Symphonic Rock Bad Assery, and All That Entails: The Mother Falcon interview

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[all pictures courtesy Mother Falcon]

Some things you just need to see. The northern lights, for example. Or a New Orleans Mardi Gras. Mexico’s Copper Canyon. And a Mother Falcon live show.

If you’re not familiar with the Austin based band, their Tiny Desk Concert is as good a place to start as any. This symphonic rock outfit has been blowing the minds of concert goers for years now. With a revolving door of multi-instrumentalists, usually numbering between twelve and seventeen, they are a kind of traveling musical circus. But more Cirque du Soleil than Barnum and Bailey. Simply put, they are symphonic rock bad asses. Case in point: the Valentine’s Day show they put on at Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Studios. The place is probably my favorite small venue anywhere. Mother Falcon member Claire Puckett was so enamored of it when they played here back in August 2013 that she was walking around taking pictures and posting them to the band’s Facebook page.

mfmississippi

Portland audiences, however, are notoriously talkative. And the Valentine’s show had its share of loud mouths. But a really interesting thing happened throughout Mother Falcon’s set. Song by song, more of those people stopped yapping about whatever and took notice of what was happening in front of them. By encore time, the entire audience was eating out of the multitude of hands on stage. Any band that can tame an unruly Portland audience has got chops indeed. Moral of the story: get yourself to a Mother Falcon concert.

Before that show, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Maurice Chammah (violin, piano, vocals) and Matt Puckett (guitar, saxophone, piano, percussion, vocals) to discuss the band’s music, the delights of touring with such a large group, and, of all things, silence. I also had a less formal chat with Tamir Kalifa (accordion, piano, percussion, vocals), excerpts of which appear in part two of this piece.

Part 1: the interview

CITC: First, I want to talk about this tour you’re in the middle of right now. It looks like y’all are up and down the West Coast a lot.

Matt and Maurice: We are.

CITC: If you map it with all the destinations you’re playing, it looks like a giant took some crazy string to the West Coast. 

Maurice Chammah : It’s a really weird list of tour dates because this month we are basically doing this kind of unorthodox touring schedule where we play residencies in a couple of cities so we’re playing every week in LA and every week in San Diego. And then the other days of the week we had to fill in with dates up the coast so we’re doing this one stint up to Portland, Eugene and Seattle and then later in the month we’re coming back to San Francisco, and Las Vegas one weekend. Our very first sort of big tour was last summer in New York, it was the exact same idea where we were in New York every week and then around the Northeast throughout the week. With the size of our band and with the mechanics of things it makes sense to just do this sort of weird residency kind of thing.

Matt Puckett : Yeah, through a purely economic standpoint, being able to cook in the kitchen has saved us so much money. So we have like cooking crews every week and we have this whole system of house responsibilities. That helps a lot.

CITC: So you have a place to stay in LA?

Maurice Chammah: Yeah, we rented a place on I think Home Away or one of those websites and we’re staying in that apartment. And I think they’re in fact renting it out the weekend that we’re out of town. We did the same thing in New York last summer.

CITC: So that kind of leads me into the next question. I counted twelve people on stage during sound check. What are the logistics of that? You guys don’t exactly have some huge luxury tour bus. How many vans do we have here with all the instruments and everything else? It seems like a hell of a lot to organize.

Maurice: Right now, although it’s very different excursions, right now we’re thirteen on the road. That’s twelve on stage, plus Ryan our sound guy. He’s been working with us for, gosh, four or five years. So we are crammed into a fifteen passenger van with the backseat out, so it has all the gear plus seven people. Then, we also have a Chevy Tahoe that carries six. Well, right now six. When we were out in the summer, we had the same number of vehicles, but with seventeen people. So that was two more in each.

CITC: It sounds at this point like y’all are getting pretty good at managing that whole thing.

Matt: Yeah, it’s become a pretty well oiled machine.

CITC: So this is kind of a weird question, but, as a word dork, it’s one I’m very interested in. When y’all are not performing, when you’re getting together to work on things, is that a practice or a rehearsal?

