‘I don’t think this is the only record that matters right now, it’s just the one we made‘ – Niall McGuirk talks DIY, songwriting and vegan touring with Randy Randall of No Age.
No Age have just released their fourth lp – An Object on Sub Pop. One of the most interesting things to come out of listening to the record is the amount of questioning it contains, not solely lyrically but all aspects of it. The way we are sold records these days is questioned by the band putting the whole package together, from putting in the 5 cards themselves into each CD. The design and how we look at things! I was at a talk last week given by Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg who put together the amazing Art of Punk book. They spoke about how bands have brands and images. Black Flag being the classic example. No Age confront that with their garish colours on the new cd. There’s questions everywhere, even down to how these people live their lives as vegans.
Armed with many of these questions I spoke to guitarist Randy Randall about the making of the new album and continuing life in a band. Due to the fact that there are 8 time zones between us I managed to speak to Randy the morning after their launch gig for the album. I was slightly concerned that the life of a rock’n’roller would mean that a 10 am call on such a morning would involve a dull conversation owing to the fact that I forced him to wake soon after hitting bed. Of course for a touring band this is not the case and when I called he was right in the middle of loading in equipment to a radio station in Seattle, bemoaining the scheduling of the good people at Sub Pop.
You’re on tour at the moment – the record came out yesterday – was there a celebratory show?
We played an awesome show in Washington Hall which is an old school venue here in Seattle, home of Sub Pop. It is a notable venue in that Count Basie played here in the 40’s, Black Flag in the 80’s and Fugazi in the 90s. It’s a cool spot, they don’t do shows there too often now and we got guys form the VERA Project which is an all ages music promotions place here in Seattle to go in and rent it and make it all happen.
Seattle last night, Portland tonight, How do you travel between shows?
We have a van, we load our amps in and I drive it around. We stayed in a hotel last night, got about 6 hours of sleep and up to do some radio session and will drive to Portland for tonights show.
You played Dublin for the first time maybe 6 years ago, in a venue opposite a maternity hospital with Mika Miko, Have you memories of that?
That was an awesome show. Skinny Wolves put it on, those are great guys. It was kind of like an upstairs pub tavern thing. I don’t know why these things always stand out in your mind when youre touring.
Do all these cities merge into one, how can you stop them from doing so?
The first time is always notable and then there’s little details, some times you go ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m here’. I grew up with the mentality that I can’t wait to leave this town which i’m sure is a common feeling amongst angsty punky adolescents. I gotta get out of here but there’s that feeeling that I’m never gonna get out of here. So it’s really just dreams, hope and anger that drove me to get out of my home town, so when I end up in a place like Dublin it’s like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe im here’.
When we spoke at that Dublin show it was about being vegan on the road. How is life on the road suiting the vegan diet? Any good / bad places?
Still vegan, diet just gets better. It’s getting easier and more and more places are accommodating for vegans. It’s not quite as left field as it was 10 or 20 years ago. LA, our home town, is the mecca for hippies, granola, avocados and fresh produce. So we’re lucky in that regard. Travelling around it’s a good opportunity to see parts of the city that are a bit off the beaten path. You can nearly always find an Indian restaurant or Thai. France can be difficult, usually in France I’ll have falafel.
My own French trip was salads from supermarket.
Portland is great, our friends always laugh at us cos we come through cities once, maybe twice a year and we have one or two favourite places. Being a tourist, you go to one place and you know it’s great I’ll try it again next year and then the locals who live there go ‘Why do you guys wanna go to that place. it was cool like 6 years ago’. We say ‘Oh yeah, thats when we first came and it was cool then, the spot that was good 6 years ago is still good to me, I don’t eat there every day”.
This is just about your shortest album, Is this the way you like it? Is there an ideal length for an album?
It feels like the album is dense, there’s a lot going on in that 30 minute territory. Even with the songs we are very aware that less is more. We keep it brief and to the point, we get in and get out. There’s moments like Commerce, Comment, Commence where things stretch out – we put it right there at the end.
At times your songs feel almost like compositions, many of the tracks forego the familiar verse chorus, middle eight routine – is that a conscious things?
Very much so yeah, particularly on this record we rexamined what our songwriting skills were and we reimagined what ways we could rewrite songs and keep them fresh but not like a puzzle or a Limerick. It’s not really stanzas, it’s more like prose than a traditional poem structure.
Has the song writing process changed over the past few years?
