An Interview with the members of Signal Hill
Signal Hill is made up of members Tim Cooper, Brian Vasallo, Dave Masters, and Rishi Arora. Their recent release, the full-length Alturas, is an ambient, post-rock masterpiece. Here, they talk about their formative years as a band, writing and recording Alturas, and being a band from a distance.
Hello all in Signal Hill. Could you all introduce yourselves to our readers and let us know what each of you play both in the studio and then live if it’s different?
Tim Cooper – Drums/Percussion
Brian Vasallo – Bass
Dave Masters – Guitar
Rishi Arora – Keyboard/Synths/Guitar
Dave: Live it’s a pretty similar setup, though sometimes Rishi will alternate with more live guitar than keyboard/synths due to logistics.
Rishi: Yep! I’ll usually play guitar live, but generally if the keyboard parts are very integral to the song, I’ll play keys. Also for more background sounds/parts, Tim will sometimes trigger them via a sampler pad.
Tim: Yup. I live in the back behind the drums and as Rishi mentioned for live shows I sometimes trigger layers we’ve recorded but can’t play live simultaneously.
On a personal level, how did you get involved in making music? When did you start? What drives you or inspires you to play an instrument, compose, and collaborate with other musicians?
Dave: I remember the exact moment I wanted to play music. I was in high school and listening to a lot of hip hop and was attempting to be a DJ (mostly just in my bedroom!), but had loads of friends into punk/hardcore and eventually indie and the whole mid 90’s emo scene. When I first heard the band Mineral, I knew then I wanted to play guitar and write music that moved me like that. I had friends who played music and needed a bass player. So I actually started playing bass immediately so that I could join their band and make that type of music. It wasn’t until later that i really picked up guitar, though that first band (which lasted a little more than 4 years) really taught me a lot about what I wanted in any future projects. The inspiration for me has always been to make evocative music that inspired me.
Rishi: Music is like a second language for me. I can’t remember what it was like not knowing it. My parents had me start piano lessons when I was 4. I think learning at such a young age really helped me speak the language and perfect my pitch. My brother taught me some stuff on guitar when I was in 5th grade. The first riff I learned how to play was “Ziggy Stardust”. The second was “When I Come Around” by Green Day haha. Then I kinda just ran with it from there. I started writing my own songs around that time. I have a few early albums on cassette that I recorded. Pretty funny stuff. Started playing in bands around that time as well. In those early days, the inspiration came from the other music I listened to. Hearing Jimmy Page soloing was like.. “I want to do that!” I think nowadays though as I’ve experienced a lot more of the world, I find inspiration in so many different (non-music related) things. In recent years (particularly for Alturas), I’ve found inspiration in science and astronomy. Carl Sagan and his work have been a huge inspiration for me creatively.
Brian: I grew up with friends that played music, then around 7th grade picked up my first guitar with a determination to learn how to play in a punk band. Aside from a summer acoustic guitar class, I picked up things here and there from friends who took legit private lessons, who in turn would pass on some knowledge to me when we’d hang out. Not to sound generic, but music is an outlet, and I fell into playing bass when forming Signal Hill, and what drives me now is just being able to create and foster the music we make as friends and watch it grow for anyone that will lend us an ear.
Tim: I had a musical bug since I was little, with influence from my Mom as she was a pianist and also played in the drum line. I started with piano before I could even read, but in 4th grade learned I could stay in band by banging on stuff and I never looked back. My brother got me into Iron Maiden around that same time and I also started taking drum lessons with some jazz exploration so I had super diverse influences. Just after that I got into skateboarding and punk rock/hardcore and started playing in heavier bands. I have always felt naturally comfortable around musicians, being able to share a creative wavelength and of course trading tour stories is always fun. It’s hard to write a solo record (which I have slowly been working on) and so much easier collaborating because you head in directions you never intended. When I sit down with the guys and we are in writing mode we have moments when someone plays a riff and we all jump in when it feels right, then loop the part for awhile. As we play it evolves, tightens up and the reaches this magical point where everything just clicks and the whole world disappears. It’s so locked in you feel like you can do no wrong to stretch out a bit and explore variations while staying tight with the others. That is what I live for. It’s like the secrets of the universe are suddenly unlocked and channeling through you and out of you – there is nothing better in the world. Yeah. So there’s that.
You’ve been making music together since 2004. Can you reminisce about where you began and the development of the band to today as well as its various geographical situations?
Dave: It was much easier earlier that’s for sure haha! We all lived in LA, and would practice/write 2-3 times a week. It’s always been a lot of fun. In addition to compatibility with making music, we are all good friends that just like hanging out. It’s never been about anything more than just a few dudes who like creating music together and hanging out.
