Interview: Red Sparowes

Band: Red Sparowes
At the Soundless Dawn, Every Heart Shines Towards the Red Sun, Aphorisms.
Los Angeles, California

Well known for extensive song titles and solid songwriting, Red Sparowes are a highly regarded instrumental group, performing music in a similar vein to Pelican and Neurosis, without any vocals. The band features current and ex members of prestigious bands such as ISIS and Neurosis. They just completed a pretty extensive tour, including a few blistering dates in the UK, and have released their latest EP ‘Aphorisms’ via digital distribution outlets. I spoke to Greg Burns (bass, pedal steel) and Dave Clifford (drums) and here’s what they had to say for themselves.

Hi guys, thanks for finding the time to answer these questions. How are you all?

Greg: Really good, thanks.  We’ve just returned from a great tour and, aside from the success of the shows, I had more fun on this tour than I’ve had in years.

Dave: I’m good, thanks. We just finished one of the most successful and enjoyable tours of the band’s career thus far, and the response to the new EP has been fantastic. So, I certainly can’t complain.

What was the necessity to get together and form Red Sparowes?

G: For me I had recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco and was actually very frustrated with the musicians I had met and played with in LA, for the most part.  Meeting Cliff and Jeff Caxide was a relief not only in finding like-minded musicians but people that I knew quickly could become good friends.  So our initial practices were more about playing music and developing friendships then they were about starting a band.  Having Andy and Dave join the Red Sparowes later has really been a continuation of a collaboration that has as much do with camaraderie as with making music we love, which is hugely important to me.

The band use stark visual projections to illustrate their music.
Live, the band use stark visual projections to illustrate their music.

How do you manage to divide your musical responsibilities between bands? Do you ever find there is a crossover of ideas?

G: Although my side projects currently are fairly unknown and definitely take a back seat to Red Sparowes I see them as chances to explore ideas that would probably be fairly out of place in Red Sparowes.  My most productive side project is called Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed and is just drum and bass which challenges me to play in a very different way than I would with the band.  Of course there can be a crossover, but I enjoy that and the end results always sound very different from each other, in my opinion.

D: The music that I play in other projects is usually very different from Red Sparowes. So, it’s quite easy to avoid crossover there. However, I think that some of my former bands, especially The VSS and Pleasure Forever had a good deal of similarities in approaching songwriting that involves elements of music outside of the rock realm. And, I think that I’ve continued improving on my own ideas from those bands in the contributions that I make to Red Sparowes.

Why the extremely long song titles?

G: I think one of the things we’ve all enjoyed about playing instrumental music is the challenge to evoke ideas or emotions without being explicit through the use of lyrics.  That said, we do like to provide a backdrop to what we’re trying to express and we’ve found that suggestive storytelling with the song titles helps accomplish this.  The song titles are also generally related to the projections that we use live.  I think the result is that we allow people to experience the music in the way that is meaningful to them, while at the same time giving them a glimpse into our own interpretations.

D: I’m always surprised that people are perplexed by the long song titles. If you look at the album artwork, it pretty clearly shows that the titles are all individual sentences of a longer piece of prose. Since we don’t have lyrics, the song titles serve to suggest the mood and what each song is “about” in the overall theme of the album. Aphorisms is a bit different in that the song titles are intended to represent aphoristic statements and the terms of these “simple truths” that we collectively choose to believe. I suppose the long song titles are confusing to people who may have downloaded the album and can’t see the titles in their proper context with the artwork. The intention is not to be pretentious and Baroque with the titles, but simply to express ideas without the aid of vocals.

Aphorisms is out come the beginning of August. What can we expect from the EP?

G: Actually it’s out now in digital form!  As the title suggests, I feel that the songs stand well on their own and are fairly unique.  This is a little different than the approach we’ve used on our full lengths where we’ve worked to develop a continuity that we hope allows the listener to experience the album as a whole.  So the album has three songs that I think are all pretty different from each other and represent a broader spectrum of our songwriting than any one album has had in the past.

D: We actually were able to release the EP at the beginning of July to coincide with the tour. Originally, the distributor said that they wouldn’t be able to have it available until August, which explains that release date. Anyway, people can expect three new songs from the digital download version, which will be followed soon by a physical version. The Aphorisms 12″ will be accompanied by a DVD of new original videos shot specifically for the songs on the EP. These will be different from the visual projections that we use at live shows, and follow more of a narrative direction that elaborates on the themes of the EP and the next album.

The last full length by the band was fairly gloomy, taking inspiration from events in China throughout the 1950's.
The last full length by the band was fairly gloomy, taking inspiration from events in China throughout the 1950's.

How comes it was decided to only release the EP via digital download?

