Sightings' New Album Sounds Like Nothing Else
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.