An unheralded band by the name of The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers has just released an epic indie-rock masterpiece, entitled The Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia. We at Somewherecold were so intrigued by this band’s amazing mix of musical creativity and lyrical depth, we tracked down band leader Perry Wright to ask him a few questions. Wright delivered masterfully, and brought in fellow contributors Alex Lazara and Dale Baker (former drummer for Sixpence None The Richer) to help him answer our questions. Their thoughtful responses are below:
How did you get your start in music learn to play music and sing, and how did you learn to write songs?
Perry Wright – I didn’t have a start in music any more than I had a start in walking, I guess. I grew up in a family in which both parents had college degrees in music, so it was as expected as learning to pee standing up it–took a little effort, but felt essentially natural. I was forced to sing in the choir and take lessons in piano and violin until I was old enough to construct economic arguments against the money that was obviously being wasted on my fruitless tutoring. I was always terrible at everything.
The summer before college, I found my dad’s old guitar in the closet and decided it would be fun to learn some songs, so I took it to school with me. When I arrived, it turned out that everyone I met in school had an old guitar with them that they had no idea how to play either, so we learned together. I was pretty awful through college, but did get my first taste of the open mic one night my senior year when I decided to do a clever cover of a song from a Broadway musical.
I wrote songs from the beginning (most of them have been thankfully lost by some great justice of history) with awful titles and overwrought concepts. I remember one terrible song in particular called Harlow’s Monkeys about the social scientist Harry Harlow. Embarrassing stuff. Anyway, the ideas didn’t really change much from the beginning, but the songwriting did get better, I think, probably as a function of playing in front of people more and seeking to make a connection with the listeners in that live setting. I don’t know; it made me more aware of the song as a form of contact or something.
What influences do you have, musically, lyrically, etc?
PW – I guess I would draw a distinction between the songs themselves and the musical settings of the songs. The song structures tend to follow a kind of form that I don’t think is particularly influenced by anyone I can think of. They often have no chorus or only a simple tag, like maybe Dylan or folk in general, with an explosive bridge like a musical or classical music might have. I grew up on sort of post-Romantic classical stuff like Ralph Vaughn Williams or Samuel Barber. I didn’t really listen to Revolver until I was in college. Wait, was Vaughn Williams post-Romantic? Anyway, I remember every Saturday morning waking up to something like Holst’s “Hymn of Jesus”–not that my dad thought it was the finest music, but rather more of a gateway drug to get us into music in general, which I guess worked.
The settings on the other hand, do tend to come from the music that I personally enjoy. I like the way John Vanderslice breaks sound and forces very organic sounds together with more synthetic noises, so Alex and I tend to experiment in that direction. I like the way that Counting Crows (indie cred slipping) make albums with an extremely narrative feel to them–songs that are free to be quiet and introspective followed by loud or pop or whatever–all for the sake of the album’s movement. I am maybe most influenced by Jethro Tull’s Aqualung and Thick as a Brick (indie cred gone) more than any other two albums recorded, both lyrically and musically.
Tell us about the label you are involved with, Bu Hanan Records. How did you get involved with them?
PW – Bu Hanan Records is a collective of musicians who all create music together in a house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was started by the members of an incredible band called go*machine (who are currently taking a hiatus) who wanted to create something larger than the sum of its parts, I think. We play in each others’ projects and give feedback during many phases of the creative process. Every artist on the label is making very excellent music, which is really exciting to be a part of. I think the origins go back to David Daniels wanting to make a series of campfire recordings with a room full of people doing sing-alongs. That idea eventually sort of got out of hand and here we are.
Alex Lazara – Bu Hanan was originally a joke back in the go*machine days–we had moved into this ratty old house in Durham, NC on Buchanan street, but the ‘C’ had fallen off of the house, so the day I moved in, the first thing I said when David (Daniels) and I pulled up to the house was “Bu Hanan”. When it came time to put out the go*machine album, we just put it on there to make ourselves laugh. Three months later when Psalterie was released, we thought “Hey, why not?” It just sort of stuck.
Perry was the roommate of a college friend of the guys in go*machine; they were attending Duke’s divinity school together. When we moved out here, we met Perry. I had made a habit of attending an open mic in Chapel Hill that Perry also went to, and was taken with his songs. He sent me home with a CD of four track and a few computer recordings he’d done the following Christmas, and I felt like he should be performing more than just at open mic night. David agreed, so we got a few musicians together once Perry had finished his master’s degree and I was unemployed for a week, and we recorded, mixed, mastered and put together artwork for Psalterie start to finish in those seven days. Prayers and Tears played their first show that Saturday.
