Interview: A Sunny Day in Glasgow's Ben Daniels on Ashes Grammar, the Band's New Singer, and A Very Rough Couple of Years
A lot has changed for A Sunny Day in Glasgow since their first album, 2007's understated classic, Scribble Mural Comic Journal. The entire line-up is different after the exit of principle songwriter Ben Daniels's twin sisters--who were the band's lead singers--and an accident with a tool box that left bass player, Brice Hickey, confined to bed for two months with a severe leg fracture. On Ashes Grammar, the Philadelphia-based band has reformed with a new singer, Annie Fredrickson, and a more bombastic approach: the bedroom aesthetic of the debut has given way to the huge sound of a New Jersey dance studio where the group recorded much of the album. We caught up with Daniels on the phone to talk about hurricanes, Alvin Lucier's way with an empty room, and Australia, where Daniels is headed once he gets off tour.
Ben Daniels, top middle. Photo by Drew Reynolds.
There was quite a bit of drama when you started this album.
Things kind of fell apart, yeah. When we started recording it, it was mostly Josh [Meakim] and I getting the music done. After our last tour that we did in 2007, my sister [past ASDIG vocalist] Lauren [Daniels] moved away to Colorado to go to grad school. So Josh and I wanted to get a new singer anyway. We'd been working with this one girl for a while, but I guess she decided it wasn't for her. A week later, our bass player--[Brice Hickey] my sister Robin's boyfriend--seriously broke his leg in four different places. He was confined to bed for two months. He couldn't even get up to walk around. My sister Robin had to take care of him so she wasn't able to come out to the studio. There was a period when we didn't have any singer and we didn't know what was going to happen. Then we met Annie [Fredrickson]. She jumped right in and Josh, Annie, and I got the record done.
It's a very brooding album. There are some real melancholic moments on it.
Yeah, yeah I would agree with you [laughs]. Going into it, there were themes and ideas I had that I was going to try and explore lyrically, but then all this stuff started happening. I listen to it now and it's like, "Oh yeah, that came from everything going to hell." It definitely impacted the mood.
You worked on it in an abandoned dance studio in New Jersey, right?
Well it wasn't entirely abandoned. They used it during the week. But we were able to use it on the weekends. It was great. It was enormous. It had huge ceilings and we could be as loud as we wanted to. With this album, I didn't finish any of the demos before going in to record. I didn't want to spend a lot of time on the demo and fall in with the demo and then hate anything as I re-recorded it. So all the songs weren't really worked out. You know, if I'm working something out in my apartment, I have the headphones on, I'm being quiet, it's a totally different sound, all contained in my computer. If we go to this space and can be really loud, you can try things with feedback. Do you know Alvin Lucier? We were able to try his thing [recording a voice then playing it back into a room, then re-recording the playback] out. In that sense, it was more relaxing and easy going. In every other sense it was more stressful [laughs].
In what ways other than broken legs and missing singers?
We'd go there on the weekends, and it would just be Josh and I, and we'd spend 12 hours a day recording music, fooling around, doing whatever. During the week, though, we'd have to start mixing, seeing how what we did over the weekend sounded. It's kind of easy for me to write music, but lyrics and melody? That's something I really have to work with. During the week, I would listen to the stuff constantly, just trying to hear the melodies, trying to write words. At that time, I had a day job. I was working 60-hour weeks. I wasn't sleeping basically for the entire recording of the album. It took over my life. It was kind of depressing in a lot of ways [laughs]. I'm glad it's done.
Where were you living at this time?
I was actually house sitting for this professor in Philadelphia. It was this enormous house.
Did any of these songs come out of that space?
All the songs were written there. It was a really long-term house sit. I pretty much wrote everything in the basement there. "West Philly Vocoder," that's me kind of doing that Alvin Lucier thing in various rooms of that house.
It seems like a lot of the music you make is directly influenced by the space where it's been recorded.
Certainly I'm reacting to it.
So on a song like "Close Chorus," how is that influenced by its environment?
The day we started, there was a hurricane that had come up from the Philadelphia area. The roof of the dance studio was a tin roof. In the middle of the song there's a break where the drums die out and it's just a horn sample loop. You can hear this static sound. That's the rain. We didn't want to re-record it [laughs].
So you were also dealing with natural disasters aside from everything else?
Yeah. I don't know if you know rural New Jersey at all, but it's right on the Delaware River, and it's always flooding. So we were like, "Oh God we're gonna have to evacuate!" It never flooded, but we were ready to grab all the electronics and run out of there.
You recently moved to Australia.
Yes. I got another job down there. I really don't like it actually [laughs]. It's not really working out.
That must be hard. It's so far away from the people you make music with.
Yes. We're on tour now and we're actually going to be on tour next year, so I'm not going to be spending a lot of time in Australia over the next 12 months. I don't know what's going to happen with the next album. But it will get done.
I hope there's less turmoil.
Me too! I really like everyone in the band right now. Everybody really wants to be in the band.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow will be at Union Hall on December 12 and Le Poisson Rouge on December 13.