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Escape Velocity

A Collision Course: Sprain Interviewed
Rob Hakimian , September 15th, 2020 07:44

Los Angeles’ Sprain are clearly one of the most exciting bands around says Rob Hakimian. They reveal how trust, fear, and early encouragement from Unwound’s Vern Rumsey pushed them to where they are

Sprain portrait by Dylan Rebecca Keith

Adorning the cover of Sprain’s debut album As Lost Through Collision is a cross-section plan of a building – or is it a nothing space to nowhere? It’s striking not just for its mystery and stark simplicity, but because it is quite unlike any other cover art seen from this type of band. Although, placing Sprain within a ‘scene’ or ‘genre’ is difficult; their songs are more extended and inchoate than your typical post hardcore, and where post rock tends to ascend, the LA band’s songs head in the other direction – downward into a personal abyss.

But, this unusual imagery suits Sprain’s sound to a tee. It was created by architect Raymond Santana-Linares, after the band sent him As Lost Through Collision and a sort of “instruction manual” on what they wanted, according to the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist Alex Kent. “I knew that our record was kind of angular, cold and had a lot of brittle edges,” he explains. “I thought the way it was written and composed kind of resembled the way a building would be built; we had basic parts and then we arranged all these other winding abstract parts on top until it became a specific pattern almost.”

It’s immediately a much more monolithic experience than Sprain’s 2018 self-titled EP, which was a largely gentle slowcore affair recorded by Kent and co-founder April Gerloff in their apartment, and hampered by technical issues that meant they couldn’t reach the peaks of volume they desired. Intensity is certainly not a problem on As Lost Through Collision, but the leap in dynamics has to be attributed to the addition of second guitarist Alex Simmons and drummer Max Pretzer. Simmons they knew was a “really accomplished guitar player” after seeing them play with other bands, and they have become more and more of a presence in band’s songwriting process. Pretzer on percussion they describe as their “secret weapon”, playing the roles of “conductor as well as timekeeper”.

Although Kent usually brought the initial “impressionistic mental image” of a song to begin with, the debut album’s five tracks were rehearsed and developed by the group for three or four months before recording. “I think a big part of the art is just pounding shit out over and over again as a band until it becomes something that’s good rather than resembled the thing we began with,” Kent states – and there’s no doubt that each member ended up with significant input on the final products.

It also speaks to the amount of understanding they’ve come to have in one another. “I have had to learn to trust everyone around me that it’ll make sense down the road,” says Gerloff, whose bass playing is crucial in gluing everything together. “Sometimes at the beginning it can be a little bit scary, some of the ideas that go into practice can be genuinely terrifying.”

This fear and strain is also transmitted when listening to As Lost Through Collision. “From our perspective, lots of bands forget that there’s dynamics beyond loud and quiet,” Kent states. “There’s really, really, really loud and very, very, very quiet.” It sounds almost comically simple when spoken, but Sprain’s hair-raising movement between both polarities of the decibel meter is no laughing matter. It is a harsh and bold echo of the psychological vacillation at play in the creators’ minds – swinging between searing existential pain and numb hopelessness.

“When Alex comes up with ideas, sometimes you just get the scary chords,” Gerloff says. “Both of us have anxiety, so I think when he comes up with ideas like that it’s an extension of what he’s experiencing – and I deal with similar things, so when I hear it I’m like ‘I know what that is because it’s making me feel a certain way.’”

Kent is less inclined to ascribe a “streamlined connection” between his feelings and the tone of his guitar playing: “I think about things really texturally, it’s really more abstract. It’s more like a bunch of notes that throb together in ways that sound intriguing. People attribute a certain brand of emotion to it, that makes sense, but it was never a conscious attempt to make music that uses horror movie chords.”

It isn’t just the way that Kent’s guitar sounds that creates Sprain’s chilling sound, it’s the energy conjured by the four musicians playing live in a space, and their ability to suddenly pivot, crumble, explode, or vanish in complete synchronicity.

The track ‘My Way Out’ might be the best example, as Sprain begin in a dragging, lurching gait, with all four playing in a manner so skeletal as to be barely more than a cursed breeze through trees on a quiet night. They continue in this manner for six minutes, while Kent sings in a half-dead drawl, the tightness of their quietness inversely generating huge amounts of tension and potential energy, building up like a dark cloud above them that you know could split open at any moment. When the shot does come, the band are so on-point that it sounds like a single destructive strike rending the heavens wide open.

It’s a moment that still startles even after multiple listens, and undoubtedly works all the more effectively for the fact that they had rehearsed it so thoroughly before going to the studio, so they could record it live. “When you’re playing that widely with that much space, edits and mistakes become way more obvious, so we knew we had to do it in a take,” Kent observes. It wasn’t necessarily easy getting to that point though – especially for Pretzer to become the reliable metronome that Sprain requires him to be. “That actually brings back a lot of funny memories of Max playing as slow as he could at the start, and I was like ‘No, it’s not anywhere near as slow as I want it,’” Kent recalls. “He would just look at me like I was a fucking asshole.”

It was a test that Pretzer rose to though. “I think playing in Sprain challenged him in a way that other bands hadn’t,” Gerloff says. “He talks about doing a lot of subdivisions and things like that in his head to keep track. What he gets out of it is that he gets to push his musicianship in a completely different direction than he would have expected to.” Kent agrees, saying: “There’s a whole lot of gears turning in Max’s head; he thinks about things more theoretically. The truth is the pieces we’re putting out on Collision just would not exist without Max.”

