Rachel Staggs from Experimental Aircraft
Hello Rachel. Please introduce yourself to our readers. Where is ExAir based and how did you form?
Experimental Aircraft is based in Austin, Texas and was formed by TJ and myself back in October of 1997. I was in another band at the time and we played a house-warming party at TJ’s new place. It was really the first time I met him, even though I know our paths had crossed before. He helped me find enough outlets to power my pedals and was very supportive. My band fell apart later that same month and he called to see if I wanted to come over and play guitars together. He taped the first time we ever played music on a small handheld tape recorder. After we spent a couple of hours playing, he drove us around town and we listened to it. I don’t remember if we had a formal conversation that night saying we were indeed starting a band, but it was basically understood. Mark came along a couple of months later and Jason joined in the spring of 1998 while we were recording the first album.
Love for the Last Time is, frankly, a beautiful and amazing piece of work. Can you give us some indication of what the writing and recording processes were like?
Thank you. We take quite a while to complete our records. I think it frustrates some people, but I like to think we nurture the songs so much that if we recorded them straight away, they wouldn’t evolve completely. Some songs don’t need as much care as others. When I brought Symphony to the band, I really felt like it needed to be on Love for the Last Time but we had already recorded everything else and were pretty much moving on to mastering. The guys all loved the song, sensed my urgency to record it, and it was amazing the sounds they created to complete the song (Jason’s real-time backwards-sounding cymbal, TJ’s guitar singing back to me and Mark’s bass line near the end all make the song for me) – everything fell into place fairly quickly and we recorded it just as quickly. Other songs take longer to nurture (Contemplative Silence or Elephant, for example) and some songs even change over time as we tweak them (Paintings in the Attic on this upcoming release). I feel like we are always songwriting, so I guess there really isn’t a process. We write on our own and in the rehearsal space together. TJ records bits of our rehearsals so when we are working on a new song in the space, we don’t forget the progress we’ve made. Recording Love for the Last Time was no small feat. We actually scrapped everything we recorded in the beginning and started all over. TJ mixed Love for the Last Time until his ears were bleeding (not literally). I don’t think he listened to it for a long time after it was complete. That is one of the problems with doing everything ourselves. I want TJ to mix the record because he’s my bandmate and knows how things are supposed to sound, but when you are already so close to the songs, I’m sure you get really sick of hearing them while mixing. I get frustrated with that when I’m trying to mix a demo at home; I can’t imagine a full album with all kinds of sounds and frequencies. We each have various activities within the band that we excel at – I think mixing is really TJ’s area and I feel very lucky to have his skills involved in our recording process. When I’ve let other people mix my vocals on ExAir recordings, I haven’t liked the way they sound. TJ knows how I like my voice to sound and he knows what the band sounds like. Recording is lovely and great fun most of the time. We get to try things we wouldn’t have the chance to when performing. I get to harmonize with myself vocally, which there will be a lot more of on the new release. We also have piano and tambourine on this third album, so we are venturing off the guitar/bass/drums path and adding some new textures to our sound. This next record is also going to have a lot more songs on it than our first two, plus we are putting together a DVD. I’m excited about the sound quality on this new album. Our friend Mark Ford recorded everything to tape except my vocals (which I have been recording in TJ’s haunted attic).
How do you approach writing a song? What, in your opinion, makes a great song?
I don’t think I approach a song. I think it approaches me. That sounds really silly, but if I just sit down and make myself play guitar I will probably come up with something, but it may not stick. Two days later I’ll try to remember it and it’s not there or only part of it is. I just move on with what I do remember because if I can’t remember a part, it must not have been that great to begin with. When I go through something intense in life I find comfort in my guitar – I seem to write more songs when I need that outlet. I guess life experiences bring songs out of me. Sometimes they aren’t the most pleasant experiences.
When we are collaborating during a rehearsal we give each other the time and space to create parts that we enjoy playing or that are right for the song. I play by ear most of the time so if we’re working on something new and I don’t have a guitar part yet, whoever does have a part will play it until we are all on the same page. I find it easier to come up with vocal melodies if we are improvising because I can sing what I hear in my head. On guitar my knowledge of where certain notes and chords reside is limited and I like it that way. I learned how to read music and play an instrument in a very technical way from the ages of 11-20; I decided not to do that when I picked up the guitar. It forces me to play more from a place of feeling rather than a place of knowing. Does that make sense?
For me, a great song is a tune that I have to play on repeat over and over because I can’t get enough of it. It’s a song that makes me smile when I hear it, even if it is for the 200th time. I can give you a few examples of songs that have stuck with me…Punkrocker by Caesars Palace, Murderer by Low (I liked this so much TJ and I covered it for the only acoustic set ExAir has ever performed), Dreams Burn Down by Ride, Rest of the Day by Bedhead, Teenage Riot by Sonic Youth (TJ might agree with me on this one), Statue on Easter Island by Vitesse, Sometimes by My Bloody Valentine, Ceremony by Joy Division, Argonaut by Bailter Space, Teenage Lust by Jesus and Mary Chain…I’ll think of 10 more as soon as I send this interview off…the list is endless…
Your sound definitely matured between your debut album and Love. Do you see any changes or modifications in your sound between your sophomore album and your forthcoming disc? When should we expect your next disc to be released for all to hear?
See above. We don’t have a release date yet, but we are in the thick of recording/mixing and looking for a label to release it.
