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INTERVIEW: Arbouretum
Laurie Tuffrey , November 8th, 2012 12:06

Dave Heumann gives us some insight into the country-rockers' new album Coming Out Of The Fog before they headline the Thrill Jockey 20th anniversary event in London tomorrow night

Baltimore’s Arbouretum have been a firm Quietus favourite for a while now, particularly since 2009’s stellar Song Of The Pearl. Their heaving, behemothic rock can justifiably lay claim to descriptors like 'elemental' and 'tribal', ascribed a little too easily to others in their genre. Next year, they release their sixth album, Coming Out Of The Fog. The piledriving riffs and grandiose lyrical scope of their previous work are retained, but this is matched to a reined-in focus: the LP clocks in at just under 40 minutes, yet the band still manage to, if anything, open out their sound further, leaving space for Dave Heumann's well-pitched, masterful soloing. Here's the band performing 'World Split Open' from the new album:

The band are currently on tour in the UK - have a look at the dates below - which includes a headlining set at - Thrill Jockey's 20th anniversary show at The Lexington tomorrow night. We talked to Heumann yesterday about the new record, the influence of myth and the role a 5th century ascetic played on the album.

Thu 8 - Start The Bus, Bristol
Fri 9 - The Lexington, London
Sat 10 - Audioscope Festival, Oxford
Sun 11 - The Prince Albert, Brighton

Firstly, Barack Obama's your president again - how do you feel?

Dave Heumann: Yeah, definitely breathing a bit easier after hearing that news! Yeah, it's a good thing to wake up to. It's definitely not perfect, but way better than the other guy. I actually thought it was going to be closer than it was, I thought it was going to go on for days like it did in 2004 with the Bush/Kerry election, but I'm glad that it didn't.

So the album's called Coming Out Of The Fog - what fog are you coming out of?

DH: Well, you know, maybe it's more fun to leave that for people to wonder about and speculate upon! That kind of ended up being the title of the album by default and it was the song [final track] first. Yeah, maybe people can speculate on that. I hope that's not a terribly unsatisfying answer.

In the press release, it mentions that you spent extensive periods in pre-production and that it's "your best-recorded album to date" - do you feel that this is now how you want Arbouretum to sound?

DH: What I like about it is that it really captures the character of the band, as we sound now. We didn't really spend a whole lot of time sprucing it up with overdubs. There's a few songs where there are a fair amount, like on the song 'Coming Out Of The Fog', we spent a lot of time on the piano part and the pedal steel. But most of what you hear on the record is really about the sound of the band playing together live, and I think we've done a good job of getting that on tape and the fidelity is really pretty amazing.

We spent a lot of time working on the order of the songs and making sure that the LP wasn't going to be so long that it compromises the sound. With the last record, The Gathering, I still think that sounds really good, but we were kind of really pushing it with the 44-minute length in terms of fidelity per side. This one is 20 minutes a side, very evenly split and I think that's going to be good for the people who want to buy it on vinyl.

Following that, you haven't got any more ten/11-minute wig-out tracks anymore; why the shift to shorter track lengths?

DH: Really, it was something we thought we'd just try. It's not that we're bored of playing longer tracks or anything and we still do that quite a bit live. But it just seemed like maybe it was time to try a different kind of Arbouretum record and there wasn't really any kind of any reason for it other than "let's do something different this time".

Who were you listening to while recording the LP?

DH: That's an interesting question. Well, there's some stuff which touches upon some 90s shoegaze stuff, but not so much in the tones as in the melodies. There's other stuff that's kind of got more of a country-esque, ballad feel and then we've got rhythmically complex, syncopated rock stuff. It's kind of all over the place, in the same vein as all Arbouretum records, we'll sort of go into a few sub-styles within our own styles and explore different directions. It's tough to say; I think there's some stuff in there that's influenced by West African music and maybe a bit of Neil Young, but that's someone we've always listened to.

Which shoegaze bands?

DH: Some of them are very regional - there's a Baltimore band called Plow that's a big influence on me and our drummer Brian [Carey], we kind of came up in that era when we were seeing this band among other Baltimore bands who have long since disappeared. And of course My Bloody Valentine, that was everywhere when Loveless came out; it was really hard not to hear that record and still is, it's constantly played in bars and everywhere. And there's another band that we've got into lately out of Texas called True Widow that does a sort of shoegaze thing but with really heavy beats and tones, detuned-sounding guitar and bass. That might have played into it too, but it's really more melodically rather than tonally: we're not putting 200 guitar tracks on top, not trying to go for a Kevin Shields approach!