Dale Baker – I originally met Perry through my wife, who was attending Duke’s Divinity School at the same time Perry was. So when it came time to start recording and playing shows, naturally Perry asked if I could take part. So through Perry I was introduced to the go*machine guys: Alex, David and Daniel. I’ve enjoyed being a part of their little collective of sorts. And it’s always fun to record. I’ve been able to learn from Alex and Perry by peering over their shoulders, so to speak, and that’s been helpful as I start to set up my own home recording setup.
Describe for us your songwriting process.
PW – Almost always (in five easy-to-follow steps! I make songwriting fun!) : 1) Some idea. 2) Title first. 3) A single phrase that gets stuck in my head. 4) Music and lyrics written together in my bedroom very late at night. 5) Arrangement and collaboration after I am comfortable with the basic form of the song enough to play it for someone, usually Alex.
I think one of the main features of the songs is that they tend to be reducible to acoustic guitar and vocals. Generally speaking, I don’t write collaboratively, so I have to be able to recreate them using only my guitar and voice. Of course there are a couple of exceptions, which have each been a joy for the most part.
What was it like to record “The Mother of Love.”? How were you able to coordinate so many musicians and yet still retain your original musical vision?
PW – My musical vision was to let people influence the basic guitar-and-vocal songs in interesting ways. So, really, the vision included having many musicians from the beginning. Convenient, I know. That is kind of what the idea of Prayers and Tears has always been–allowing the musical settings to shift according to the contributors. The disagreements and retakes are all built into the structure of the thing, which I am generally happy about.
The recording process was “long-but-ultimately-rewarding” maybe? The album is most certainly the result of an “educational” year, in which we all learned a great deal about the technical side of things. When I was recording on my fourtrack a couple years ago, I didn’t even know what compression, for example, was. Now I still don’t, but Alex does, and it makes a difference.
AL – It took too long, honestly. I would really love the luxury of just going into the studio and knocking things out, like we did with Psalterie, but we all have bills to pay. We did get a really good working pace in August, but things were pretty sparse working in June and July, and that was sometimes frustrating. Perry on the whole is very easy for me to work with. That’s not to say we don’t have our fair share of disagreements, but in the tracks we’d recorded in between doing Psalterie and Mother of Love, I feel like we’ve found a good middle-ground for over and under produced stuff. I feel like Perry trusts that I know what he’s going for, and sometimes I even manage to pleasantly surprise him with something he didn’t anticipate sounding good. The Bu Hanan studio was still in its infancy when we recorded the bulk of Mother of Love–no preamps, and we were still doing a lot of things after we’d taken the sound in, so a lot of it is pretty heavily processed. When you are fighting your equipment to get what you want, it’s never a good recording situation. We just worked with things until we had a sound we found was workable and exciting using what we had.
Prayers and Tears is a really fun project because it’s not a traditional ‘band’–it’s all these different people who can bring something together to deliver the songs Perry puts out. Perry’s voice and style keeps things consistent, and the rest of us just pitch in where we can to make the songs come off well in a recorded format.
DB – I would come over to the Bu Hanan recording complex and spend a few hours laying down some drum stuff… I think on all the songs I played on, I just brought my own snare and my own kick drum and cymbals. No toms were used on the tracks I played on, at least I’m pretty sure about that. So it was pretty stripped down compared to other things I’ve done. Minimal mic’ing as well. Since I was there usually close to the beginning of a track taking shape, it was always fun to hear the changes and directions that the song eventually took from what I originally heard. One of my favorite tracks was recording the brush stuff with Perry…he played and sang at the same time that I was laying down my drum track…we were in the same room…so that was fun. Normally, it’s just me in my little headphone isolated world, listening and holding on for dear life to the click. So recording “live” (no click) with Perry in the same room and all was pretty relaxed.
What was it like to work with Dale Baker, James McAlister, and Chris Colbert? How did you get these guys to work on your project with you?
PW – Dale and I have been friends for a long time now and he has played with me essentially from the beginning. We met the Ester Drang guys independently, but they knew Dale so we all hung out when they came through town. One night they stayed at my place and Chris Colbert “borrowed” my very personalized copy of Fear and Trembling, with all of its handwritten notes, and never gave it back. When we were putting the album together, we recorded James one weekend when they were coming through town on tour and then called Chris in when the mixing was done for his expertise in mastering. Really, he owed me one for that book. Breaks my heart to this day, honestly. He happened to be available to do it while the Walkmen were off-tour, so it was really just a nice arrangement.
AL – Everyone was so easy to work with. Both Dale and James are really talented, sensitive drummers who can do a lot with relatively little instruction on my part. James recorded the drum parts for “Cannot Eat Better not Sleep” and “Eventual Intimate” long before the songs themselves were even finished. Dale is always full of great arrangement ideas, and manages to play really solid parts that never get in the way with other things when I’m overdubbing things later. I like them both because they are powerfully evocative drummers without having to play really busy parts.
