Elliott BROOD Ventures Into New, Undiscovered Countries

Tuesday, 04 August 2009

Technology has proven to be a double-edged sword as time wears on and it further encroaches upon the business practices of the music industry. For a band, improvements in recording technology have made it possible to keep costs down to an absolute minimum; record complete albums on an entry-level laptop and digitally distribute it via a web site that the band itself maintains. In some cases, record labels, with their overblown marketing budgets and convenient-for-the-label-only pricing/payment schemes can be removed from the equation completely.The internet and fan-designed webzines have allowed for even the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of a band, the music they make and the process by which they make it to be dissected so small that the pieces can resemble the component atoms that make up a band. The second edge to such glorious advances is that many aspects of the business have become that much more clinical; with all the advances, the temptation for a band is to attempt to make albums of such adamantine clarity and flawless construct that they ostensibly remove all of the humanity from their work. Art of any sort is a very human endeavor and so carries the same flaws and  foibles as those that create it, and removing that also removes the personality of the work. The result is like a lab that examines pressure; musicians will continually fine-tune and put ever more pressure on both themselves and their work until they do come up with diamonds but, with those crystals, the value on those that are fabricated do not compare to those that occur naturally. In that way, whether artists realize it or not, many of them are rendering themselves obsolete in their quest to produce the perfect product because it doesn't leave any room for growth or imagination – those things that the average kid, laying on the floor in his bedroom with headphones on late at night and dreaming of the time when it might be his turn – that seed future generations of creation.

Happily, as high-tech and sterile as some quadrants of music are becoming, there are others that revel in the possibilities that tradition affords and Elliott BROOD is one. Rather than compulsively remove every perceived flaw from their work, as singer Mark Sasso explains, Elliott BROOD revels in the discovery that such flaws or mistakes might afford; in short, they just let go and it has done nothing but earn them praise and accolades – particularly with their newest album, Mountain Meadows.

Bill Adams vs. Mark Sasso, singer for Elliott Brood

MS: Hello?

BA: Hello, may I speak to Mark Sasso please?

MS: Speaking.

BA: Hey Mark, it's Bill Adams calling.

MS: Hey Bill, how are you?

BA: Very well thank you. How are things with you? Obviously you're at home right now, so you haven't left for tour yet. Are these upcoming shows part of a tour or are they just one-off dates?

MS: Well, it's not exactly a one-off, we're playing some other shows around the same time but it's festival season so it's a lot of weekend shows. Summertime is like that a lot, but especially now as it's winding down a bit there's a little more space in between so it's a little easier to manage.

BA: So, how has Mountain Meadows been received?

MS: It's been great actually, it's been really well-received. If you go by reviews and Juno nominations and now Polaris Prize nominations, it's been a really, really good year for us. The record has been out about a year now, but it's still going strong now. We're about to release it in the States and it's starting to build up again because of that now. It's just been a really great thing for us; and pretty gratifying too because you never know when you're putting out a record; you kind of love it, but you never know if people are going to like it as much as you do. We've been lucky enough that people have really liked it though, so it's been really good.

BA: Was there that kind of inkling as you were putting the album out in Canada? I know you were saying that it's about to hit in the States now, but did you have a feeling that this kind of response was sort of destined for the record? I mean, Polaris Prize and all those sorts of things are one thing – this is going to sound like self-defeating heresy – but it's critic bullshit. I would think that the better gauge for a band would be fan response and this abum has obviously gotten that too….

MS: You're right [chuckling], it's all pretty superfluous. If you really break it down, we create music that we love and I often love at it as being selfish because I'm not creating it for anyone else, but if someone else likes it that's great. You can look at those accolades and appreciate it but, at the end of the day, the reward is putting out music that you think is good and regular people like it. It's not the critics that matter so much.

BA: Yeah – I can totally understand it when any band says that the crowd in front of them at a show is the more gratifying response. If they're digging it, that's the thing that feels best. That would make sense because it's more tangible and exhilarating than some critic saying you're great.

MS: Oh for sure! Playing live is pretty much the be all and end all for me. I do like recording because you get to make art in one sense, but there's nothing like getting to actually perform it live.