Rishi: The early Signal Hill days were amazing! We were just like-minded dudes that all wanted to start a band. It’s tough finding people to start a band with, especially when the genre of music is super niche. So we technically met on Craigslist through a band post (though Tim & Dave had already known each other through mutual friends in Arizona). But right away all 4 of us just clicked. Like immediately. We were all in our 20s, living and working (though in my case, schooling) in LA, so we were all going through the same life path. And it was cool being able to connect musically. We were all very interested in instrumental music (Tristeza, The Mercury Program to name some of our faves). And it was awesome to find dudes that liked the same stuff and wanted to create something similar.
Brian: I’m the originator of some desperate craigslist posts (yes plural) to find musicians that hopefully heard of the bands I was into. I thought to myself “I can’t be the only one in LA”. I had met Rishi the summer before through a craigslist music post, but when Dave reached out to me and shared some solo stuff he did, I remember feeling this anxious rush of wanting to get him and Rishi in the room. I was lucky that Rishi was in town again for the start of school. I remember even having to borrow a guitar amp for either Dave or Rishi to use. When Tim came to the following practice, the laughs and jams were solid out the gate, it was like we’d known each other for years even though it was our first week as a band.
Tim: Brian and I came to the table with a bit heavier punk influence but I wanted to personally play more musical, jazz influenced drums, and jumped at the chance when Dave called me in. We began playing just to write music together for each other. Then a few people said, “hey that sounds kinda cool, you should play shows.” I was like, “Really? Okay.” Then at shows people would say where can we buy your music. It hadn’t occurred to us to record really, so we decided maybe we would. Then tour invitations came and from there we became a proper working band.
How has songwriting and recording changed from More After We’re Gone, to Chase the Ghost, to Alturas?
Dave: More After We’re Gone was written and performed live a ton before recording. We spent a ton of time revising those songs and picking the right set of tunes. Aside from two tracks, everything had been played a lot together and during live shows. During Chase the Ghost, Rishi and I both were living in Brooklyn and we wrote a lot of the guitar and piano parts together. We’d send the demos to Tim and Brian as private SoundCloud links, and comment on things using their platform. Was really quite handy. Aside from “Van Gogh Sky”, everything else had never been played to an audience, though we had a few joint writing sessions to refine and tweak right before we went to the studio. Alturas was similar, except we didn’t have a rehearsal space and we inherently started playing quietly in my kitchen. We got a new keyboard and Rishi just gravitated towards playing that a lot. The songs came out a bit quieter from the start due to the writing process. It was fun to change things up! We had a few sessions all together in NYC and in LA to hash through parts, scrap songs, restart ‘em. It was tough. We’d have a good deal of momentum, and then it’d stall out a bit as we all would go back to our regular lives. Rishi moved to London about halfway into writing this, so that made our regular writing sessions few and far between. We spent a lot of time demoing and refining digitally, with no real urgency. Just wanted to get the right mix of songs to a spot we really liked. In the late fall of 2015, my wife and I were expecting our first child, so we got busy and set a goal to try and record Alturas before his arrival.
Rishi: Since we’ve become a long-distance band I think the songwriting process has changed quite a bit in general. In the early days (2004-2009), we’d rehearse/write multiple times a week. It felt so good to have that regular band practice schedule. But pretty much since 2010, we’ve been a long-distance band so we’ve been writing remotely, not rehearsing as much, and not playing nearly as many shows. As such, the songs take a lot longer to formulate. But in a way it’s nice to be able to sit on ideas longer and let them marinate a bit. The songs for Alturas prob took around 3-4 years from start to finish. By the end of it there was some impatience, like… let’s release this stuff already! But I think it was good that we took our time to see it through.
Tim: For me, Alturas was the first record where I became more hands on in the practice space writing sessions, both in NY and LA, to edit and mix demos. Then after we tracked it with the talented Tony Maimone and company at Studio G, I took over the sessions to edit, tweak some arrangements since some new elements were added in the studio, and get some listen-back mixes for us before we turned them over to our awesome mixer, Tony Spica for his first record with us. I was able to play with some production elements and experiment with new sounds for the ending of the album and samples throughout.
It’s no secret now that I find Alturas to be a gorgeous piece of art. Can you talk about the band’s choice of sonics, tones and textures in your music? What draws you to particular sounds and how you approach arranging them into your soundscapes?
Dave: We all listen to such a variety of music and knew early on that we wanted a record that was rich in texture so we went to town in the demo process. We had a lot of the synth parts ironed out early on, and in the studio ran them through the outboard gear to bring more life to them. We also had fun exploring some tones like organ in the studio since they had a fantastic one at Studio G where we recorded. I am always working on my guitar tone and am pretty happy with where that’s at now and how it fits with these songs sonically.