Your lush sounds combined with your intricate percussion and soft, beautiful vocals really create a great listening experience. Can you tell us who has influenced your style? In particular, I am curious about your percussion and how you go about structuring the tempo and feel of your songs using drums. What sort of equipment do you use on guitar?
The question about percussion is really a question for Jason. He’s the best drummer I’ve ever played with. He’s been playing drums since the age of nine! When we are working on a song, he’ll step outside and I usually think he’s just smoking, but he’s out there thinking about the song and coming up with creative beats. He is always searching for a new percussive sound and amazes me every time we play. His influences are all over the place. His roots are in much heavier music than I ever listen to. I think that is what makes our sound different. We have a pretty heavy rhythm section – both Mark and Jason listen to and are influenced by heavier music than TJ and I. But we all cross over with our tastes in music at some point. When we were in the beginning stages of the band in 1998 and didn’t know each other too well, our shared interests were Bardo Pond, Flying Saucer Attack, Swervedriver, Sonic Youth, Medicine, My Bloody Valentine and Stereolab. I don’t think any of us has a set group of influences. We all listen to a wide variety of music from all decades. Right now I know we are all enjoying this band called Black Moth Super Rainbow.
As far as guitar equipment goes, I can tell you that my pedals are boring and TJ’s are cool (I really don’t know what all he’s got over there!) – we both play through tube amps and fender guitars. TJ plays a Telecaster and I play a Jaguar. We like tube amps and it’s important to our sound. I like a tremelo bar. Guitar Geek just asked if they could put us up on their site. I used to geek out and look up my favorite guitar players to see what pedals they used. Now I have to go and buy more interesting pedals so I don’t look so boring! Lately, on a lot of the new songs we’re playing, I just use the reverb on my amp (I have a Fender SuperReverb) – until I kick on some distortion.
Rachel, you recently recorded with Monster Movie on their Transistor EP. What was that like and how did that collaboration come about?
I am a lucky girl. My friend Matt Bartram, from the band Air Formation, suggested me to Monster Movie when they asked him if he knew any female vocalists that would be interested in singing on their upcoming CD. I hadn’t visited the UK in nearly 2 years and had been talking about another visit. I think he suggested me because: 1. He knew the collaboration would work and 2. He wanted to give me a kick in the arse to get me back overseas for a visit. I am very grateful because it was a fantastic experience. Not only did I get to see my friends in Worthing and Brighton, I also got to spend quality time with Christian (Monster Movie) and his wife Maggi. While I stayed with them, I saw more of London and had a wonderful time spending way too much money! Once it was set that I would indeed fly over to record vocals for them, Christian and Sean sent me the three songs so I could become familiar with them. I didn’t even hear the other songs from the album until I was back home. I was quite nervous about the recording experience until I met Christian. He put me at ease, kept me laughing, and was very supportive. I was already a Monster Movie fan and of course I have tons of Slowdive material in my musical library. I didn’t get to spend as much time with Sean, but there is talk of me being on the release following Transistor – which of course I am thrilled about. I felt at home and very comfortable during the recording session. Usually I can’t get that comfortable with other people around (although I did ask them to block the window into the mixing room so I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me). They were all patient with me and happy with the results. It was a great experience and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
What is your favorite song that you have written and why?
That is like asking which is my favorite cat (I have two)! I think this answer will always change because I’ll look back at an old song that was my favorite then, but I’m a better guitar player now, a better singer, a better songwriter, so it’s not my favorite anymore. I guess for now I will mention a couple that I was excited about from Love for The Last Time. I like Symphony because it came to me in about 3 hours. The structure, my guitar lines, the lyrics, everything. I don’t think a song has ever found it’s way so quickly. I also like Contemplative Silence because the song structure is so different. Most recently my favorite is called Start All Over Again – we are playing it live and it will be on the new album. Of course I like them even more after I’ve brought them to the band and heard what the guys add.
What do you see as the future of ExAir?
We would really like to find a UK label and a US label to release our music. We do all of the recording ourselves and are extremely frugal. It would be nice to have a label we could count on to promote our albums and give us more time to create and record. I think we would release more albums if we had a home for them. We’d love to tour again, but just can’t afford to if there is no guarantee of payment. We’ve had a total of 3 tours – we learned lessons, lost money and we still want to do it. It’s just a matter of not enough people knowing about the music. We get lots of emails asking us to play their town and we’d love to. We have a van that needs a new engine, other than that – we are road ready.
Are you inspired by any authors? If so, who and how do they inspire you?
I mostly read non-fiction. I think high school ruined any passion I had for fiction. Right now I’m reading Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Color of Sound, From Bauhaus to Our House (the art movement not the band), Label Launch. I read lots of zines – Venus, ReadyMade, Tape Op, Bomb, Res, Index, The BigTakeover
Who are you listening to now?
Low (Monkey is one of those songs I have on repeat right now. It’s off of their upcoming Sub Pop release), Black Moth Super Rainbow (Jason turned me on to this band and strangely enough they are on the label that is releasing the Monster Movie album I sang on.), The Nuggets 2 box set (British 60s psyche), Caesars Palace (Sweden), Tommy James and The Shondells (I Am a Tangerine); I’ve been buying LPs from the Pebbles series at an alarming rate – mostly the European and British volumes; I’m slowly collecting this series of CD comps featuring 60s French pop called Ultra Chicks; I just received an order from the Bomp! catalog with an Electric Sugarcube Flashbacks comp, some Brian Jonestown Massacre 7”s, and two volumes of Fuzz, Flaykes, & Shakes – so I’ll be listening to those today…
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