Music Meter Monday: Violens Tells Us A Ghost Story

Posted June 4

It’s almost summer, and with the impending solstice come hot days and stifling nights. In Japan, ghost stories are told on summer evenings, the chilling tales apparently having a similar effect on those who hear them. Well, overheated friends, forget scary flicks and campfire yarns — if you want to cool down this muggy season, you might do well to check out Violens‘ new delicately creepy sophomore disc, True. Its May release recently scored the band a top spot on the MTV Music Meter, and, consequently, an interview for the O Music Blog series, Music Meter Monday.

The Brooklyn band — whose name is a melange of “violence” and “violins” — is by no means a horror rock outfit, but there is an inherent darkness in much of their music that somehow recalls the experience of watching think flicks like Donnie Darko: the mood is creepy, but also atmospheric and obtuse. The band — which is made up of members of band and art collective Lansing-Dreiden — released their first album, Amoral, in 2010.

The O Music Blog recently caught up with leader singer Jorge Elbrecht to talk about the newest disc, the band’s genesis, and, naturally ghosts. There’s a full-fledged ghost story there at the end of the interview, so you may want to save this story for a particularly steamy night. Read on for the full Q&A.

So I always like to ask bands what their earliest music memory is. It’s always cool to hear when people first started getting interested in making music.

I always wanted a guitar and wanted to start playing guitar. I heard that these kids around the corner had started a band and so I immediately forced myself into their band. They were like, ‘Um, we already have two guitarists.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be the third guitarist.’ I actually didn’t have an electric guitar at the time and I borrowed one of theirs to practice and stuff and I just got a 4-track and started recording songs.

It was a funny, three-step sort of process of not even thinking or knowing I could play guitar, then not even thinking or knowing that I could sing. And then becoming the lead singer in a band when I was a teenager and then not even having an idea that I could write a song, and then becoming a primary songwriter in most of the bands I’ve been in since then. So, yeah, it was pretty weird, but for the most part it’s been fun.

You said you didn’t even know that you could sing. How did you find out?

It started with me doing backing vocals for a band. I still kind of think of myself as a guitarist/backing vocalist in a way. I’ve always felt more comfortable with that. I’m not someone who loves the spotlight and loves being the center of attention. When we play shows I like to set up off to the side a little bit and I like to half face the band, half face the crowd. For me, what’s fun about playing live shows is interacting with the musicians and then if people are there to see us and want to hear our songs, getting that to them in some ways. But when it’s one or the other it’s kind of strange. I wouldn’t want to turn my back to the audience, but it’s strange when my back is to my own band. My friends are musicians that I really respect and have fun playing with, so I kind of like to be halfway — being able to see both sides.

Did you have any singers that you emulated? You have kind of an ’80s vibe going on.

My memories of pop music are mostly in Costa Rica, because that’s where I was born and that’s where my family is and stuff. I watched a lot of MTV just waiting around, because I didn’t have a way to get around — that’s where I saw a lot of the ’80s pop music that I think influenced a lot of my songwriting. George Michael and Tears For Fears and Depeche Mode and OMD are very early formative [influences] — I don’t know in terms of the singing, maybe some of it.

I don’t remember trying to emulate their voices or anything like that. I’d say probably the closest thing to that would be the singer of Saint Etienne — I was probably emulating her — or the singer of Stereolab. There was a time when I was singing only in falsetto for a while and I think that was my attraction to the way they sung. I tend to be able to have a lot of control when I sing in falsetto and be a little louder.

With this record, True, it seems like it’s more mood-driven — it seems like there’s fewer hooks than on Amoral. How do you think this one differs from the first?

I would say that the main difference is that there’s more of a pleasure in making it. I feel like I was learning and trying a lot of things about mixing and production on the last one and I was kind of driving myself crazy re-doing songs five times over. I think a lot of good came out of it, but the thing that I noticed when I listen back to it — and maybe other people don’t notice — is that it became a chore to do the vocals sometimes. When you’re doing it, you’re not having fun and I think that’s the main difference between the last record and this one.

