Wednesday, November 30, 2005

If Thousands Interview

with Christian McShane & Aaron Molina
conducted by Dan Cohoon via e-mail
all Photos by Joe Cunningham

photo by Joe Cunningham Posted by Picasa
If Thousands’ music is minimal yet organic. If Thousands is a band that was started in the year 2000 and that hails from Duluth, Minnesota. It features Christian McShane & Aaron Molina who make sound experiments with instruments they had no experience with before the start of the band. While both musicians are trained on other instruments, they choose to make music in this unstudied, organic way. I think this is what makes If Thousands’ music so great. Their willingness to explore unknown territories leads them to discover new beautiful terrain. -Dan Cohoon (November, 2005)
Dan Cohoon: What is the history of If Thousands? What does the name mean?
If Thousands: We were both bored with what we’d been doing musically. Aaron was playing punk music and I (Christian) was doing classical and folk. If Thousands began the day that Aaron and I sat down and started making sounds. It’s really that simple. That very first day, I told Aaron these were the sounds I was trying to make for about the last 10 years. There was a definite “feel” we were trying to achieve even from the beginning. What’s even odder is the fact that we’re very different people from very different backgrounds. Someone once said we’re polar opposites. In any other band, we’d probably strangle each other. For whatever reason, we find an extremely common ground in If Thousands. I guess that’s one of the beauties of music. It’s actually quite weird when I think about it too much, so I try not to. If you analyze If Thousands further, nothing we do should work, but it does. In a very general way, I feel if thousands is exactly what Aaron and I are supposed to be doing at this time in our lives. In that respect, we feel pretty fortunate to able to do what we do and have people actually buy our albums and come to shows.

The name If Thousands was made up after a long, long search for a band name. After a couple months and a lot of head scratching, Aaron and I were listening to Sonic Youth’s “A Thousand Leaves” and he said he liked the word “thousand,” so we wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it to the wall. Around it we wrote all the “small” words we could think of: and, or, but, if, the, etc. “if thousands” just sounded right. As soon as we saw it, we felt it described what we did perfectly. It’s such an odd assemblage of words. It sounds like something, but not when you look closer, it’s an incomplete sentence. It’s unfinished. It makes absolutely no sense, yet it’s easy to remember and it rolls off your tongue. It fits us perfectly.

Photo by Joe Cunningham Posted by Picasa
DC: What led you to decide to play instruments that you had no training using?
If Thousands: It was all part of doing something musically that we’d never done before. It was exciting and new and still is. We arrived at primarily guitar and organs because those were the first, most attainable instruments we had lying around that one or the other of us never played before. Right from the start, Christian began droning, mainly because he couldn’t move his fingers very fast on the Hammond organ. Because of this, the drone or idea of a drone is always our mainstay; it’s our foundation. We improvise about 99% of all the music we do—live and recorded. In and of this, what we do is always fresh new territory on a sonic level for us. Improvisation means you have to concentrate very hard and be a step ahead of whatever may happen next. Above all, you’ve got to be an intense listener. If you go off on your own little wanking solo without regard to your band mate, the whole foundation will collapse. When you improvise, you’re creating in real time? There are no endless rehearsals to get a song done perfectly. No second chances. You’ve either got it or it’s horribly wrong. To take things a step further, we decided to use instruments we had no idea how to play in order to keep our sound “naive”. Remember the first note you ever made when you were a kid? It was like, “Wow! This is great!” That’s what if thousands is like. We’re kids in an aural candy store. Over the years we’ve purposely kept ourselves from learning our primary instruments (guitar and organs) on a proficient level. For example, you’ll never hear Christian sing in If Thousands because he’s also classically trained in voice. In the land of If Thousands, you play what you don’t know; not what’s familiar. In this way, every time we perform or record, it’s a new experience for us. Both our homes are pretty much filled with instruments of all kinds. We’re always looking for new sounds. On “Yellowstone,” Christian recorded a friend’s 7-month old unborn daughter with a fetal monitor, and then put it into a tape loop. You can hear it way off in the distance in “With All the Saints”. It’s not just a thing of picking up an instrument and making noise. Anyone can do that. It’s the idea of picking up an instrument or making a sound with the same awe and naivety of a child, then doing something musically meaningful with a very, very limited knowledge. We’re on a never-ending learning curve. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult for most people to do.

We’ve played with many musicians who have said, “Oh, what you do is so, so simple compared to what I do,” then when they try to perform with us, they’ve gotten extremely frustrated and walked off stage. It’s understandable. Overall, it’s about letting go of everything you know on a musical level and rebuilding, learning and inventing as you’re performing. It’s like stepping off a cliff.

DC: What was your musical back ground before this project?
If Thousands: Christian grew up near Chicago listening to Black Sabbath and Mozart. He began playing guitar at age 5, started composing at age 14, later studied classical guitar and voice, and then traveled to Taiwan for 2 years to study Buddhist chants. Aaron grew up near Minneapolis listening to punk rock music and played bass in various punk bands, most notably a band named Small Engine City, which enjoyed some local success on the 1990s. He never learned to read music.

