Well, there's more than one way to land a refrain: Philadelphia's peripatetic and persistent Pattern Is Movement builds its own teeming microcosm on "Right Away," three dense minutes that pair organ drones and a Mellotron melody to Daniel Hart's luxuriating strings and a beat that swivels between a thick groove and a nasty rock wallop. Durham's young and sharp Hammer No More the Fingers lays back for "Shutterbug," though, its gritty guitar riff and peppy rhythm bouncing along until they skid into a bridge that's all anxiety and ambiguity. Both songs are about exit doors, but the paths to the red lights overhead are intoxicating in their divergence.
Pattern is Movement's Chris Ward talked about both songs while snowbound in his Philadelphia apartment; Hammer's Duncan Webster shared his thoughts on the tracks from Durham.
PART ONE: Pattern Is Movement's Chris Ward
- Chris Ward, left, and Andrew Thiboldeaux
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When did "Right Away" start developing?
CHRIS WARD: I guess about two years ago now. We were transitioning from a three-piece to a two-piece, and we were about to go on tour with Dave Bazan. We really wanted to demonstrate—because we were a three piece on that tour but a third member was leaving right after tour—to have some of the new record which would be All Together. So we worked on "Peace Treaties," and we worked on "Right Away." This time of the year two years ago, we were in the studio working on it.
Did you play "Right Away" as a three-piece on that tour?
Yeah we did actually. We had the guitarist play the Mellotron and Andrew just played the Rhodes and sang.
There are so many changing parts here. Did you build those together, or did the song come to the band pretty composed?
Well, I think in Andrew's head, it's always composed [Andrew Thiboldeaux is the other half of Pattern is Movement]. He always has a pretty strong composition for it, so I don't know if he thought the drums were going to be so rockin'. I remember that discussion because I just started doing the down beat on the tom and the snare and that seemed normal, like "Oh yeah, that would happen on the song." And then that chorus part, I played that beat. I don't know if he was expecting that. That definitely changed the song, but I think the general composition of the song with the strings and the dense vocals was his game plan the whole time—"Let's kind of create a new sound for Pattern. This will be our gateway to it. This will be like our building point for the record." And that's how we looked at it. The song kind of became the song to live by for the rest of the record. We recorded it apart from doing the record. We recorded it months and months before we ever started recording All Together
What were the challenges in getting this song down? There are so many moving parts.
I think the biggest thing was not playing stale—which this could be stale. It could not have a rock backbone. It could have been kind of compositional. I remember the day we were about to mix this song, Andrew came in and was like "You know, I need to redo the piano." And we were like "What dude? We're about to mix the song."
And he was like, "I just think the piano is kind of boring, and I think I played it like a kid would. I want to play it with more energy and attack." He was right. I remember he wanted to fix a couple of vocals. The song was completely challenging. Not only for us, but for our engineer [Scott Solter]. When you listen to that song, there's a variation of sonics that are happening. Our engineer had a serious, serious task in front of him to meld this whole entire song, but he did it. When we recorded it, I just feel like we had this problem the whole time like, "This sounds flat." And I think it sounded flat because we weren't used to playing these songs yet. We were just getting into them. So that was our biggest problem—just trying to play them with as much attitude and much forethought to how they would sound live after the record.
And how does it translate live?
You know, for a very long time, we kind of played it as it was on the record from start to finish. But I remember making a decision that we should start it out quiet because the song is very strange by its nature. The song starts out with an organ sound, which we don't play live. But that sound goes through the whole song, and I think that's kind of indicative of how the song could be played. And it was. We would just play it kind of straight, very forceful from start to finish and I was like "This is too much. There's no up and down. There's no emotional payoff."
So I threw a shirt on my snare drum and we'd play it really quiet the beginning and then the chorus would come in with my beat, and I'd play that really quiet. And then we'd just keep going up until there was that whole weird part with the piano and everything's crazy and that's kind of where we build up. And then we had this grand chorus at the end, and people would just really respond like, "Oh fuck, I've been waiting the whole time for this, yeah" instead of just giving that to them immediately.
It's still kind of like that, but sometimes at the end of the song we extend it. We just keep it going a little with my drums. Sometimes, because Andrew teaches the crowd the words and they'll generally sing with us, but if it's a really amped up crowd, they'll sing it all the way through even at the end, even when we're not really playing the song anymore. We've kind of been stunned by crowds of 200 singing, "I will go right away." It's pretty emotional. So it's kind of transformed into a different song from the record in my opinion. It's created a different dynamic, which I think we're really into and trying to pass onto the next record.
