Interview by Matt Crosslin
Writ on Water is back with a new album and a whole slew of re-issues. If you are keeping count, this is the second time they have done that without the support of a label of any kind. Jeff MacKey & Daniel Johnson recently answered several questions about the past, present, and future of their band. They shared several insights that any Do-It-Yourself band, as well as fans of the band, would do well to check out. Read on the see how they have accomplished the rare feat of living without a label….
For those who are not familiar with your music, how would you describe your sound, influences, and direction as a band?
DANIEL: From the beginning, we were very heavily influenced by the classic 80′s 4AD sound (bands like the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, early Wolfgang Press, etc.) and atmospheric specialists such as Brian Eno and David Sylvian. We were big fans of people creating expansive guitar textures, such as Kitchens of Distinction and The Church. Personally, I listened to a lot of Joy Division and early New Order (I think Jeff originally introduced me to them). We strove to create somewhat unconventional songs wrapped in dense sonic textures.
Nowadays I think our listening habits have expanded a great deal. I’ve gotten into a great deal more world music and choral music. Additionally, I’ve done quite a bit of study and research on 17th- and 18th-century neo-Byzantine music, and I think that has opened me up a lot to modes and scales that aren’t ordinarily incorporated into pop music.
JEFF: That’s always a tough question to answer because there are different types of influences. From a structural standpoint, I think artists like David Sylvian and The Wolfgang Press played a major role in opening up my eyes to getting outside traditional song structures and deliberately avoiding a lot of foundational pop concepts like repeated choruses and whatnot. Texturally, I think bands like Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, the Virgin Prunes, the Church, the later Talk Talk/Mark Hollis work were all important for me, although I don’t know how much of that can really be heard in our finished work. Also, Daniel and I are both listen to a lot of classical music/opera, which probably affects the way we hear and arrange things as well.
How did you become connected with Blonde Vinyl? What was it like being on that label?
JEFF: We had recorded a complete 4-track demo version of ‘Sylph’ (just as we later did for The Greyest Day) before we had a deal in place, and we got that into the hands of some people at Blonde Vinyl. We had a lot of support from some people at the label, like Ken Bauer and Chris Rumbaugh, who I think understood what we were doing. BV put us in the studio with Chris Colbert and Dave Hackbarth, which was a very good experience. I’m not sure Chris had ever recorded anything quite like ‘Silence Broken’ or ‘Conception’ up to that point, but he made some lovely contributions to the album. I think ‘Sylph’ pretty well captures our sound at the time. ‘Sylph’ came out in December of ’92, and the label was a memory a few months later so I’m not sure it ever got a great deal of promotion from the label.
DANIEL: We personally knew several people who were affiliated with the label, so we may have had an unfair advantage in getting our demo tape heard. We had recorded all the tracks from Sylph (with one substituted track) at home on a 4-track cassette recorder, and we submitted that. Apparently they liked it quite a bit, because they made us an offer. We always had a good relationship with everybody in the BV office (when I was unemployed they briefly hired me to do some computer work). They let us co-produce, which as I understand was pretty rare for first-time bands, and we got away with making a lot of not-so-accessible music.
What was the one track substituted from the Sylph 4-track demo version that Daniel mentions?
JEFF: There is a track called ‘Offering’ that is available as a free download on our website in its original home 4-track version that was initially slotted as track 8, where ‘Repose’ ultimately appeared. It’s an instrumental Daniel composed/recorded which we liked a great deal but determined didn’t quite fit with the way the album was coming together. I thought we had lost this recording over the years until I ran across it among some old tapes I was cataloguing last year. We might put up a couple more of the 4-track recordings made for ‘Sylph’ as free downloads at some point.
For those that don’t know, can you tell us about how the Internet played a role in keeping the band going for close to two decades now?
