Ian Maleney spoke to Evan Abeele of Memoryhouse whose debut album The Slideshow Effect comes out this week on Sub-Pop.
The line between being introspectively ambient and just being chill is a tough one to balance on, especially in the wake of the nostalgia-sodden bliss wave that indie music has become drenched in over the past few years. There is a temptation to lump together anything that combines wispy vocals with dreamy layers of guitars and keyboard but some acts continue to find their own voices amidst the haze. Memoryhouse are one of those acts. With their debut EP, The Years, sitting in nicely with the post-Beach House feel that everyone was vibing off circa-2010, the duo of Evan Abeele and Denise Nouvion were forced to grow or be left behind when it came to the making of their first full length. After two years on the road, they chose to take the influence of hundreds of live shows and bring them to bear upon their dreamy sound.
Abeele is aware of the shift in tone and sees it as a positive step for the band. “I think people think it sounds different but in a good way,” he says. “There’s a little bit of growth on display on the album, hopefully, so that makes me happy. We became a band really. When we did the first EP, it was just a home recording project for myself and Denise, then we started touring a lot and we recruited a live band. We ended up just taking that approach in the studio, just doing the tracks live and layering them from there. We went into a real studio for the first time so it’s a lot more hi-fi. The production is a lot more up front.”
The two learned fast on the road, a product of necessity as much as desire. “You just need the experience,” says Abeele. “And that’s a tenuous kind of thing to achieve in the music industry now because things are going so fast. You have to kind of condense a few years of experience into a few months or so now.”
If anyone knows about the speed of the industry these days, it’s Memoryhouse. From recording a demo at home and releasing it for free to world tours and an album deal with Sub-Pop in about two years, the pace of the Memoryhouse ascent has been mesmerizing. “It’s weird to move that fast,” says Abeele. “I think that Denise and I were very conscious of what we were doing. We wanted to take our time with the record and make sure it didn’t sound like things were moving too fast. We’d been writing it for two years so we really wanted to make sure we knew ourselves and we knew what kind of sounds we wanted to make before we went into the studio.”
Before the album dropped, the band took the unusual step of choosing to go back into the studio to re-record the debut EP that brought them so much attention in the first place. “It was absolutely the very first thing we had ever done,” says Abeele. “We had never recorded any pop music before that EP and it reflected that. It was very poorly recorded and the songs were somewhat half formed. A band’s first works tend to be pretty terrible because you’re just trying to define your voice and it was something of a mixed blessing to be recognized so early. When the label said they wanted to release it, I just said that if we were going to release this on a label as important as Sub-Pop, I don’t want them to release my demo tape. I want them to release something I could proudly stand behind and that was why I chose to re-edit it.”
The choice to re-edit also reflects Abeele’s feelings on the speed of the industry and what it does to young artists. Abeele has been working as an contemporary classical composer for ten years (note the Max Richter-referencing band name) so he has the requisite life experience to recognise a troubling trend when he sees one. “They’re picking up these young bands when they’re in the high school and then they get thrust into a life they don’t really know and don’t understand,” he says. “If you keep moving too fast, you’re just going to trip yourself up eventually. As we’ve seen with many artists in the past little while. I knew I just didn’t want to do that. I knew enough about composition from having done it for ten years to know when something needs work. Just to have the integrity to be able to stand behind a release you make. That was the point we were trying to make with the EP. It was our first major release and I wanted to make sure it lived up to our own standards.”
The title of the record is a useful key to understanding where the band are coming from. The Slideshow Effect relates to the practice of using slowly-panning videos to animate old photos for documentaries. The obvious connotations are of cultural re-animation and the constant dredging up of the past in music, as explored in Simon Reynolds’ critical juggernaut of a book, Retromania. Abeele is suitably concerned with the inescapable nostalgia of our times and is adamant to not become a part of the problem. “It’s kind of a comment again on the fact that we’re becoming such a nostalgia-crazy or nostalgia-hungry society,” he says. “It’s just everywhere in media, especially in music for the last two years. I’ve found it to be very false and very manufactured. Because our name is Memoryhouse and people tended to view us as very nostalgia crazy when, if we were to speak honestly, we were always very critical of nostalgia. I think that’s partly what the slide-show effect is showing, that it’s not what we’re remembering, it’s how we’re remembering it. I don’t think that it is necessarily false but I think it’s just how we’re choosing to remember things and how we’re creating a self-narrative out of a shared history. So that’s what the slide-show effect really is, it’s how the idea of self-narrative intersects with history and how we’re kind of creating our own history from that.”
With an EP entitled The Years and lyrics that hint at literary influences, the spectre of modernism hangs heavy on the Memoryhouse output to date. It may seem an unusually heady influence for a band associated with chillwave but it’s one that Abeele acknowledges. “I was actually studying modernism in school at the time we were writing that EP,” he says. “So it was very influenced by Waiting For Godot and then Joyce and Woolf were heavily discussed as well. I like that with modernism it’s such a well-established world, there’s very key signifiers that bring you into a certain mind-frame and a certain period or element. I think that both the EP and the LP had to have a real sense of population to them, that it couldn’t be just disconnected pop songs on some disconnected album. Not to say that it’s necessarily a concept album, but it is conceptual in the sense that I want everything that we do on our records to inhabit a very specific world and I think that we try to keep that consistent with our releases. Just in the phrasings we have and the ideas we explore throughout the album and that’s definitely something that I took from modernism.”
While Abeele credits David Foster-Wallace with providing the “self-referential meta-humour on the album”, one familiar name stands above all the others as a defining influence on the record. “James Joyce, specifically his work on Dubliners. That’s what I wanted our album to represent. It’s like there are ten short stories in Dubliners and although the characters aren’t related, it all inhabits one very specific world. Like the streets you’re walking on in The Sisters, which is the first story, are the same streets you’re on in The Dead, which is the last story. That’s what I wanted to imbue on our record; where you are on the first song is the same world that you’re in on the last song. That’s what I think an album really should be, that it’s going to bring you into a specific world created by the band. I didn’t want it to sound like we’re bucking to trends or fads or popular opinion, I just wanted to explore with a sense of genuine integrity what being in a band means for us and then more general concerns about life and stuff. I don’t know if it’s exceedingly pretentious to consider our album self-referential and humorous but I think that when we were writing I just wanted to be a bit tongue-in-cheek with ourselves because there’s so many tendencies for bands to take themselves very self-seriously. I think that a lot of people view us as a very self-serious band when in fact we’re the farthest thing from it.”
The Slideshow Effect is out this week on Sub-Pop.