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Altar Eagle’s debut album Mechanical Gardens opens with gritty oscillations, soft beeps and sweet harmonies.

It’s an album of melodies and warm textures, like throwing Joy Zipper through an electrified coil. Yet Brad Rose’s previous output, most notably that made under the guise of The North Sea, has been left for dust. The avant-rock and improvisation, the claw-raising electronic grandeur, the face-melting ecstasy has been replaced by DIY electronics and pop music.

Unlike many bricolage bands for whom the sole desire is to create crude pop ditties as two-fingered ‘we can do it too’ salutes to over-produced onveyor-belt pop, Altar Eagle have produced a heartfelt cry. Highly developed and loaded with shattering textures, Mechanical Gardens is among 2010’s finest and most resonant records. You can stream it in full here.

Besides his own musical work Brad runs the brilliant webzine Foxy Digitalis and the label Digitalis Recordings with his wife Eden. The label, whose releases include Hush Abors and Keijo, and recently Svarte Greiner and a Pocahaunted/Robedoor LP is a consistent source of new, exciting sounds. Having recently relocated to Tulsa after living in Seattle, the pair ditched Corsican Paintbrush, their long-running improv collaboration, and started work on Altar Eagle.

Back in September last year the group released a 3” hit-pocket disc, The Life of Bridgette Driscoll, under the name Eagle Altar, representing an “abstracted, untied and loosened version of Altar Eagle” and a 5-track cassette entitled Judo Songs. Mechanical Gardens is out now on Type. The following interview was conducted via e-mail.

Altar Eagle is a collaboration with [your wife] Eden. When did she become directly involved in you creative output? Did that idea come about from the process of making a record or did you always intend to work with her on this record?

Brad: “Eden and I have worked on projects together for the last six years or so, since we moved back to Tulsa from Seattle in 2004.  Many of these were one-time sessions with various other collaborators, but in early 2004 we started our first duo project together called Corsican Paintbrush.  It lasted until 2008, when we decided that we’d done all we could with the project and needed to start something new and fresh.  This was when Altar Eagle was conceived.  We never had any particular ideas in mind other than trying to do something more collaborative, less improvised (CP was 100% improvised) and that incorporated more of our musical tastes and influences. The first song we ever recorded was called ‘Dogfighting’ and appeared on the Judo Songs cassette and it really set us off on the path we’re currently on. The idea of doing a ‘proper’ album (i.e. Mechanical Gardens) didn’t really happen until some time later when John Twells from Type said he wanted to do an Altar Eagle record.

“There were so many times when we’d finish recording some part to a song or whatever and look at each other with disbelief, thinking ‘Holy shit!  We’re actually doing this!'”

Did time spent trying to create this poppier artifact open up areas you hadn’t previously explored?

Eden: “Personally, it has made me more comfortable with my own voice.  I’ve always been shy about singing around other people – I was in choirs a lot as a kid but refused to ever do solos, and the only other times I would sing out loud were alone in my room or out in empty fields – so it’s been an interesting process for me to realize that I didn’t have to be afraid.”

Brad: “Putting our vocals so upfront in the mix was definitely the biggest step forward for us, I think. Like Eden says, it made her more comfortable with her own voice and that’s been a huge thing.  I think that comes through loud and clear on newer tracks as opposed to some of the stuff from our first tape, Judo Songs. I mean, I guess the vocals are still buried somewhat, especially more than people might be used to, but for us it’s pretty in your face. I even made them a bit more prominent on the two older songs (‘Battlegrounds’ and ‘You Lost Your Neon Haze’) when I remixed them for Mechanical Gardens – just because I think we both realized (also through the encouragement of Type) that the vocal elements were really what made Altar Eagle stand apart from all our other projects.

Would you claim that you don’t pursue the noisier elements in you music, that they only occur through the process of creation?

Eden: “Sometimes it’s conscious and sometimes it’s not. We definitely like our music ‘dirty’, so we’ll either naturally choose sounds that aren’t as clean or we’ll listen to a song we’re working on and say to each other, ‘That’s too pretty.  It needs something dirty.’  Which is not to say that there is something wrong with pretty, because there’s not, but that it feels more complete with both.”

Brad: “Yeah, it can really go either way.  There have definitely been plenty of times where we’d finished most parts for a song and it just felt like it was missing something or was a little hollow, so we’d try layering electronics on it and more often than not, it would really tie everything together. I’ve always liked music that combines ideas and sounds that don’t seemingly fit together.”

“We’ll listen to a song we’re working on and say to each other, ‘That’s too pretty. It needs something dirty.'”

As strange as this sounds, do you find improvisation can be quite limiting?

Brad: “For sure it can be – it really depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish. There are certainly a number of elements on Mechanical Gardens that are improvised, so I think that mixing improvisation and composition has, for us, given us access to an endless array of possibilities.”

Eden: “I wouldn’t say it’s inherently limiting. The limitations there were all our own.”

How do you go about constructing a track?

Brad: “It’s very haphazard and there’s no real formula.  Many times, the main parts or riffs for a song will come together from just messing around with our synthesizers and coming up with something that strikes us. We’ll make a beat, record the main parts and then kind of build and layer from there. Some songs have started out as improvised pieces where the main sections (beat, main synth parts) are recorded live and then added to later.”

“I just try to fill my days working on, and working with, music as much as I can.”

How are you planning to develop Altar Eagle; is it now your central focus?