James and the other guys from Ester Drang had come on tour through Chapel Hill before, and my old band opened for them. It was summer in Chapel Hill (which is a college town through and through), and being the underappreciated act they are, there were not a lot of folks in the house. Afterward, we all went down to the Cosmic Cantina to get some burritos. Chris Colbert was on tour with the Drang as a sound man, and we all just kind of hit it off and stayed up late talking at Perry’s house.
DB – “You know Dale has some deep-seated issues that we’re all not sure about. But for the most part he keeps those to himself. Still you can see that those things–those demons, if you will–inform and give his work an immediacy and earnestness that is undeniable. Perhaps it’s his introspective melancholy and thoughtfulness that makes him so good at getting into a song and playing a drum part that serves and supports rather than overwhelms and draws attention to itself.”
What was the message you were trying to convey on The Mother of Love, and are you pleased with how the message came out?
PW – I don’t think there is a single message as much as a story, but I do intend for listeners to consider how we often prefer possibilities over actuality and how sad that should make us. The last song tries to sort of summarize the album by reflecting on an ended affair in which the participants realize that they thought they were seeking love or comfort or whatever but were really just victims of a fantasy that they were sold. I won’t know how successfully this comes across until more people get to hear it and send me email, but I am happy with the album.
I notice on “The Mother of Love.” that you make some references to faith/Biblical imagery. Would you consider yourself religious or a person of faith? How does your faith or worldview influence your art?
PW – I tend to see the world in theological terms (giftedness, thankfulness, grace) and I am religious. The thing I don’t know is whether I see the world in these ways because I am religious or have faith because I see the world in these ways. My relationship with Christianity and my life of faith are both long and tenuous, but essential to who I am.
The first album was entirely based on psalms, so this album feels a lot less religious. Even so, the opening track references marriage as two people becoming one flesh and ends with a line from a Charles Wesley hymn, “Rotation of Crops” indirectly suggests the gospel of John, ”Above the Waves” is entirely based on the opening chapters of the bible as it deals with the metaphor of genetic engineering, the second verse of ”Slow Decay” references one of my favorite chapters from the bible (Isaiah 44)–and those are off the top of my head–so I guess it still has its share of allusions if you’re keeping score.
Are you going to be playing live shows in support of this release? How are you planning to play these songs and their complex arrangements in a live setting?
PW – Live shows for me have never been about reproducing arrangements or recordings. I have always felt like the live setting of any given song should be whatever will create the greatest possibility of connecting with the listeners. Sometimes that means doing the total opposite from the style in which a song was recorded. With the rotating group of live musicians, I am fortunate to have the freedom to arrange songs in any number of appropriate settings for particular shows or audiences.
AL – Likely sometime in April. We were hoping to do a set of shows with our friends The Strugglers (www.thestrugglers.org), but he’s been real busy.
I perform on a laptop setup that is pretty versatile. I get all the Rhodes, mellotron, synthesizer and organ sounds out if it that I need out of it with only having to tote two small keyboards on the road. A lot of the string parts are substituted for me playing mellotron strings. Other songs just don’t go into the live setup. ”Archaeopteryx” and “Above the Waves” are songs that function fine in their place on the recording, but have yet to have a successful trial in rehearsal. I feel like the live show and the record are two totally different, but equally valid ways to experience Perry’s songwriting, but they don’t have to have and don’t need to include the same songs.
What is in the future for you and your music and the musical collective as a whole?
PW – Well, for Prayers and Tears, I just wrote a song for an art magazine in NYC called Esopus (www.esopusmag.com) and we spent a few days recently recording it, with my friend (and your fellow Canadian) John Samson from the Weakerthans singing harmony vocals on it, as well as a host of our friends in Chapel Hill providing different facets of the arrangement. It came off pretty well, I think.
AL – We’ve got the Esopus thing coming out in April, and I’m currently working on producing an album for one of the other bands on the label, The Physics of Meaning (www.thephysicsofmeaning.com)–that’s due out this August. John from Kapow!Music (www.kapowmusic.net) is planning on doing an EP for release by summertime, and David (www.davidkarstendaniels.com) is always recording new stuff–though we’re not sure if it’s going to be an album or not yet. We’re also working on a compilation that will feature Bu Hanan’s artists as well as a few other bands, but it’s still pretty early in its conception. So far the concept is to take a well-known story with seven or eight characters and let each band “play” a character in the story in two songs.
Any other comments?
PW – Thanks, Brent. We’re really excited to see this album come out and hope that listeners connect with it. Visit the label to check out the other artists that are making great music (www.buhananrecords.com) and if you listen to the album, send me an email with your thoughts (email@example.com).
DB – shameless plug: www.dalebakerdrummer.com Have me play on YOUR next recording! Oh, and get Alex and Perry to produce it!