ARTICLE BY MYCHELLE PETERSON
PHOTOS BY MOH AZIMA AND SCOTT IRVINE
Halfway through their tour with Interpol, Calla stopped into Schubas in Chicago for an intimate Sunday night show. With the band playing only a few solo dates, they didn’t know if anyone would even show up. Early in the evening, The Scenestar got a chance to catch up with the Brooklyn trio about the current tour, other projects and the evolution of the music industry.
SS: Thanks very much for taking the time to chat with us. Tell me how things are going with your tour with Interpol.
Peter Gannon: Great! [Laughs] You know, for us, it was kind of like a no-brainer. It’s a built in crowd, and the music is very compatible. And they’re good friends of ours, so it’s great.
SS: I read an interview where you described how each album has a starting point or a frame of reference. In that interview, you described 2003’s Televise as “born out of an idea of Crazy Horse in a David Lynch film remixed by Company Flow.” So… [Everyone laughs] Do you remember saying that?
Aurelio Valle: No. Wait a minute. Repeat that. Oh right, Crazy Horse. OK, yeah, sure.
SS: And you had said that all of your albums stem from some kind of reference point. So what was the reference point for Strength in Numbers?
AV: I think usually every record we did before, we kind of … we’d come up with a few ideas like that. It helped guide the record, you know? But the interesting thing about Strength in Numbers is that we actually had a back catalog to inspire us, as opposed to looking for outside inspiration. I mean, granted there’s always outside inspiration. You’re always listening to your favorite bands or any music to spark something. But we wanted to combine everything we’ve ever done, and we had four records to help guide us. So that was an interesting way to work. You feel like in a weird way you’re inspiring yourself.
SS: So it sounds like it was a different process than the previous albums.
Wayne Magruder: Well, we actually went back to the way we used to make records. But instead of being [inspired by] a couple other bands or you know, it’s kind of what we’ve always done before. But trying to make all four albums into one album, you know?
SS:Yeah, you can definitely hear that.
WM: They’re all different you know? There’s an experimental album, there’s more of a rock album.
AV: We just brought in all of those elements. The ambient element, the straightforward element, everything we’ve ever done we tried to make into one record. It’s Calla in a nutshell.
SS: What impact if any—positive or negative—did having your songs featured in something as popular as The O.C. and One Tree Hill have on the band? Did it impact you at all?
AV: Not in the same way that it did for someone like The Walkmen. I think for us it was … I mean, people were definitely aware. They would come up to us at shows and just say they’d heard our music here or there. I don’t know. Maybe “impact” isn’t the right word.
WM: I don’t think it got us any new fans, or lost us… [Everyone laughs]
AV: It’s hard to tell with us. We’re always just there, in the shadows…
WM: I don’t think it had much impact either way really.
SS: And that’s totally fair, you know. Maybe it’s better. It seems to have negatively impacted some bands.
AV: Yeah, you know, I think The O.C. started out really having that influence over its audience, but by the time they chose us to be on the show, it was kind of already losing its credibility. It’s sad to say, but yeah. I think that might have been the case. But who knows. I mean, it was a very pivotal scene.
SS: Yes, I know. I admit I watched it just to see the song featured.
AV: I don’t watch the show—let’s just make that clear—but I did watch that one episode with a bunch of friends who did watch the show regularly, and they were really flipping out at that moment.
SS: It was perfect for that scene. And then something was featured in One Tree Hill too, right?
AV: Yeah, um, I don’t remember what scene … I don’t know if I saw it. Yeah, I did. No, wait, I saw Veronica Mars.
SS: Oh, Veronica Mars too? So you seem to be a WB/UPN thing?
AV: Yeah, that’s Calla right there! [Everyone laughs quite a bit] Yeah, we’re, uh, working on a sitcom for them, you know … it’s gonna be like the Monkees meets…
WM: Spinal Tap?
AV: Yeah, Spinal Tap. [Everyone laughs again]
AV: I think the first band that did that was Secret Machines.
WM: The Beastie Boys did that way way back.
SS: Yeah, but Secret Machines only did it a few weeks prior to the in-store release. This is three whole months.
WM: That’s definitely interesting. I think it’s going to be the next step. It seems to make sense. No one’s buying records anymore. Might as well throw it online; everyone’s going to download it anyway.
SS: But I did read comments by fans who said, you know, “great idea, but I want to wait for the artwork and the physical CD.”