BA: Was there that sort of inkling beforehand? Like, “This? This is going to make a great show.”

MS: I think so – you know? I never really thought about it, but I don't see why not. We were really proud of what we had made and we did feel like the songs would translate well live. We kind of already had an idea though because we usually play a lot of the songs we write live as much as a year – or maybe even more than that – before we record them in the studio. We like to road test a lot of things just to get a feeling and let the get firmed up and then go in and record them. In that way, I think we had a good inkling of it from the get-go but you never know exactly before you get it down and make it.

BA: I can understand that. I mean, you can feel like you have a really good batch of songs on your hands and that, yes, you're making it in such a way that makes you happy, but even so, it must be nice to know that you've got some critical and public praise behind you because it means somebody's paying attention.

MS: Oh, for sure.

BA: As far as writing the songs and getting them down on tape, what were the differences that you knew you wanted to make walking in? Most bands have that sort of conversation beforehand….

MS: I don't really think we had that much of a conversation about it, more what we talked about and were concerned with was getting into the right room for the right song; like finding places that had just the right natural reverberation or the sound of the room just lent itself nicely to the song. We did go out of our way to look for that. We recorded in a bunch of different places – six or seven in total I think. One of them was in a town hall in Wayne, Alberta – we recorded there for three days – and one was a little cabin at the base of Mount Robinson. We might not have recorded compete songs in those places, but we recorded a lot of sounds; we did a whole bunch of different things in different places to get the vibes for the songs rather than talking about it too much. I've said it before in other interviews, but it still holds up – we let mistakes happen as opposed to beating all of what might be considered flaws out and sometimes that can be the best thing because it might take the music in a slightly different direction and if you talk about it too much, you run the risk of killing that spirit. Sometimes it's just best to let it happen.

BA: So were a lot of the effects very much incidental? As far as playing to the room is concerned, I suspect that must have been one of the desires….

MS: Oh for sure! In some places, we'd just set up one mic and have the room sounds bleeding in as we played. We were sort of using the room as an instrument in that way; we did it on the last album too, but I think we had more time to play and we took advantage of it a lot more on this album. I think we did anyway, and I think that helped the album a lot.

BA: Now, because you were doing the sessions in a series of different locations, I assume it must have been a god awful pain in the ass to mix.

MS: Actually, it was great mixing it! It wasn't hard at all. When we were done, we took it all to John Critchley's [formerly of 13 Engines –ed] place and mixed it all on his board. We all mixed it together and manually worked the faders as the songs went along and got exactly how we wanted it to go and working it old-style as opposed to pre-programming everything. That's not to say that we didn't do little fades and things, but we really wanted to do a live mix.

BA: That's cool, so you were using the mixing desk as an instrument.

MS: Yeah – it was really cool. Those things are coming into demand now; I heard that someone bought the desk that Fleetwood Mac did Rumors on recently; I think the logic is that if so-and-so was able to coax these particular sounds out using this board, it should be possible to do again and they want to because they really liked those sounds on someone else's record. It's still technology, but those are still instruments and still have an effect on the overall outcome of the work.

BA: In that particular case, doing something like that would, I assume, conjure a different emotional state as you went along too. Was that another thing you were looking for when you made Mountain Meadow? Was some sort of consistent emotional thread – or rather attaining one – a concern while you were making the record?

MS: I don't think we were looking for emotional connections other than really loving the songs and they do sort of fit together for a theme. Emotionally, if they're good songs, they're going to tug on you anyway. What you hear on the album is the songs that did that best; there were a few that didn't make it on the album and even the last one that does appear, “Miss You,” almost didn't because we didn't think it was going to fit in the grand scheme of things. Really, it didn't fit anywhere other than on the end; it gave the album a sort of a rebirth. Our drummer, Steve [Steve Pitkin –ed], said while we were putting it together that that last song was the one that, after it played out, made him want to go back and listen to it all again which is actually a really nice thing to have. Without it, the album would have ended with “The Body” which is a really sad song.

BA: I can understand that, and it makes sense – even on the hardest end to an album, I would assume that one would want to leave it at least a hair open so that, while you may not necessarily want to, it would be possible to pick up there the next time out. If you close the book on it completely, it seems very final and that might make the next beginning a little awkward. I'm not sure if that makes any sense….

