We’ve been waiting the best part of a decade for Canadian singer/producer Circlesquare to release an album commensurate with his obviously abundant talent. Songs About Dancing And Drugs might just be it.
His debut 12″, ‘The Distant After’, got us all excited when released onTrevor Jackson’s Output Recordings back in 1999, but the album whichfollowed, Pre-Earthquake Anthem(2003) was far from seismic. Circlesquare, real name Jeremy Shaw, hadthe style and all the reference-points du jour – Talking Heads,Badalamenti, Monoton, Joy Division, etc – but the music fell short. A2006 EP, Fight Sounds, was a step up, but by then things had moved on and we’d kind of lost interest.
But things change, and artists develop: Songs About Dancing And Drugs, scheduled for release on January 19th, 2008, via the !K7label, is very, very good indeed. Shaw’s tendency to meander remainsunchecked, and for an album of only eight tracks it somehow manages tosound a little overlong, but in truth these are only minor quibbles. Across itsdrowsy but clearly-focussed duration Circlesquare achieves the mostperfect synthesis of gothic, songwriterly gloom and modern electronicsthis side of Brinkmann’s When Horses Die. Post-punk stillprovides remains the Berlin-based artist’s stylistic grounding, butthankfully Songs is too sure of its own aims and subtly inventive tosound like just another Factory homage (God knows we’ve had enough of them).
At once stylish and emotionally resonant, Songs About Dancing And Drugs may well turn out to be one of 2009’s best records. We exchanged e-mails with Jeremy to learn more about the record and where he’s at right now..
What’s been interesting you of late?
“Oh, all sorts of things: black light posters, anything with that duality of being used for science yet also sold in a head-shop… I’m interested in finding out if they will actually be making any more Arrested Development. Recently I’ve been re-watching films that I loved when I was younger to see if they’re actually good or not: it’s kind of a silly thing to do, as most of them aren’t and you end up tarnishing your memory of whatever it was that you loved about it back then, but I can’t help it. You see, I went and saw Twilight the other night because I was totally curious to see what the fuss was about, and I went really looking forward to seeing a fun film. But sadly, I wasn’t into it at all; it was absolutely no fun, none. So I’m thinking of all the films that I was crazy about as a teenager and now wondering if they’re just as bad, or if things really have been going downhill since then.”
Tell us a little bit about the making of Songs About Dancing And Drugs? Was it a difficult birth? Did you approach composition and recording differently to how you did on its predecessors?
“It was a long process… I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but it definitely had its challenges (finishing being a major one). I wrote it over the course of almost three years, and we were playing shows on and off during this time as well, so that influenced the record far more than previous ones. Songs were often written, then figured out for a live setting, then taken back into the studio with the knowledge of what worked well on stage, and then back out, etc, etc… Some songs got reworked five or six times by the end of it all. There was a lot more live recording as well, which always eventually gets chopped up and rearranged somehow or other, but that changed the way I was composing for sure.”
It sounds much more “produced” than your previous records. Is that fair to say? Were you trying to achieve something specific with the sound design?
“’Produced’ is a pretty nebulous word in the recording area, but I think I know what you’re referring to. I would almost say the earlier Circlesquare releases were more ‘produced’, to me, in the sense that I sat in a dark studio on my own for months on end and worked the production into the ground; possibly sucking the life out of it at times. But there was a conscious decision with SADAD to try and avoid this overworking on the production end of things; to try and leave it a little rough around the edges. The live tracking and mixing was done in a larger, more ‘proper’ studio with this record, so in that sense, it’s bigger and warmer and yeah, more produced I guess. We worked with Colin Stewart (who’s responsible for Black Mountain’s production) on the live recording and mixing, so there’s definitely the influence of someone who knows their way around the live controls better than me. I wanted a looser sound, something a bit more alive….and by that I don’t mean ‘live’, but something that felt like it could possibly fall apart at any moment; I wanted it to almost sound a bit off.”
