Moogfest Preview: Exitmusic, With Film
For fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire who learned that one of the show’s recurring female characters was releasing a debut record this year, let’s be clear: Exitmusic, the band Aleksa Palladino — a.k.a., Angela Darmody — fronts with her husband Devon Church, is no starlet vanity project, and Passage is no normal debut.
In point of fact, Passage is the second full-length Palladino and Church recorded, but it’s the full-length debut for Exitmusic. Unlike 2008’s Decline of the West, which pulled together elements of trip-hop and post-punk, Passage is informed by the likes of Radiohead’s Kid A, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Warp Records’ electronic music. Together with Palladino’s distinctive voice (her mother’s a noted opera singer), the results are atmospheric and cinematic, but tied together by pop songwriting beneath the textures.
Reaction since the March release has been impressive, with the band’s profile has increased considerably. Shuffle’s John Schacht chatted with Palladino over the phone from the couple’s home in New York City, where they were joined later by Church.
Shuffle: It’s six or seventh months down the road since the release of the debut, but what has the positive feedback about it meant to you guys?
Aleksa Palladino: The reaction’s been really good and supportive. It’s been very well-received critically and then by people we meet at shows and stuff. But it’s funny still how long it takes for something to get out there, for more and more people to hear it.
Shuffle: Well, that seems to go along with the music itself — it sounds like you guys take great care in the making of it, which usually results in rewarding listens down the line…
AP: Definitely. The music that we’ve always loved, once you fall in love with it, it becomes a part of your life. And you listen to it over and over again. Just by nature we’re that type of listener. There are probably 10 to 20 albums that will always be in constant rotation for us. So it’s not like it was even a conscious goal to write something that you’d want to revisit, it’s just where we get inspiration from. That’s the kind of music that we want to make — an album that’s dense enough to need to listen to over and over again to understand more and more of what’s going on with it.
Shuffle: The ones that take longer to unfold seem to last longer, don’t they?
AP: Yeah, I feel like they have all these little hidden gems, and every time you go back you understand one more word or hear one more thing come out.
Shuffle: Tell me about the title Passage — this is one of those records where the record really fits its title and vice-versa. But what did passage mean to you guys? If it refers to time, are you talking about eons, or minutes? Or is it a destination? A rite of passage? All of the above?
AP: I think it’s all of that. I guess it’s a rite of passage from a personal standpoint; it’s a really personal record. The themes deal a lot with our own past, a lot of our past history in that record, and a lot of things that you could never resolve from our own childhood and adolescence. So it’s definitely trying to make sense of all that stuff, and then let it go. Well, not let it go, but make something out of it and see it outside of yourself. So it’s sort of a passage into an adulthood that’s maybe a little more free of what’s happened to you.
Shuffle: In your imagery you keep things abstract, but the sky seems to feature quite prominently in many of these songs and of course you guys met on a night where a meteor shower played a key role…
AP: Yeah, it just happens that the night we met there happened to be a meteor shower. We were on a train and went to the observation car and tried to watch it but it was like plastic glass and you couldn’t see a thing.
Shuffle: Yeah, I’ve been in those – ‘hey, can you open the sunroof?’ Anyway, is the sky a conscious element in giving your music its cinematic feel?
AP: I don’t know how conscious it is. I mean, the record plays a lot with these sorts of grand, natural, very earthly, or out-of-time themes. So there’s lots of sky, there’s lots of sea — lots of these things that are so much bigger than us and our simple experiences that, on one hand, makes you feel connected to anything alive in general, but at the same time manages to make you feel very isolated (laughs). I don’t know, it’s this weird little dance for us, we’re always trying to feel connected to life, even our own life and our experiences instead of feeling isolated from our own lives and experiences. Trying to make pieces fit and feel a part of something bigger.
Shuffle: The desert has that effect on some people – does it work like that on you?
AP: I’ve always been afraid of the desert because I feel like it’s going to want all my moisture (laughs).
Shuffle: I read where you know the lyrics and stories are working when you’re kind of ‘breathless from the rush’ of what’s going on — which songs on the record are emblematic of that?