G: The E.P. will actually be available as a package that includes vinyl and a DVD containing original visual work by Camella Grace.  We expect it to be available in a couple of months.

D: We decided to release the EP digitally early before the vinyl/DVD version simply because it was possible to do so. We were going on tour throughout July, so it made sense to have the new music available to coincide with the live dates. The reason that the physical release won’t be out for a while longer is that we wanted it to be a special package worth owning, rather than just a simple disc.

Do you see physical music distribution as a thing of the past?

G: Absolutely not.  I just think that the availability of music in digital form will force bands to come up with more creative ideas for a physical product, focusing on more than just the music.  This is something that we’ve worked to do since the beginning of the band by releasing vinyl, bonus tracks, and using artwork that we’re proud of.  With the changes with the music industry in the past year or so, we’re excited to continue to push the idea of a creative and unique physical product; I feel like the physical release of the E.P. will be a good example of that.

D: Definitely not. Most people who appreciate a band like Red Sparowes tend to be the type of people who like to have a tangible item like a record or t-shirt or what have you. I know I certainly like to have CDs and records because they represent much more of the complete package of what an artist aims to express. While it’s more convenient to have all of my music on an iPod, when I’m at home I prefer to listen to vinyl. I believe that this will remain true for many people despite whatever changes there are in the music marketplace.

The thing that does seem to be changing is that the recorded song is becoming a less and less valuable medium. This is an interesting parallel to what happened with published sheet music. It used to be that musicians made their money by writing out the sheet music of their songs and selling them — hence the introduction of “music publishing”. But then recorded music usurped sheet music over the course of the last century and people hardly ever buy sheet music these days (at least in comparison to the number of albums sold over the last 60 years.) Now that file-sharing has fully taken over the music industry, it seems that the old notion of an artist releasing the single definitive version of a song is quickly disappearing. Who knows what will happen, perhaps bands will sell multiple versions of their songs, or release audio files of each instrument’s tracks that listeners can assemble and mix into the song that suits them. Regardless, touring and playing live still remains the most enjoyable was of distributing music.

The new EP is available online, and will be released in a fancy pants physical version soon.
The new EP is available online, and will be released in a fancy pants physical version soon.

You recently came and found us in the UK. How was it?

G: There were things I loved about this past tour in the UK, and things that weren’t so great.  Loading equipment in the rain sucks, especially for 8 out of 9 shows.  We’re also big fans of nice bathrooms in clubs, which seem to be a rarity in the UK.  That said, the shows were really great, the audiences were fantastic and I really enjoyed seeing some old friends and making new ones.  Supersonic festival was a really great time (we played with Harmonia, how cool is that?!?), and honestly had a lot of fun at each show.  Please though…no more jager bombs.  My liver can’t take it.

D: This most recent tour was excellent for us in many ways. The shows were bigger and we had a great time. The Supersonic festival was definitely a highlight of the tour. There were a lot of great bands and it was really fun seeing friends from other bands and other countries at the show. It’s always nice to see Jenny and Lisa, the promoters of the festival. They’ve put on shows for us several times in Birmingham over the years and are really great people all around. London was also a great show, at ULU.

How do UK audiences compare with their US counterparts?

D: They talk funny.

G: Well, they do have these funny accents that make them all seem really charming.

I think a lot of people are anticipating some great things from your next full length. Could you tell us what kind of ideas you’ve got at the moment?

G: I can tell you that we have a LOT of ideas.  I’m personally really excited about pushing the band in new directions and challenging ourselves.  I hate it when bands put out the same record year after year.  So I’d say that our ideas have a wide enough scope that it’s a bit hard to sum up.  We are playing around with different instrumentation and really pushing ourselves both as song writers and musicians.  I think, as a result, the new music is more cohesive and emotionally expressive.  Brendan Tobin (Made Out of Babies) has also recently joined the band, so that’ll no doubt affect things.  He has a really strong melodic voice and I’m very excited to see how our music progresses as a result.

D: Thank you. I don’t want to ruin the surprise of the new album, but I will say that we’re all excited about the variety of ideas and the ways that we’re pushing things in many different directions musically. We all have a conception of what a Red Sparowes song should sound like (and we certainly aren’t going to suddenly make a ska-punk album or anything) and it’s interesting for us to push those boundaries and try to find unique ways to expand on our sound. As far as the album concept, we’re saving the full explanation of it until that album is ready for release. Suffice to say, the theme is a bit more extensive and elaborate, relating to phases of evolution, science, errors, entelechies and biological imperatives. And, with enough creative investigation, the notion of the EP title and song titles ought to reveal a hint of the full story to come.

Thanks for taking the time out to answer these questions, hopefully we’ll see you back in the UK soon!

G: Thanks Mike, I appreciate your questions!

D: Thanks Mike.

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