MS: It does make sense, but I don't think we've ever thought that far ahead [laughing]. I'm pretty sure we all think of this album as being this album as opposed to thinking about how it may play into the next one. That's kind of the fun of making records – for me anyway – that you don't know what the future holds or what songs are going to be on the next album or anything like that. In this case, we had an idea of Mountain Meadows being the name of the album and the name also conjures up other images but there's also the story behind it and that's kind of what we played with. We sort of put it together as a novel; we set it up to unfold as a novel would with these songs, but we didn't plan ahead or intend it to necessarily lead into the next one or anything. Iwe never know what we're going to write next.

BA: How long was this one in the making altogether?

MS: It was a stop-and-start kind of thing over about a year and a little bit but, once we really got down to it, it was probably about three months – when we really started to work at it.

BA: Really? I would have assumed longer….

MS: No, it was about a year and then, when we really started to work on it every day, it was about three months. It was good that it took as long as it did too because there were three or four songs that came about during the making of it that probably wouldn't have been on the album otherwise.

BA: Oh really? Were any of them written in advance or was the band writing in the studio a lot?

MS: We don't write in the studio. Not to say that will never happen, but I don't really feel comfortable doing that. We usually tend to write on our own and then bring what we've got to the band and then we work on it that way.

BA: Oookay. I see. So what happens next? You've got a few shows coming up to sort of close out the summer festival season, what's next?

MS: After these shows are done, we'll do another Canadian National tour as well as the record release in the States so that will work out to quite a few weeks on the road. I'd say that will be what we're doing for the most part: from September right up to almost December, playing almost every night. I can't wait actually, I'm excited to release the album in the States and see what it does down there.

BA: Is the first one to be released in the States?

MS: Yeah, it'll be the first one to be released properly in the States. Ambassador wasn't released on any label, it was just sort of sent out.

BA: Now this is a year after the first release, and I've always been kind of curious: you've danced the dance with this album already but, now that it's basically starting the whole cycle over again somewhere else, does it feel like a change is in the air? I mean, it's your first proper release in the States, presumable you'll be supporting in the States. Does it feel like something's changing for Elliott BROOD or is it simply the same thing over?

MS: Well, you know, we already have a year of the album under our belts, but it feels like we're doing it all over again. Like, while we've played these songs already several times over, for whomever we play them now, they'll be brand new. It makes it really different for us because it's a different audience; it's like we're going to battle again and working to win people over with your live show and doing what you love. I really like doing that; it's like putting yourself to the test and it's pretty fun to do that.

BA: So what else am I very obviously forgetting to ask about? What else would you like to see in this article?

MS: Well, this is kind of interesting, people have been asking us for years about it, but something's finally going to happen now. People have told us for a couple of years that our music would work really well with film and have asked us if we've ever considered doing a soundtrack and things like that. Funny enough, that just fell into our laps; there's a Canadian feature that we got asked to work on the soundtrack for. The writer approached us three or for months ago with the film and we were all really captivated by it so we agreed to work with them. They already had five or six of our songs in mind and we also added another four songs that we wrote and worked on to make it happen. That was pretty great and definitely was a great experience; something we'd like to do again if we can. We were already writing the songs that we added but, in this case, it was kind of nice to force ourselves to write for something else in specific apart from anything we would normally do.

BA: That's really cool, now, are those for songs complete? Or are they more incidental score?

MS: I think it's a half-and-half split, some are score and some are soundtrack. It's pretty great though, the film is called Grown Up Movie Star and takes place out in Newfoundland. It's a kind of a family drama, but it's really well written. I'm not sure when its theatrical debut is going to be, but I suspect it'll be soon. They might change the title – those sorts of things happen all the time – but that's the title they're working with right now. That happens for us too actually; some song titles change over time. Sometimes when we first start working on a song, it'll have a working title just to call it something and then it might change later to more accurately reflect the ideas of the songs.


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"Write It All Down For You" from Mountain Meadows by Elliott BROOD.


Mountain Meadows
comes out as a domestic release in the US on October 6, 2009 on Ryko/ADA Records. It's currently available here on Amazon as an import. 

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