How does that attitude and experience play into a record?
I think more dynamic. That's really what comes into mind. I think All Together is a really good record, although it could use more emotional as well as sonic dynamics. The thing we get bogged down in is creating parts and not really realizing what we can get out of them. These parts are really great, but when we play them live we get to know them really, really well. Dynamics just naturally happen. You just get it. But we would never know the song that well prior to recording.
For this next record, our plan is to start writing the record now and playing them out so we can learn those dynamics, which we've never, ever done. I feel "Right Away," it's kind of quintessential to that learning experience. That song on the record is beautiful, and I obviously wouldn't want to change it as such. But having the knowledge of what it is now would have effected me emotionally as I was recording it and could have created a better, more authentic experience. People could connect with it a little more.
I hear there was supposed to be a music video for this song, but it got scrapped.
And it was because the treatment wasn't consistent with what the song meant. What does the song mean?
All Together is a very surprisingly literal record. Andrew and I had those photos. And then Andrew created a narrative for every single photo. So "Right Away" is about, well it's kind of about reincarnation. "I will go right away" is a fish talking to its mother and saying "I will go right away" and go get his food. And then the fish gets caught. That's why at the end of the song it talks about the child being so lovely because now you fast forward to a family eating the fish. And I guess it's just about the connection between life. So that was kind of our idea. If there were a video, it would have a connection to that, like a photo. The photo isn't literal in itself.
How did you find these photos?
Andrew's brother is kind of is an antiquer. So he found them I think in a box and gave them to Andrew. And Andrew came to the band and was like, "I have an idea for the next record." This is when we had more members, and everybody was like that is the coolest idea ever to have these photos and use them as a catalyst for our record.
When we'd record each song, we'd pull them out, and we had them scanned so we could blow them up. Scott would look at them for a good amount of time and just kind of take a cue from the photo. And we would try to take a cue from the photo and really believe what we were making was a story of that photo. Andrew, as well as his brother, are very good at finding antiques. They have a born skill for it. They were on the street and I think in some trash or something.
Thinking about the photograph and the song, how successful were you at portraying one through the other?
I think we became the authors of those photo, so I feel like the success was pretty easy. In most of the photos, it's really impossible to see what's really going on. I think the most blatant photo is somebody in an office and it looks like somebody's having a serious talking to in an office. Besides that, everything is pretty vague. So I feel like we really made those photos have a story. I think the photo of "Right Away" is a guy in a boat, a canoe or something, and there's water. There's no fish or anything like that in the photo, but I feel like the imagery of water and a human being in a boat possibly to fish or going out on the water connects with—I was going to say interrelatedness. I don't know if that's the right word.
You take liberties. Andrew's very good at taking liberties. He's very good in viewing his mentality with things. He became very emotionally attached to these photos and it became a huge force when he went to write these songs, to orchestrate them. He essentially created that emotional context in the photo and would go back to it as a physical representation of that emotional context.
Let's talk about the Hammer No More the Fingers song, "Shutterbug" It starts like a pretty standard indie rock tune.
What was your first impression?
My first impression was that the song sounded like the band had been playing for like 10 years together. I keep hearing them mentioned as like up-and-coming. I've met them, and I think they're younger guys. But it just doesn't sound like an up-and-coming band. It sounds like a band that's been around the block a couple of times and has a very settled feel to it like, "Yeah we know what hell we're doing, Here we are. We're doing it."
So I think that's kind of the swagger that I really like about those guys. I like it. I feel like they pull it off very well. It's not something that would be on my hi-fi immediately, but when they sent me the record a while ago. ... I don't know if you know the whole story about them sending us the record. It's kind of a very amazing story. They sent the record to Hometapes [Pattern's Portland-based label], and Hometapes sent it to us because it was really addressed to us. They sent us the record with a handwritten note, which we've gotten more of now but at that time nobody had ever sent us a record with a handwritten note.
