Friday, March 22, 2013

Lifetime of Gray Skies Part 4: Finest Craftsman

I'll create you
Erase the parts I don't like
I'll destroy you
Like everyone you've ever known

"Like Water in Water"
The Outer Dark

Photo courtesy of Scott Kinkade

    With powerhouse drummer Joel Stallings in the fold, Anodyne entered their most intense and productive phase of the band. The trio's stability allowed them to reel off a series of defining EPs and a pair of well received albums, including the band's farewell masterwork, Lifetime of Gray Skies in the span of three years.
    "That was pretty much the beginning of that era of the band, probably the most well known version of the band, the lineup that was more singular in its approach," guitarist and vocalist Mike Hill said. "We were all on board with touring and rehearsing. We had a pretty rigorous rehearsal schedule. That was the most productive era of the band. It felt like an unlimited creative pool. Everyone's playing was at a really high point at that point. We were constantly writing."
    Anodyne would schedule marathon rehearsal sessions, spending three or four hours at a time working over their music. Anodyne was Hill's whole world at the time, and he poured out everything he had and felt into his music and lyrics.
    "I didn't have anything else to do," he said. "I was living this sort of lean existence. The band was everything I had. That's the way I wanted to approach it at that period. As a result, we were able to write a lot, come up with a lot of material, hone our skills as musicians. There's a lot of chemistry between us as musicians. We get there from rehearsing."
    Former guitarist and vocalist Ayal Naor remembers being impressed with the new lineup when Anodyne and 27 crossed paths at shows.
    "We played a couple shows with them. I remember being especially impressed," he said. "I thought [bassist] Josh [Scott] clicked really well with Joel. it was a great rhythm section. The band had evolved. They'd started doing blast beats and other stuff we hadn't done."
    In Stallings and Scott, Hill had found bandmates who were willing to live on the road or in the studio, sacrificing everything else to make Anodyne succeed. At the time, Anodyne was the only thing the three men really had going on in their lives, leaving them free to fully commit themselves to the band.
    "There wasn’t a whole lot else I wanted to do, aside from listening to records and seeing bands. All three of us had the same level of commitment, no question," Scott said. "I know Joel went through several jobs, since we were leaving for tour so often. Mike and I were luckier on that point; our jobs allowed us more freedom, time off. I don’t think any of us had much of anything else going on other than the band."
    Other likeminded musicians recognized and appreciated Anodyne's intensity and focus.
    "Anodyne was like a clock," Lickgoldensky guitarist Jamie Getz said. "That band was exactly as they were the first time I saw them to the last time I saw them. The ultimate in cold. That's the best way I can describe that band. Cold. This was at a point where bands were starting to dress up and wear suit jackets, so for me to see a band like Anodyne was refreshing."
    Thos Niles, Anodyne's first drummer, said the Hill-Scott-Stallings lineup took the band's original vision for destructive noise and forced it to a more aggressive and antagonistic level.
    "I don’t think I’ve seen many bands as tight and focused as they were by the end," he said. "I also think they kept true to the original vision of forging new ground and crushing any band in their path."
    Hill approached practices like an elite athlete preparing for competition.
    "There's a lot of similarities between being in a band and practicing martial arts," Hill said. "The more you do something repetitively, the better you get at it. I'm a physically-connected person, so the rigors of training for a sport like martial arts, I apply that to the band."


    Anodyne's definitive lineup made its debut with the Berkowitz EP for Alone Records in 2001. Hill committed the band to record the EP before they had even completed writing the songs.
    "I'm always going to say yes to doing things like that," Hill said. "We didn't have any songs because we just got Joel in the band. We pretty much wrote all of that stuff in the space of two weeks. We went down to Chris [Pierce's] studio and knocked it out."
    "I think we did it in the ten days or so before we had to record," Scott said. "I remember trying to write parts as we were recording, specifically one part that I imagined to be in the style of The Red Scare. It was pretty fun, and I think we ended up with a solid record, though I prefer to be more prepared."

    Anodyne were already writing material for their next full length, The Outer Dark, when they agreed to record Berkowitz. The band deliberately took a more minimalist, looser approach to the four Berkowitz songs.
    "We decided to do something more spontaneous for the Berkowitz record, so we hashed out those songs with a different approach within a couple of weeks," Stallings said. "We kept the writing somewhat minimal on these songs, so it ended up working out. Then we went back to writing The Other Dark."


    Anodyne's first two EPs in New York reveled in Hill's fascination with murderers and serial killers. Red Was Her Favorite Color included a Charles Manson cover and a song entitled "Jack Ruby" while the Berkowitz EP was named after the infamous Son of Sam killer. For Hill, at the time, murderers and serial killers were metaphors that captured his own feelings of alienation and his inability to communicate his feelings to others.

    "During my 20s and those periods, especially in the '90s, serial killers were big. There were magazines like ANSWER Me! The whole Manson thing has always been an interesting thing. To this day, I always read tons about Manson," Hill said. "The idea of the drifting, single, primarily white male existing disenfranchised from the rest of society, living alone in a room, during that period of time I applied that to myself. That was where a lot of serial killer and murder aspects came from. ... After the band had broken up, I remember getting the 25th anniversary Taxi Driver DVD and there was an interview with Paul Schrader and he was talking about how he went through this really heavy divorce and he was living in his car and he felt a complete disconnect from any real relationships. He was just a drifting single young man at the time. That was remarkably similar to how I felt in that period of the band being together."