It opens up with 'The Long Night', which moves from the "golden... noon of an age" on to things "to be feared" - is this in reference to something in the real world or a pure fictive imagining?

DH: I had the idea of a song that is at a point where I was feeling disconnected from intuition... disconnected from a sense of connectedness, if that makes any sense. I wanted to write a song about that kind of experience, but then the song became less personal, and it was co-written with the guy who co-wrotes about half of the Arbouretum lyrics with me, Rob Wilson, so that one was a collaboration.

The press release that accompanies the album also talks about "poetic lyrics" and your preference for "criticism and discourse" - is there any literature you've been reading of late that might have paid into the album?

DH: The one song that had a direct influence is 'Renouncer' and that was inspired by this book called The Afterlives Of The Saints by Colin Dickey. It's a new-ish book and one that I heard about while driving and listening to National Public Radio. So I read that - it was pretty interesting; I've got to say, it wasn't the best written book, he could have done much better with the actual prose, but the topics he talks about are really interesting. It's about how in the early Christian tradition, these people were made saints not because they were pious but because they did really extreme ascetic things, such as this guy Saint Simeon, who went into the Syrian desert and stood on a column for 37 years. People would climb up the column with bags of milk and pieces of bread and leave them for him, and that's how he lived; he would get frost on him in the morning and get burned by the sun and whipped by the wind and he just stayed up there. It just seems to me that these kind of things... you can have whatever experience you choose to go for in life, with the exception of things that might happen to you against your will or control, but what motivates people to do this? And I thought that that was an interesting question - there are some people who really - for the pursuit of some higher idea - put themselves through some really tremendously awful things!

Also, the song that follows that one is 'The Promise', which is a retelling of a song in the folk tradition, which is most commonly known as 'The Daemon Lover', otherwise known as 'James Harris' and that bears a close relationship to the song 'The House Carpenter', which is pretty famous and covered by a lot of people. 'The Promise' is basically a rewriting of that.

What's the effect of working with these ancient stories and traditional songs?

DH: There are certain themes that have gone on for centuries that people have songs about and stories have formed around, and there must be something to them that keeps them relevant and a sort of resonance to them that I found, with 'The Promise', I wanted to tap into. I guess it's the enduring power of myth. And some of these things aren't easily written about. You'll find some stories that are current in something that's happening in the world - how would I even begin to write a song about that? There are certain narratives that are compelling in ways that would make for a good song and certain narratives that are equally compelling in certain ways, but wouldn't make for a good song; it's a matter of finding what is song-worthy, I guess, and going for that.

As well as 'Renouncer', there seems to be some Genesis imagery in 'The Long Night' - is this reflecting an interest in Christianity?

DH: I'm not really interested in Christianity, other than it being a cultural backdrop. 'The Long Night' goes into that 'dark night of the soul' idea, but it's not really from a Christian perspective, it's more from a mystical perspective. 'Renouncer' was inspired by the book about these ascetics. I'd already known, for a long time, about the Hindu ascetics, for example, so it was interesting for me to read that there were some of these people in the Christian tradition as well. It should by no means be construed as me becoming a Christian, which is not the case [laughs]!

But then you go on to sing about how you just want to stay by the sea in 'Oceans Don't Sing' - was that inspired by a day at the seaside?

DH: It wasn't directly inspired by that, but I love the sea and we live two hours from the coast and try to go there as often as possible, in warmer months! That was more symbolic, being helpless in the passage of time and the sense of yearning to try to hold on to moments in time that are good and feel right, with summer being a metaphor in there for that. I thought of that as something that was more reflective, that uses being by the ocean, at the shore as a metaphor.

It also feels like, over the course of the album there's a progression, from the darkness of 'The Long Night' to the loose groove of 'Coming Out Of The Fog' - is that fair to say? Is there something cathartic going on there?

DH: It's really good that it worked out that way. From the get go, I had this idea of 'Coming Out Of The Fog' as being the last track and it was something that we spent a fair amount of time discussing and trying to work out. It just so happened that 'The Long Night' was first, but it made a lot of artistic sense to have it that way, so the album took on the form of a continuous narrative.

What kind of set have you got planned for the Thrill Jockey 20th anniversary show on Friday night?

DH: I can't promise anything in the way of specific songs, because we decide on that every night, but we'll do our best to give them a lot of vitality. It's going to be energetic, it's going to have fast songs and slow songs and have the full range of the Arbouretum experience!

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