The note was really nice like, "We really like you guys. And we have really good feelings about you, and we think you're good musicians, and we really want you to hear our record." I just remember being so touched and that it took some serious time to do this. I listened to it in my office on my speakers and was like, "This is really cool." I gave it to Andrew and gave him the note. Andrew listened to it and he liked it, too. He contacted them. It took us forever to contact them because we were on tour a bunch, and it might've been like 4 or 5 months, which made me feel horrible. They're like, "These guys hate us." And I believe Andrew has an office where he works on all the music, and that letter is on the wall. So it was inspirational. It made us feel connected to these guys before we even knew them.
Have you ever played with them?
Never. No. We've been trying and talking about it but it has just never worked out.
The bridge of this song sort of turns into a smear, and it almost reminds me of the sonics of "Right Away." It sounds like the band consciously messed with the song a bit, and "Right Away" obviously sounds like it's been worked and reworked a lot. How does that process work for you, building something and changing it around so much?
For us, I think we're pragmatic about music. I would say the word spiritual, but it conjures so many weird things for me personally. There's definitely a kind of a mystical side to music. For me, there's something that goes on when I hear music that I really love. But there's also a pragmatic thing in that there's ways to view music and how music can be arranged and how it can affect the listener. And I think we think about that. We didn't think about it so much before but especially on All Together, like, "What is this part really doing?"
This gets into our history as a "math rock" band. I think sometimes in years past, we did stuff for the sake of it like, "This is really interesting." On All Together, we seriously thought through the parts like, "Is this really affecting any change in the song? Is this creating a color or a dynamic that wouldn't be there otherwise?" So when I think about "Right Away" or how we take a small concept like a jamming organ and jamming piano and how it becomes this illustrious, kind of crazy orchestration, I think we think about the nature of music and strings and the vocals. Falsetto and stuff just seem to conjure a certain emotion when I hear them in other songs. I feel like Andrew has the same context when he writes a song.
For me, specifically, on a drum level, when I listen to a drummer, I can tell if I hear a melody in a drummer's playing. That's kind of the tone I take when I'm playing drums. I definitely get caught up in playing too much or doing too much, but I think all drummers have that tendency. But when I think about drums, I think about the beats that really connect to me emotionally. So I feel like that's kind of our aim as a band, to really think about what we're trying to achieve. Our engineer Scott was a huge proponent of that. Especially "Right Away," it was like "What are we putting on next?" It was getting to that point where Andrew was like "Listen, we're not stacking the deck for the song. We're not just going to put everything we imagine just so we can say we put everything we can imagine. There's a reason we want this violin part here or there's this reason." There's stuff that actually got cut on that song. There's more orchestration that didn't make it. Everything had a serious purpose.
I don't know if pragmatic is even the best word, but it's just what comes to mind. Like really viewing music in a very physical, realistic way. When certain tones are created, a lot of times certain things happen in the brain. Think about that. Think about music in the literal sense.
PART TWO: Hammer No More the Fingers' Duncan Webster
- From left: Jeff Stickley, Duncan Webster and Joe Hall
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How old is "Shutterbug"?
DUNCAN WEBSTER: It's actually kind of old, probably 2005. We actually formed in 2007—Jan. 1, 2007, is what we say. I used to live in New York City, and I played in a band up there. It was me and my girlfriend at the time. We played that song, but then we split up. I brought it to Hammer and totally changed it.
Which band was this in New York?
We were called Mumu Worthy—terrible name. It was me and my girlfriend at the time, Jesse [Smith]. I lived in Brooklyn. The song is about her before we started going out because moving up there not knowing very many people and meeting someone that you're friends with and then actually starting to like them, as more than a friend—that's what the song is about. I lived up there for two years, then I moved back down here. I was kind of heartbroken, and Joe [Hall, guitarist] and I met up one night for a beer and said, "Hey, man, do you want to start a band?"
How many Hammer songs does that apply to, old band songs that have been picked up again?
Not very many. Definitely a couple of parts that we play, but not generally whole songs—maybe like a bridge of a song or something. Joe and I used to play in a band in high school together called The Droogies. Some parts are old Droogies parts as well.
How literal are the lyrics: You met a girl, immediately moved in with her, got nervous that she didn't like you?
Yeah, yeah. I moved in the winter of 2005, January 2005. It's all pretty true. [Laughs.]
What's funny is that the last verse predicts the break-up in a way: "I'm just another roommate/ don't want to stay no more." Was that part of the song, even before you'd dated or broken up?
Yeah, it was part of the song, originally. [Laughs.]