DANIEL: After about 1994 or so, the band kind of drifted apart. A few years later Jeff and I got to emailing about the possibility of re-recording The Greyest Day. I had just installed some digital audio software, so we got together (either at his home or mine) and started playing around. We only recorded one or two Greyest Day songs before we got sidetracked with new ideas. That was the basis for the Pelleas EP. Meanwhile, our friend Chris Nandor had made MP3′s from our Greyest Day demo cassettes, and MP3.com “released” them as either downloads or a CD-R. When we finished work on A Wingless King, we sought a better solution (since MP3.com had folded), and after some research we decided to go with a self-release using CreateSpace, which made our album available on Amazon.
JEFF: It has kept us going off and on, at least. Dan and I looked for another record deal after BV, but we stopped playing live altogether following the departure of Joel and Miles, which made things tough. We took several years off before the MP3 thing really hit. Talk of ‘The Greyest Day’ demo had gotten around somehow, and we’d actually sent out some cassette copies to fans who had requested them. Our friend Chris Nandor cleaned up the 4-track recordings for us, and we made them available via mp3.com back in 1999. Dan had also set up a digital studio at his place, and we decided to take a stab at a few of our songs from the mid-’90s that we’d never gotten around to recording at the time, which eventually turned out to be the ‘Pelleas’ EP. The internet gave us a chance to release our work without going through a label and working at our own pace, which was nice-especially for a band that, as of today, hasn’t played a live set in more than 15 years.
You’ve mentioned possibly re-recording The Greyest Day demos to make a full release. Is that still a possibility? If so, how is that progressing?
JEFF: It’s not progressing at all currently, but it’s still a possibility–an idea I sometimes kick around. I actually think that we did a decent job of realizing some of the songs despite the 4-track limitations, and it would be difficult to recapture material that goes back so far at this point. I don’t think we’d ever re-record it in its entirety, but I could perhaps foresee an EP or mini-album containing new/re-worked versions of some of the songs. Or perhaps not.
DANIEL: I doubt that we will ever get that far. Those songs are from a completely different time in our lives, and we have both grown personally to the point that it’s difficult to relate to them anymore.
How would you compare A Wingless King to Sylph?
DANIEL: When we recorded Sylph, we were allotted two weeks in the studio to record and mix the whole album. This meant that much of the producer’s job had to be done before we even got there (though Chris Colbert came up with some great ideas in-studio, including the wonderful fan-guitar shimmer in the first half of Silence Broken).
When we started work on A Wingless King, we recorded most weekends for as many months as it might take. This allowed us to play around with instrument texture and song structure a great deal more than we had the first time. As a result, I think A Wingless King has something of a looser feel than Sylph.
JEFF: I’d like to think that A Wingless King shows quite a bit of musical growth from Sylph, if only because we’re so much *older* than we were in ’92. As an album, we had tried to construct Sylph with a deliberate aural and thematic arc from start to finish, ‘Conception’ to ‘Colder,’ with ‘Burning Heart’ in the center. I think A Wingless King has more of an ebb and flow as it moves along, although there is a definite symmetry there as well. In terms of sound, I’d like to think there’s a cohesiveness across the decade and a half between albums. I tend to think of ‘A Wingless King’ as being more song-driven than ‘Sylph,’ although I’m not sure how well that characterization holds up to a track-by-track comparison.
What kind of theme/themes did you hit on with both albums and why are/were they significant to write about to you?
JEFF: The curious thing about ‘Sylph’ for me is that I see more of a thematic arc now than I was aware of at the time. When we were putting the album together, we were thinking about an arc more in musical terms, as I think there is a symmetry about the 11 tracks on the album from an aural perspective. And while we were conscious of starting our first album with an instrumental called ‘Conception’ and concluding it with a song (‘Colder’) that finishes with the line, “this is the end,” it was certainly not intended as a “concept album.” Looking back, and having had this called to our attention by fans over the years, it is possible to view the tracks as almost providing some type of running narrative throughout–some of which was deliberate and some less so.