Photo by Joe Cunningham Posted by Picasa
DC: The little I know about Minnesota comes from Prairie Home Companion. What is Minnesota really like?
If Thousands: As for Duluth, it’s a land of dichotomy. It’s a beautiful place to live, yet the economy is horrid and the rate of alcoholism and drug addiction is overwhelming. It’s a great place to raise your kids, but there might be a meth lab in your neighbor’s garage. Winters aren’t really as bad as everyone says, but they’re very long (usually around late October to May). You can go about a mile in any direction and find untamed wilderness, but most people are downright bored or depressed.
There are an astounding number of musicians and artists, yet there are very few galleries or places to perform. You’re on your own here, but the artistic community is very supportive.

DC: What is the musical scene like in Duluth, Minnesota? Are there any other like minded bands?
If Thousands: What we do is pretty “out there”. When we started, we had no idea anyone was doing what we were doing. After a while, people introduced us to bands like Stars of The Lid, Sigur Ros, Mogwai and the incredibly vast library of Brian Eno. In Duluth, the only bands that come close are a band named I Am the Slow Dancing Umbrella and Portrait of a Drowned Man who play totally different music than we do, although they’re primarily instrumental bands.

DC: Do you feel geography affects your music?
If Thousands: Definitely. 6-7 months of winter would have an effect on anyone. Just look at what’s being produced in California as compared to our neck of the woods. It’s not just the simple fact that Low is the biggest import in Duluth. They’ve made an impact, sure... but even punk bands in Duluth sound melancholy.

DC: Your music covers a wide spectrum, everything from minimalism to folk. What are your musical influences? Who are your musical heroes?
If Thousands: Eno is a big influence, though we rarely listen to anything he’s done. Before If Thousands, Aaron had never heard of Brian Eno and Christian had only heard “Here Come the Warm Jets.” It’s more of an appreciation and respect for what he’s created. Christian used to play folk, so maybe that’s where that comes from; though Aaron always plays the banjo on albums. Our influences in If Thousands are more of a conglomeration of every type of music we’ve ever heard. We’re pretty ravenous listeners to every kind of music; the list is far too long to include in this interview. This also includes the sounds of nature, which in Duluth we fortunately have plenty of. Sometimes the sound of the wind or the waves of water are more pleasurable to hear than any music made by a human.

Heroes? For Aaron, Mike Watt of The Minutemen, John Coltrane, David Bowie. For Christian, Einsturzende Neubauten, Brian Eno, Huun-Huur-Tu and Django Reinhardt (just to name a few of many).

DC: Some minimalism can seem cold and academic. How do you maintain the organic feel of your sound?
If Thousands: No computers. We made a promise to ourselves never to use computers in our music. Sometimes we record albums on tape, sometimes on computer. But we never perform on computers. They’re too sterile, too perfect, too tinny and relatively boring. We like sounds that are more organic, more “soft-edged”. We prefer If Thousands to sound like humans are playing the instruments, not computers. Even our loops are done the old fashioned way. Either with a simple external delay unit or good old fashioned analog tape loop. Sometimes what may sound like a loop isn’t a loop at all -it’s one of us playing the same phrase over and over again. This isn’t to say that we think that all the music laptop musicians or digital keyboardists make is crap. Far from it, it just doesn’t work for us. Also, Christian prefers to use old, antiquated keyboards, acoustic instruments and bizarre creations such as the Theremin, Optigan or homemade instruments. We also decided early on that although we play primarily instrumental music, we always try to include some kind of “human element,” on each album; such as a looped voice or sound from nature. You can’t always tell what it is, but it’s definitely there between the layers if you listen close enough. In our genre, fellow musicians guard their sounds with tooth and claw, but we really have no secrets about the instrumentation we use. Just ask and we’ll tell you, although it’s fun to see if people can figure it out themselves. It’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it.

I have nothing (cover art) photo: Joe Cunningham Posted by Picasa
DC: How does your album "I Have Nothing" differ from your earlier work? How has your sound evolved?
If Thousands: We’re pretty proud of it. Some say it’s the best work we’ve ever done. Some say it’s more cohesive. One thing is for sure, we intentionally made the songs shorter than usual. We wanted to see if we could pack everything into 4 minutes that we usually fit into 15. We think it’s just the next step down our path of musical evolution. Our sound has evolved into something that even we can’t find words for. We’ve been doing this for a good while now, so perhaps what we’ve finally arrived at is to just let the sounds come through us instead of forcing them through. We hope this makes sense and doesn’t sound pretentious. Like we said, it’s hard to find words that adequately describe. I (Christian) think were simply becoming more ourselves. I read once somewhere that it’s best just to let what’s in you come out, because in the end that’s all you really have? Yourself.

DC: Are you involved in any other projects? What are your future plans?
If Thousands: Christian plays guitar and cello in a band called Devil’s Flying Machine. It’s hillbilly thrasher music. He’s also been doing some Foley work for an independent film director named Jim Ojala. We’re hoping to work with a brilliant young director from the UK named Duncan Wellaway, as well as Travis Wilkerson who we’ve done a lot of soundtrack work for in the past. With If Thousands, you never know what’s around the corner. If you would have told us 5 ½ years ago that we’d be where we are now with all we’ve done, we would have thought you were crazy. What we do and where we go continues to astound both of us. It’s always an adventure and we feel incredibly fortunate…

If Thousands
Silber Media
Dreamland Recordings
Joe Cunningham