Just before the realease of “Constellations” – fourth album by Balmorhea and third on Western Vinyl – Michael Muller outlines for OndaRock readers a brief story of the band’s music and inspiration. From the times he first met Rob Lowe to the band’s transforation in an established quintet; from post-classical heritage to chamber music influence and the always strong link with Texas history, geography and tradition, through his words we can better understand thet bright and recognizable artistic experience of the band.
Can you tell us about your musical background and training? And how did you meet and then decide to make music together?
Rob is classically trained in piano. I am trained just a small amount in guitar. We met working at a summer camp in the “hill country” of Texas, which is about three hours driving West of our current city, Austin, the capitol of our state. We realized after spending some time together that we had similar tastes and interests in music. Slowly we played music more and more together and then decided to write some material, and thus, Balmorhea began.
Subsequently, it seems that the growing complexity and abundance of elements of your compositions made needful to widen the band to other musicians. Has it been a spontaneous process or a conscious choice? Has something changed in the way you write your music now that you don’t do it only for yourselves?
The process to expand in members and sonically came very organically. It was conscious, but it was something that had a natural progression that was very obvious. We simply make the music that comes out of us. We have never specifically tried to attain a certain result with our compositions, other than being true to what needs to come forth at that time. Obviously, we don’t want to continue re-making the same record over and over, so in that sense, yes, we are trying to achieve new horizons as far as the instrumentation and arrangements are concerned.
Many important bands came from Texas in the recent years, expecially in (more or less) post-rock field. Do you feel close to the Texan artistic scene? Are you in touch with other bands there? We feel close, yes, because it bears much of the inspiration for our music (especially the names of our records, tracks and obviously our band’s name). As far as musically, we don’t feel necessarily too close to any Texas band in particular. There are many “post-rock” type bands as well as indy-pop coming up lately. There are some aspects of their music (like Explosions In The Sky or Bill Callahan) that resound between us, but we don’t consider the grand scheme or our musical output to be too similar.
Talking about post-rock, at the times of your first self released album, some people referred your music to this general definition, while your musical evolution sounds very peculiar and wider than the simple post-rock label. Anyway, what do you think about that definition?
We don’t think of ourselves as a post-rock band. Our pieces are centered around piano and other stringed acoustic instruments. The definition of “post-rock” seems to have been lost over the years. It is too wide and blankets far too great a distance of comparisons. We don’t tend to pay too much mind to this term or it’s classification.
It seems like your music has a close relationship with Texas, also for what regards its territory and history, as the conceptual inspiration of “All Is Wild, All Is Silent” made clear: where did your interest for the story of your country came from? Is it a way to set up an historical continuity of your music or is it only a cultural interest you both have?
As you touched on, the concept of “All Is Wild, All Is Silent” was based out of a book of journal entries of an early Texas settler. An excerpt from that book is relayed in our artwork for the record. The relation of the story to our music seemed to have a strong chord between it and was an interesting concept to us. It is basically the story of a man leaving the comfort of his family and surroundings to explore the unknown at the possibility of a better place and a better life. The grave contrast between the land’s beauty and the utter fright of the unknown was a startling and wonderful thread.
Your music sounds like it doesn’t have any specific space/time: you look back, as for your traditional orchestration and taking inspiration also from folk, but you’re also looking ahead, to new sound exporations and composition structures: how do you combine these two and apparently different features of your music?
Our goal is for us to attain a certain style that is distinguishable as “Balmorhea” whilst exploring new instrumentation and writing styles. This is apparent as you will hear in the stark difference in temperament in relation to “All Is Wild, All Is Silent” to our new record, “Constellations”.
Four albums in little more than four years: it seemed that your creative urgency induced you very often to composition, so that your sound grew mature quickly from an album to another. Which is your ideal condition for writing music? Does it depend on your momentary feelings or are your compositions born in an incremental and more technical way?
Each record was born in the wild, so to speak and never concretely planned. They just came out in a natural order and time of their own. In writing, it has tended to come in warm spells based on the season. “All Is Wild, All Is Silent” was predominantly written in the summer months, whereas “Constellations” was written over the colder lonely winter months. Each season’s embrace is clear in the music.
In particular, when you’re writing a track, do you ever think about a specific condition in which the listener should/could listen to it? Would you like to set up a little “listening guide” for your music, choosing an ideal place or situation that can make one appreciate it at its best?