Yeah we were very conscious about this idea. We wanted to evolve it or at least take it out of the mindless routine of writng a song. ‘This is what you do’, we were questioning all that. Can we get to the pont of foregoing these traditional kind of structures?”
How do you frame your songs?
Sometimes it’s just riffs. On this record not so much it was more just starting fresh. Dean is challenging himself to do different things on the drums and creat a different percussion palate, so he would start with these rhytms and I would try and build simple guitar parts after that.
When do words come into play?
Usually the end. Dean writes and sings the words and he may catch a vibe or a feeling or a phrase and he will place it in there. I stay out of the words.
Can you tell me about some of these songs, mindful of course that you didn’t write the words.
No Ground – The line ‘does anybody really care‘ – care about what?
It’s a bit of a challenge, I thnk it’s Dean explorng his place in the world, searching and stretching. Is it necessary to be understood? Where do you stand? Do you define yourself in the eyes of other people or are you able to live on your own. At what point does that defintion by others shape a persons personality.
An Impression – song about a painting?
I think there’s a lot of painting metaphors in there. I thnk about it as a relationship, about love through the metaphors of a painting. the blooming of love.
How do you feel about Sub Pop’s explanation of the album – I didn’t realise you could explain a collection of songs like this: ‘Lyrically Spunt challenges space, fracturing ideological forms and complacency, creating a striking new perspective that reveals thematic preoccupations with structural ruptures and temporal limits.‘?
That’s a hell of a lot of words. That might be talking about a song like A Ceiling Dreams Of A Floor and some lyrical elements in No Ground where it talks about ‘who do you think you are‘ and spaces ‘you build a stage, you built a space’ you create a world, you create an environment, looking at life as a series of rooms of constructions. Looking at it as a series of things for sale. There’s a lot of physicality throughout this record. The sounds of the percussion, the physical touch. There’s elements where we are hands on with every process of this so Dean is really trying to question everything with these lyrics. Question, how a building is made, how things are made. Are they defined by use or uses? What you do with a space because of how its built, can you rebuild a room around your own activities or your own mind or do you have to fit your mind inside someone elses constructural space. Not being the lyricist I think that’s the shorthand or the dumbed down version of what I’ve taken from it. There’s elements of ‘Where’s the space, where’s the time? How long can this go on, where are we at? What sort of confines are there? Who put them there and why are they there and what are we doing with them? There’s a lot of questioning. I don’t think its Dean’s modus operandi to tell everybody what to do, he’s more questioning these things for himself, it’s his own personal journey.
I get the questions are there, not necessarily the answers. We all have to ask the questions! In Running From A-Go-Go or in My Hands, Birch and Steel – “there’s a way for me to get out of this place” there is almost a loneliness or sadness in there. It sounds great that you’re in Seattle now and then Portland tonight but you’re still away from home. Can life in a band be a lonely life?
It depends on how you look at it. It can be lonely. It can be an opportunity to be around a lot of people. It’s a perspective shift. For the purpose of this record Dean was channelling some of those elements. I think it’s almost like it could go down with songs like Creedence Clearwater’s Low Die or Beatles Back In the USSR. Ideas that there is the travelling band, the pranksters and i think this was Dean’s foray into that genre of writing. If you look at the song books we are tearing apart the song structures but there is a structure in the lyric. There’s a simple melodies and lyrics that are throughways for a songs that is screaming and warbling all over the place. There’s a shift of roles in lyrics versus words rather than ‘the music’s weird’.
The new album features two illuminous colours that both look good and challenge in that if you move it a certain way it can be harder to read. It looks great, how did it come about?
It vibrates, it pops but also blurs together in a two dimensinal way that is the closest representation to some of the scenes and ideas that are happening on the record. When we first were looking at how we were gonna create this record it was like a pop up book, almost like an origami build your own object. Where you get a flat cover and perforation and fold up lines, where you’d have to build this thing to blend in with the themes, the words, the lyrics and then the sounds. But then it felt a little too arts and crafts for us, to tell somebody how to fold an album. I like the idea of somebody buying an album and then getting out the scissors and starting to chop it up but then we thought people probably won’t do that. It would look like an unfinished piece, but that could be cool. We circled the wagons and thought if its in a two dimensional space how do we make it better and the colours came out of that idea. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Why the painstaking process of puttng the inserts in. It used to be that all independent records had to do just that but thats certainly not the case anymore? Do you feel something has been lost?