AV: Yeah, you get to that point. Where people start wondering what the hell the lyrics are and eventually they’ll get around to buying it. Pete pointed something out to me the other day that was interesting about how bands are starting to release EPs more. That seems interesting to me. Just put out EPs because you know obviously it’s going to be cheaper. And people’s attention span isn’t quite all there. So to give four or five songs … People can live off that for a year.
PG: I think if the compact disc dies, I don’t think anyone will be particularly sad. I mean, if it becomes more digital downloads and then another form of the album, like vinyl…
SS: Or 8-track?
PG: Yeah, I mean, whatever. Because that’s a beautiful package. It’s more appealing than some 50-cent piece of plastic.
SS: So can you see yourselves doing that the next time around or trying to do something different?
PG: When you buy Strength in Numbers on vinyl, it comes with a digital download coupon. So there’s a lot of experimentation out there. I think a lot of people are trying to find the next model for releasing albums, like Stars.
WM: Unfortunately, for us, we don’t really have a say. It’s the way the industry is structured. I mean, if was up to me personally, I might want to release one song a month. But that doesn’t work within the industry the way it is … Where you have an album, people work on press for two months straight, and then that’s it. They don’t want to have to push you again, and the radio stations … It’s like a two to three month thing.
SS: And that seems fundamentally flawed too. That it just comes to an abrupt end after three months.
WM: Yeah, I mean I don’t like that anyway, but what can you do? You can start your own label.
AV: It seems like how they used to do records in the ’50s or ’60s where you’d release a 7-inch single with two songs, and then after releasing a few of those, they’d release an album with everything on it. Morrissey was doing that in the early ’90s. He’d release a few three-song EPs, and then eventually, he’d come out with a collection of them all. And everyone would just go out and buy it if they only had one of the singles or whatever.
SS: Unless you’re obsessive like me and buy them all!
AV: Yeah, we threw that idea out to the label, but they didn’t go for it.
SS: I think with the Internet and MySpace and Last.fm, it makes it easier to find new music. You know, with the demise of MTV, you now don’t have an outlet to try to reach people the way bands did 20 years ago. I’ve talked to a lot of people about videos—who makes videos anymore, unless you’re a giant band with a huge video budget? What’s the point of a video? Where’s it going to get played other than YouTube?
AV: The interesting thing about that is that there are a lot of local shows. Like in New York, there’s New York Noise. I know there’s one in Austin. It seems like every city has some sort of local video music show that plays alternative bands or whatever you want to call it these days. I don’t even know if that’s a term anymore. I don’t know. Emo, screamo, all that stuff … you know, smaller bands. When we were younger, it was 120 Minutes and Night Flight that you saw these bands on in the mid ’80s.
SS: Do you remember Night Tracks on TBS?
AV: Yeah, Night Tracks … Yeah, you’d see the weirdest bands on there like Chapterhouse or something. And you know, you’re not seeing that on MTV, even on 120 Minutes. But these local channels like New York Noise will show those bands that no one gets to see. Sure, they can go on YouTube and watch it but…
SS: If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how can you find it?
AV: Exactly! Yeah, and I think that a label has to want to take a chance on making a video and pushing it in that avenue, to get that exposure. But like you said, they don’t want to spend the money. But there are other ways to do it. Videos don’t need to be on a big budget, but there are other ways of exposing yourselves with videos than MTV and VH1 and shit like that…
SS: Aurelio, I know you’ve done some outside stuff with art and photography. Are you still pursuing that as well?
AV: Yeah, earlier this summer I decided to curate an art show, and Pete is going to be doing some music to a film installation that I do. Lee Reynaldo is going to be in the show; he’s going to be spinning records and doing an installation with artwork contributed also. Wayne is going to do some artwork. Nick Zinner [of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] contributed some photography. We have Liz from Gang Gang Dance doing some artwork. Heather D’Angelo from Au Revoir Simone … just a lot of musicians and friends. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and now that it’s happening, it’s pretty exciting. We’re already talking about a second show in February. But this show is going to be in September—there will be information online. It’s at a gallery called Spool at Binghamton University.
SS: So what other things do you [Wayne and Peter] do? You’re contributing to the art show … what else?
WM: I just do music outside Calla, too.
PG: Wayne has two solo albums out. [Give thumbs up sign and mouths “they’re really good!”]
WM: I’m always working on something. But you know, I have problems focusing. [Points to Peter]
PG: Um, I make music with my wife under the name Mercova. We’ve been doing that for years. And I do some solo compositional stuff too.