I suppose the music would be best stiuted in quiet environments and perhaps in headphones if possible. I would imagine it might have a more profound effect if listened to while in transit or doing something in a reclined state. I think each listener’s perspective is different though, so hopefully it can meet each person where they need it to be.
However it’s reductive considering them such as soundtrack music, your compositions are often evoking images and they got a strong power of suggestion, as the wonderful “Remembrance” video demonstrates: is there a link between your music and images?
On all the tracks from “All Is Wild, All Is Silent”, it was a specific narrative progression. The song “Remembrance” was a section of the loose fictional wordless story we were telling there. The record has a very specific sequence. For us, our music does evoke strong images and/or general activity. We have these feelings in us and let a small amount of the “background” out, but it is important to let the listener let her own images evolve for themselves. Similar to a book – we don’t want to ruin any image by adapting things into a film where the characters traits or appearance are concrete and limited and perhaps negatively different than what the reader had envisioned.
One of the recurring themes in your records is the one related with memory, expecially about places, landscapes and seasons. Is music a medium that can give them new life or does it only crystallize them in a frame, leaving them in an unchangeable past?
Auditory memory, alongside smell memory, are perhaps scientifically speaking, the strongest receptors for human memory. Certain sequences of tones just as certain smells trigger exact and specific memories in us. So in that regard, yes, some music can be crystallized in a certain moment, but it doesn’t reside there only. New memories are continuously being created with each listen depending on what the listener is experiencing physically and emotionally at that time.
Even if in “All Is Wild, All Is Silent” there are some more pronounced distant voices, your music is still only instrumental. What did your choice for instrumental music came from? Do you think you’ll ever write a song with proper lyrics?
Again, we felt it only natural and best to leave this open-ended for the listener. Lyrics often are great and complete a song, but by their absence the meaning and intent of the music is limitless and can be malleable to any number of things. This great scope of possibility can somehow thwarted when words are harnessing imaginations.
I’ve been just saying your music is wordless, still the titles of your albums and tracks are often very forceful and full of meanings. What do you get the inspiration for your titles from?
Our inspirations for our track titles stem usually from our surroundings, the emotional relation to what we feel or sense during the writing of the composition as well as the history, literature or art which may be related to the grander scheme of each collection of songs. All the tracks on our new release embody the overarching sensation we felt as we wrote and rehearsed the songs.
What do you think about the “modern classical” definition? Do you think it’s somehow appropriate for your music?
Modern classical is a good description. I think it is more than appropriate. Someone told us we were “post-classical”, which sounded adequate as well. Our music is what it is, however is easiest for the listener to define or classify it to make sense to them is fine by us.
Where did the idea of “All Is Wild, All Is Silent Remixes”? Generally speaking, do you think that electronica can somehow add something to your compositions?
We have many friends we’ve met over the past few years that share in our affinity for a similar style or direction musically speaking. We weren’t trying to “add” something to our music that we, ourselves missed. But merely allowing our friends to reinterpret our compositions with their own perception and molding. Each one is very different and fits within their comfortable framework. The result is a fine sampling of a wide array of perceptions which is very special to us indeed.
You already came a couple of times in Italy, but only in the North of our country and mostly playing in small towns. How come this choice of small towns, not usually reached by many live activity? And how did italian audience received you?
We didn’t so much have a say in where we were to perform. Those towns and venues were the ones that accepted us and were excited for us to come. In our two trips to Italy all the concerts have been very well attended and in some cases sold-out – which is a very nice feeling being so far from home. The Italian concert-goers are always so friendly and warm to us. We truly have loved the parts of Italy that we have seen and are excited to see and experience more. We and are coming back in April!
This interview is going to be published at around the same time when “Constellations” will be released, so can you tell us something about how the idea of album came out and what to expect from its content?
“Constellations” is sparse – a step back perhaps. A wintery and night-time album. There is a strong sense of being at sea as well as the general feeling of darkness (but not in an evil way) – just as in the idea of night-time (which is evident in our track titles). There is very little percussion on the record as it steers it’s rudder more toward tranquil piano and string arrangements. It is a more “classical” record in relation to our previous releases. We took more time in the writing and recording process and feel it is a good step for us as a band. Hopefully you all will feel the same!
(originally published on ondarock.it)