Interview: Ravens & Chimes (Part 1)

2007’s Reichenbach Falls is the kind of album that grabs you and doesn’t let go until you’ve been shaken to your core. Like a less melodramatic Arcade Fire, perhaps, or a more visceral Bright Eyes. The emotions are so raw and the songs so strong that the connection can’t help but be immediate, though the album’s spare narratives leave one with plenty of lingering resonance. As a New York resident last summer, its evocative portrait of the city as lonely subways and empty houses went even deeper for me. It was with nostalgia for the East Village and excitement about the album – Ravens & Chimes’ debut – that I called frontman and primary songwriter Asher Lack. Our conversation ranged from the city to recording in Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s studio to following Radiohead’s album-leaking footsteps. Here, in part one of two, we discuss the band’s genesis, the best bars in New York and a guitar that never goes out of tune.

Ravens & Chimes – “January”: mp3

After the jump – the interview.

David Greenwald (DG): Start us from the beginning. When did you start writing songs?
Asher Lack (AL): In high school. I was always doing music stuff. This record started – it was like 2001, 2002, so six years ago now. I had just moved out of my parents’ house and was living in a dormitory at NYU. I started writing songs and they started piling up on top of each other. I was playing in bands the whole time. It was tough because when you’re in school, you have this shelter, you have this sort of free pass to do what you want because your life is paid for by either your parents or whatever grants the school gives you. So it was hard to get people who wanted to be serious about anything.

DG: Did you meet the rest of Ravens & Chimes at college?
AL: I met Avery [Brooks – synthesizer and piano], Brittany [Anjou – vocals, piano, glockenspiel] and Abe [Pollack – bass] there. Norah [Kelleher – vocals and flute] and I went to high school together.

DG: A friend of mine in the band Darlings just graduated from NYU and said everyone he knew there was in a band. Did you feel like it was a creative atmosphere or was it more competitive?
AL: Yes, definitely. There was a lot of competition at NYU between the bands. I didn’t know a lot of the bands that went there because I was in the writing school and not the music school, but the guys from Grizzly Bear graduated maybe a year or two before us. They were on the tip of everyone’s tongue right after we graduated. It was like, “Oh, we’re doing it, but are we Grizzly Bear doing it?” There’s something about a lot of kids who live in Brooklyn. They’re transplants, so there’s a lot of having something to prove about how from New York you are. That was something that was big-time present when I was in school, which was strange because I grew up here, Nora grew up here and Avery grew up outside the city so we sort of knew what it was like to be here. To see all these people come in and try and out New York you is very strange.

DG: Do you know much about that whole Brooklyn scene, bands like Grizzly Bear and the National and Sufjan Stevens? It seems like they’re all pretty friendly and playing on each other’s albums.
AL: It’s great to see bands buddying up. I think it’s funny because in a lot of these circles, they have to feel like they’re going to miss out if they don’t call you to want to work with you because New York is so do or die. Rent is so high and food costs so much and you have to work so many hours a week to do anything. That’s why I felt like it was good for us to get out of town [Ed: out of the country, in fact – Montreal, which we’ll discuss in Part 2] to do our record, to go to somewhere where the pace was a little bit easier and a little bit more conducive to us creating something. But also it’s great, there’s no place like home, like here.

DG: Speaking of which – where are your favorite places to hang out in the East Village? My favorite bar when I was there was Burp Castle, on 2nd Avenue and 7th Street.
AL: Yeah, totally. Avery used to live across the street from that place. He lived upstairs from this crazy rent-controlled apartment that all these drug addicts had. They would wake him up ringing his bell at like 4 in the morning being like [in a New Jersey accent] “Sammy, where the fuck are you?!” Since then, they’ve all been cleared out and bankers now live everywhere in the neighborhood. I love Black and White, which is a really cool bar on 10th street, between 3rd and 4th Avenue. It’s nice because on a weeknight, it’s very quiet and a lot of local rockers hang out there. Carlos D from Interpol, who is a super-ubiquitous downtown dude, used to DJ there on Sundays. McSorley’s is not bad if you have friends in from out of town and you want to show them something that’s really crazy and authentic.

DG: That’s been there forever, my grandpa used to go there when he was in college.
AL: Yeah, they have pictures of Woody Guthrie and Abraham Lincoln drinking there. I went there on my 21st birthday. I think they get a government subsidy because their food and drinks are very, very cheap. They only serve light and dark beer and these very surly, ancient Irish dudes work there and if you order anything other than light or dark they’ll make fun of you. There’s a café around the corner from my house called Atlas which is very vegan-esque but not always. And this place that serves burritos which is open all night long called Cosmic Cantina. The owner of the place is this really out-there guy who just invented a guitar that doesn’t go out of tune. I went to his house and played a prototype of it.

