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interview: String Machine

interview: String Machine

Sometimes, a piece of music can hit you in all of the best ways. There’s a magic to an album that makes an immediate connection, to a band that’s seemingly unafraid to experiment with their sounds and identity in a multitude of ways, and String Machine is the very epitome of that. The Pittsburgh-based band just released Death of the Neon, a sprawling adventure that moves with an unhurried determination, encouraging you to seek each of its secrets and hidden pleasures. In celebration of this most beautiful record, we chatted with David Beck, the person who started String Machine as a solo project.

photo: David McCandless

photo: David McCandless

This started as a solo project, and now it has so many members. What made you decide to bring in those extra members? How does each member play into the creative process and just in creating this album?

Threads from the Youth Fossil was an extremely collaborative “solo” album. When it came time to bring the songs to life in a live setting in 2017, I just had the people who wrote the album with me come on as the live band. So, it was a pretty natural transition from solo project to a fully collaborative band. String Machine is a band that was birthed from a solo project & its collaborators. 

For Death of the Neon, the album writing process was very much the same. I’d demo out ideas and collaborate on instrumentation in a studio setting with the rest of the band. I’d go to Mike’s house during the day & flesh out ideas alone. Everyone else would come in at night & add what they felt needed added. We didn’t want anyone to feel stuck to their instrument, so any idea on any instrument from any member was considered and this process really enabled us to diversify our instrumentation and experiment dynamically with all of these sounds/styles at our disposal. 

What was it like recording this album together? What were some of your favorite memories and when did you first begin working on this?

So our bassist, Mike, built a recording studio in his basement. He graciously allowed us open access to it any day of the week, which was liberating. I tried to be punctual & write to-do lists every morning I’d go there. 

It took us forever to find an accessible piano that was in tune. As soon as we had lost hope & started to consider using MIDI piano sounds, our drummer Nic was literally given keys & open access to a church in Butler that was only occupied on Sunday mornings. We recorded vocals for the Portrait People album (which we were working on simultaneously) & realized that the piano there was in tune. The only catch was that they turned the heat off after every service & we didn’t want to risk burning the church down, so we recorded everything there while it was 20 degrees outside in January. When Dylan recorded piano, it was 35 degrees inside the building. So we got some space heaters, Ian & Laurel brought homemade curry in a crock pot, and we endured the cold to get the tracking done. It was a pretty wholesome week. 

How long did you work on this album, and you mentioned secluding yourself in a Saxonburg home, so at what point did you realize that it was done?

We were playing a lot of shows in the summer of 2018 & we just weren’t able to find the proper time to record. So we decided against playing shows for a good 9 months to finish the record. There are a lot of amazing bands on the East Coast, so it was also hard not to be continuously comparing their art with our own. So in order to make an album we felt was true to us, we secluded to Saxonburg. I ditched my cell phone for the duration of recording so I wouldn’t be distracted. The last session with our mixing engineer, Jake Hanner, was probably the moment that it occurred to me that it was done. It was a pretty surreal feeling, like “well, now what do we do?” The recording process exhausted us & it honestly felt like a breath of fresh air to have actually finished it. 

What are some of your favorite tracks or what tracks really define what you wanted this release to sound like?

My favorite track is probably “Death of the Neon, Pt. 1, 2, & 3” because it has everything I envisioned for the album woven into a single song. It’s frantic and anxious, then settles to an uncomfortable calm, & then ends in a manic blast of euphony that still gives me goosebumps. I like to think of it as the microcosm of mood in the album. Up until that point in the song cycle, you hear the isolation and anxiety of emotional callus. After that point, you hear someone come to terms with their spirituality and pierce through the bubble. Our cello player, Katie, loves “Pit of the Peach” because it seems to be the peak density of our whole album. The orchestration is dense & all of us seem the most unified on that track. “No Holiday/Excite Again” was also an exciting one to create. When I showed the demo of “No Holiday” to the rest of the band, I think it was a moment when we realized that we were onto something. 

This album contains so many tiny details and instrumental moments that are unexpected. What are some of your favorites and what should listeners be listening closely for?

photo: David McCandless

photo: David McCandless

At the end of “Rattle on the Spoke,” you can hear a bunch of voices. I wanted the ending to be almost like an ambient section with a weird atonal skeleton piercing thru the color. So, everyone in the band just picked up a random book in the basement & we recorded them reading a passage from it. Ian read the back of my nicotine gum package, I read a weird engineering textbook Mikey had, Dylan read a passage from his favorite book The Little Prince, so on and so forth.

In the middle noise section of “Death of the Neon, Pt. 1, 2, & 3,” we wanted the sounds to represent a car wreck. So to bring it full circle, we mic’d up the engine in Nic’s Ford Crown Vic and had him rev the shit out of the motor. 

In the ending of “Eight Legged Dog,” you can hear guttural chants to the beat. We decided to woof like dogs in quarter notes all surrounding a microphone. 

What influence has Pittsburgh or Western Pa played on the band and this recording?

There was a specific moment I think of when thinking of about this album in relation to Western PA. One night in November 2017, we played a show at Roboto. After loading all of our equipment into Mike’s basement at the end of the night, I started driving home. The car started to overheat. It was 9 degrees outside. My phone died. And the only thing I knew to do was drive 100 yards, stop, drive 100 yards, stop, until I made it home. The moon was bright & halfway thru getting home, I decided to get out of my car and go for little walks to warm up while I waited for my car engine to cool down. No one was on the road in rural Pennsylvania at 2AM. It was quiet, it was beautiful & clear outside. So I like to think that when all of our cars have given us problems over the past year, those moments of calm that thawed from moments of panic while stranded on the side of the road are what we see when we think of what places went into this album. The drive to Mike’s house is treacherous in the wintertime. We’ve all gotten stuck. 

This album feels very visual. What are some of the things that inspired you, be it places, pictures, art, food, anything?

So, my dad is building a car from scratch right now. He fabricated the whole entire frame, body, etc. It’s a trip seeing all of the different components stripped to a skeleton: the break lines, fuel lines, spark plugs. How it all works together to simply put the whole metal being in motion resonated with me. I wanted to create something just as complex. Every layer has a purpose, every little fiber of the music works together to bring you the sound. & then there comes a point where you have to set aside perfectionism & just put it in motion. Let it be your daily driver. Troubleshooting a dysfunctional car is a lot like troubleshooting a song. Isolate, pay special attention to the small details & deisolate. Does the track feel right? Do the gears grind? Does the engine overheat? Are all of the instruments in tune? Is the spaghetti sauce seasoned right? Should you add sugar or try again from scratch? 

 What advice would you give our readers?

Make to-do lists. Write songs you don’t like. Make art that isn’t good. You have to keep your line in the water to catch the big ones. Sometimes you’ll reel in a little fish that you throw back. Sometimes you catch a keeper & they usually swim in herds. I always feel like I can overcome any creative block by just working thru it. Record songs when you’re excited about them. There is a certain creative pulse that comes when something is fresh. Capture that & don’t overthink it. This all works for me at least. 

photo: David McCandless

photo: David McCandless

photos: The Beths, Girl Friday, and Ariel View at Biltmore Cabaret

photos: The Beths, Girl Friday, and Ariel View at Biltmore Cabaret

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guest mix: Parsnip