Rishi: Sound aside, I think we all kinda agreed early on in the process for Alturas that we wanted to create something inspired by science, astronomy and our fascination with the universe. There is something greater out there that we are all a part of, though we don’t yet have all the answers. Alturas is really about reaching for those answers and trying to fill in those gaps. Basically we wish we could do the work of scientists, but had to settle for songwriting instead haha. For this theme we pulled inspiration from various sources such as Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” to name a couple. As for sound, we were super excited to explore more synths and textures in this record. The band got me a Nord electric piano that we used quite a bit. It was our hope that these newer sounds would kinda come together to help convey that overall theme.
Brian: I think starting after More After We Were gone we all starting taking this approach about what each album would mean to us personally, and with Alturas nothing was different, so when I wrote bass parts of course it was in collaboration of what the melody was doing but I’m always looking for accents, hooks and fills that add another level of mood that you wouldn’t normally get from the guitars or keys.
It’s difficult for me to choose one or two songs on Alturas I like most, so I will just decide on a few that suit my fancy at this moment. Can you speak about specifically writing and recording “Wild Were the Waves” and “Amber Lantern”?
Dave: “Wild” might be one of the first songs on the album that we wrote. Rishi and I both originally played guitar on it. We let that one sit for awhile without doing too much work on it. Originally, it was probably the most true to previous tunes, so as we started exploring alternative tones and ideas, that song came back around and we had loads of fun finishing it. It’s one of my personal favorites on the record and it’s fun to play live! That one and “Map Space” are the only two from the record that we have played live. And the reason, haha, was because we were all together for a writing session in New York and it allowed us to not have to relearn two older songs haha.
Rishi: “Wild” is a fun one. I always kinda go back and forth in terms of whether or not I like playing my part on keyboard or guitar. It ended up on keys on the record, though at the moment, I’m kinda favoring it on guitar and will probably play it that way in the live shows. “Amber” is an interesting one. That song kinda started out with the key riff and the drum/bass groove. We had that initial verse part for quite a while (probably around a year). It took us ages to come up with chorus/bridge parts for that song. We eventually found the right parts to match with the verse. The loud outro (or what we call “loud-tro”) was written mostly as an afterthought. We had a final writing session in LA a few months before going into the studio. There we realized it would be cool to try turning everything up to 11 and play that bit SUPER loud. Fortunately it worked! The lead riff during the loud-tro was written pretty much last minute in the studio. The version you hear on the record is probably only the 2nd or 3rd time ever that that riff was played haha.
Tim: I’ll just address a few elements of those songs. On “Wild”, Rishi had played some handbells that were laying around our space from The Azure Vault sessions, and had written a cool little line that we tracked in the demo phase and included after the fact. You hear it in two spots on the track. When writing “Amber Lantern” I immediately heard a melody line in my head that fit with that initial groove (verse part) and though it never made it to an instrument in the studio, I played it on acoustic guitar at home, recorded it and snuck it in a listen back mix to see if the guys liked it, and it grew on them and we decided to leave it in. I had a few tracks floating in my head by David Holmes from the “Out of Sight” soundtrack that inspired my drumming for the song – almost a downtempo feel. I had wanted to push different feels in my drumming on this album and between “Amber Lantern” and “OMS Burn”. I think I accomplished that.
We have a lot of bands and gear-heads who have historically been among our readers. Would you please tell us what your set up looks like both in the studio and then what you use in a live situation? Is it difficult to move from your studio recordings into producing the music live?
Dave: For this album I played almost exclusively a Jazzmaster, and a bit of my Telecaster, where on other albums it was almost exclusively Telecaster. The studio had some rad amps so that was the only real difference from a live perspective for me. I used all the same effects in my live setup which is a couple of delays, reverb, and overdrive. I keep it pretty simple. We are just beginning to start talking about the live setup for a few upcoming shows. Tim uses a sampler to trigger some of the synth stuff live, so we are picking which parts feel right to have in a live setting.
Rishi: The majority of the piano lines in Alturas were recorded multiple times in the studio using Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and a Nord keyboard. The keyboard lines you hear on the record are more a less a mix of all those various tracks. The Nord has great effects built in that sound amazing (delay, chorus, phaser, etc.). For the live version of these songs, I’ll likely use the Nord but will also play some key parts on guitar just for fun. The majority of the background synths might be a part of Tim’s sampler. Still figuring that bit out!
