Exitmusic – A Balance That Doesn’t Have A Formula

I’ve always felt consumed by primal fears… and the only way to make something worthwhile with them is to turn it into something, like taking the white noise of chaos and composing to it, finding melody and harmony.” – Siobhán Kane talks to Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church of Exitmusic who play Whelan’s this Saturday.

On the song ‘Sparks of Light‘ from Exitmusic‘s record Passage, Aleksa Palladino sings “we are sparks of light, but we hide it”, and in a way these lyrics manage to distill the impulse that throbs beneath their work – the fuzzy emotion, the muffled yearning, the vulnerability and clarity needed to search for truth.

Palladino met Devon Church many years ago, and as well as falling love, they fell into musical collaboration – beginning with their raw, epic record of 2007/8 The Decline of the West, created at a time when Los Angeles was their landscape. After a move back to New York in 2009 (when Palladino took the role of Angela Darmody in Boardwalk Empire), their work also shifted slightly in tone, evident in 2011’s EP From Silence, and this year’s Passage – this is music that seems created by half-light, with truths poking through a kind of skewed dream pop; darker, richer, but no less hopeful or romantic in conceit.

Their music is thoughtful and reflective, and live this swells further, as their recent performance at Iceland Airwaves attested, and their music is haunting in an unusual way, because it seems to haunt the musicians as well as their sound – which rises and crashes on a song like ‘The Night’, which is all hazy, droning guitars and Palladino singing through a kind of sighing – the kind of sigh that explains a thousand feelings, as Siobhán Kane finds out.

Your 2007 record Decline of the West in 2007/8 was epic in many ways – and I wonder if it was in part influenced by space, as you were living in Los Angeles at the time. I know that you both share a huge admiration for David Lynch, and there was something about that record that reminded me of some of his own conceits, perhaps because he unsettles what appears settled, he provides ripple effects in a “perfect” family portrait – what are your thoughts?
A: I think the space you’re in has a strong influence over you. We had moved to Los Angeles from New York without knowing anyone there and felt very separated from it for some time. There’s a stagnant tension that I always feel in LA… like something is always on the verge of upsetting the calm, the sunshine, the facade of “inner peace”.

D: Like an earthquake or a riot. Or just some strange occurrence – a pack of wild coyotes a block from the theatre where they hold the Oscars, for example. Once we saw David Lynch a couple blocks from our apartment in Hollywood, standing outside a Christian Scientist church with a live cow, a high school marching band and a banner that said “For Your Consideration.”

How do you feel about that record now? Does it seem like a very different time, sound and project?
D: I love that record but it does seem somewhat distant to me now. Passage is a much more conscious album – with the Decline it was almost as though we were wandering through a foreign landscape, or a dream. There’s an anxiety in those songs that seems to come from feeling acted on by outside forces – there’s a lot of ‘he’ in the lyrics, as opposed to ‘I’ or ‘you’. There’s almost a cast of characters, including a sort of mad emperor type – in a vague way. This was in the Bush/Cheney years.

A: Yeah I agree. I think that album is very much a response to what was going on during that time. I remember knowing that I wasn’t ready to expose anything too personal. That I needed to build to a more visceral or intimate album, which Passage became.

While listening to For Silence, and then Passage, I was struck by how there seems almost a more industrialised, or perhaps earthy quality to your music now, perhaps inspired again by your move in 2009 to New York – I think that geography can almost become another character in people’s work – do you feel that? I remember once Björk saying that at different times in New York, she has been drawn to bands like Swans and Public Enemy, who seemed synonymous with the city and had “darker tones” in their sounds, something she then thought infused aspects of her own work at different times – what is your relationship to the city and what are your thoughts?
A: I think it was a perfect storm of all elements in my life coming together and making it possible to dig deeper in myself, to express darker parts of myself. Part of it was returning to NY, my home, and once again being immersed into the world I had grown up around, and trying to reconcile things I had left unfinished. It was also just our age… and the natural progression of continuing to hone expression. I also can’t ignore that I was working on Boardwalk Empire, and playing a character who’s vulnerabilities were so on the surface, and I need to go there myself to make it real. I think Passage really became an album that in our personal lives really drew a line between an unconscious life and a conscious one. and that’s where the “earthiness” comes from. It’s very rooted in personal past.

I was also wondering about some of the driving, heavier aspects of For Silence, and Passage, songs like The Modern Age, or The City for example, there seems to be an exploration of the overwhelming, almost unbearable weight of technology, that is reflected in the music.
D: Especially on those two. During that same time I started reading a lot of ecological writing, which for some reason was a subject I had almost ignored up til then. We had also begun volunteering at a wildlife rescue – rehabilitating injured and orphaned animals. Before that direct, face to face encounter with vulnerable animals, the subject of environmental devastation was too painful for me to get into I think. I grew up spending a lot of time in nature, it’s very important to me, and when I finally started facing the reality of the ecocide that is happening on this planet, I was overwhelmed. Those songs are a response to that. Especially the city, which actually has animal sounds interwoven with the sort of industrial chaos of the loud bits – elephants, foxes, monkeys…

I often feel that this period in time elevates technology more than people, applauds more and more invention and gadgetry, without really reflecting on society, people, the soul – what do you feel?
A: Yes. this is true. but I think it will always be the work that examines and contemplates the human experience that people fall in love with… the art that makes you feel human… reminds you of what you are. It’s what we all need from each other, since there is little room in our own lives to sit with our own experience of being alive.