With modern-day production equipment and a lot of the digital stuff that’s available, people are able to very easily inject steroids into their productions and mixes, so it’s easy to fall this trap of being like, ‘Oh, now we have this huge snare drum! Now everything else has to be as huge.’ So for this record we just kind of made it sound the way that felt good when we were listening to it.

In terms of hooks and stuff like that, I don’t know if I see a big change. The song ‘Totally True’ — the first song on the record — that’s kind of like one of the poppier songs we’ve done. It’s based on one word, which is a challenge in some ways — to write a song that’s hinged on a one-word hook. I kind of see it spread across the two records as a pretty decent number of pop songs.

In seems like there’s a lot of pretty dark relationship imagery on this one. Especially the upcoming video for ‘When To Let Go,’ which reportedly depicts a couple walking the line between love and violence. What was the inspiration for that?

I’ve always been into that idea of singing very sweetly about something that isn’t. Also kind of slurring the words so that you can’t tell what it’s about unless you dig a little deeper. So that might have been the impulse with that one. It’s about a relationship between two people that has a really fine line between being romantic and overly aggressive. It’s been a theme that’s been in a couple songs, like our song ‘Violent Sensation Descends,’ which is on our last record. It’s kind of also about that. More about a death pact between two people.

And I guess ‘Sariza Spring’ is about a friend who disappeared? That’s pretty heavy.

Yeah, it’s probably heavier subject matter, but I think the video for ‘All Night Low’ has an even more sinister feeling than the ‘Sariza Spring’ song. That one came out really cool. We bought a cheap strobe and we just recorded a lot of footage with the strobe on it and then added this effect that made everything look like a high-contrast photocopy and then we layered some of the flashing video of me singing and it ended up looking like I was watching TV and the TV was flashing in my face. So it kind of changed the lyrical content a little bit, because I keep repeating this phrase ‘I remember feeling guilty’ and some of the footage that’s flashing is this horrific footage of someone cutting someone else’s limbs or beheading someone in a bathtub. We got it from this amazing movie and yeah, so it kind of changes the content — like I’m some sort of psycho killer person. You can’t get an idea for what it is I’m talking about necessarily, so it might have a similar effect to a film where they don’t show the gory part, they just show someone screaming behind a wall or something. I think that’s more effective than showing the blood and gore.

So it sounds like from that and also from the fact that you sampled chain saws on ‘Der Microarc’ that you like horror movies.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a big horror movie fan or anything like that. I think that I like the idea of challenging myself with difficult things to take, because I can’t handle it very well. I’ve never been as scared in a horror movie as I’ve been in one of my own dreams or one of my own nightmares. You know those dreams you have as a kid where you wake up and you can’t talk? That’s never happened to me in a movie or with any drug. I just feel like the imagination is the strongest source for that kind of feeling. And this idea of challenging those fears and feeding your imagination with stuff that might end up in a dream — there’s something scary about that.

I have a cousin who stayed in this house in Costa Rica — it’s up on this hill and someone in our family owns it, but no one will go there. The housekeeper won’t stay there past noon because she’s scared of all these stories of things that have happened there. My cousin went there to stay for two weeks to face whatever energy is in there. I really like that idea. There’s something really cool about trying to face those fears. I stayed there one night with him and we were actually with the guy who directed our videos — Alejandro Cardenas — and we were in this room and we were just not able to sleep because it was so scary. My cousin was telling us all these stories, like he heard full-on people having a party. And he’s not a person who believes in ghosts or anything like that, but my cousin is like, ‘I heard an entire party outside in the living room. Chairs moving and people with glasses and all this sh*t.’ And so we were pretty freaked out. While we were sitting there talking hours had passed and suddenly the battery-powered radio that we had turned on full blast and started playing whatever CD was in there. We were so freaked out.

[We chat a bit about horror movies here and Elbrecht tells me how much he likes the infamous "Man In a Bear Suit" scene from The Shining.]

I’m into that mixture of a comedic element with something that’s really unsettling happening at the same time. That’s probably what we were going for in that song ‘Violent Sensations Descend’ — the funny noises, but there’s scraping sounds and dissonent chords on the guitar. The lyrics are sung really lightly, like a sunny day, walk-through-the park kind of thing, but it’s talking about a death pact. There’s these things sort of canceling each other out.

Image courtesy of Tom Hines