The bridge of this song is really interesting, starting with those harmonies and the change in the rhythm section. Was that a Mumu Worthy move, too?
That's definitely something we worked on as Hammer. Joe wrote the first guitar part. It used to be three chords, but he wrote like this Tom Petty riff. I like that a lot better now than what was already on that song. We said, "Let's make the chorus quiet just to change it up—then the bridge even quieter." At the time, we were really into trying to do three-part harmonies. They don't work as well live as they do on recording.
How much do you think about that in the studio, recording something that you can faithfully represent onstage?
We definitely want to get a good live recording and make it as tight and clean as possible. We did this new one in six days, so we tried to do it really quickly. It definitely took a lot of time to do the bridge harmonies, the three-part harmonies. We definitely messed with it a little bit.
You made this record, Looking for Bruce, with J. Robbins. What advice did he have, and how was he able to help you get some of those more complex moments—like harmonies—down?
He's the most accommodating guy. He's a really sweet dude. He says, "Just go for it." At first, we were thinking about doing the drums to a click track, and he said just do it live. He was like, "It'll come out better. I'll make it sound good. Don't worry about it." That's pretty much what he did: I would do four vocal takes for a song, four or five, and he was like, "OK, go play PlayStation for an hour." I'd go play PlayStation for an hour, and I'd come back and he'd have this whole vocal track mixed out.
What sort of advice did he have for those harmonies?
We definitely did the three of us, and took so many takes, especially for "Shutterbug," we did so many takes. That song was pretty new for us when we went into the studio. He just told us to keep doing them over and over again.
When did the band first play the song?
It was probably two weeks before we went into the studio. I think we played it live one time. The bridge of it used to be this avant garde thing or noise stuff. It just didn't really work.
The end of the song is so heavy. It almost sounds triumphant, but—now that I know the story—it almost sounds like a "Fuck you."
It wasn't intentional, but—looking back on it—I can see that. It was definitely a frustrating time, liking somebody and not being sure if they like you back.
Let's talk about Pattern is Movement's "Right Away."
I wrote down a bunch of stuff. Let me get my computer. I just wrote down a list of stuff. What I really like about this song is it's almost this opera mixed with drum 'n' bass music, but it's still pop music and it's really organic sounding. I really like the—I think it's timpani?—during the chorus or bridge or whatever that is [Sings.], and the Mellotron. It's such a warm sounding song. Is it about his mom?
Well, there are these photos, and the album was written upon this set of photos. The song is about a fish.
Oh, really. Wow. That's...
What did you think it was about?
I don't know. I thought maybe his mom died, and it's about visiting her in heaven. I don't know. I don't want to get to personal with it.
Has that happened to Hammer No More, where you write a song to mean one thing and people hear it as meaning another?
It's definitely interesting. We have a song called "Radiation." My sister asked me what it was about. It starts out with a line about a girl on a bike, so she thought it was a love song for a girl on a bike. But it's really about Chernobyl. [Laughs.] That's kind of cool. She gave it a better description than, "Is it a love song about a girl on a bike?" But I like it when that happens.
Does that make you want to be more explicit and clear?
It makes me want to be more—what's the word?—obscure.
Chris Ward was telling me about your note to Pattern is Movement and how much it meant. How did you first hear Pattern?
Just through friends. Every band that we played with, no matter what city we'd play in, was like, "Oh, yeah, we played with Pattern is Movement last month." We had always heard of these guys, and I heard their music on MySpace. They work really, really hard, and they're everywhere. They've played every venue.
Was the hope to play some shows with them?
That was the goal, just to get on their radar.
So, I've yet to hear Looking for Bruce. What should people expect? How do you feel about it a few months after finishing it?
I still really like it, sometimes. [Laughs.] It's definitely a lot less indie rock and more... I don't know. We get a lot of comparisons to Pavement and Superchunk, and—to be honest—I like Pavement a lot, but I never grew up listening to them. But Superchunk... [Laughs.] they're all right. I never listened to them, really. I definitely listened to Archers of Loaf growing up, so I guess they're an influence. I always thought we sounded like Red Hot Chili Peppers playing Pixies songs. To me, that's what it sounds like, but no one has ever compared us to that. I guess it doesn't.
Hammer No More the Fingers and Pattern is Movement play with Prabir & the Substitutes at Tir Na Nog Thursday, Jan. 29, at 9 p.m. The show is free.