Bridging the Gaps: Take a deep dive with Quilt ahead of their Johnny Brenda’s show
Most people who have written about Quilt say that their music comes from a different time. It’s “vintage.” “Woodstock-era.” “You can practically smell the patchouli burning.” And they’re right: Quilt have mastered the art of musical time travel. But they also do their fair share of teleportation.
Their patchwork breed of psych-rock revival is rife with sounds from the East— singer and guitarist Shane Butler spent the first year of his life in India and practices Mantra chanting to this day. The strings on their 2016 LP Plaza are inspired by the music of Serge Gainsbourg, Butler’s fellow front-person Anna Rochinski told me.
Though their songwriting has grown more poised and their production more polished with each record, Quilt is a band that likes to wonder. “Are you looking for an answer? Are you looking for a cure?” they all sing on the “O’Connor’s Barn” chorus, “Maybe you should want more.” And I do. Plaza is just two minutes more brief than 2014’s Held In Splendor at 40 minutes, but it’s been glued to my turntable since it came out (not to mention I had to leave their set early to catch a train home from Brooklyn).
Last night, I sat down with the members of Quilt before their record release show at Baby’s All Right to talk game shows, Baudelaire, and the making of Plaza. You can check them out tomorrow night in Philly at Johnny Brenda’s.
The Key: You’re all originally from Boston, and have recently dispersed all over the place. Could you tell me a little bit about that move, when and why it happened?
Shane Butler: I moved to New York from Boston two years ago. After living for Boston for seven years—I’m from New York and I moved there for school and stayed there for years afterwards—I just felt it was time to go, and land it back in Greenpoint, in Brooklyn. I didn’t grow up in Greenpoint, but moved back to Greenpoint, and it’s felt really good.
John Andrews: Shane’s the only one that lives in New York City. Anna lives in upstate New York, Kevin lives all over the place, and I live in New Hampshire.
TK: So how has that worked out in terms of writing and recording?
JA: We Skype each other.
Anna Rochinski: I only live two hours north, so it’s not a big deal. I come here all the time. John just moved to New Hampshire so it hasn’t really interfered with anything yet. We just get together when we need to and find a place, whether it’s in New Hampshire, Boston or New York.
TK: You all met at art school, right?
TK: Has being a visual artist had any influence on the music you make?
AR: I don’t know how to describe it. When Quilt first started, I was in this really buzzy, creative place because of school, so the music was just an extension of where I already was mentally. And now, they’re pretty different. I think they were really melded at one point, but now they’re different. They obviously influence each other, but not the way they did when I was in school.
SB: I have a bit of a different experience. I find that having both a visual art practice and then having a music practice balance each other out, because I can experiment with different mediums and transfer some energy that I’ve learned from other forms into music, and vice versa.
TK: Has that had anything to do with the really cool album covers you have?
TK: The new one is Ken Price, right?
AR: Yeah. I had that one saved on my phone as an image that I found, then I showed it to everyone and they all liked it. And so we had to get permission from his family and contact his estate, but yeah, it’s a cool painting. Everybody loves it.
TK: This has nothing to do with Ken Price, but I wanted to ask you about your time on The Price Is Right—I saw the photos on Facebook and it looked like fun.
JA: We hadn’t even thought about that. Ken Price is Right!
TK: That’s funny. How did that happen?
AR: Kevin and I had talked about doing it ourselves.
Kevin Lareau: Life long dream.
AR: One time when we were in L.A., we looked into how to do it, but we didn’t end up actually going. But we knew it was easyish. We knew it was free and relatively easy. So we came up when we were all in California, and everyone wanted to do it because we thought it would be funny. John was all about it too because he’d grown up watching it.
JA: I grew up watching that show every day in the summer. It’s, like, the best show ever. And we got there so early in the morning, waited in line for four hours, they took away our cell phones, and we finally went in and it was the best time in my entire life. I don’t think I could do anything else cooler.
TK: And one of the bouncers knew of you guys, right?
JA: And they played Quilt over the loudspeakers.
TK: That’s so cool. So this is the beginning of a pretty long tour for you guys, yeah?
SB: Five weeks, then a month, then another month. We’ll probably be touring a bunch of the year with some space in between.
TK: Do you have any crazy stories from long tours in the past?
SB: There’s been a lot of crazy shit that’s happened.
AR: We ran into a piece of metal in the road. It was just a giant piece of gnarled scrap metal in the middle of the highway at night, and we drove right into it.
TK: Where was this?
AR: Arizona. And there were little flames peaking out from the undercarriage of the car, and we pulled over and had to get towed.
SB: The tow truck adventure was the best part of it, though. The tow truck driver made us ride in our car on top of the tow truck. So it was pitch black outside, and we just sat in the car and blasted Television’s Marquee Moon and drank wine in the back of the car.