How much do you feel that Berlin – practically, spiritually or otherwise – impacted on the making and sound of Songs About Dancing And Drugs?
“Not at all, as I had completely finished the record in Vancouver about a month before moving here…I’ve only been permanently here for just over a year now, and haven’t really worked on a ton of new music yet – so I’m still waiting to see what the town will have done to my sound. I have a couple of remixes underway that do see me possibly almost making it out to the dancefloor, albeit guardedly. I’m a firm believer that Berlin is one of the most unique and special places to live in the Western World. I think it’s unparalleled for culture and entertainment and social acceptance.”
Is there any sense of the bubble having burst over there – or is still the creative “utopia” that some people maintain it is? I detect a degree of cynicism/boredom entering the culture which wasn’t there before…
“Possibly, but I wasn’t living here in 2001, so it’s hard for me to say. But you know, it doesn’t matter what town you go to, there’s always the people who are going to lament the end of the halcyon days and how everything’s changed and tell you about how you don’t even know the true (insert name of town here) and so on and on. But with Berlin, I’ve met many people who’ve been here the whole way through, some even before the wall fell, and they pretty much all have the same attitude… They say that it changes. It doesn’t get better, it doesn’t get worse; it’s just always changing. The freedom of the city as a whole is still so new, so fresh.. I mean, it was only 1989!”
“And no, I definitely don’t think that any creative utopian bubble has burst really. I’ve never in my life been in a place where so many artists can afford to live and continue to make work without being trust-funders or having to wait tables six nights a week. I guess you could say the city is a bit flooded with creative types, but really, is that a bad thing? I certainly don’t mind. It’s far more engaging to me than being flooded with people who don’t care about art.”
Do you feel settled in Berlin?
“I do feel settled here right now. And yet, I still feel like there are infinite amounts of things to see and possibilities to capitalize on, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m resigned and complacent. I think you could live in Berlin your entire life and never even get near to the bottom of it. There are so many layers to everything…I miss the ocean sometimes, and my family, but not enough to do anything about it yet. I’m sure there will come a day when I really miss Canada, but not right now, especially with the way the government is going these days.”
Tell us about the sleeve art for Songs About Dancing And Drugs…
“It’s based on an art piece of mine which is the broken black light bulb hanging, but without the Circlesquare logo drawn on it. It was from an exhibition I did in 2005 called Anti-Psych where I was discussing the death of the psychedelic experience in youth due to the newer, harder, faster drugs that have taken over America; making things like LSD look very naïve in comparison. So, the black light bulb represents about the cheapest, lowest-form of basement psychedelia possible; found in many a teen’s bedroom everywhere throughout the 70s and 80s. Yet the bulb is broken, rendering its psychedelic capabilities useless, and poetically referencing the death of an idea. This is further analogized by the fact that crystal meth users smoke the drug out of shards of broken light bulbs. For the purpose of the cover, I scrawled the Circlesquare logo on a new version of the piece and then shot it as a 3D photograph; perhaps in an attempt to re-introduce the psychedelic to the image… I’m not entirely sure, but I really like how it looks.”
You sound very detached on this record…
“Yeah, I’m an observer I guess… semi-participant. Not a voyeur I hope! That’s really always been my position though. I was never right in there with a scene of any sort as I was always too interested in too many things to ever dedicate myself 100% to a single one of them. Like, I was going to raves in the mid-90’s, and enjoying myself, but I never felt like ‘this is home’ by any means; I was always suspect of it to some degree. I was still skateboarding and listening to hip-hop and wanting to start a shoegaze band at the same time. I don’t think I’m detached though, as that would mean that at some point I let go of my connections to these things, which I haven’t; I still feel connected in some respect… connected from a observational distance perhaps…”
Is it fair to call the LP a critique of dance/drug culture? Or is it more ambivalent than that?