As for ‘A Wingless King,’ there are numerous themes. I think one recurring theme might be summed up as the gap between reality and the ideal, and how one deals with the space between–both in the past and present. I generally write words to music rather than the other way around, and the music therefore dictates the direction of the lyrical content. That has always been my process, although I have come to realize over the years that it’s not the most common approach. Whereas poetry that I write tends to remain separate from music. I think there is a thread connecting ‘Angie Swirls’ to ‘Things Only Heaven Knows,’ the two tracks that bookend the album, but it is something ambiguous that each listener may or may not find for himself.
What are some of your favorite moments lyrically or musically from A Wingless King?
JEFF: I’m not sure I can answer about the lyrics, having written them. Musically, I am very pleased with the organ-like guitar in the first section of ‘Bittersuite,’ and the way Dan wove that theme back into the final movement of the piece, tying it all together.
DANIEL: I’ve been especially proud of the way The Laughter Ceases turned out. I recorded most of the basic tracks in a single day. There isn’t a single synthesizer on that track; everything is a real analog instrument. Also, after we finished up the mix, I couldn’t get the bridge section from Rain Over Unmapped Sea out of my head.
Writ on Water was been around for over 17 years now. How is being in a band different now than it was in the early 1990s?
DANIEL: We no longer feel the least obligation to perform live, or to produce any music at all if we don’t feel like it. I don’t think we’re so much a band as a two-person musical collective.
JEFF: In the early days, three of us lived in the same house, had instruments literally set up in the garage and worked on music together regularly. Today, most of the work is done individually and then shared via internet. Jared recorded the drum tracks for ‘A Wingless King’ up in the Bay Area, quite a distance from us.
Any chance we’ll see any of your albums re-released on a label, or are you wanting to stay independent? Why or why not?
JEFF: Anything could happen, I suppose. At this point, we don’t have any plans to change our independent status, but I’m not opposed to working with a label again if we could find a good fit for what we do. It’s nice to be able to record at our leisure and also to be able to release a project essentially as soon as it’s deemed finished. On the other hand, there are obviously benefits to the support of a label when it comes to marketing and promotion, which we are essentially left to do for ourselves.
DANIEL: I don’t suppose we’d object if somebody wanted to repackage our material and give us money for it… but we aren’t expending any energy at the moment to shop our records around. Prior to the release of Pelleas we really pushed to get noticed by a record label, but the only label that gave us the time of day wanted full publishing rights with no assurance that they’d stay in business. (And sure enough, it seems that they disappeared without a trace.)
Any chance that Three Broken Chords and a Half-Truth might ever make on to CD? Is there any other unreleased material sitting around like that?
DANIEL: I think the whole point of the Three Broken Chords idea was that it’s a graveyard for songs that aren’t releasable but are interesting enough that someone might want to listen to them. You have to be a juggernaut like REM to get away with trying to sell your unfinished experiments.
JEFF: We only intend Three Broken Chords and a Half-Truth as place to download freebies from our website. We have a decent amount of other demo material lying around, although I’m not sure how much is suitable for download.
When I first saw that your CDs currently for sale are CD-Rs, I was a little concerned about packaging quality. But when I got them, I was pleasantly surprised at how professional the overall package was. Many CD-Rs for sale on the web just don’t have very high quality CD booklets and such. Do you print up your packaging yourselves, or is there a company out there that did that?
JEFF: We are using a company called CreateSpace, which is an Amazon self-publishing subsidiary. We shared your concerns initially, but we were pleased enough with their product to go ahead and use their services. I’ve gotten positive feedback from fans regarding their customer service and quality. We will continue to look for the best options for release of our future projects. At the same time, I think that the bias against CD-Rs will be a thing of the past as a result of the quality work of companies like CreateSpace. A good album is a good album, whether CD or CD-R.
DANIEL: After looking at several publish-on-demand businesses, we decided that CreateSpace looked like it allowed the most artistic creativity with packaging. We were pleasantly surprised when we saw how nice it all looked. When you compare that to, say, Cafe Press’s product, CreateSpace wins hands down.
