Jon Barthmus of Philadelphia pop group Sun Airway (who open for M83 tomorrow and Wednesday night at Hammerstein Ballroom) has a hard time keeping things simple. When he started conceptualizing the new Sun Airway album Soft Fall, out this week on Dead Oceans, he imagined something much more minimal than the band’s elaborate 2010 debut, Nocturne Of Exploded Crystal Chandelier. He failed, but in a good way.
“Maybe it’s sparse just because I didn’t use everything on the planet,” says Barthmus, chuckling. “With every song I start, I say to myself, ‘This will be the one that’s really sparse and mellow, and this will be the quiet spot on the album.’ But then it ends up being the biggest, loudest song. I start adding things, and I fall in love with how it sounds. I always gravitate back to these really dense, Wall of Sound recordings, and Soft Fall ended up being an epic, maximalist thing.”
Barthmus self-thwarted his plans for sparsity the second he decided to build the new songs with samples from classical music recordings. He’d go to the library, load up on CDs by Brahms, Mahler and Shostakovich, among others and then rip, chop, loop and layer them. He then had an arranger turn the samples into sheet music, and brought a string section into the studio to perform the pieces. “I think it’s a valid way of constructing string arrangements,” says Barthmus. “And I ended up finding these very curious interplays of melodies.”
Merging with the already gleaming major-key synths, the strings provide grandeur and romantic swirl. They also effectively confuse the listener’s comportment toward space and time. The album title, says Barthmus, is meant to capture a state of weightlessness. And floating moments certainly abound, especially on the closing track, “Over My Head” (which, Barthmus says, isn’t a Fleetwood Mac reference), as pulsing strings and twinkling synths gradually rise into a melodious tidal wave.
Though he’s never been there, Versailles was Barthmus’ main source of inspiration for Soft Fall. Namely Takashi Murakami’s 2010 exhibit at the Palace of Versailles, where the Japanese artist’s contemporary, colorful and absurd sculptures and paintings were juxtaposed with the towering opulence of the royal chateau where Louis XV used to sneak his many mistresses through secret passageways and chug potions in gold-plated rooms.
“Murakami put weird things in an old environment,” explains Barthmus. “I also wanted to create a universe of my own where surreal things occur; a bizarre version of Versailles with ornate palaces, objects and people floating around, and the rules of physics not applying. The palace walls and roofs are living and breathing. Everything is alive. Most importantly, I wanted people in that universe to not think anything weird was happening. I took these surrealist elements and made them more literal. When I talk about someone turning into glass, it’s not metaphorical. They really do turn to glass.”