By Alec Wooden
Fresh off the release of their second release, Kairos, White Hinterland‘s Casey Dienel and Shawn Creeden discuss musical philosophies, the new record’s decidedly new direction and Creeden’s post-practice pasta dishes.
What’s your general philosophy as an artist?
Casey Dienel: When I feel curious about something, I’m compelled to explore and experiment with it. Maybe I discover a new range in my voice, or a new approach to rhythm. Discovery is so so so important. Without it, I would probably disengage. Part of the reason for this is that music is by nature ephemeral – you can never recreate anything exactly the same way twice. You sing a melody and it’s gone, time carries it away. So as soon as I complete a song or a record, I try to let go of it. Some elements stick, but I believe that whatever comes back to you is all that’s worth keeping. If by being ourselves we can illuminate or expand what passes for beautiful/interesting in pop/music/art — there is no greater contribution I could hope to have.
Kairos is an interesting record name, meaning (loosely translated) “supreme moment” in Greek. How’d you settle on that?
CD: I’m obsessed with Latin and Greek mythology/philosophy. When I saw the word, it was instant. We’d been trying to name our record, using descriptors like “time outside of time” or “filmy, diaphanous, hypnotic”. It hit me and that’s usually how I make all the big decisions: from the gut.
Do you have a “supreme moment” of your career thus far?
God, I hope not! I hope it’s still on its way.
What was the recording process like for Kairos?
CD: We did the tracking in our friend Alexis Gideon’s basement studio (in Portland). The set-up was relatively simple. Alexis and I did all the drum programming there, and we used one mic for everything. We were really psyched to make a high fidelity record using lo-fi equipment. Just ’cause you don’t have much doesn’t mean you can’t make things sound lush, like a million dolla$ [sic]. We recorded for the entire summer of 2009, and mixing took a month or two. We took our time, it was the most time I’ve spent on a record to date. The writing took about 6 months of intensive preparation, so I kind of lived within Kairos for most of last year.
Shawn, are you classically trained like Casey? What’s the dynamic like between the two of you when you’re producing these songs? Do your backgrounds mesh well together?
Shawn Creeden: I am hardly “trained,” classically or otherwise. I’m self taught, for better or worse. Making music is a fundamental part of human nature — I just have to let myself do it. Sometimes it’s annoying because I haven’t taken the time to learn how to read music or transcribe or learned scales or the vocabulary, but that hasn’t stopped me yet, and I have a backlog of ideas to explore that may or may not require those things.
As far as the dynamic between Casey and I, Kairos would not exist as it does were it not the two of us working together at that exact moment, feeding ideas back and forth and solving the new challenges facing us after the move to Portland. I’m nowhere near as skilled as our previous drummer Matt, so we had to figure out how to make that most foundational part of the structure work, and I think in doing that we happened upon new sounds that we both got excited by and we ran with it. Casey and I both felt freed to make other noises besides what we had been making. Casey and Matt had a very specific longtime working/friendship relationship and I think her having to leave that behind necessarily changed how she worked. I’d always felt inadequate and extraneous beside Casey and Matt, both so obviously talented at their instruments. But now, I think the songs we are writing are allowing me to pursue my interests in rhythm and sound much more, and it is a blast.
Casey, how often do you find yourself consciously breaking that training as much as you find yourself relying on it?
CD: Maybe when I was younger I felt I needed to rebel against my training — but I think that’s a part of the conditioning that comes from study. It’s transformative, you are physically manipulating your body to correct its form. We do this with language, with dance or sports, too. I’ve always felt like my training was an asset. I don’t really spend much time relying on it, either. The whole point of classical study is to gain muscle memory — you study and you study so that way all the things you’ve learned become intrinsic. I write using a lot of what I’ve learned, but rarely do I do this consciously. It’s there so I don’t have to think about it so much. Plus, I love being able to understand the architecture of music. I’ve never felt like visualizing its infrastructure in any way diminishes its awesome beauty. I find there’s always something new to learn.
Kairos is much more electronic than previous records; what’s behind that shift?
CD: Tons of stuff. Namely, and this is not very romantic, but finances. There was no money. So we had to get creative when I was writing these songs in order to flesh them out. I decided to program the drums. In the past, we might have hired a drummer to come in, but this time we decided to keep personnel down to the three of us. We couldn’t afford studio time so for cohesion and practicality, I learned how to record from Alexis. A lot the songs are built first around loops we created, and stem out from there. With electronics, you have a whole arsenal of sounds at your disposal. Sky is pretty much the limit.
SC: I am not a metronome. Our previous drummer was amazing and I cannot even come close to doing what he does effortlessly. So as we were practicing and writing, the drums became sparser, then they became electronic as we started using drums pads with sounds we liked, then they became programmed during the recording phase, allowing Casey and I to both focus on the melodic and textural things that interest us more in terms of performance.
What’s the typical songwriting process for you? Is there such a thing?
CD: Songs tend to happen to me when I let them. Kairos happened to me. Melodies seek me out, usually when I’m supposed to be doing something else that requires concentration: driving/walking/running/cooking. Then I have to stop everything as much as I can and loll the melody around in my head. I never write with instruments around, though I used to when I was younger. I find songs have more interesting colors when I’m unfettered by instrumentation early in a song’s infancy. Then I figure out what the song needs, and if it requires me to learn something new (like drum programming) then I have to do everything I can to get it there. My imagination is my dictum.
Did that process change as the sound evolved in the making of Kairos?
CD: I still do things approximately the same way. I’ve refined elements of it, which is a natural part of accruing experience, I guess. My imagination sets the tone, and everything else is about unlocking those ideas and giving them what they need to see them through. It was just more thorough than it’s been, because for this I wanted to produce it myself. These songs were more unadulterated, there was no translating. Every idea was pretty much as I imagined it from its conception. Having Alexis there to help me with logistics when I had questions, and he’s got a sensational mind. He and I work tandem in production, and it’s super fun. Probably that’s been the most significant change: allowing other people to get in the room earlier on. I would let Shawn hear a song in its half-finished state. I never used to do that.
Shawn, what’s the biggest thing you’d say you’ve learned from Casey? And Casey, what about you from Shawn?
SC: Hmmm. tough question. I think we’re both learning a lot as this whole thing goes along. I come from a decidedly DIY background, and so a lot of the business/industry side of things is of new/no concern to me. So I think with Casey I’m learning how to navigate and deal with those aspects. slowly.
CD: I think my favorite thing about Shawn is how he sees things. He comes at music from a very tactile, visually driven background, and I’m always learning new ways to look at things from him. He also makes great homemade pasta. Nice post-rehearsal meals.
What’s your live philosophy? Performance (showmanship, I suppose I mean) first? Music first? Do you feel pretty at home on stage?
CD: I put the songs first. We like to dim the lights, gather everyone close, and we try to create an atmosphere for them to be immersed in for those 45 minutes. I want them to be transported somewhere new. Does the music hit them? Is it cinematic? I love performing songs live, it’s my favorite way to experience new music.
White Hinterland plays DC9 with Dosh on April 25…
… and at 529 in Atlanta again with Dosh on April 28.