Maurice: I think we use those two words interchangeably. I would say that if there is a division between the ways we spend time together there’s sort of more free form, jammy, song writing type rehearsals where we just get together and whoever can come comes and it doesn’t have to be everybody and we kind of work out ideas together slowly, tweak things. One person will have an idea, one person will add to it, one will subtract. So there’s this very complex kind of writing process.

Then there’s rehearsals for a tour before a show where we have this set set of songs that we’re gonna play on tour. There’s a bit of interchanging with the setlists, but overall we’ll have the set and we’ll run it and focus on the problem spots. And that’s a more rigorous rehearsal situation. If there was a divide I think it would be that one.

Matt: If you were just thinking of the words that we use, I would just say that we make that differentiation by calling it the latter. Running the set, getting ready for a show, we always call that rehearsal. Everything else we just tend to call it jamming. Which sounds like we are getting high in the garage, like “I’m gonna take this guitar solo for a good 20 minutes…” but really we just sit there and play and play until it becomes a song over the course of six months.

CITC: I really want to talk about the OK Computer sets. When I read that y’all were gonna do that, I literally slow clapped. I was sitting alone in my apartment and I slow clapped my computer. I thought that was just the most glorious, great idea. What was the genesis of that?

[Author’s note: starting in December 2012, Mother Falcon has put on several concerts in which they simply played their own arrangement of Radiohead’s Ok Computer front to back.]

Maurice: Our publisher, actually. We’ve been working for awhile with a publisher out in LA, a guy named Benjamin [Groff] who works for Kobalt Music and we kind of developed the idea with him. Internally, we spent months debating which album to cover all the way through. We wanted to engage with another band’s work really closely. I think picking an album that was really heavy on electric guitar and guitar solos and just a lot of elements that on the surface are not in our band at all, that was a really perfect way to understand what makes our music different, how to take that kind of music and adapt it in a way that made sense to us and allowed us to play to our strengths. So some of the songs on the Ok Computer set—which, actually, I could plug. We are gonna release that as a set of recordings in March. March 18th is the standing release date. I don’t think the press release has gone out.

CITC: Nice. A Caught in the Carousel exclusive.

 

Maurice: Yeah. So that should come out March eighteenth. Some of the covers, some of the versions of the songs are pretty close to the original. It almost sounds like we took the song with guitar, bass, drums and stuck it on string instruments and horns. Other ones are very reinvented. Our version of “Let Down” is a cappella. Our version of “The Tourist” is almost all instrumental. Our version of fitter happier…. Well, you’ll just have to see but we have these very creative, strange versions of a couple of songs.

CITC: Can’t wait ‘til the eighteenth… How did digging so deep into Ok Computer inform your own song writing? How did that contribute to the writing or final recording of You Knew [2013]?

Matt: There were two main things that happened while we were working on OK Computer. One was that there were these moments where we pushed our instruments to kind of imitate or better emulate some of the sounds or the effects that were going on in Ok Computer. We just got into using our instruments in strange ways. There are all sorts of pitch bends all over the record. Well, how exactly do we do that? How do we accomplish that? Sometimes the saxophones would lift down the reeds, but that’s not enough. How else do we change? How do we move things around and reach out to what they recorded? And then the other thing was looking at what [Radiohead] recorded and saying well, how do we bring that to our sense of arrangement? And what do we think are important musical values in our ideal kind of song writing? Those are the ones that we kicked around a lot more and it was not entirely random. But sometimes it almost felt like we just got up one day and said we’re gonna work on this song. We were just in the mood to tear things apart. But [all of it] helped You Knew a lot because I think that when we went in to record, we were much freer with how we played our instruments and so there were moments—certainly “What’s the Matter,” which is the 2nd to last track on the album, that definitely is the moment when we’re just getting weird string stuff. A lot of that came out of discussions we had working on “Fitter Happier.”

Maurice: Actually, if you listen to those two side by side you hear a lot of the same musical motifs.

CITC: So I want to talk about You Knew more. I’ve read that you don’t write music down and that frees up the songs to evolve the way they need to. Was that a transition? Did you write down music when you recorded Alhambra [2011]?