Brian: Live I play a Fender Jazz Bass, Mexican Made. It’s my go-to bass since the band started and nothing will change. At home I have a Genz Benz bass head and a Ampeg cab. But for Alturas, I played on all kinds of bass guitars that were back-lined at the studio that I can’t even possibly name at the moment. I recall that I recorded multiple tracks with two or sometimes three bass guitars for the same song and I think they were eventually blended (that or we ended up using just the best sounding one).
Tim: My studio and live setups are pretty much the same: a Yamaha Maple Recording Custom with a Billy Cobham signature snare and Sabian Vault cymbals all around. For live purposes, I use a original Roland S-PDS to trigger samples.
What artists do you listen to that have stuck with you over the years? You know, those ones you always return to no matter how long it’s been. Also, what artists would you consider to be an influence on how you hear, compose, and think about music?
Dave: For me, these days I listen to a lot of Tim Hecker. I love his exploration into the deconstruction of sounds and crossing sonic spectrums. He’s been a huge influence to me especially the past couple of years. For artists that stick with me and I always go back to Mineral, Ida, Slowdive, Brian Eno to name a few.
Rishi: Hands down, my all-time favorite record is “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes” by Death Cab for Cutie. The songwriting, and the way it was recorded.. it just sounds so sincere. So real. And I think I listened to that album at a very pivotal time in my life (end of high school going into college). Not only did it open my eyes to the world of indie music, but it also helped me get through a lot of tough times. I also hold Pinback, Tristeza & No Knife very close to my heart. All 3 are from my hometown of San Diego, and whenever I hear them they remind me of home, and hanging with close friends back in the day. In terms of direct music inspiration, I think Boards of Canada and Bibio are big ones for me. They’ve directly influenced all music-related projects I’ve worked on in the last few years.
Tim: I always come back to Karate, Talk Talk, The Cinematic Orchestra and more recently Syd Arthur. There are a ton of film soundtracks I could list too, but a few standouts are Cliff Martinez’s “Solaris” and Thomas Newman’s “Shawshank Redemption” soundtracks.
Brian: Everything by Eluvium pretty much, Julien Baker if you have a chance to pick up her recent full length. The Six Part Seven, Owen and Hammock. Otherwise I listen to a lot of punk music.
Can you tell us a little about AM800Sound and how the collective there works? How do you choose artists for the collective and what sort of roll does the collective play in the lives of the artists involved in it?
Dave: The collective sort of organically came about. Basically, we were chatting with No Grave Like the Sea while in the studio recording Alturas (Tony from No Grave recorded our album). They had a record completed and were trying to decide how to release it. Since we had an album coming out and weren’t sure what to do with our own release, we started ideating. The seed was planted then. Earlier this year, we had a mutual friend who’s house was badly damaged. No Grave, Katmai, and us all put together a track for a quick benefit EP and that sort of kicked off the rest. Amid those discussions we thought maybe we could start our own “label”. We are all rooted in the DIY mentality, so we wanted to do something that wasn’t necessarily a typical label offering. We just have a group of like-minded friends and we’re like, let’s build a nice roster of bands/friends whom also have records coming out and see if we can create a home for them. The collective mindset encourages everyone who’s in to participate. Whether it’s via social media, keeping the website updated, reaching out to media contacts, setting up shows etc. You still end up paying for your own physical release, but you also still own your own material, royalties and whatever. But from a marketing and press angle, we felt like we can do much more as a group than we could do individually, so that’s really the spirit of it all.
What we look for is other musician friends and or bands who are looking for that type of arrangement. We were excited cause we had 5 releases to sort of kick off. The Azure Vault (Tim’s other project) and the new North End albums are coming very soon, along with a surprise release that we will announce ASAP. In turn, each band will get some support with marketing, press, maybe distro in the future.
I know Alturas just came out, but what do you see as the future of Signal Hill? What’s next for the band?
Dave: We have quite a few demos of songs we wrote during both Chase the Ghost and Alturas that didn’t quite fit on those albums but work well together. So we are exploring making some headway on those. We have a couple Alturas release shows lined up in LA and NYC in November, so prepping for that. We haven’t all been in the same room since last year in the studio, so it will be awesome to just be together for a bit, albeit a short bit. Also, a quick run of Alturas on CD are in progress which will be jointly released with SunSeaSky and AM 800 Sound.
Rishi: I think we’ll continue riding this Signal Hill wave. It has been and continues to be a great experience. Nothing beats being able to hang with your friends, write tunes and share them with the rest of the world. I think we’ll have another release in store for the near future.
Brian: In the short term, I’m looking forward to our shows in November and a potential London show for now. But I’m sure after those are done and over with it’ll be interesting to see where we go next as far as songwriting is concerned.
Thank you Brian, Dave, Rishi, and Tim for taking the time to answer my questions.
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