    The Outer Dark in 2002 was the first Anodyne album to truly capture the power and dynamism of the band coming into their peak. They were even innovating and inventing in between songs during their live sets.
    "By the time we recorded The Outer Dark, I think I had been playing with them for close to a year. The dynamic between us had been fully established," Stallings said. "I recall that sometimes live, between songs, we would do some brief minimal improv noise stuff, just feeding back and building up to the next song. When recording The Outer Dark, Mike had the idea of doing a free improv piece.  He laid out a general map, and we went for it. That ended up being 'Black Pearl.'"
    Hill said Anodyne at that point was operating along a "stream of consciousness path" and the band just followed the artistic flow. After working with Pierce for two EPs, Hill once again took the producer reins, recording The Outer Dark in his Brooklyn studio.
    Anodyne was at its most focused during this area and the marathon rehearsals had perfected the band's chemistry. Hill took inspiration from free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, whose lock-tight band could improvise because they had perfected their communication through rigorous rehearsals.
    "Largely, what he did was an improvisational band," Hill said. "They would still rehearse insane hours a week so they could develop chemistry as a band so they could improvise."
    Anodyne began to introduce their own improvisational element into their repertoire with meandering, formless noisescapes like The Outer Dark's "Black Pearl." The buzzing, droning song stumbles and careens for two minutes of deceptively formless chaos. It was something Hill and Niles and experimented with from Anodyne's earliest days, but it found its fullest power and fruition in the trio's hands.
    "We definitely had that improvisation element. That's something Thos and I tried to cultivate in the beginning too," Hill said. "Those sort of pieces came out of the rehearsal, but it made sense and there was some sort of cohesiveness because we rehearsed so much. Start with a blank canvass and see where it goes. 'Black  Pearl' is a reflection of that. It's a projection of a very subjective expression of all those rehearsals."
    "We practiced in a cramped space in the Lower East Side, where stored drums would rumble off the loft and smash my head," Scott said. "Sometimes Joel and I would just fuck around and jam while we were waiting for Mike. I think that’s how ‘Black Pearl’ developed. Other times someone would bring in a riff and we’d just keep playing it until we developed our own parts around it. We were all spending a lot of time together between the van, the practice space and going to see other bands play, so we were extremely connected."
    Anodyne would further explore their meandering, improvisational style on final album Lifetime of Gray Skies with songs like "Infernal Machine" and "Blood Meridian." For Hill, those songs were his attempt to tap into something primal and emotional in his songwriting.
    "I never went to art school, but I know a lot of people who are graduates of art school," he said. "When they do figure drawing, they say don't look at the paper, look at the figure, just sketch it. That's always been intriguing to me. That's been my subconscious attempt to not look at the paper."


    Anodyne turned to Ryan Patterson of The National Acrobat and Coliseum, who had done art for likeminded artists like Lickgoldensky, Hot Cross, and Breather Resist, to create the visuals for the four-song Salo EP, the band's 2002 follow up to The Outer Dark. Patterson, who also did the art for the band's final album, Lifetime of Gray Skies, helped define a gritty, grimy, urban visual aesthetic that captured Anodyne's particular sound.
    "I was still finding my footing and aesthetic as a designer at that time. I had gotten to the point where I was focusing on solid imagery and mostly duotone color schemes, but I was also doing a lot of just scanning cool images and throwing them on shirts or record covers," Patterson said. "I hadn't quite found my approach as a collage artist yet. I was good friends with the Anodyne guys, and I know I was very honored and stoked to be asked to do the design for those records for them. If I remember correctly, Mike had a few photos he wanted for the Salo EP and a general oppressive vibe he wanted to portray."
    Anodyne, from its Boston inception through the New York era, embodied an aggressive urban vibe, channeling the two cities' paranoia and claustrophobia. Patterson was able to translate that grinding city soundtrack into something visually arresting.
    "Boston is one of the most negative places I've ever lived in," Hill said. "Everyone is so miserable up there. That really impacted how the band sounded during that era."
    That same urban clang and grind followed Anodyne when Hill returned home to New York at the turn of the century.
    "Living in a place like New York City contributes to that too. The irony of this place is there's millions of people here, but you're essentially alone. Even though you're surrounded by people all the time, you feel isolated from people," Hill said. "New York, there's this rat-like, me-first vibe here. People don't really move through the city. They scurry. There's this rat-like vibe the city has all the time. That's been a huge influence on the aesthetic of the band."
    For Hill, it was important to work with a small cadre of close friends whose opinions and work ethic he could trust. He kept Patterson in his fold, asking him to do art for Versoma and Tombs after Anodyne.
    "Ryan, even from his show flyers, had a great visual sense. I love how the Coliseum albums look," Hill said. "That's where it started. I respect Ryan as a designer and artist and a person, too. He's another person who's a solid guy who I keep in my inner circle of people. A lot of what we were doing back then, we kept it in a circle of friends atmosphere. That's even an extension of what we're doing with Tombs. He did our first EP artwork, keeping that thing going."


    Salo, named after Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film, which transplants Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to fascist Italy, epitomizes Hill's fascination with shock cinema and extreme images. He had also tapped into his love of film on The Outer Dark and the song "Our Lady of Assassins." Hill still pulls from film to inspire his music. On "Black Hole of Summer," the first song of Tombs' Path of Totality, Hill opens the album by screaming "chaos reigns," in a nod to Lars von Trier's psychosexual thriller Antichrist.
    "Certain imagery resonates with me when I'm writing lyrics or coming up with song titles," Hill said. "On a more intellectual level, the thing I like about this extreme cinema, of course there's  a very visceral grind feeling to it, but a lot of time you find there's a higher consciousness that exists in these films. It acts on a personal level, an emotional level. I wanted to believe the band could operate on a higher level too as far as these ideas."

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

Well done. You are 4-0.