JA: We have made crazy drives in crazy snow storms and all sorts of weather, but it seems like, for the most part, this winter is over, so we won’t have to deal with any blizzards. We’ve driven through Montana in crazy snow storms.
SB: We were driving in Washington and the car was pretty much snowboarding down one of these hills so we could make it to a KEXP session on time.
KL: We went off the road, too, on this mountain road. We went off the inner corner, and we had to pull out almost right into a tractor-trailer.
TK: By the way, John, I just noticed your Grateful Dead hat—my family is full of Deadheads. We actually went to the 50th anniversary shows in Chicago.
JA: Nice, I wish I could have went to that.
TK: Do you follow any of the spinoff/cover bands?
JA: Not really. My roommates are huge Deadheads, so it’s pretty much all I ever listen to in the house. This was my dad’s patch from the ‘70s.
TK: Favorite record or show?
JA: American Beauty is my favorite record. I don’t get too deep into the shows, but I’m learning a bit from my roommates. But American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, those are my two records.
TK: Let’s talk about books. You’ve brought up Richard Brautigan in previous interviews, and I wanted to talk about Baudelaire because Brautigan brings up Baudelaire quite a bit. But anyway, what are you all reading now?
AR: I’m reading The Point of Vanishing by Howard Axelrod. It’s a new book that just came out, and my mom gave it to me for Christmas—she read it too. It’s fun to share books with her because we can talk about them. It’s a memoir about this guy who goes and lives in a cabin in Vermont. He graduates school and is accidentally blinded during a basketball game in one eye, so he goes and lives in this cabin by himself when he’s 22 years old.
SB: Over the summer, I met a young activist and writer named Mychal Denzel Smith, and he writes a lot about race and growing up in the south. He moved to New York and is kind of a prominent voice right now, but he’s been introducing me to some writers. One is a guy named Keise Laymon and he has a book called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, so I’ve been reading that.
KL: I’m reading Ray by Barry Hannah. It’s actually Anna’s book. Really amazing, I love it. I actually just finished it and I’m reading it again.
JA: I’m reading The Shining. Just finished the first chapter.
TK: Moving from the lyrical content of Held In Splendor to Plaza, you go from making a lot of statements to asking a lot of questions. How did you get to a place of being willing to ask in your songs?
AR: I thought that Held In Splendor had more questions on it. I felt more uncertain as a person when I was making Held In Splendor. Maybe we’re asking questions from a more mature standpoint. You’re more rooted and you’re seeking, if that makes sense. But I always thought of Held In Splendor as being very question-y. The whole album starts with “Arctic Shark” and the opening lyric is “How can I proceed with thee?” I always liked how at the end of Held In Splendor, it ends with John singing “To fight the water that lives within the ice” and all that stuff at the end of “I Sleep In Nature”. But yeah, Plaza’s got questions in it too. Well, “Searching For”…
SB: I think that questions give potential. I’ve always liked when art can stimulate the viewer or listener to ask their own questions. When you present somebody with a question, it gives them their own interpretation of what’s going as opposed to telling them. Sometimes you’ve gotta tell it like it is, too. But like Anna said, I don’t think it’s a departure on this record to ask questions. I think we’ve done that before.
TK: I guess that’s why I was asking about those poets, Baudelaire in particular, because he interacts with the reader a lot, and asks a lot of questions.
SB: It’s funny you bring it up, because I went back and read Flowers of Evil a lot when we were writing this record, and especially when we were recording.
AR: I think the only Baudelaire piece I ever read was about “The Flâneur”, was that him? It’s an essay about this person alone in the city, walking and observing things as this character called the flaneur. I think it was written in the late 1800s or early 1900s when things were becoming industrialized and “the city” was a new thing, and there’s this dude walking around. It’s like a critical text.
SB: I do think that one thing, for me, with the record, specifically because you brought up that poet, is that he has this way of channeling darkness, not to be dark, but finding light within darkness, and using darkness for strength. That was something I was thinking a lot about writing the lyrics for this record, just because I was going through a lot of shit and to not turn things bright and cheery, but to realize that, within a lot of death and darker aspects of humanity, there is this dark light.
TK: Yeah, that’s totally his thing. “Spleen and Ideal.”
AR: Oh, Flâneurwas written by Benjamin but it was inspired by the poetry of Baudelaire. Actually it was Baudelaire’s idea, but Benjamin wrote the essay.
TK: I think there’s a good deal more pop sensibility—at least pop song form—on this record than on your previous records. Does that come from a sort of natural evolution of your songwriting, or did you sit down and say, “We’re going to write a more pop sensible record?”
JA: It was a lot of our producer Jarvis Taveniere pushing us to write more traditionally structured songs. There’s demos of the whole record that were recorded in Georgia, and they’re completely different. A lot of them had choruses that were kind of the same, and they were very repetitive, which is more similar to the first record. But I think a lot of that had to do with Jarvis. He was as much of a songwriting partner as any of us.