SS: Cool. Sounds like you guys stay quite busy! You know, in reading various reviews, I’ve come across the same phrase repeatedly to describe Calla, and that is “dark but not depressing.” Do you think that’s a good description of the music?
AV: Um. Yeah. It’s hard to describe. I mean, when you listen to a song like “Bronson” or “Simone,” or even “Play Dead,” those are not necessarily melancholy songs, you know? I think melancholy is a better word; it’s much better than depressing. But those songs are upbeat.
SS: But within the context of the whole album, maybe they’re brought down a bit. As stand-alone tracks, they’re definitely upbeat.
AV: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of like a landslide. I feel like it’s just an easy way for people to describe us too. You know, one thing that encapsulates the band. I think that’s why the industry has such a hard time selling us. You can’t just say, “This is what Calla is,” and be done with it. Like Pete said, what we do is so much broader than that. We’re not an easy band to swallow. You need to listen to a record or a song a few times before you get it. And for us, those were always our favorite records.
PG: It takes an investment by the listener. And the bad reviews we get are almost always because it’s someone on the initial listen making a quick judgment. Like you said earlier, there is a lot going on.
AV: Chances are, people are going to come back to that in five years and hear that song and say, “Oh, what is that? I like it. I actually like this band.” It has happened to me a million times. When I was younger, I’d write off bands all the time without giving them a chance.
WM: There are a lot of bands like that, you know… The Velvet Underground is kind of a dark band, but then you really listen to all their songs, and it’s like it’s not really dark at all. It’s kind of really pretty but still kind of twisted. I think that’s what we do. I mean we might have some scary sounds in there, you know what I mean…
AV: The same with bands like the Cure or the Smiths.
SS: Yeah, they’re not really all that depressing … In some eras.
AV: But people just label them as depressing. It’s a shortcut.
SS: So what are you guys listening to now? Anything really getting you excited?
AV: I like what The Knife are doing. I like Justice. Bat for Lashes.
SS: They were here on Friday night, and they were amazing. Just a great show!
AV: We missed them playing Knitting Factory. It’s cool stuff. Listening to the new Interpol record—that’s cool.
SS: There has been a lot of negativity about the new Interpol record. So you’re definitely on the new album bandwagon?
PG: Definitely on the fan side! They make great music.
AV: Yeah. We like what they do. We’re not there to judge them. We’re not critics or writing a review. It’s not fair for people to say, “You made a bad record,” when they made the record they wanted to make. It sucks because there are very influential Web sites out there, who I’m not going to name, but if they give you a bad review, that’s it. Kids are going to write you off. And that’s unfortunate, but it’s true.
SS: That Web site, if we’re talking about the one I think we’re talking about, gave your album a pretty good review.
AV: There are a lot of them out there. But we’ve never been panned that badly by anyone. I’ve seen friends’ bands get panned, and it definitely sucks.
SS: So what are you listening to, Wayne?
WM: I listen to a lot of hip hop. I also like electronic stuff too. As far as rock bands, I don’t listen to very much. I like the new Wilco album, but I don’t think much else is going on creatively in rock for me.
PG: That’s not to say there isn’t progressive music being made. It’s just harder to find.
AV: And rock is so saturated. Every kid with a guitar has a MySpace page that says “Label: None.” So it’s hard to stand out these days. But you know, that’s just the way it is.
SS: I absolutely agree with you.
Surprisingly enough, the guys had spent almost 45 minutes chatting with me, and they were in need of a pre-show caffeine fix. The night was far from over though, as the band took the stage and tore through a sampling of tracks from their back catalog and played a good dose from Strength in Numbers. The lush, distorted sounds were perfect for late night listening, even on a muggy Sunday in August.
The crowd, though not huge, definitely got into the performance. Cameras flashed nonstop, people squealed in what I thought to be the most inappropriate of places, and at that moment, I knew I had one more question to ask. Instead of putting Peter on the spot, I sent him an e-mail the next day, asking him if he was distracted by cameras, jumping fans, grabbing hands and other possible annoyances. He politely responded below:
PG: I don’t find photos too distracting. It’s part of it, and I actually think it is cool that people want the memory preserved. I love that people get super excited at shows, but not during quiet passages.
Again, a polished answer from a polished band who understand how the industry works and who operate well within the parameters established. Despite whatever setbacks they’ve encountered, they’ve persevered and created amazing music in the process.
Calla’s summer tour wraps up next week in Brooklyn, but be sure to check out their latest release, Strength in Numbers, as well as their back catalog.