Brad: “It is my central focus at this point and probably has been for the past year, though while Eden is completing her graduate studies for the next year it limits the amount of time we’re able to spend working on new material, but we do take every opportunity we can.  I spend most of my time running our label (Digitalis), but in between all that I have numerous other projects I’m working on. I just try to fill my days working on, and working with, music as much as I can.

“But where it goes from here, it’s hard to really say. We have a lot of new music in various stages of completion and it’s as much an adventure for us to see where it goes as it is for people listening to it.”

Eden: “Yeah, we both have our solo and side projects but we just don’t have time to be in a lot of different bands like we used to.  For me, Altar Eagle and my solo stuff (Mass Ornament) are the only things I really do. I don’t really have any future plans with Altar Eagle other than to keep doing it. I really love what we do as it is.”

Your PR blurb for the record explicitly points out how you’ve made a pop record, could I ask what “pop” means to you?

Eden: “I see pop as two things: popular music and a certain type of sound. Sometimes the two definitions are separate but sometimes they’re not. I certainly don’t ever think that we’ll be popular. We’re never going to be Clear Channel favorites.

“Pop as sound, though, is not something that we’ve really made before, so that’s why that reference is there – most people who know us already know us as experimental or noise musicians.  Compared to what we normally do, Altar Eagle is a pop sound!”

Brad: “It’s really hard for me to put my own music into any category because it’s just so personal to me that outside of that, I leave it in the hands of listeners and writers and whoever else. A pop song, to me, is rather simply something that will get stuck in your head for days at a time and from that standpoint, I think Mechanical Gardens is a pop record because I have surely not been able to get these songs out of my head.”

“We knew we wanted to work within more structured parameters and we wanted to incorporate more beats into the music.”

Yeah, I get that. There are two central tracks on the album, ‘B’nai B’rith Girls’ and ‘Monsters’; the former for the texture, the latter for its striking melodies. Was Altar Eagle conceived as a pop project?

Brad: “Not at all.  I don’t think we had any real preconceived notions of what we were going to do beyond the fact we knew we wanted to work within more structured parameters and we wanted to incorporate more beats into the music. The first song we did was ‘Dogfighting’, from the Judo Songs tape, and it really set us off in the direction we’ve been going since. Even though it’s pretty rough and spotty, it’s still one of my favorite songs we’ve done and I think you can hear a lot of the ideas and sounds that went into Mechanical Gardens on it.

There’s often a lot of symbolism in your artwork…in the past we’ve seen religion, nature and eroticism, sculpture and now infantile folklore (in the carousel featured on Mechanical Gardens). Could you describe how these ideas are formed and – superficially speaking – how they are realised?

Eden: “Like the music, the artwork of Altar Eagle is always something of a collaboration. We each have our own idea of what the artwork should look like, so we’ll talk it out, and sort of narrow it down from there.  In the case of Judo Songs, we just knew that we wanted it to convey happiness, so we came up with the color scheme of pink and yellow, and then Brad did the actual art. Vintage Cats was basically just handed over to Phil French because we both love his collage work and trusted him to do something amazing.  Mechanical Gardens was a little harder because we had a much more specific and complex idea that included a color scheme but also just a particular feeling that I can’t even try to describe.  But since there are two of us involved, it’s hard to divide each of us out of it and also nearly impossible for either of us to attempt any sort of objectivity about it.”

“I have to translate whatever we are doing into images in my mind or I simply don’t understand what’s going on.”

When you say how you want to ‘convey happiness’ was this intended in the music? Is this the type of approach you take to making music?

Brad: “Not necessarily.  I think there’s a lot of joy and happiness and fun that comes through on Mechanical Gardens because that’s what we were feeling when we wrote and recorded it.  There’s a sense of awe on it as well, for me, because there were so many times when we’d finish recording some part to a song or whatever and look at each other with disbelief, thinking ‘Holy shit!  We’re actually doing this!’

“But plenty of my music and my projects come from very different places and are trying to convey something else entirely.  I mean, [The North Sea’s] Bloodlines isn’t a happy piece of music at all.”

Eden: “Yeah, for Brad and I, Altar Eagle specifically is a huge joy in so many ways.  We hope that other people experience it that way, too! But even if they didn’t, we would keep making it for ourselves.”

Is there an element of synaesthesia to making your music?

Eden: For me, it sort of has to have something of that.  My creative background is visual – art and writing – and I’ve only started to make music relatively recently in my life, so I’m still pretty dependent on imagery. Once the song is together, it’s not a problem, but during construction, I have to translate whatever we are doing into images in my mind or I simply don’t understand what’s going on.”

Brad: “I think this goes back to what I was saying about learning to articulate our ideas in a way that would make sense to both of us and a lot of that, when we would be working on a song, would be expressed through the use of imagery and descriptive terms.  So yeah, synaesthesia is definitely an important element.  I think it also relates to the idea of wanting to transport the listener when they’re listening to someplace else – it all goes hand in hand.”

“I was too intimidated by established acts for a long time to even try to make my own music…”

Is there anything you would like to add at this point, maybe something we haven’t touched on or something you’d like to discuss?

Eden: “Our philosophy with all music, from the simplest noise to Altar Eagle, is that you have to start somewhere. I was too intimidated by established acts for a long time to even try to make my own music because it seemed like I would have to be ultra-skilled with an instrument before anyone would even think of taking me seriously as a musician. But everyone has to start somewhere – Altar Eagle had to be Corsican Paintbrush before it could be Altar Eagle – and I hope anyone who is reading this who has felt that way will pick up an instrument today and start playing with sounds, no matter how much or how little they know about doing it.”

Samuel Breen

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