I feel a little weird letting these recordings out into the world; they were never meant to live there. Songs come from the same place as dreams, and this set catches most of them in their fragile first moments (for some, the only moments they had). I mumble my way through a lot of them, as the lyrics are usually the last part of the song to solidify for me, but even so, I think that the melody of a song is the part that speaks the loudest, so I hope something of their essence comes through even where the words aren’t clear, or aren’t there at all. Maybe the best way to listen to this record is with half an ear, while you’re in another room; that’s probably the closest cousin to the experience of “inspiration” as I can think of anyway. The ideas I like best tend to turn up while I’m doing something completely unrelated to music.
Demo recordings are always a little frustrating, not because they’re rough, but because there’s usually something good about them that’s impossible to recapture. Some people don’t make them at all for that very reason, and engineers roll their eyes when nervous bands get attacks of “demo-itis”, or “chasing the demo”. One of Craig Ross’s favorite jokes in the Palo Santo sessions was “I think these are going to be some great demos”.
The recordings on Missing Islands come from three different “periods” for SW. (I left off anything from Palo Santo since most of the demos worth hearing turned up on disc 2 of the Matador version of the album). Tracks 1-9 are from Rook, most of them the first demos I made at my house in Austin, combined with a few moments from the band recordings up in Denton at the Echolab with Matt Barnhart. Thor brought a pair of band saws to the studio, and during breaks in recording he slowly dismantled a giant, dead oak tree next to the building, most of which we burned in a fire pit out back at night. My overcoat smelled like wood smoke for months after we finished the album.
I wanted to include the sound of one of the giant limbs ripping free of the trunk as part of the crashing middle of “On the Death of the Waters,” so we set up a condenser mic on a boom stand, ran a cable through the yard back into the studio, and at a high sign Thor climbed the tree and started sawing away. Then we dropped the recording into the track…where it sounded really dumb, so we took it back out. Listening back, I’m not quite sure why “Closed Leaf” and “Alemayehu” never went further; I think I got stuck on lyrics, and (as usual) we probably just ran out of time. I’ve never finished a record without wishing we had a few more weeks to work on it.
Tracks 10-15 are mostly full-band demos for The Golden Archipelago we made at Rob Halverson’s Treeworld studio in Austin, a homey wooden room filled with unusual instruments where we also made the weird Shearwater is Enron instrumental record a few months later. These were some of my favorite moments with the TGA lineup, when we were wandering through the songs together and making arrangement decisions on the fly. On “The Silver Bodies”, the koto-like sound in the instrumental break comes from a neat trick: Kevin put a strip of masking tape across the strings of Rob’s upright piano, muffling everything but the initial attack from the notes. “An Insular Life” features a really strange Yamaha home organ from the 1970s called an Electone C-60, which makes a lot of very trippy and wonderful sounds. To me, the official version of “False Sentinel” that appeared on the vinyl edition of TGA was missing a mischievous quality this off-the-cuff demo has; I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I remember John Congleton, when we were re-recording the song in El Paso, fixing me with the look he gives you when he’d like you to make up your mind, already.
16-19 are some of the demos I made for Animal Joy. I used a different approach for these since I wanted to make a very different record, and Matador had asked for demos before they committed to another album. So I went to the grim Music Lab rehearsal studios in south Austin off St Elmo street and rented room 98, near the front door, for a couple of afternoons. At the Music Lab, black carpeting covers the walls, floors, and ceilings of the 14′ x 14′ rooms, and bare lightbulbs are set inside little metal cages on each wall, so it feels like you’re practicing in a CIA black site or the brig of a submarine. It definitely keeps your mind on your work. I brought my electric guitar, a cheap keyboard, my little Princeton amp, and drummer Cully Symington in there with me, and we recorded a bunch of songs into a laptop, using the internal mic. Then I went over to Danny Reisch’s place on east 3rd street and overdubbed vocals through an amp to match the blown-out, no-fi recordings of the guitar and drums. The demos sounded “bad” but very alive, and when I sent them off to Matador I figured they’d hear the spark I heard in them (and still do). Instead, they (gently) dropped us, and it was thanks to our lucky stars that Sub Pop picked us up a few weeks later—in part, oddly enough, because of the same demos. Go figure. I dusted myself off and went back to Danny to talk about starting the album proper.
Three years later, we’re still working together, though I don’t live in Texas anymore. The new album we’re in the middle of is an exhilarating mess (as usual); we’re puzzling over blurry demos I made a almost a year ago with Lucas in San Antonio, and trying to decide whether some recordings we made “for real” in Austin are in fact keepers or not (and whether we can afford to attempt them again if they aren’t). Meanwhile, I’m still stuck on lyrics for most of the songs, writing, rewriting, mumbling through the choruses, trying to make them into something real.
JM, January 2014