DG: Really? How’d he do that?
AL: He uses springs. There’s a second spring that the string is loaded through to balance out the string tension. It’s this very complex device – he’s patented all this crazy shit, hopefully he’s going to make millions off it.

DG: To get back to your music, there are so many references to the city on the album – to Coney Island or 11th Street. What is it about New York that so inspires you?
AL: A lot of the things on this record are about coming to terms with change. I think that I’ve found that the changes I’ve gone through personally have been very reflected in the landscape of New York around me. 10 years ago, when I was 15 and I was starting to become aware of my surroundings in a way that I could go places that I wanted to go by myself, I could ride the train to friend’s houses – the change between the city then and the city now, vs. the change of me then and me now, it’s been a huge thing that I think about a lot. My relationships with people, people I don’t talk to anymore, people who have seen the way the city’s changed and said this isn’t for me, and left. Whether I take that personally, because I identify so hard with it here, or not, is a big thing. What’s crazy about New York and some of the other cities on the East Coast, is they were founded before people used gas and before people used trains so you had to be able to walk everywhere. There’s definitely that feeling that in an hour’s time I can walk anywhere I need to be, so there’s this immediacy. That has definitely affected who I am as a person, demanding things in an immediate fashion. So I think that’s where a lot of that urgency on the record comes from.

DG: It’s also very reflective at times too – where did a song like “The House Where You Were Born” come from, is it based on a particular place or a person?
AL: Yes and no – it’s interesting because a lot of the time, it plays both ways, where a lot of the time the details of a song will be something personal, but the emotional side will really be dedicated to something completely different. With “House,” there’s no literal place where it exists. I was running an errand for my old boss and I passed by this stand on the street and they had these old photographs and I bought a bunch of them and hung them up on my wall. One of them was actually the cover for our first demo, which was that song. It was this family, a little girl and a boy standing in front of this ramshackle house from the ‘30s, and it just felt so right-on with where I was – remembering, you’re a person, you’ve been through all this bullshit, internalize it and get over it, you can’t let this sink you – you have too much to say and too much to do.

DG: What led to doing that song as the demo?
AL: I had gone through so much – before we started working on this record and before the band came to exist, my last band had been through this whole terrible break-up. I felt so personally and spiritually bankrupt. I just felt finished, I had no friends because all my friends had moved away and I still had a year left of college. I had been asked by another band to drop out of school and join them up in Canada and I turned it down and decided to finish school. It was sort of like, why am I doing this, what is this about? I just felt so empty, and then it started coming back, good feelings came back and inspiration came back and “House” was the first song where I knew that I needed to keep doing this and I needed to keep being in a band. That was the song that ended up getting us signed.

DG: Are the songs on the album newer material or have some of them been kicking around for a while?
AL: Oh yeah, “11th Street” was like the second song I ever wrote. I have this friend who still lives in my neighborhood – he lived across the hall from me in my very first dorm when I was 18 and I remember I had been working on it for a while and I knocked on his door and was like, hey Ryan can you come over and tell me if this song is any good? I played it for him and he was like, yeah, that’s a keeper. And with songs like that one and “January,” those are the two oldest songs on the record, they’ve gone through so many incarnations that it’s wild to see them be what they are now. I go through some periods where I’m really mad at the song and I don’t want to play it, it doesn’t feel right to me, it doesn’t say what I want it to say, and there are times when it does. And those ones I think, alternately, had something in them that was meaningful enough to me to put them on this record.

DG: If a song’s not working, are there particular things you do to break through the writer’s block?
AL: I try to think back to why I wrote the song and what I was trying to accomplish. It’s like when you have oysters, they make pearls from the dirt that gets lodged in them, so I feel like emotional bullshit gets pent up inside me and the only way to express it is through this. This is how I’m going to give some event that I went through a coherent, clear beginning and an end. Because life really doesn’t – at least the life I’ve experienced doesn’t have that. There are things that linger and things that burn out at inappropriate times and there are things that are really unpicturesque.

DG: You majored in screenwriting – how does that factor into your lyrics and the way you structure songs?
AL: It’s about giving symmetry to things that don’t have symmetry. Nothing really has this great coherent beginning, middle and end. One of my professors said all great stories have secrets. They all have something that implies that they’re much larger than what you’re actually getting. Life is like that, I guess. It’s getting a little grandiose for me to say this, but you go through these huge things and you’re trying to cut them up and condense them into something clear. It might not necessarily make sense and it might not have a satisfying beginning, middle and end but it has a point at which it stops and you can stop thinking about it. Hopefully you’re giving away a glimpse of that and you’re not giving away the whole thing.

Coming in Part 2: Montreal, Leonard Cohen, and the future of the music industry post-In Rainbows.


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