“Yeah, I think that hedonism can become mundane, just like anything in excess, and especially something that’s meant to include euphoria and even epiphanies as such; how boring to be constantly having them! I think it comes from a place of distance from dance/drug culture…I mean, there are different levels to it. On one hand I feel like I’ve totally had it with drugs, you know? I feel like I’ve learned all that I think I ever can from staying up for three nights in a row, and the comedown definitely outweighs the high nowadays. But then there’s the part of me that still thinks there’s something out there, and is envious of my friends who are still, probably ten years on now, able to go and go and go and not pay an extreme emotional price for a few days afterwards.”
I’ve heard that you listened to a lot of folk during the making of the album. Can you tell us a bit more about this, and anything else you were listening to at the time?
“I do end up listening to a lot of folk, especially while I’m right in the thick of working on music. I think I really value the simplicity that I find in it; the lack of need for anything but an acoustic guitar and a voice, maybe the odd choir arrangement. It’s a palate-cleanser for me in a way…I get so tied up in this mess of effects and layers and channels, that when I listen to something that bare, it’s like starting clean again.”
How do you feel your attitudes to music and music-making have changed over the past decade? What have you learned, and what have you left to learn?
“Well, when I first started I was working with samplers and very little memory or room to record on so I had to be very aware of time. I also had to be a lot more inventive in order to capitalize on the lack of resources, as I really had very little in the way of gear. This was actually a very good thing to me, and although I still keep a very stripped down set-up, I find that with plug-ins and soft-synths and everything basically sounding amazing immediately on preset, that I get lazy and don’t experiment like I used to. So I have to really watch myself in this sense, and make sure that I don’t always go the easy route, or think ‘that’s good enough’… I used to experiment far more because I basically had to, but it was great fun and produced some of the best results. I need to constantly remind myself about that these days so as to not end up auto-tuning in Pro Tools…”
What are you listening to at the moment?
“I’m quite a ways behind on the new music front, so actually just started listening to Deerhunter which I think is wonderful. I’ve been listening to a lot of techno since moving to Berlin (shocking, I know)…”
What are you afraid of?
“The scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me where Laura goes into her bedroom in the middle of the day and Bob is behind her dresser looking for her diary and then they both scream and she runs out of the house – holy shit, does that ever scare me. I’m scared of being kidnapped still; something totally ingrained in me since the kidnap-hysteria of North America in the 80s. Not that it wasn’t a real cause for hysteria, because it totally was, but I think the public service re-enactments did much more harm to my psychological state than they ever did for making me street-smart. They basically made me believe that everyone I knew was going to kidnap me.”
Live performance is very important to you, right? What can we expect from your impending shows, particularly the visual aspect…
“Yes, it’s very important to me indeed. There are three of us onstage, and one off-stage running the visuals. Dale Butterfiled is on drums and controls the laptop generally, Trevor Larson is on guitar, and I’m singing and playing acoustic here and there. Nathan Whitford was the original visuals man, but he had a kid and stayed in Vancouver with his wife so we have just found Graeme Mitchell who will be coming out with us from now on. Our set-up is very simple at the moment: two 3 x 4 ft screens on either side of us that play video synced via midi to the bed tracks. The visuals are very ‘video’, in the sense that they are generally actual images, rarely just abstract ‘visuals’. There are lots of crowds of people, dancing, fighting, etc…We’re constantly reworking the visual element and introducing different things and every time we learn a new song we make a new visual accompaniment, pretty much.”
Tell us a bit about your working habits. Where do you write and record? What helps you get things done, and what distracts you?
“I write and record in my own little studio primarily. Drums and some guitars and vocals we’ll do in a bigger one, or if ever there’s a part that we really want to record together as a band. I am constantly writing song and lyric and video ideas in a book; sometimes I’ll have complete songs worked out in there before recording anything. Coffee helps me get things done and icanhascheezburger.com distracts me…”
Do you have any other projects in mind for 2009?
“I have a bunch of visual art projects on the go and will be working on a bunch of remixes as well as hopefully some new Circlesquare material should time, and my brain, permit.”