Maurice: No. Actually, we’ve been not writing [anything] down since the very beginning. I don’t know that we’ve ever really used sheet music much.

Matt: Not since we’ve been recording.

Maurice: Not since we’ve been recording, no. I would just say that You Knew was kind of like a second step from Alhambra in terms of the complexity of what we were thinking about, in terms of arrangements. On both Still Life, the first EP in 2010, and on Alhambra. We wrote all the songs by ear which took a very long time. But it got us into this process together. We learned how to just play off ideas where someone would come in with an idea and other people would borrow that and put it on their own instruments and weave together a song. We did that on Still Life and Alhambra. But, You Knew was that on a more complex level. And also, in some ways, a little faster in the sense that a handful of the songs on You Knew came together really fast, much faster than anything on the previous records. That was because we had spent so many years developing this relationship to one another creatively, this ability to work together and respect each others’ opinions and even predict what someone else is gonna like and not like. This synergy just naturally worked really well on You Knew.

CITC: The soil just got really fertile?

Maurice: Yeah, and I also think a big difference coming into You Knew was that we had made a very particular kind of record with Alhambra where we recorded it almost all live in a church. Almost everything except for the vocals was recorded live in that church. It sounds in a lot of ways like a classical record in the sense that on a classical music recording the quiet parts are very quiet and the loud parts are very loud. And that reflects in the songs which in some ways are a little bit more classical in sensibility. You Knew was closer to a rock and roll album. It’s a lot hotter, a lot more compressed. And, honestly, radio friendly. It borrows a lot of the recording tools of pop and rock music. But we never would’ve gotten to the point where we wanted to do that without having done the opposite on Alhambra.

Matt: There’s certainly elements of those ideas popping up when we were working on Alhambra. But I remember for me the goal with those two albums was always to do this sort of one-two punch and say, here, we can do this super live symphonic thing so that you can never doubt that. As a listener you’ll already know. We have this whole live thing going on and there’s a particular energy in all of our shows. All these ideas would come up as we were working on the album. Like what if we have these weird sounds, or these things. And I would always say, “it’s for the next one.”

So even before we had any of the songs written for You Knew, I felt like we had an idea of what we wanted it to sound like, which is basically anything we put off to the side during Alhambra. So to me they’re this sort of yin-yangy… like two parts of the brain.

Maurice: Absolutely!

CITC: Why didn’t “Pennies” make You Knew?

Matt: [Laughs] Probably my fault

CITC: We’re not assigning blame here.

Matt: It’s always me. It’s always my campaign.

Maurice: That’s an informed question right there.

Matt: I just…have felt very disappointed with any of our attempts to record that song because all of its best moments involve these crazy scenarios where the energy between the audience and the band on stage is going really well.  We did a recording of it awhile ago. It’s on our band camp and all of us agree it just feels kind of flat. That teasing energy between the performer and the audience, it’s so hard to manufacture that in a recording setting. And since that one attempt to record it I’ve just been on this campaign of “whatever, we shouldn’t record it, who cares. So what if everyone asks us about it at the merch table?” It’ll just be this special thing which is part of why I’m so happy we got this recording of it in Louisville (Alive at Idea Festival, 2013) because I love that recording.

Maurice: and there are a couple floating around on Youtube that I think we all really like that people often come into the shows having heard. So I like the idea that we have this song that’s almost the ultimate single that everybody who’s a real fan of the band knows but that isn’t taking the traditional channels of promotion.

CITC: I think one of the live versions of it is the second song that comes up on your SoundCloud.

Maurice: The one in New York with Amanda Palmer?

CITC: Yeah, that’s the one.

Maurice: Yeah, that was a wild one. And Gary Lucas who was Jeff Buckley’s guitar player.

CITC: That version does kick some ass…. I want to talk about “Blue and Gold” (You Knew, 2013). First of all, that moment where the dissonance gives way to the lone trumpet just destroys me. It’s absolutely gorgeous. From what I’ve read, that song more than any other has evolved over a very long period of time, that originally it sounded nothing like what ended up on the album. How did the final version come about?