SB: He would give us the impetus to do a certain thing, or be like, “It would be interesting if you tried this,” but not giving us what it was, and then ask for us to search within ourselves to find it, which I thought was really fun. And it was fun to work with a producer who did that as opposed to just work on the sounds on the record.
TK: Yeah, like, the first time I listened to the new record and heard “Hissing My Plea”, and I was like, this is practically a James Brown lick.
AR: That’s just because the sound just happened.
TK: I’ve always heard a sort of Eastern sound in your music, which probably has to do with all the chromaticism and harmonic scales. Are there any direct Eastern influences you can cite?
SB: Yeah. I listen to a lot of Eastern classical music, and I’ve been really interested in composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley and people who both use Eastern scales in their music and have studied with Indian classical performers and teachers and gurus. I spend a lot of time listening to Indian music, in particular. Even The Beatles had a big influence with that as well.
TK: Okay, good, I wasn’t wrong in hearing that.
SB: Anna, I know, she’s really interested in Serge Gainsbourg’s strings, which kind of have an Eastern influence.
TK: Yeah, I was going to mention that the strings take on a whole different character on Plaza.
AR: I wasn’t thinking they’d be Eastern sounding.
SB: But they’re referencing certain Eastern things.
TK: Especially on “Hissing My Plea”.
AR: Yeah, those are modal, they operate in a different mood than major chords, you know?
TK: I also wanted to ask about how harmony operates on this record, especially on “O’Connor’s Barn,” because that whole song is essentially guitar and vocal harmonies picking up where the other left off.
TK: That’s funny. But, like, where do those ideas come from? Is that a product of songwriting together?
AR: Yeah, the riff at the beginning of that song was something that Shane and I did simultaneously and wanted to create a quasi-polyrhythm out of it. The first guitar playing was something I had and then Shane made something that fits around it, and that can be said for singing as well. John wrote the chorus after the song already existed, and we stuck it in there and it really worked.
TK: Moving forward to production, where did this record get recorded, who did you work with, and around when did that happen?
AR: In Brooklyn, same place where we recorded Held In Splendor.
TK: So the Mexican Summer studio?
AR: Yeah, Gary’s Electric, with Jarvis Taveniere, and that was last spring, 2015.
TK: And where were you writing these songs?
AR: All different places, different times. “O’Connor’s Barn” and “Hissing My Plea” were assembled in Atlanta. “Roller” I wrote at home in upstate New York. “Your Island” was New Jersey and Boston. The songs span a range of, like, four years ago right up until when we recorded, so it’s been all over the place. Shane wrote “Padova” in Padova, Italy.
TK: That’s interesting, because the theme of place is all over this record. You have “Eliot Street,” you have the barn, which is not a real barn, right?
AR: Not a real barn. It’s an imaginary barn. It’s an imaginary song; it’s not about anything that really happened to me. It’s more like a little fable.
SB: I think we live in a really interesting time for music because of headphone culture. I think it’s really interesting that we soundtrack everywhere that we are nowadays, and we soundtrack everything that we do in a way that we’ve never been able to do before, and for me, the effects of being in a place and walking around with headphones on, it’s interesting that place and music start to become really intertwined. We score the way we view a city, we score the way we view a place.
TK: Or time, as well. Times of our lives have soundtracks, I think.
SB: Absolutely. In terms of the writing, I just write wherever I am. I try to write all the time, so I have hundreds, thousands of voice memos of different songs, and I title them after where they are. And sometimes that title looks nice as it is, and doesn’t need to be changed, and sometimes I take that place and change it. I try to write wherever I am and whenever I can, and so place plays a big part in that. Like “Padova,” for instance. I don’t know if that song would have come out anywhere else. It just happened to be this moment I was stuck in, and was able to channel something there.
TK: Where does the album title come from?
AR: It was just a word that I had in my head that I thought sounded beautiful. I liked the way it sounded, and didn’t have much of a conceptual reason behind choosing it. When we talked about it as a group, everyone had a different take on it.
TK: That’s interesting, because a lot of bands will just pick a song and make it the title track.
AR: That would be funny.
KL: “Arctic Shark,” the record.
AR: “I Sleep In Nature,” the album.
AR: No, it was just random and beautiful sounding, and we were able to figure out meanings for it after we talked about it.
TK: And what are those meanings?
AR: For me, the first association is just real plazas that you see on tour. Shitty, gas stations with different shops in them that we’re always going to. That’s just a real thing. You can go a million directions with it. The plaza, the meeting place, the crossroads of ideas, kind of like being in a band and making records. You can take it there too.
SB: I like the title for the same reason I like the cover art, which is this thing that has these dual meanings. A plaza can be a kind of shady shopping mall in the middle of America that’s falling apart, and then the most ornate park in the center of a city is called a plaza. I love that. And I love the album art because it deals with these gaps between high and low culture. It’s a really complex and interesting word.
Quilt headlines Johnny Brenda’s on Friday, March 4th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.