NewVillager

MACHO MEN

 

NewVillager is reaching to blend their brand from the pop world into the art world and back again.

Historically, this rarely sits well with music critics, and is ignored by art critics. Tell this to NewVillager and they’ll ignore you; not because they’re deflecting criticism, but because they’re too busy sitting under their emblematic wigwam, plotting their next extravagant display. As evidenced by seeing fans in homemade t-shirts while the band is on tour supporting Metronomy, NewVillager mean a tonne to the special few, and in the end isn’t cult status more satisfying than fame?

 

What’s NewVillager’s relationship between digital and analog sounds?

Ross Simonini: We love what happens when acoustic sounds and digital sounds are married. If you take, say, an electronic kick and fuse it with a real kick, or an orchestral tom, you can get that isolated power of digital while getting the nice inconsistencies of acoustic. A digital snare repeated over and over can be good sometimes, but other times, the repetitive quality can make the ear get a tired, whereas, with an acoustic snare, every hit is just a little different – different force, angle, etc. – so the ear hears something subtly different each time.

We do this combo live and on recordings. We try to maintain a balance all the time. Live, Collin (our drummer) pretty much always hits a real drum with a sample. It’s funny, people consider acoustic sounds to be more ‘human,’ but really, cats can walk on pianos, wind can blow through chimes, so it’s digital sounds, with all the complexities behind their creation that are the most human. Humans are the only ones who’d ever think of making those sounds.

Is there a certain mythological or spiritual element to your music?

‘Mythological,’ yes. We have read about mythologies throughout history and tried to model a lot of our ideas and structures around them. We think of  the word ‘mythology’ like the word ‘art’ as a fundamental undercurrent in everything we make. Mythology is one of the most international, commonplace methods of communication on earth, so it just seemed to go hand in hand with pop music, which is all about mass communication. It’s not about self-expression, it’s more about trying to get at the basic human ideas.

‘Spiritual,’ on the other hand, is a word I don’t fully understand. I mean, I understand all its uses and I know the words that generally surround that word, but I’m not sure what it really means. I’ve always thought that ‘spiritual’ was a bit of a negative word, in the sense that it only points to the things that it’s not. It’s not physical. It’s not scientific. It’s not anything, really.

It points away, not toward. It’s the ‘other.’ All religions and new-age ideas all fall under the spirituality umbrella, because they all try to convey something ineffable. It’s something that needs to be conveyed, but, to me that word ‘spirituality’ has always felt like a reductive way for describing the least reductive aspects of human experience.

Your website has photos of what looks like Inuksuks that you put up around the country in places like hotel lobbies. What do they signify?

Through all our installations and shows, and studio time, we’ve built up a collection of materials. As much as possible, we bring them with us on tour, usually in a big bin. We make different things with them every day -  on stage, in hotels, in galleries, in fields, on the side of the road. At shows, sometimes we have a fourth member, Eric Lister, who uses them as a sort of ritual garb and moves around the room with them. Sometimes it’s more of an installation. Sometimes we throw them into the audience. Whenever we use them, we’re always trying to express some aspect of the mythology. There are different postures and shapes for different stages in the mythology.

Part of your tour merchandise is a series of symbols on separate buttons. What do they each signify?

Each one is a stage in the mythology. There are ten of them. Ten songs. Ten roles. Ten rooms.

You recently holed up in an art gallery in Los Angeles for an installation entitled Temporary Culture. What is Temporary Culture and how was it performed?

Temporary Culture was a 10 day installation in the Human Resources Gallery. We built a shanty town with materials we gathered from the area and we brought 10 artists to live and sleep in the space. The idea was to get at that word ‘culture.’ Mythologies come out of culture. Get a bunch of people together, set up a township, and mythologies just start to emerge. We had a radio station. We built beds. We held parties. Different musicians performed every night, and we performed on the final night, tearing the whole thing down during the final song of our set.