It’s something that had been lost for us. It’s not that novel of an idea and we certainly started off doing things that way. It was more of a return to form for us and to challenge us and to the way we exist. How do we exist with a label like Sub Pop and to be in this band that has opportunities to travel the world and play these stages and talk on a bigger level. It was a hope to bring things back. Maybe it’s a juxtaposition or a contradiction but it’s to have the best of both worlds. It doesn’t always make sense but for us its a challenge that we wanted to see how it would happen to scale everything up. It’s like a model, ‘here’s an insect, let’s make that insect 40 times bigger‘ and what do we learn from this process. Maybe nothing, but it looks cool and in some ways it was just fun to do and have a good time doing it. I don’t know why but there’s something about delivering boxes and going through the mechanical process that felt empowering.
Do you have a home? Is life different with a mortgage than with rent to pay, knowing that you can skip the rent if needs be and live on the road while touring?
I have most certainly done that in the past. Recently I got myself a piece of land and am married up with a baby on the way. Within the last year I have taken to becoming domestic. I like it, it suits me well.
Will it be harder to come up with concepts for songs and records now that you are somewhat established than as an aspiring artist?
Drunk and poor living on the streets pan handling for change living the hard life?
No doubt you’re still poor, is it easier lying on the street to come up with a concept for a song?
That’s kind of the myth, struggling artist who dies penniless on the ground is they guy that makes the real art. Anybody that can afford to feed themselves three meals a day, its impossible to make art. I don’t buy into that. I dont believe that. I think there’s a certain amount of craft, technique and talent that is applicable to anything. Living on the street does not make it easier for any of those things. It makes it harder to hone your skills and do something interesting. There’s an element of risk taking involved in anything creative and what can happen is that established artists are less likely to take risks. There’s too much on the line with the family and the kids to feed and the college thing so they’re not taking risks. That’s where music slows down and gets muddy and not so much one causes the other. I can understand that, you don’t want to take risks and you keep with whats safe. I think for us that this record is a little different, we’re taking a risk, we’re flying in the face of what was done in the past with regard that it’s not a big happy record. Everything In Between had elements of what we’re getting into here. It’s also a statement of today and tomorrow is tomorrow. I don’t think this is the only record that matters right now, it’s just the one we made. There’s more to come, this is one chapter in an ever evolving story. It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘This is it, this is the thing’. We’re really excited that it means something but it also feels like that as an artist you have to have that freedom to create and move forward. We’re always trying to do that, people wanna hold you to that ‘Remember that one thing you did, it was awesome’. We’re very appreciative that anybody cares at all about anything we do but we gotta evolve and keep moving and this is one step in the evolution. The next one will be there eventually. You got to take these risks. I feel better taking risks now cos I know I have a stronger safety net with my wife, my house and my home. Even if I fail miserably she will still stay with me, hopefully!! Even if I look stupid on stage or wear a funny hat she will still go home with me.
It seems to me No Age are not just a band, you are involved in many aspects, from the artwork and your engagement with social media. Do you ever feel like just sitting back and concentrating on the music or is it the whole package for you?
Yeah, we definitely do. Every night we’re up there on stage and I’m 99% focussed on the music, making sure I get it right but every once in a while I will make sure I’m not gonna fall on my face. When we are writing or recording a record it’s pretty much all music, things sort of go dark. I almost feel like there’s a social media pressure to have something out every day, talking or engaging or doing something. THere’s moments when I’m like ‘I haven’t posted things for a month. we’re working in the studio, nothing to talk about. We’re working.’ Then we go out and we promote it and we want people to know we’ve got a record out and want them to come see us at our shows. You can’t go out in the world and try to hide.
What is your favourite SST album and why?
I’m a big fan of Black Flag, it’s where it all began. Nervous Breakdown 7″. They shone around the world. That band spawned so many bands, so many movements and I think in terms of importance that is iconic. It is the big one. Outside of that I don’t know, there’s also the No Age compilation album where we stole our name from so there’s a place of importance in there. There’s some incredible records – Husker Du, Sonic Youth. I look at SST as a collection and it is hard to pick out one.”
Are there any record labels where you would buy the record regardless of the band?
“Good question. I listen to everything on Sub Pop. Just got the new Don Gibson album, I like that one. Interesting, I kind of go by stores. There’s a few boutiques and I go if it’s in there and a recommendation I go from that. I’ll trust the shop. I think when I was younger I subscribed more to that idea. If it’s out on Southern or Matador it’s got to be good. If it’s on Drag City it’s got to be good. I’m not lookng or buying in volume like I used to. I’m going through old records when I’m in the record shop.