As I’m sure you all know already, we here at Punkanormal Activity do our best to shine a light on all things punk. But sometimes a band comes along and gives you shake, and you just need to find out more about them. Case in point, Kansas City’s psych-prog-math rock instrumentalists After Nations. With the Aug. 1st digital release of Consteleid on steady rotation over my vacation, I reached out to the band to find out more about the band.
Before you get to the interview with Andrew , take a minute and check out the amazing preview video:
PKA: How has the reaction been so far for Consteleid
Andrew: I always struggle to get a sense of how an album is received, or what kind of reaction people are having. I think to begin with, this kind of music has a relatively small audience. We’re also a pretty obscure band – we don’t have a huge following, we aren’t networked into a marketing industry that can provide meaningful feedback or insights (facebook——–), and it’s largely people that are close to us that give us the most meaningful feedback. Sizing up a reaction to an album can be difficult then, because on the one hand, I can see a modest stream count going up and some scant online sales, but I have no idea what those people are thinking, how they’re feeling about the music. On the other hand, when I talk to my close friends, or people who have known this band for a while and have a strong opinion about music, and have a sense of how this music has changed over time, I’m hearing things like “it’s the best one you’ve done”, “it’s brain melting”, “this slays”. It’s just difficult to weigh that positive, close feedback against or alongside the kind of a void of ‘everyone else’. I don’t think one can represent the other, and for the vast majority of people that hear this album, I just don’t know what they’re thinking. I guess that’s my invitation to people to let us know what they think about the album.
PKA: Often in bands, the vocalist would be the main songwriter, and the songs would begin from lyrics or a hook as the base of the song. How does your process differ working as a band without a vocalist?
Andrew: I think there are a number of ways to go about songwriting – it’s an infinite and open process. I have the sense that not having vocals doesn’t create any kind of musical dilemma or obstacle, because I think fundamentally, with or without vocals, you’re working with the same musical elements: melody, harmony, rhythm (unless we’re talking about spoken word on top of music, or something challenging or experimenting with the concept of music). You can start with any of those, and what emerges is intimately related to where you begin.
The process of writing usually takes a few forms in After Nations. I’ll typically write several parts in a certain key: riffs, chord progressions with melodies, eccentric accent patterns, bass grooves with melodies or counterplay with the guitar, some breakdowns, a drum groove or accent pattern that has guitar and bass focused on teasing that pattern out – pretty much any iteration of those processes. Sometimes I’ll write those with the intention of structure, of having certain sections lending themselves to transition well to others. Other times I’ll treat a section as a total one-of, weirdo moments that may be difficult to put into the context of other parts. After I’ve got maybe a few dozen parts, I’ll start arranging everything into a structure. At that point, I’ll start showing what I’ve got to Travis and Zack, and we’ll begin making all of that come to life. In that process, you discover what does and doesn’t work, you adjust, and sometimes, unexpected things happen either through misunderstanding, or feeling out a possibility in real time amongst the three of us. In that space, new things can emerge, and they become yet more sections to work with in an arrangement.
Without vocals or lyrics, the focal experience is directed completely onto the music, so the intention and purpose of what is happening musically is critical. I’ve really tried to make a practice out of putting the writing process at a distance at times, and as much as I’m able to, coming to the structure of a song as a listener rather than a performer. From that view, I’ll continue to make changes to a song until it feels like everything holistically makes sense, flows well, and is fundamentally interesting as a listener. That process can happen at any time up until recording an album – sometimes we’ll have a song ‘finished’ and down for 6 months, but as I get more time on it as a listener, there’s the possibility that changes will be made. For that reason, from writing to tracking, songs tend to take a little over a year to fully come to life in this project.
I think the challenge – and a lot of the joy – of writing and arranging, is taking those various parts, and working out their place (or what’s possible and what happens when the idea of ‘place’ and expectation get shifted around). How sections can relate to one another, how the unexpected and seemingly unrelated aspects of a section can make profound sense if other pieces around it are shifted or altered to create a subtle expectation, or a jarring contrast – making all of that as a whole take you through a wide, open, ever shifting experience of sonic landscapes in a way that feels exciting, disorienting yet flowing, and so wide ranging but focused in what you experience that you have the sense that anything is possible.
PKA: Whenever I listen to any instrumental music, I often want to close my eyes, and visualize what I’m experiencing. Do you think that individual experience is what sets it apart from music with vocals?
Andrew: I think we all have an intimate, personal experience and relationship to music as individuals. I believe that’s the same when vocals and lyrics are present. Even with the shared language and intention of hearing the same lyrics as everyone else – the content that suggests certain imagery, senses, and ideas – we have individual experiences of those concepts, we relate to and understand that experience through the lens of our own life and experience.
