thanks in part to producer Ben Hillier (Depeche Mode, Graham Coxon, The Magic Numbers), to whose analogue synth collection Stith was given access.

Recent single ‘War Machine’ was a distinctly upbeat track, full of tense, percussive rattles, throbbing bass lines and Stith’s trademark multi-tracked, choral vocals, all heading towards an ecstatic conclusion. Now he’s unveiled another new song, ‘Sawtooth’, which you can check out exclusively above, whose frenetic pace underlines his increased energy levels. As he reveals, however, the path to this new collection has been rugged.

It’s taken you seven years to follow up your debut album. Were you not concerned that all the goodwill you had earned back in 2009 might have evaporated?

DM: I did worry about that! Absolutely. Things move so fast in this industry. That first year was phenomenal, completely serendipitous, and I wasn’t ready for it.

Since then, you’ve worked with a number of other artists, including Sufjan Stevens and of course John Mark Lapham (formerly of The Earlies)’s The Revival Hour. Can we expect to see the latter revived?

DM: John Mark has just announced his new project, an album called Old Fire. This is the project he was working on when he met me. I appear on that one a bit, too. As for more Revival Hour stuff, I wouldn’t rule it out. The band doubled in size after the album came out, but JM and I knew we needed to focus on our solo projects first.

You’ve also continued to work as a designer. I spotted that you’ve done work for Glenn Kotche (Wilco). Who else notable have you worked with?

DM: Yeah - that was a fun project! I also worked extensively with Nadine Shah on the cover and packaging design for her album Fast Food, and all the singles for that one. I’ve continued to collaborate with Roomful of Teeth on their album art, and recently did some work for Caroline Shaw. I’m lucky to have this work as I’ve been able to travel with it, which made recording my album in London possible.

Obviously you’ve been busy in the intervening period with other projects, and I read on your blog earlier this year that you’d been writing one song a week for the last three years. Did Pigeonheart emerge from one period of protracted focus, or are these songs drawn from across a presumably vast catalogue?

DM: Well, in the first two years after Heavy Ghost was released I got stuck in a pretty awful writer’s block. Revival Hour came along and helped me find my way out of the block, and immediately following the completion of that album (Scorpio Little Devil), I dove into writing an album about what I’d learned. That album got shelved because of changes in the record label I was on at the time, but the process helped me find my momentum. For the first few months, I wrote a song each business day - rented a space in a basement across town and treated it like my day job. Got dressed up, poured my coffee into a thermos, drove through town, and would bang out whatever I could before 5pm. It was so refreshing to work like that.

I sent the best of those songs to Ben Hillier. He and I started working together, and I was paying my way back and forth between New York and London every other month until I was no longer able to afford to work that way. Ben and I had no budget for the record, but we really wanted to record together, so we just made it work. It meant that we had to meet between his other paying projects, so only ever a week or two at a time. I continued to write songs in guestrooms, hotel rooms, and in the studio, lyrics on planes and trains. Four or five of the songs on the album come from the first writing period, and the other seven or eight were written after our project had been formalised.

How did you and Ben Hillier decide what would make the cut and what wouldn’t?

DM: I don’t think I brought anything to the sessions that he said ‘no’ to. I grew an attachment to certain songs, and in the end there’s a psychic link between them all. There are a whole lot of other songs that will have their moment on another record, but these felt like they were catching the sun just right at the time. We both saw that. It was all instinct.

Can you tell me more about your writer’s block?

DM: Oof. Yeah. It was writer’s block that turned into breather’s block. Drawing, actually, was how I got out of it. After a particularly low point, pinned to the floor in my bedroom by my own weight, I started practicing focused breathing. I’d pinned paper on my walls to collect lyric ideas throughout the day, as I’d done on Heavy Ghost, but the paper stayed blank for months. I just couldn’t commit to a scrap of an idea. The silence was pervasive. I went a week without talking, and then some mega ear-infections made me deaf for another week. I transferred my focused breathing to those sheets of paper on the walls, measuring inhales and exhales with little lines, and collected them there over the course of two years. That was really my way out. I turned this maniacal anxiety into something I could see, and it made all the difference. I have these three large drawings on the wall in my bedroom now. I’m more proud of these than anything else I’ve ever done.

Your press bio highlights the electronic side of this new album as being part of an ‘exciting new era’ for you. What led you to experiment with such tools as synthesisers and drum machines? And how did they alter your approach to your craft?

DM: On the Age of Adz tour with Sufjan, I fleshed out my feelings for synths and drum machines - we’d be on the bus between cities and Casey, James and Yuuki, members of the touring band, would be in the back with their little travel synths bleep-blorping away. We visited the Moog factory in Ashville, North Carolina, and I bought myself a few little synths for writing with at home. These were here and there in the demos Ben and I worked with. He brought the VCS3 and the ARP 2600 into the studio on the second day - my world was changed. These machines had all the excitement of the doodads the boys on the bus had, but these had presence. These instruments have hair on their chests. They’re grizzled and ornery. They are sometimes unpredictable, but always deeply dimensional.

So much of the record came from this anxiety that had manifested itself very physically in my body. I wanted the sounds of the record to be felt in the chest and the stomach as much as the head, which meant finding sounds that don’t necessarily register as instruments or notes first. I think you hear this most clearly on ‘Cormorant’, in the second half. I feel a sort of phantom panic now when I listen to that track - there’s this throbbing heartbeat, and a growling, squirting bass form that feels particularly corporeal. The instruments helped me come to terms with the body.

What was the inspiration behind the album’s title?

DM: A few experiences in London and here in New York. A friend of mine had an extra room in his house in London, which I’d stay in while I was working on the record. This was during a time that I didn’t have a proper home of my own and would sometimes sleep in my car in New York. In London, I had something very nearly like a home, and it was wonderful. The travel into the studio in Bermondsey each day took over an hour, and our days were rather long, so I often would be walking out the front door at 9am, and back in at 10pm, with a Sainsbury’s bag in my hand, starving for dinner. I’d heat up a pie, or make a salad or something, and sit in the living room for an hour before going to bed. There was a bricked up fireplace, and either a dove or a pigeon made roost in there. I could hear it behind the wall cooing every night. I liked this image of the soft cooing bird bricked up in the hearth - as an introverted person, I’m often looking for metaphors for safety, ways to find my calm while out and about in the throngs of NY or London.

Back in New York, I was walking with a friend near Brighton Beach. The subway is over the main street there - we were crossing an intersection when a few feet in front of us, struck by the train above, a pigeon landed on the pavement. It was still breathing, but its head was cracked wide and its blood was pulsing out into the road. Sorry if that’s a gruesome image. I think that experience, which was shocking and sad, cemented the other bird image in my mind. Maybe it says something about my compatibility with London vs. New York.

DM Stith’s new album Pigeonheart is out on July 29 via Octaves / Outset Recordings

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