Speaking of CreateSpace, do they give you any type of sales logistics, like who is buying your product or where it is being shipped? Or is it just straight sales numbers?
JEFF: They do provide logistics for direct sales but only numbers for cds/downloads via Amazon.
With all of the great insight you have on the history of the band, I want to throw in the cliché question just to see your thoughts on it: is there anything you would do differently?
JEFF: In hindsight, I wish we’d played live more when the original lineup was together and that we’d documented our live shows better.
Speaking of cliché questions, do you get the questions like ‘what does the band name/this song title mean’ questions frequently?
JEFF: We used to get quite a few questions about the title ‘Sylph,’ but there really is no single answer as to why that or ‘Pelleas’ were chosen as album titles–the various connotations evoke something we felt fit the project, and both have a connection to a composer or songwriter we admire. A few people have asked about the title ‘A Wingless King,’ which comes from the lyrics. These days, the origin of the band name can be found quickly enough via a Google search.
What other future musical plans do you have (studio, live shows, side projects, etc)?
DANIEL: We are working on getting some final mixes for our two EPs to be released this autumn. Beyond that, Jeff has some new material that has been in the process of creative ferment for several months, and I’ve had a couple ideas for sonic experiments. I don’t think a live show is going to happen anytime soon.
JEFF: We’re very close to releasing two new EPs, which may or may not be available before the publication of this article. Both consist of material written around the time of ‘A Wingless King’ but are quite different in sound from each other. ‘Ancestral Echo’ is made up of songs with something of a structural minimalism but are texturally consistent with the majority of our work. ‘Wunderzeit’ is made up of songs I wrote for some acoustic sets that I performed back in 2001 so they are a bit more acoustic in foundation. Once that is done, we plan to start work on a full-length album of new material. I’ve already written a few things that may or may not be a part of it. There are some other songs from the ’90s that have never been recorded properly that could also either become an EP or perhaps additions to ’3 Broken Chords’ down the road.
Live shows…I think it’s possible at some point. I’m not sure how, and I’m not sure where, but I would like to hear how the material would sound on stage again. But first we’d have to put together a live lineup, and there are some other logistic issues that would have to be addressed. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. As of today, Writ on Water hasn’t been on stage since 1993.
I’ve been working on mixing the two EPs this week, and it’s getting close. Jon Sonnenberg is doing a remix of ‘Wondertime’ (from ‘A Wingless King’), which will be included. Once he is finished with the remix, we’ll get started mastering and set a release date. It’ll be 11 or 12 tracks altogether, so basically the equivalent of a full-length. With our prior releases having all been separated by quite a few years, it’s exciting to be on the verge of releasing two projects within a calendar year.
If another band wanted to re-release old material, or formally release unreleased material such as you have, what advice would you have for them?
DANIEL: First, make sure you have the copyrights to re-release your old stuff. Blonde Vinyl has been very good about releasing their artists from any old obligations, allowing us to do a re-release of Sylph. Second, make sure you retain all rights on your material. Third, try to release in a downloadable format; either iTunes or an online megamerchant like Amazon.
JEFF: Go for it. The internet makes things possible that bands couldn’t even consider twenty or even ten years ago. There are enough options out there that there is no reason for anything to be unavailable IMO.
From your perspective, are there any problems with the current music industry? If so, what can be done to solve them?
JEFF: The end of the major label’s virtual monopoly over distribution is good for bands that want to do their own thing, but it can also be extremely difficult to get one’s music heard in such a wide open marketplace. The predictions that ‘In Rainbows’ was going to be the end of the music business as we know it have proven somewhat premature, and most of us who are independent aren’t in Radiohead’s position when it comes to self-releasing material. I appreciate what MySpace has become in the music world, allowing bands an easy way to connect with fans and be heard. Anything that puts the quality of one’s music at the forefront at the expense of the mere marketing of image/product is a plus in my estimation.