Maurice: So, a version of “Blue and Gold” was written years ago.

Matt: It was definitely before I was in the band.

Maurice: Before Matt was in the band, around the time I was joining, which was in the beginning of 2009. It was a very fast, rocking, punchy song. And if you dig through the depths of YouTube, it exists. There’s a really funny version floating around somewhere on the internet where Isaac [Winburne] plays the wrong lick on the saxophone and it just sounds ridiculous and the and kind of fumbles for a second and then recover and starts the actual song.  This is back when I think the band members were still in high school or the beginning of college. So that song was always a fun one kind of like fluffy thing and then it was kind of put aside around the time we recorded still Life. It went into the back catalogue. There’s a few other songs like that that are in our deep back catalogue that never get played anymore, but that everyone in the band knows and remembers a little bit…

And then I remember there was a rehearsal pretty late into the You Knew writing where we were all hanging out at Matts house and we…. I don’t remember exactly but I remember one of us just started playing it slowly and making it into this sentivie ballad and that idea caught on. And I took a melody that normally been this fast saxophone riff and put it on the piano and we had a pedal steel by then and even on the pedal steel was doing this kind of country-ish thing and this idea started to gel. It has one of the more traditional song structures out of anything on You Knew and that’s a testament to the fact that its so old. That, when it was written, our tools of song writing were less complex. Our sense of song writing was a little bit simpler and stripped down and so we took that stripped down sensibility into this lower version where it’s more verse-chorus, verse-chorus. That song, honestly, the new version came together in one night, almost exactly what’s on the record came together at that one rehearsal, which is the complete opposite of most of our writing process. Usually it’s not a song from the deep past that we resurrect in one night, and then we have a new song. Mostly a song goes through 6 months of endless work and revision and toil and this one was not that way at all. But the reaction was really great and it felt like this really strange breath of fresh air. And it was only because the phrase “you knew” was so evocative to us that we ended up making it the album title. Which then makes “Blue and Gold” into this very central track on the album.

Matt: It’s certainly the most like a title track that we’ve ever had.

Maurice: Certainly.

Matt: It’s such a weird leap too. Originally, it was just about trying to catch the attention of someone that you’re interested in. And kind of peacock-ing, and putting out all these colors. It was in this batch of songs that Nick [Gregg] just…. Anything that’s that vulnerable and creative that you write when you’re young, as you get older you’re like, “oh, God, this sounds so juvenile and silly.” But, there are all these great melodies, ‘cause Nick has always, no matter how young he was, had this incredible mind for melodies. So we sat down with it. And I remember that session at the house talking about what he wanted it to be. It started out as this flirtatious thing. And, actually, the new version is this extrapolation from that original story, and the characters are married, and they’re falling apart, the marriage is falling apart. So it takes all that… it’s like its own part two. So, if you can find the original, it would be very strange to kind of look at those back to back.

CITC: Last question. And this one might fail epically but here we go. I’m going to read this quote. It’s from a lecture that John Cage gave at Julliard. It appears in his book A Year from Monday. “Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. And no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.” I want to talk about that in the context of your songwriting and live shows. You guys, more than most other rock bands, because of that symphonic element, have a lot of silence between songs in your live shows. But there’s a very palpable energy and anticipation there. I was wondering if you guys play with that at all, if you ever stretch that out, kind of like a rubber band, and let it propel you into the song.

Matt: Yeah. Absolutely. But the thing that comes to my mind is not necessarily in between songs but… like in “Pink Stallion,” there’s that whole intro and then the first chorus and it goes into… [sings melody] and then, “Mo-ther, Mo-ther.” [Silence] And then it goes on. Well, we have done shows where we’ve stretched that out for maybe ten or fifteen seconds, and everyone just being perfectly still on stage and just seeing how long we can do that it until…. And there’s sort of this unspoken rule at this point that Nick could take forever, and no one in the band is gonna flinch or be weird about it. It’s just… as long as he wants that pause to be. And sometimes he’ll be in moods where it takes the longest time in the world. In “Sleep,” there’s another moment like that too where you have that a cappella part and then right before the piano solo, on the recording it’s pretty short, but sometimes we just let it sit there. It feels really good to have silence at a club show because that’s such a rare moment.

