Interview with Seattle’s Past Lives

photos by Alex Crick

Photos by Alex Crick

“They are great musicians,” legendary Seattle-area producer Steve Fisk says of Past Lives. “Very nice people. Very together. Wonderful big egos working in tandem. I love their music. And I’m very happy with how it came out. I knew (guitarist) Devin from the Shoplifting record we recorded together. My friend John Goodmanson worked with the Blood Brothers and met Morgan and I think Jordan thru him.”

Fisk (Low, Nirvana, Unwound) worked with their band on their debut album, Tapestry of Webs, out today, Tuesday, February 23, on Suicide Squeeze. With a sound as aggressive as it is meditative, as melodic as it is occasionally chaotic, it will probably dominate a good deal of the year 2010’s semi-pop culture musical landscape.

Jordan Blilie is lead vocalist of Past Lives, a band that had its start in the much beloved post-hardcore group Blood Brothers. Tapestry of Webs seems poised to reap this group the same adoration from experimental rock fans. Blilie’s fraternal twin Hannah, drummer for The Gossip, joins him for the song “Down In the Valley,” a track which sounds like a first-wave post-punk classic from the years when anger dissolved into melancholy in the UK and the States.

“Jordan’s sister Hannah was in Shoplifting so there was some sort of connection there,” Fisk explains. “I guess Jordan liked the Shoplifting record a lot. He liked the way I had recorded and layered Hannah’s voice. It was great having her sing on Tapestry.”

The other eleven songs on Past Lives’ first full-length show how Jordan Blilie and his band-mates Devin Welch (an original BB who once left the band), multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, and drummer Mark Gajadhar (also known as the DJ for Champagne Champagne) combine diversity with dramatic tension. Simple tom beats are layered with cacophonous guitars and keyboards, Blilie’s wide-ranging vocals always right on top of Henderson’s sinuous bass playing. Explanations for this sonic expansion from the root days of more frenzied punk shows follow from Blilie.

Is it safe to say that the Strange Symmetry EP was probably recorded fairly soon after the band formed, getting back together with Devin?

Yes. Those songs all came together within the first 6 months of being a band.

Why did you guys want to work with Devin again? What was it about his playing?

I’ve always loved everything he’s done, from his work with Soiled Doves to Chromatics to Shoplifting. He has such a unique style and he’s so forward-thinking. I love the sounds he’s able to get out of a very simple guitar/amp setup. Plus, he’s an all around great person and a wonderful friend.

How would you compare this album debut with the earlier work? What have you noticed has happened from playing together live and recording Tapestry of Webs?

I think it’s a lot less chaotic than the stuff that appeared on Strange Symmetry. We tried hard to get deeper into new/unfamiliar territory (at least for us). Personally, I tried to give the instruments as much breathing room as possible, trying not to fill up every space with singing. I feel like we were spending a lot more time in the practice space writing than we were playing live, so the weird/challenging thing now is trying to make the songs the best they can be in a live setting. It’ll be fun to see how the songs shift and change after we’ve had a chance to play them to death.

How did the Journal of Popular Noise EP come about? Why did you get involved with that?

Byron Kalet has been a friend of ours for a long time, since Junior High and High School. He started the Journal of Popular Noise as his thesis project for Parsons and decided to continue after he’d graduated. He asked if we wanted to contribute to one of the issues and we were happy to put something together. It ended up being a fun process. The guys recorded their stuff with Jherek (Bischoff) from Dead Science at his dad’s place on Bainbridge and I recorded my vocals in his apartment maybe a week or so later. It was weird yelling in his apartment in the middle of the day; he had to leave a note for his neighbors.

photos by Alex Crick

It sounds like Past Lives wouldn’t be beyond boning up on academic music theory, or is your sound more about experimenting with each other on the music organically?

That’s all Morgan and Devin territory. When they start talking music theory, Mark and I usually excuse ourselves from the room.

How did Steve Fisk get involved? Was he an inspiring part of the creative process in the formation of the songs, or was his approach more hands off with you guys?