This also brings to mind a sense of nature that permeates your work – and that you view the desecration of nature, the natural, elemental world, as a reflection of people desecrating their own human nature, perhaps?
A: Absolutely the same thing.

D: The natural world is the basis of life, obviously. It’s also the basis of our symbolic language. Crows, wolves, trees, fish – they are all powerful figures in our psyches, and they teach us things. Nature shapes the way we understand and interact with ourselves and each other and the world. So with every species that goes extinct – 100-200 a day, at this point – we are reducing not just the majesty of the natural world, but our own ability to construct meaning out of it. Our ‘souls’ are as much a product of nature as our bodies are, so the desecration analogy works perfectly. We live in a spiritually sort of insane culture, or perhaps literally insane culture, where we just had a presidential election where the environment was simply not an issue, actually the only major issue was the economy. But it’s clear that a ‘growing economy’ translates into increased production and consumption, and faster and faster environmental degradation. But there’s no discussion of that, even though its such a catastrophic problem.

When I think of a song like The Night, Some of the images, and words, are quite melancholic, and almost apocalyptic – there is a sense of purifying something, a purging – in order to get to a better place – I suppose in many ways, it is about finding ways for people to really connect – but you will describe it better than me.
A: I think you did a good job! It’s about struggling with reality, and wanting to exist in a place without any separation between life and death, and wanting to feel in accord with the natural cycle.

Sometimes it feels as if people don’t give themselves enough space and time to reflect and consider enough to know what they feel – filling their lives with a kind of grabbing technology – your music, particularly your most recent work, seems to keep the soul at the core of things – you are discussing things that really matter – it seems very important to you.
A: I’ve always felt consumed by primal fears… and the only way to make something worthwhile with them is to turn it into something, like taking the white noise of chaos and composing to it, finding melody and harmony. I mean, that’s the trick in a way with life – we can’t ignore the bad… but we can write to it.

Your personal relationship must in some regards bleed into your work – not just because of the love shared, but also a creativity – yet there is a duality to your work – not only in the male/female dynamic, but that some of your work means something different to each of you – I remember once you suggesting that for Aleksa, there may be aspects of abandonment there, for you, Devon, – anger – can you explain a little more?
D: Well, I guess that has to do with the different ways we process things as individuals, or as men and women. For me there is the anger I feel about the ecological issues we talked about earlier, or the culture in general, and also old family stuff or personal stuff. Anger is probably the first place I go in response to those things, and I think that is present in our music. But there are a lot of other emotions coming through as well, I think.

A:i think I’m happy to leave further details open to interpretation… there is something I’ve learned from being asked to explain how we met over a hundred times in interviews – thank you for not asking – is that the more you tell a story the less real it feels to you… the physical and emotional imprint gets diluted or distorted or less true. I want to keep this stuff real and hot and present.

Yet your music goes far beyond your relationship – while there is a radiant kind of emotion that comes through, the art is the thing, the idea, the concept, the pushing of boundaries – does that make any sense at all?
A: It’s a balance of having a true emotional footing, but also creating a sonic world that is exciting to be in. The sounds themselves have to connect too. The world has to feel real. it’s a balance that doesn’t have a formula and you have to just know when it’s working and when it’s not.

Your name instantly brings to mind the Radiohead song, are there any particular parts of their body of work that mean more to you than others?
A: Well while we do love them we didn’t name ourselves after them. Exit music is a film/theatre term for the last piece of music played to usher people out of the theatre, like music for the transition of one reality to another. We loved that idea… we loved that space, and felt that was a space we could exist in.

D: Kid A is an important record for us. I don’t think either of us listened to them much before that album came out, but when it did it was pretty much a revelation.

How did the remixing of The Night by Ryan of Polica come about? It is really wonderful. How do you feel about the art of remixing?
A: We did a remix swap. We remixed “Amongster” for them. We like remixing. It’s a very interesting challenge to reconstruct a song using existing elements.

D: I also recently did a remix for a band called Field Mouse, and Aleksa did vocals and effects for a song on Mister Lies new record. Collaborating with other artists is definitely something we’re intrigued about.

You just played in Iceland, a place I think that has a real sense of magic, it is just inherent in the place.
D: It was kind of bizarre leaving New York right at the tail end of ‘Sandy’ and arriving in Iceland to find that the wind was blowing harder there than it was during the hurricane. The wind was literally howling the whole time we were there – it was very intense. And I guess it did fit our music, too.

What bands have you been listening to, or have seen live on your travels, recently?
D: We got to see Shabbazz Palaces in Iceland – we actually saw them twice, and got to follow them on stage for an American radio broadcast – on KEXP – that recorded live from the festival. They were fantastic, one of my favourite new bands. And at Moogfest in Asheville,NC, we played with Morton Subotnik, who is an electronic music legend. I’m also really into Burial and John Maus at the moment.

Exitmusic play Whelan’s on Saturday November 10th. 
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