AP: In the process of writing them, well, we write and record at the same time, and do everything at home. So the moment the idea arrives, it’s recorded. So it’s this intense process anyway of trying to find it, then finding it, and then trying to record it right away. It’s all in the moment. So that would be why I sometimes get very overwhelmed by what’s happening in the moment. But definitely the song “Passage,” and “The Cold,” when we were recording vocals and finding words at the same time, they began to overwhelm me a little bit because I don’t really sit down with an idea of “I want to write a song about this.” And there’s always a point when you realize what you’re writing about and where it’s coming from and that can sometimes really floor you because it’s maybe not stuff that you would want to deal with in your day-to-day life but it comes out through your work.
Shuffle: I read where that process, when it was just you, made it hard to finish songs, and that it was Devon that helps put a song structure on them. Is that still the case?
AP: Yes, definitely. We’re very different in that way. I like to explode creativity and then it’s like I need to walk away, go do something else. And he’s so good at really seeing something through and making sure that it works and that it’s there. Every time I think a song is done, ‘alright, we’re done,’ he’s got another few hundred hours (laughs). So, yeah, I still to this day don’t think I’d have finished any songs if we weren’t writing together.
Shuffle: The music is so atmospheric and cinematic, I’m wondering how working in film has affected the songs?
AP: Yeah, we do think very visually. We both love film and they feel like such a similar type of canvas to me, like sound and visual in that way to me are more similar than not similar because you’re basically trying to tell a story without telling people what it is. So, yeah, I think we definitely think visually.
Shuffle: Does acting, or the ability to inhabit another character, play a role?
AP: I think it helps me, but I don’t feel that, at least right now, like it’s inhabiting another character. I feel it’s knowing how to access places in you that hold these sort of deep truths about yourself, and knowing how to communicate from that place. It’s not so much me becoming someone else, it’s me revealing something even to myself.
Shuffle: You have a very distinct voice, does Devon take that into account when he writes the actual music?
AP: Why don’t you ask him?
Devon Church: It works in different ways, but I like to let the vocals lead the mix, it kind of dictates what’s going to be appropriate — it’s the most important instrument in the mix. A lot of times we’ll start with a track as well, and she’ll lay vocals over it, but then the vocals will still affect the final outcome of that track.
Shuffle: Do you guys use a lot of Moog in the mix or are you going some other route?
DC: Unfortunately, we had kind of a micro-budget for the last album, so there’s definitely Moog-type sounds, but they’re all software instruments. Hopefully for the next one we’ll have some actual analog synths involved. That’d be great.
Shuffle: Were there guitar players that you paid closer attention to and who informed your playing, which is so textural?
DC: Definitely there are, but I never really had guitar heroes. I never really considered myself much of a guitar player. It’s the only instrument I ever knew how to play, but I’m almost trying to make it not sound too much like a guitar, or at least like a cliché of what a guitar sounds like. Lately, I’m not even writing on guitar, trying to use the keyboard.
Shuffle: Aleksa mentioned that you have this ability to come to the music and pull it together, whereas she’s this explosion of creativity. Do you see it that way, too?
DC: When we first started writing together it was sort of black and white like that. She had these four-track recordings, almost all of them about a minute long. And they were all really good. But I was like the opposite. I was traveling before that so all I had was an acoustic guitar so I’d write these scaled-down four-minute songs, so I think we just complemented each other in that respect because she’s great with melody and I guess I’m better with the rhythmic stuff. But Aleksa’s also great with the atmospherics, too. We’re both definitely involved in the production, of course.
Shuffle: I did want to ask you about the videos, since you guys really seem to put a lot in them. And it looks like you’ve found a good partner in director Will Joines…
AP: We met Will a couple of years ago, through my mother, actually, he’s the kind of person you meet and instantly notice that he’s a man out of time; he’s young, our age, but his depths of understanding film and how to tell a story are just so wise beyond his years. You sense that the minute you start talking to him about film and music and all this stuff. So initially we just felt this was the right person to try something with. So for the first video he did, “The Hours,” he just sort of visually….well, it’s so funny, when you’re starting to put visuals to your songs, it’s pretty daunting. You don’t want the visuals to take the listener to a place where the song doesn’t want to go. Well, you don’t want the visuals to become stronger than the song on its own. But because so many people see things through YouTube now for the first time, you want the visuals to really match and really complement. You want them to be striking, but let the music still speak. And I think Will really just knows how to do that, how to make something that’s interesting to watch and at the same time it feels emotional without a heavy storyline or plot. The videos are just as impressionistic as the music. And I’m not really into narrative music videos. Maybe I will be someday, but I’m not right now.