Maurice: And I think that also applies not just to moments of literal silence, but also to moments where we strip down to one or two instruments. A huge part of the growth of the band’s songwriting over the past few years has been that we used to just add a ton of parts, and, now, I think we add parts to a song and then cut tons of them away. There’s almost as much cutting as there is creating at this point. Productive cutting, where… say that moment in “Blue and Gold” where it’s just the trumpet. Or some of the violin solos in “Marfa.” Or, say, the saxophone solos in “Pennies.” Those guys use silence now so much more than they ever did before. So, as we’ve grown in terms of our songwriting, we’re way less afraid to let some moment be just one instrument or two, and leave it incredibly quiet , and hope that in most venues, in most clubs, that those audiences will kind of go with that and follow us there. “Porcelain” is another one where there’s so many pregnant pauses and moments where it’s just Claire [Puckett] on the guitar. And sometimes we’ll put that in the set right after our loudest song where everybody’s slugging away as hard as they can. So I think we’ve learned to utilize that dynamism. There’s just an inevitable energy that comes from a lot of people standing on stage and not playing at one time, even if one person is playing. Learning how to not be afraid to not play has been a really big growth process for us.

CITC: Awesome. That was fun. Well, I’ve kept you guys from burger bliss for too long. Thanks so much for taking the time. Keep doing what you’re doing.

Maurice: Thank you.

 

Part 2: Tossing the ball with Tamir

…in which Mother Falcon’s Tamir Kalifa discusses such diverse subjects as NPR…

Tamir: I mean, NPR has a pulpit…. Just on Facebook, for instance, once the Tiny Desk Concert came out, it went from three to seven likes a day to a hundred to two hundred. It’s amazing what NPR exposure can do to a band. I met [All Songs Considered’s] Bob Boilen in Arlington, Virginia. He came to our show and I just thanked him profusely. I told him, “man, this has made such a huge difference for us.” It’s allowed us to keep doing what we’re doing. And that means a lot…. It’s really cool that NPR can have an audience that trusts it, and that will take their recommendations and actively go out and research and discover and continue to explore. It was funny because when we were doing it we were so in shock that we were actually doing the thing. Nick even says at one point, “I’m going to go home and watch this.” We’re all really giddy about that kind of stuff.

…and the band’s on the road foursquare obsession…

Tamir: We’re all very passionate about foursquare.

CITC: Is foursquare an Olympic sport?

Tamir: No. But it damn well should be! It could summer or winter. We were making a music video for one of our other bands and we started playing foursquare and just realized that it was the most fun, easy way to have a good time. You can do it all hours of the day. It doesn’t matter if it’s noon or midnight…. So we got into L.A., it was the first time in August, at seven or eight A.M. after driving all night from Tucson, and we couldn’t check into our condo until noon. So we played foursquare for like four hours.

mffoursquare

…and GIF’s…

Tamir: So I’m kind of the band’s resident documentarian. And I also run the Mother Falcon Tumblr, which, I just make GIF’s of the band. I constantly have my camera with me and just shoot GIF’s. It’s a funny insight into this thing. Our music can be pretty serious, but we’re not that way all the time. I think it’s important to show who we are as people.

CITC: And as foursquare players.

Tamir: Yeah, when it’s all over, I think we have future careers as foursquare Olympians…. But I always loved seeing… I don’t know, pictures of the Beatles backstage, just getting that insight into their world. So I just want to be able to show a little bit more of who we are as people. This is our tour diary. Or our public tour diary in GIF form.

…and on just how much the band rehearses…

Tamir: We care so deeply about the music and what we produce. We’re so systematic and spend so much time rehearsing. We rehearse the songs we’ve been playing for years almost every day…. We just keep playing and keep playing. And we keep getting better and better even when it doesn’t seem like it can get any tighter, it does.