When NewVillager performs, there is no backing tracks or canned samples. Is it important to you to perform every sound and percussive stroke when in front of an audience?

This comes back to the digital/analog ideas. If we’re using a sample or digital sound, we like to infuse that sound with a more organic performance, both on recordings and live. So we play all digital sounds or samples. We like people to be able to see a movement – a drum hit, a key stroke – for every sound they hear.

There are two distinct voices on your songs; one falsetto and one deep and earthy. What does this create for your listener or for NewVillager?

Partly, it’s just the way that we sing. But that low/high duality is definitely something we thought about. We recorded the album as a duo and that sort of binary talk (low/high, analog/digital, etc) was pretty essential to us in the writing process. Ben has a natural falsetto and I naturally sing a little deeper. But we also both switch it up. Ben goes low. I go high. On the record we came up with a full cast of voices that we’d use. They all connected to the mythos. Different ones expressed different ideas about masculinity or femininity or neutrality, just like the symbols and roles do.

NewVillager is not only a musical endeavor, but also a feast for the eyes. Artists like Leonard Cohen have blended visual art with words and music before, but do you find it any more difficult to appeal on such a prolific output? Is the most difficult aspect the time it requires, the vision, dealing with crossover critics, or is it natural?

On the one hand, It’s pretty natural. We started blending all the art and music because that’s what naturally happened when we wrote music. We drew and talked about videos. We imagined fictional people singing the songs, like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits does. We thought about the lyrics as something other than personal emoting, as a way of telling timeless stories. So the creative side was all pretty obvious for us.

The other side of things – the press, etc. – can get more complicated. We talk a lot about ideas and history, and while art critics are pretty interested in that, some rock critics can be allergic to this sort of discursive thinking. ‘Pretentious’ is a word that I don’t think art critics would ever use.

They like work that tries to go deep with concept, or work that pushes against boundaries, and I think, if anything, shallowness would be a more common criticism in the art world. But pop music has a history of being more intuitive and from-the-gut, so, if an artist has interest in bigger ideas, that word ‘pretentious’ gets whipped out pretty quickly. It’s good, though. Checks and balances are always needed.

But ultimately, we like art and ideas, and we also like big candy-coated pop music with simple chord progressions. Maybe it’s a contradiction, but it’s just the way we are. I know there are other people who feel the same way, but for those that don’t, maybe they can still enjoy one aspect of what we’re doing. Ultimately, I hope the songs stand on their own as good songs.

Do people find your music surprising (or surprisingly catchy) when they’ve read about you before they’ve heard you?

When people hear about the ideas first, they tend to think we’re some wildly experimental sounding noise group. Or black metal. These sorts of genres have been linked to ideas and art-making. But we really like the way pop music and mythology seems to have a tension. In some ways they don’t go together at all. But, like I was saying above, they do go together in other ways. In my mind, I still can’t imagine any more mythological artists than Michael Jackson or The Beatles. In a weird way, they occupy the same spot in my brain as Robin Hood and Kali.

Just listening to NewVillager’s songs make a listener feel like you are very collaborative people. How does collaboration affect your art?

Almost everything we do is collaborative. Initially, there were just two of us, so trying to do anything on our own was pretty difficult. Our shows used to involve using all four limbs simultaneously. It was too much. So we’ve added a drummer and brought on a fourth member to help with art. In order to make the videos and installations and such we’ve needed to bring people into what we’re doing and let them get deeply involved.

The mythology has been a useful tool for that. It allows everyone to get on the same page and to go deep into ideas, to get specific, very quickly. A lot of the basic structure and context is already laid out in the mythos, so a director or a costume designer can get creative quickly. It’s the same with live shows. If we just provide the right scenario, people get involved in all sorts of ways. Recently, audiences have jumped on stage, worn our mask, swiped gloves from the stage, and interacted with our human sculpture in ways we never expected.

Words: Trevor Risk  Photography: Owen Ellis

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