Sightings’ 14-year long history might be thought of in Car Talk-qua-Three Stooges terms: a trio of grease monkeys go in on a lemon together for the thrill of fine-tuning its engine, then discovers that tweaking the engine’s innards and fluids to produce variations on a sputtering, splintering theme is infinitely more satisfying than cruising the strip in a purring, detailed Datsun could ever be. The Sightings scree-knell is noise as jerky industrial clangor and interior-monologue drive-by, and most of the time, it sounds like nothing else in this fallen world.
Sightings, Michigan Haters, and Absolutes — the NYC-based trio’s earliest albums — coughed and crashed like an abused beater-car’s extended death throes. If the inverted pulse of 2004’s Arrived in Gold suggested that singer/guitarist Mark Morgan, bassist Richard Hoffman, and drummer Jon Lockie had their up-on-blocks beaut running smoothly, 2006’s End Times insisted the thing was in flames, 2007’s Through The Panama found them wrenching bitter, hammered melodies from it, and then 2010’s City of Straw croaked, creaked, sliced, gasped.
Just as Sightings seemed lost in a static-blizzard of its own making, new LP Terribly Well (Dais Records) ushered in a new era or phase we might term Sightings ambient — foreshadowed with 2011’s Future Accidents — wherein the Lockie/Hoffman groove congealed into a telepathic, two-headed monster, Morgan’s clangor contracted as his asides grew more withering, and No Neck Blues Band’s Pat Murano chipped in on keyboards. The new tone is more rinsed malevolence than the biblical-plague bum’s rush chaos Sightings made its bones on, albeit retaining the morse-code distortion and caustic electronic smoke of old.
In the weeks leading up to the April 1st release of Terribly Well and a subsequent European tour, we touched base the band via email to talk art, their songwriting process, and why bands should pay for their own studio time.
Before we start talking about the new record, let’s rewind to Future Accidents, particularly “Public Remains.” In your decade plus as a band, you’ve had plenty of stylistic shifts and sidles, but this one, the sort of looped, long-form deconstruction, felt startling to me. When I reviewed that album, I used the phrase “Sightings ambient.” How did that song come to life? Pat Murano from No Neck Blues Band played on that song, right?
Richard Hoffman: I guess if you’re privy, like we are, to our long history of jams, this doesn’t seem like such a different move. It’s just the first time one like it made a record. We always try to do some improvising in the studio, and most records have something that at least started as a jam. We have been inviting Pat to play with us off and on for a while now. He’s on 75 percent of the new LP.
Jon Lockie: “Public Remains” was a studio jam for the City Of Straw recording session. Future Accidents came out of what didn’t fit on City Of Straw, though it fits together well on its own. “The Knotted House” is one of my favorite recorded tunes of recent years. As far as “Public Remains” goes, having Pat in the mix makes the band approach playing differently — meaning, “play less.”
Have you guys considered asking Pat to join the band? His inclusion had fostered this minimalist approach — of playing less, and distinct in its way from the minimalism of Arrived In Gold — and the resulting textures of “Public Remains” definitely color Terribly Well.
JL: My sense is that Pat wouldn’t have time to practice with the band all the time. And anyway, the trio has its own strengths and working with Pat then allows us to do something different. Playing less has always been a goal of the band, not to get too busy. I guess what I meant was that adding Pat is another approach of this. But it’s true, some different things come out of playing with Pat.
The music on Terribly Well kind of lends itself to some absurdist house-construction metaphors, in the sense that the keyboards, electronics, and guitars gel into this psychotropic facade that the vocals surf as the whole careens around the bones of the structure — but then the structure is just staunch. I mean, the lock-step of the bass and drums on this album are sick and fascinating in a way they haven’t been before, unless I was paying more attention to the high end on previous records; the rhythms feel almost fused. Did you approach that aspect of the songwriting any differently?
RH: I don’t think there’s anything dramatically different about the approach to the rhythm section, but I do think we did a better job of recording the drums and maybe that’s showing the relationship between them more. Jon and I have been doing this poly-rhythmic thing for a long time. Maybe we got better at it?
I still think some of the rhythms we play against one another are failed experiments to some extent. They work in a way, but aren’t completely pleasing or right on or whatever. But that’s part of what we do, try out some things that may or may not be working, that ride the line of what most people think of as harmonious or rhythmically sound.
Sometimes those “failures” make it all the way to the records. Sometimes we play them for a while and throw them away.
If you had to come up with a ratio of rehearsal-space ideas to used-on-album ideas for Sightings, what would it be?
RH: We throw a lot of stuff away. I can’t put a number on it, but we have never been afraid to say that a song we have been playing — even if it’s been a live song for a while — is not that good, and to let it go. Also, we don’t always agree on what’s good or bad.
There’s been a couple tunes I have really loved and just couldn’t sell Mark on, so they didn’t make the cut for a record. Records, especially for a band that shares power, involve a lot of compromise. And there’s a third category, too: good stuff that just doesn’t get recorded right, whether sound or performance, and can’t be released.
There was a 20-minute jam that was a huge part of our set for a couple years – really a defining piece based on the amount of commentary it received -but by the time we did it in the studio, it was past its performance peak, and we definitely did not get the sounds right. I’m still hoping someone will come out of the woodwork with a good live recording of that one.
Where did “Terribly Well” come from as an album title? Since I got this album and started familiarizing myself with it, I’ve tended to think of it specifically as “the new Sightings album,” and then I remember that it has a title, and it’s startling, but also appropriate. It feels very British, like something somebody would say during Downton Abbey or a Bond movie, making a really rumpled face, where if you didn’t know them you wouldn’t be able to say whether they were happy or out-and-out disgusted.
