Interview: Do Make Say Think

Photo by Amit Dahan

Stubborn Persistent Illusions has been my car album since it came out back in May this year. I’ve drummed out “Horripilation” on my steering wheel more times than I remember. It’s an album to which I feel viscerally connected: the percussion on the “Bound And Boundless” can be thunderous, while the climactic moments of “As Far As The Eye Can See” – which rises out of its uplifting orchestration to become something much darker, all fizzing synthesisers and fraught harmonic changes – smothers all space with vibration. I’ve also listened via headphones on many occasions, during which times it becomes a different record entirely. Suddenly I’m dropped into a ballet of illusionary depth and hallucinated detail, with guitars fidgeting between different fidelities and cavernous reverb swallowing up the most intimate of fingerpicked exchanges.

Below, guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Justin Small discusses the band’s upcoming live dates, playing the faders, slowing time and the privilege of being the world’s best Do Make Say Think covers band.

This quickly became my favourite DMST record. I’ve taken it with me everywhere over the past few months, and each new listening experience adjusts my understanding of / relationship with these pieces. It’s wonderful. I understand that you’ve been working on this material (sporadically) over the course of the past five years; how are you feeling about this album now that it’s out in the world?

It’s my favourite. For a couple of reasons. Namely, it’s the newest, so its process is somewhat still fresh, and also because it was never supposed to happen. I wouldn’t say Other Truths (the album before it) was a step back, but it wasn’t a step forward either. And we just sort of drifted from the scene. Stubborn Persistent Illusions had to move in trajectory that was put forward by Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn and You, You’re A History In Rust, or it wasn’t going to see the light of day.

I love how this record plays with proximity. Sometimes guitars seem to curl up inside my ears (the opening minutes of “Horripilation”) – at other points, the drums seem to be wafting in from an adjacent room (“Her Eyes On The Horizon”). It makes me realise that the listener is predominantly a “static” presence within the experience on most records, and it’s refreshing to have this brought into question. What is it that draws you to manipulate depth, distance and location like this? Was this achieved through the use of physical space (recording in a variety of different rooms, varying the instrument’s proximity to the microphone etc), or through post-processing, or both?

Both. We’ve always prided ourselves on making the mixing desk an instrument as much as a guitar or drums. We like to play the faders as though they were notes on a piano. For one of the songs (“Her Eyes On The Horizon”), we took PA speakers to an old church and blasted each track of the session while Charles walked from room to room wearing a binaural microphones on head to mimic the human ear. That was a blast to mix!

PHOTO BY ADAM MARVY

On a similar note, you have a remarkable knack for transforming the “landscape” of a piece of music while retaining the central kernel of the song. “Her Eyes On The Horizon” moves from a “rock” configuration into strings and brass with such fluidity, and even though all of the instrumentation has been overturned, I still feel as though I’m ultimately walking upon the same path. It’s something I’ve heard in so much of your music prior to this record as well. How easy is it to orchestrate transitions like this, while retaining a sense of continuity somehow?

Well, on this record we were hoping to achieve a greater effect than we have in the past. In the past, it was cool to mix natural sounds (sounds of the street, forest, barn) into the music in such a way that it seemed to tell a larger story within the song. Sort of placing cinematic sound effects to elevate the listener outside the music. With this record, we wanted to express that feeling with the instruments themselves. Make the guitars roll like waves on the ocean. Have the drums disappear mid-song to give the impression of thought. We even slowed one song down to half-speed and then played again on top of that to give the impression that time was slowing. Y’know, nerdy crap like that!  

I’m a fan of old creaks and unoiled hinges, and there’s a beautiful creak at the close of “A Murder Of Thoughts” that sounds like an old gate swaying back and forth. I don’t suppose you could divulge what this is and where/when it was recorded?

Charlie recorded his daughter on a swing. Sorry Chuck! 

Stubborn Persistent Illusions feels like an appropriate title for the truth-skewing narratives spouted by certain political entities over the course of the last couple of years. Perhaps this title is designed to remain open, but does it hold any particularly prominent meanings for you personally?

The title actually comes from a movie that Ohad and I scored called How To Build A Time Machine. And one of the subjects says it in regards to life. I’ve always liked the ring of that. It’s open, but our narrative is about wild thoughts. How the leave and come back, are in an essence, an illusion.

Given that there appears to be so much shaping/chiselling/pruning done in post-production here, is it obvious to you when a song is “finished”? Or do you have to self-impose deadlines to prevent the process from rolling on forever?

Usually a screaming match will determine when a song is done. There are some people in the the band I’m sure would still be mixing this thing. There are no deadlines – that’s obvious as it took nearly 5 years to do this – but at some point we have to walk away or we’d end up hating it.

Marianne Collins’ artwork for Stubborn Persistent Illusions is absolutely gorgeous. How did you come to know of Marianne’s work, and how much was she given in terms of a concept or foundation for how the artwork should look? Was there much deliberation before taking the decision to “outsource” your album art for the first time?

Marianne is great right?!!!!!!!!! She did a painting for Charlie for his Happiness Project and it’s beautiful. She agreed to do this for us and we’re totally happy. We were terrible clients though! Always changing our fucking minds! It must have drove her crazy! We wanted a lot to be different about this record, and the artwork seemed like a good launchpad. 

I had to look up the word “horripilation”, which refers to one’s hairs standing on end due to sensations such as excitement, fear or cold. Can you recall the most recent artistic experience – film, album, whatever – that might have made you horripilate?

I saw a performance of Hauschka (Volker Bertelman) and it was transformative! He plays treated piano in hour long compositions. It was magic!  

You’ve already taken some of this material into the live setting, and I see that you’ve got a show coming up in the next few days as well. Given the role of the studio plays in crafting these pieces on record, how difficult is the process of reshaping this music for the purpose of performing it live? Are you led to understand/perceive the music differently as a result of this process?

We’re the best DMST cover band in the world. When we create a new album, we do it with as little care as to how easy it is to translate live. Well, to be realistic, the songs are often built around jams which were performed live in the first place. It’s just that they end up different and we then have to learn those as covers!

What’s on the horizon for yourself and DMST?

We get to do a couple of more live shows because of gaps in Broken Social Scene touring. Perhaps we’ll release another record in eight years!