Where it seems to differ, in my take of it, is that we don’t use music in our everyday life to communicate or make sense of our experiences in the same ways we would with language. We can communicate with language to determine and track the orbit of a satellite, or to convey to someone the specific reasons their behavior is affecting us positively or negatively. We could also express that through instrumental music – but you’re satellite is definitely getting lost, and you’re relationship may benefit from some more constructive feedback (probably best not to write a mathy song to your roommate if they’re swiping your food or if you want to start a more serious relationship with them; go talk to them). We can even use language in music to more precisely refine what it is we’re trying to say by putting it into a musical context. But when music IS the context, when it is the message, you’re talking about a domain that we use for wholly emotional, associative, and creative expression.
So the potential of instrumental just feels different. It has the ability to be perceived precisely as the listener’s experience enables them. If the same music had lyrics and vocals, it may guide or orient the listener to something else, towards a specific intention – maybe getting the listening audience closer to the same page as the writer’s own thoughts and experiences. That may also be very personal, but it’s an altogether different experience. With instrumental music, you have the arbitrary but associative symbols and experiential phenomena of the music, and yourself – there are no other guides or ideas to orient you. So I think we find ourselves entering kind of meditative, open states of mind when we listen to this kind of thing, and the ideas, feelings, concepts, and associations that we have with that experience arise from within us – and that is profoundly personal. It’s the experience of having music evoke in us whatever may arise from us as an individual.
All music, instrumental or otherwise, is experienced on an individual level. I think there’s a spectrum where you have more orientation and possibly a more generally shared understanding of an experience on the lyrical/vocal end of things – but with individual experiences of what that music means. And that shared sense is powerful, it makes us feel connected to others in very visceral ways. On the instrumental side, you still have intention that drives that creation of the music, but the field of interpretation is vastly more open. It’s less likely to share precisely what it is that you and another person are feeling, thinking, experiencing on this other end of the spectrum, but what you experience may be profoundly intimate, and wholly embodying your current understanding of something. That’s just insanely powerful and resonant with people.
Even more profoundly, I believe there is a different sense of connection that arises from the instrumental side of the music spectrum. Rather than being expressed and verified through language, it’s expressed musically, and received and understood – musically. Something about communicating and expressing in such an abstract way feels as though we come closer to touching our lives, our experiences, our understanding, in intuitive, flowing ways – in a way that transcends language. I think both forms – lyrical music and instrumental music – are of equal weight. They just foster different kinds of feeling and thinking. I think I lean to instrumental music because I’m drawn to the feeling of connection, of thinking and understanding that feels beyond words, and apart from certain ways of thinking. If lyrical music fosters connection by bringing us outside of ourselves, through having us share our internal world and seeing and feeling those connections with others, instrumental music seems more like having the external world meeting you, prompting you to reach internally, and to find that you’re already connected to the outer – that somehow, that experience makes it intuitively felt and known that your place and sense of connection to not just music, or other people, but to everything, has always been present; it’s like realizing and living that presence, and in a very flowing, present way
PKA: Did you get a chance to work out the material live before recording?
Andrew: With every album, we go through the writing and arranging process, making revisions and adjustments along the way. That usually takes something like a year, and throughout that time, as songs feel more or less ready, we’ll begin playing them at our shows, and continue to make changes as we get a greater sense of them live. By the time we record, the album has its core finished. We’ll then track the drums and bass, and then I’ll go about the process of adding guitar layers and effects – which in the case of this album respectively took two days and a period of about two months.
PKA: Consteleid has a very raw feel, and sounds like it will translate very well live. Was it important to have the studio and live experience match?
Andrew: I think you’re right, that the album has a relatively raw, live feel to it. I think that’s a reflection of both limited experience as an engineer, and part of the sound that I’m drawn to at this stage in my listening. I’m not as drawn to overly processed or meticulously clean recordings, and I think it makes sense that a lot of my orientation as a listener comes through in the album.
PKA: I’ve seen the recent announcement of the addition of David Sandoval. How does he change the dynamics, and what can we expect from the live shows?
Andrew: People can expect to effectively hear and experience everything that’s on the album, virtually as it is, live. A huge driver in asking Dave to join us (beyond his being a guitarist that just goddamn rips and a friendly, professional guy) was wanting the ability to share these songs without making any compromises in a live setting. With this album, as with each album, I can’t play everything that’s there. I’ve always had to focus on critical parts and cut other things. With this album, I just didn’t feel we could do that. The writing is all interdependent; everything has a place, every part is serving the music. It just doesn’t have the same energy, feeling, or texture without all of it being played live – so I reached out to Dave to help fully realize this music on tour. So effectively, what you get with the album, you’re going to get live… it’s just going to more intense, and louder… like… really loud.
PKA: I ask this of everyone, which bands should we all be listening to?
Car Bomb Youtube
Tigran Hamasyan Youtube
The Rippingtons Youtube
Béla Bartók Youtube
Punch Brothers Youtube
Thank you very much to Andrew for taking time out to answer some questions, and for the excellent music suggestions he left us with. If your in Kansas City, MO. check out the release show on Friday Aug. 17th, or check out the remaining tour dates and the links below for all the latest on the band.