Mark Morgan: I’d prefer to think of Tyrion Lannister using this phrase.
JL: Thanks for the Downton Abbey reference. I’m a fan of Michelle Dockery in The Hogfather.
RH: “Terribly Well” was the original name of the last song on the record. It was originally a jam we did with Tom Smith, and that was his name for it. So the rumpled face you’re thinking of is his. The actual lyric was “Neither you nor your lies have aged terribly well.”
The world kinda needs Sightings to record with Tom Smith more.
JL: We record with Tom when we can, but he does live in Germany.
RH: There will be more. It’s unfortunate we can’t spend a little more time together to work on something. I feel like we never really get past the initial stage of jamming – just having something to play at all — to a place where we find how that combination of people works best together.
Tell me about the cover art. It makes me feel like I’ve been staring at the cover of an issue of Omni or Heavy Metal too long.
RH: My friend Chris Murdoch did it. He does a lot of different stuff, but collage is one of his main mediums. This wound up being slightly collaborative, as we asked him to do something a little more open and minimal than some of his other stuff and he wound up getting into it and doing this cover. It’s perfect for us, suggestive, but without any specific meaning. You’d have to ask him for more details. He’ll probably be psyched by your reaction, though.
What were the circumstances under which Terribly Well was recorded?
JL: We recorded with Jason LaFarge at Seizures Palace in Brooklyn. We’ve learned a bit each time we’ve done a studio record about what to try the next time to tweak the sound, so we brought some new ideas to this session. The original idea was to do an all-tape record, but after looking at the options, it seemed prohibitively expensive and hard to edit in the end. We do a lot of improvising/jamming in the studio sessions, so it helps to have some ease of editing with digital. So it was recorded to digital via two-inch tape to give some warmth.
RH: We paid for it. That’s the dirty secret. Surprise, records cost money. Someone has to pay it. It worked better taking responsibility for it, making our own choices and not having to feel like we were obligated to someone in some way when the process was over. We are happier with the end product, and the money only ran out when we decided it did. Plus we recorded two records at once, so we made the most of the situation.
Was there a point where you thought about releasing the entire session as a double album?
RH: It will always be a double in my mind, but releasing it that way didn’t make financial sense for us or the label. But the double was the artistic statement to be made. Again, compromise is a big part of record-making.
The bass line on “Bundled” is sublime. That sucker is a work of art.
RH: I am always worried about the funk factor when I write lines. I love a lot of music that has it, but since bass to tends to stylize music so much, I usually try to avoid stylistic markers as much as possible. Meaning, I generally don’t drop reggae lines or funky blues riffs, or whatever. But those elements are still a part of what I do.
It’s funny: Mark generally encourages the funkiness, but I am usually holding out for something else, some personal mission of my own I can’t quite put into words. “Bundled” is a case where the funk is let pretty loose. Still, the song only really came together after the sections where I just ride the E-string were added. Minimalism saves the day!
You guys have a European tour on the horizon. What are the most important things a musician should pack for a month-long trek over, under, and through the Old World?
JL: My electronic drum gear — the stuff I can’t rent in Europe – mostly fills my quota for the weight limit on airlines. Some simple items you would think are easy to get in Europe are really not that easy to get. I’ve run out of drum sticks and duct tape in Europe before, and it seems like it’s really better to import those things. A set of drum sticks in Hanover (the cheapest pair) was $14; a roll of duct tape in Prague was $1.
MM: You have to remember all the little personal upkeep things like Q-tips, shaving cream, nail slippers. You get off the highway in France and want Blistix or something, and it’s going to be like five Euros.
Was there ever something that was super-essential that you just couldn’t find anywhere?
“Yellow” is so alien and interstitial; it’s like a chemistry experiment on the brink of going wrong, but it never really goes too wrong. It bounces around in malevolent holding pattern until it’s time for “Better Fastened” (https://soundcloud.com/evradio/sightings-better-fastened) to lurch into whistling-kettle focus.
MM: This might be my favorite thing on the record; Richard’s bass stuff is pretty great on this one.
JL: “Yellow” was a one-off jam in the studio with the band and Pat. Though it’s been shortened in this version, there is almost no editing within the track. That was how we played it, the first time. “Better Fastened” also started as a studio jam with Pat, and we re-recorded it later after cleaning it up a bit.
Mark, have you ever tried your hand at writing fiction, or poetry?
MM: With the exception of a Thomas Friedman op-ed that might accidentally enter my field of vision when perusing the New York Times, I don’t really read fiction, so me writing it would be a massive, massive mistake. You’ll find me in the History section at the bookstore. Lastly, I hate poetry.
Going back to some points about minimalism and playing less earlier in this interview, do you guys feel like you played too much, or to excess, in the first years of Sightings?
JL: I think the same minimalism applies to the early stuff. My beats are pretty sparse, though maybe more in a way that hardcore drumming or John French in Captain Beefheart’s band are “minimal.” The second record from this recording session – yet to be released – has more assaultive jams than Terribly Well. Like Richard mentioned, this was really a double record.
RH: Believe it or not, the first three records were much more minimal than our newer stuff. It’s just the way it was recorded that makes it sound like it does: simpler ideas all around. A lot of straight drums and no guitar loops. The issue of minimalism is more recent.
As we all got better at playing and developed our personal styles more, we also had to remember the value of things like one-note parts. You gotta put the Neil Young back into the Yes.