Devin had a super positive experience recording Shoplifting’s Body Stories LP with Fisk. I loved the sounds they got on that record and Unwound’s Repetition is one of my all time favorite records.

All the music was written prior to going into the studio at the end of July/early August. We did all the vocals and overdubs at his house in Ballard. I’d call him or text him when I was ready with singing and lyrics and he’d have a pot of coffee ready and the mic set up in his living room. It was so much fun, probably one of my favorite recording experiences.

What other producers had you considered?

None, really.

This album sure seems to be about life and death and the spiritual damage in between (“Don’t Let The Ashes Fill Your Eyes,” “There Is A Light So Bright It Blinds”). Any particular events or relationships inspire the lyrics for your first full-length?

I was in kind of a raw mental state. I wanted the lyrics and singing to be completely different from anything I’d done before, but had no real clue how to get there. A lot of time spent staring at the walls or reading self-help books or pacing the apartment. I put myself in a real dark spot. I don’t know, at some point I started to work myself out of it, started to be less self-critical, stopped over-analyzing. So everything was coming from that context with all it’s various ups and downs, etc.

The music as well has many juxtapositions — from the opening thrum of NYC poetry-punk tribal beat on opener “Paralyzer,” to the Stan Kenton-style big bold noise of tracks like “Hex Takes Hold,” and then the stretches of dramatic silence as in “Hospital White.” You pull all this variety off very easily. Do you work hard at it in composition and rehearsal, or do you just make it seem that way? (Seriously.)

I think a lot of it may be due to the fact that Morgan and Mark have been playing together for so long—things like transitions, when to build, when to lay back, etc., don’t have to be explained or agonized over. So it provides a really strong foundation on which to build.

photo by Alex Crick

Your vocals are certainly different than what you were known for in the Blood Brothers; have you been enjoying being able to express yourself less severely, more melodically?

Kind of. I have a lot of insecurities about my voice. It was always so much easier to scream.

Mark’s use of toms is unique, reminding me of so many great UK post-punk bands (Killing Joke, obviously, and The Creatures). Are those bands influences on him (as far as you know)?

No, I don’t think he’s heard those bands. I’ve been playing music with Mark for about 14 years now, and one of the most inspiring things has been watching his drumming develop. He’s self taught, and I’d say his main influences were high school marching band and Wu Tang Clan. I think both were great for informing his sense of feel and his taste level. He has a tremendous amount of skill, but he’s never ultra-flashy.

Do you think there are similarities for Mark in creating rhythms for Champagne Champagne as in drumming for Past Lives? Some connection people might not be aware of in the use of flow and percussion?

Again, I think his drumming owes a lot to his love of hip hop. He knows how to come up with beats that are in best service to the song. It’s great to play with someone who has no ego about his playing. He just does what feels right to him for the song.

I have thrown out a lot of comparisons, but honestly Tapestry of Webs seems very unique for any period in rock and roll. Would there be any surprises for fans to know who or what else may have inspired its sounds and inspirations, that may not be obvious from casually listening to it? And if so, what would they be?

When Morgan brought the parts that would become “Paralyzer”, he said he wanted to write a song that sounded like The Ramones. So that’s why I decided to write about a girl and add a ton of “ooh ooh oohs” at the end. I was trying to channel that 60s pop vocal that Joey Ramone did so well.

It does sound like New York City punk rock of the late 70s! I think you can really feel that influence. I also love how the Seattle record release is at the underground punk venue Black Lodge, and can’t wait to see you guys at the Sonic Boom in-store. You have a huge tour coming up. Do you prepare for this sort of exertion intensely, or is improvisation a big part of your live skills?

We usually try to practice a little more than normal, just to get tighter. But it’s nothing too intensive.

Past Lives are celebrating the release of Tapestry of Webs with a free in-store performance tonight at Sonic Boom’s Capitol Hill location (7PM). Next they’ll be at the Harvest of Hope Festival in St. Augustine, Florida, on March 12 before they begin a two-month tour that will take them away from the Northwest. See them now while you can!

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