Gerloff, as the other part of the rhythm section, has a lot of responsibility too, maintaining atmosphere and anchoring the band’s songs, which have an “elasticity to how the tempos undulate,” according to Kent. This can mean Gerloff has to do a lot of grounding the songs with lumpen rhythm while Kent and Simmons pile on the tonal mayhem. Coming from a background playing in more punk-adjacent bands, it’s unsurprising that when she gets to let rip with a physical and propulsive bass line on ‘Worship House’, she knocks it out of the park. “I had this very ‘put me in, coach!’ approach to it,” she laughs. “I was really excited.”

But, Gerloff also relishes the challenge of figuring out how best to serve Sprain’s overall sound: “I was excited to have bass parts that were a lot different.” The sprung-coil tension of ‘My Way Out’ is again a great example, as the song gradually recedes to just her bass and Kent’s murmured observations. It’s an electrifyingly hushed moment, Gerloff has to maintain the tortuously slow tempo without the drums to guide her. “That was really scary for me,” she recalls. “I remember being in the studio and looking at Alex and thinking ‘I hope he likes this take’ – but he did and he gave me the thumbs up.”

If Kent sounds like an exacting taskmaster, rest assured that the results speak for themselves – and that he is even tougher on himself. This is most obvious by having a quick glance over the lyrics of As Lost Through Collision, which are bleak enough and so devoid of hope that you’d be forgiven for thinking the writer had lived their life in a world without warmth or promise of any kind.

He is understandably circumspect about explaining his lyrics – it’s evident that the words are a place he doesn’t like to dwell. “Honestly, writing lyrics is the worst part because it’s kind of like flashing in front of a huge audience,” he sighs. “I think there’s a lot of people who are gonna read those and think of me as an idiot or as a dramatic person, which is scary, but I guess you just have to force yourself to write them.”

Gerloff is quick to defend Kent from himself. “I was really surprised that Alex was willing to do that, to write lyrics that are so vulnerable – I always thought that was really brave,” she says. On the lyric sheet, Kent’s writing is in short, sharp lines, leaving plenty of space for interpretation. “I think that’s how he gets away with it,” Gerloff comments. “Being super direct is not really the way to go for us, musically, so I think Alex carries that practice into the lyrical part.” Kent agrees: “I think there’s an armour of abstraction that we wear when writing lyrics, so they can’t be read into too much.”

While As Lost Through Collision is unlikely to ever inspire hope or happiness in a listener, it is not completely devoid of humour. For example, when quizzed about the line “holes to designate where pleasure goes,” Kent has no problem admitting “I was thinking about fucking” – but adds the smirking caveat, “sometimes when I think about fucking it makes me existentially anxious.” There’s also the title of the opening track, ‘Slant’, so named because Sprain “will perpetually be compared to Slint,” according to Kent. “I just thought it was a stupid tongue-in-cheek joke,” he laughs. “You can only be told by everyone, ‘Hey you guys sound like Unwound or Slint’ so many times before you have to make a joke to protect yourself.”

Being compared to these bands is not something Sprain take negatively though – in fact Kent has declared Unwound his favourite band of all time and was even privileged enough to have become friends with the band’s bassist, Vern Rumsey, who sadly passed away at the age of 47 in early August. “Vern and I started talking online a few years ago, just the way DIY or punk musicians interact. We started talking about the prospect of booking shows, and so we got together when he would come play, and I got to know him personally,” Kent reflects. “For someone like Vern, who played in a band like Unwound, to be so kind [meant a lot]. It didn’t matter that we weren’t a popular band, or even a cool band, or even a band that had any right to be playing with him – he was just a supportive person and a good person and a gentle person – that’s what inspired us the most about him.”

It’s unlikely Sprain would have ever come into contact with Rumsey if they hadn’t been so devoted to their music, to playing live as frequently as possible, and being willing to be as DIY as necessary to make it happen. This is also the way that they got their deal with The Flenser, the cult San Francisco-based label that put out As Lost Through Collision. Over the last few years Sprain have played with several of The Flenser’s bands when they’ve come to Los Angeles, including Drowse, Planning For Burial and Elizabeth Colour Wheel, which brought them to the attention of the label’s founder Jonathan Tuite: “We asked him about it and he said ‘Well I just kept seeing y’all on flyers with my bands,’” Gerloff laughs.

It’s understandable that Sprain, just like everyone else, are dejected at the lack of possibilities for playing live in 2020. Perhaps they’re even more triggered, as they see performance as a crucial element to their work. “We feel like a piece of our art practice that is tangential to the record has been completely taken away,” Kent bemoans. “So the full product won’t exactly be exhibited at this time, which is really frustrating.”

It’s also a key part of their writing process, and Sprain have already been putting together a host of new material in their practice space, but it won’t be progressed without a public airing. “Playing songs live is a big part of how we determine what we like and don’t like about our pieces,” Gerloff states. Kent adds: “There’s always a mental test we do where if we feel stupid or idiotic or in any way not confident about the thing we’re performing live, then it has to go or it has to be changed.” At this point they’re unsure if they would be prepared to record the new material without putting it through this test.

Nevertheless, with As Lost Through Collision now released, Sprain are starting to be heard around the world, and have aspirations of taking their live show further afield as soon as possible. This starts with them hopefully hitting the East Coast of the US for the first time ever, but they’re eyeing up international possibilities too. “We’ve been talking to promoters about touring Europe possibly next year,” Gerloff reveals. Kent is warier about what the changes in quarantine restrictions and immigration laws will mean for the likelihood of a band of their status being able to play in the UK, but, characteristically, he’s not going to let his doubts blot out his dreams: “I’ll fucking swim if I have to.”

As Lost Through Collision is out now