Currently preparing for a major US headlining tour with Young Widows, Seattle-based These Arms Are Snakes rode out a wave of newfound popularity on the back of the stunning new album Tail, Swallower and Dove (review) and an earsplitting, beer guzzling, tour of Europe. Brian Cook, bassist for TAAS and about a million other bands, took some time out to have a chat.
The Only Thing I Know For Sure: Hi Brian, happy New Year and all of that rather late bullshit! How did you go about seeing 2008 off?
Brian: I’m not sure what the other dudes were doing. I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan with Russian Circles supporting Clutch. It was cold. And drunken.
TOTIKFS: Last year was a pretty good year for you. The new album got a great reception, and certainly the tour over here in the UK was met with a great response from fans. What do you see happening in ’09 for the band?
Brian: We’re heading out on tour in February through the end of March. That’s bad time for weather, so I’m really hoping we just survive in one piece. After that we’re just playing it by ear. Hopefully more shows and doing some writing towards our next release, whatever that may be.
TOTIKFS: What was the process you went through in creating Tail, Swallower and Dove? Do you just jam things out, or do some members work on the songs individually?
Brian: The songs are written collaboratively, though they usually start with a few bits and pieces that were drafted independently by a band member. Those parts serve as the springboard for figuring the rest of the parts out. We’re creatively inert. It’s hard for us to get in the songwriting mode, but once we get some momentum going, things happen pretty quickly. It also means that our favourite songs tend to be the ones we write towards the end.
TOTIKFS: For you, how did you feel once you’d wrapped up the making of that album? Do you think it’s your best yet?
Brian: I feel pretty good about it. I guess I think it’s our best yet because I’m not tired and worn out on it from playing the songs hundreds of times. One thing that’s different this time around is that I think the album is way more front-loaded. With Easter, my favourite songs on the record were the last four tracks. I’m grudgingly conceding that most people don’t have the attention span to listen to 45 minutes of one record, so I think Easter went over the heads of a lot of people because they didn’t get to the latter half of the album. With TS&D, it’s a pretty unrelenting ride for the first half, and then we branch out and do more of the experimenting on the B side.
TOTIKFS: Steve’s (Sneere, vocals) lyrics are very ambiguous and it’s often difficult to find some common ground to begin to understand them fully. I mean, just the album title alone is rather baffling, so how does he go about writing such wonderfully abstract passages?
Brian: Steve is an odd little man. I have no idea what he’s talking about half the time.
TOTIKFS: What were your main inspirations creating that album? It certainly seemed to have a more obvious focus on being heavy…
Brian: That’s hard to say because we’re rarely all on the same page. We were definitely trying to stay a little more focused — a little less prone to attention-deficit-disorder song structures. I’ve been delving into shit like Can, Earth, and Stars of the Lid: bands that manage to construct these really cool and engaging compositions out of relatively few bits and pieces. I don’t think we sound even remotely like any of those bands, but I know that I was personally inspired by their ability to make less equal more. TS&D is actually pretty simple. Ethric Double is really only 3 or 4 parts even though its 7 minutes long. There are just minor adjustments made to the riffs so that it seems like there are more changes than there really are. The bass line on Woolen Heirs is pretty much one note playing one pattern with a few weird runs thrown in for good measure. I guess I wanted to make a record that was a bit more hypnotic and less spazzy.
TOTIKFS: Seeing you live and hearing the records are two completely different experiences. Live the band are a borderline car crash, teetering on the brink of sheer collapse whilst (especially on Tail, Swallower and Dove) the albums sound very well thought out and structured. Do you
prefer live shows or recording?
Brian: I like both. The recordings are always a surprise because I’m not usually aware of all the stuff Steve and Ryan (Frederiksen, guitar) are doing. I’m pretty focused on the rhythm section side of things. So the songs become entirely new entities in the studio. I love playing live, but it took pretty much an entire European tour to get to a point where I felt really confident with the new material. I’m a slow learner, I guess.
TOTIKFS: The UK part of your tour was unfortunately marred by some venues kicking you out early for dance nights, notably your final date at the Islington Academy which saw you out of the place by 10:30. Has it put you off coming over here? How does playing in the UK and Europe compare to your American tours?
Brian: I really enjoy Europe because I feel like live music is really seen as art and culture. The vibe is just entirely different. There is a much more “bubblegum” entertainment aspect to live music in the UK and America. I’m obviously making very broad generalizations here, but I definitely tend to feel more commoditised in those markets. It’s really hard to pinpoint the differences. Being ushered out a club immediately to make way for a dance night definitely plays a part in it. It makes you feel like you’re clocking in and out of work. The role of fashion and the media plays another part as well. Our European crowd seems way more diverse and a little older. Again, I’m making some broad generalizations here, but if I had to describe the overall tone of these markets, well, the UK and America seem to lean a little more towards pop culture. Part of it may have to do with the nature of the venues. Places like Islington Academy or any of the Clear Channel venues in the U.S. operate under a different mindset than places like Vera in Groningen, the youth centres in Germany, or the Lintfabrik in Belgium (RIP). Those places have more of a communal and volunteer oriented vibe.
TOTIKFS: Talking about your live show, how does Steve cope with throwing so much of yourself into such a frantic performance? Aren’t you ever concerned for your own safety, or worried you might burn out?
Brian: That poor boy gets beat up quite a bit. Sadly, he keeps talking about making a point of getting hurt less, but I think the precedent has been set. The crowd won’t necessarily let him get away with taking it easy. We played a show on Sunday in a local pub and he kept getting picked up and thrown around by the crowd. It was a fun show, but I think Steve was a bit bummed by it.
TOTIKFS: Back in December you had a rather interesting experience with one promoter in the US – what was all that about?
It seems to have been settled now. It was a DIY punk type of show. The promoter was very hospitable and from what I gathered from some friends from the town, it was a pretty successful show for that area. There was a bit of turmoil towards the end of the show involving a fight and an afterparty in the bar, so getting paid was a bit of a pain in the ass. But ultimately everything got worked out, we were just sort of unclear on how all the finances factored out. Our booking agent and the promoter wound up getting in a pretty tense email war but we were out of the loop on most of it. Then our agent forwarded this email to us that were full of some pretty nasty accusations towards us, so we posted it online with our account of the evening’s events. The promoter got in touch with us, apologized, and it’s over.
TOTIKFS: Now, you’ve got a pretty longhaul American tour coming up next month – how are you preparing for it all?
Brian: Ugh. We’re not prepared. We need to get on top of that. We still don’t have a van.
TOTIKFS: Getting a bit more serious, have you found that the economic downturn has affected band life much? It’s getting hard enough for people in regular jobs to survive, so it must have hit your lifestyle a bit harder…
Brian: There are tons of layoffs in the northwest. It’s pretty scary. But so far it doesn’t seem like the recession has hit us much. I was talking with a friend that books a local club; he says turnouts are higher than ever, but they’re mainly selling the cheaper brands of booze. People want to be out and entertained. People want an escape. We’re selling fewer cds, but I think that has as much to do with changes in how people listen to and acquire music as it does with the economy. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how this U.S. tour goes.
TOTIKFS: Despite the bad vibes (and I must reassure you, not all of us Brits are into taking E and raving the night away) is there any chance we’ll see you guys back here in the UK soon?
Brian: Aw man. We don’t hate the UK! Hopefully we’ll be back soon.
TOTIKFS: What new music are you looking forward to coming out in 2009?
I’m looking forward to hearing Craft‘s follow up to “Fuck The Universe”. And I’m still holding out for an end to Fugazi‘s hiatus.