My Education is a post-rock group hailing from Austin, TX. They put out their first release, 5 Popes, back in 2001 and have been prolific ever since. The band was gracious enough to sit down with me after playing at The Foundry on October 14th, 2016 and answer questions about the history of the band, their writing process, and some background information to a song that was quite the story. Unfortunately, in this format, you cannot pick up the atmosphere of the interview but there was a lot of laughter, banter, and joking. Now, on to the questions.
Hello all! Let me start out by having you introduce yourselves to the readers and tell what you do in the band.
Brian Purington: Guitar
Kirk Laktas: Keyboards
James Alexander: Viola
Chris Hackstie: Guitar
Earl Bowers: Drums
Scott Telles: Bass
How did you all get starting in music? What drives you to continue making it, particularly, in this band?
Brian: I started playing punk-rock in San Angelo in the early 90’s and ended up moving to Austin and ended up doing post-rock now. Why do I continue to do it? Some things you just can’t stop doing I guess.
Kirk: Learning the Star Wars theme on the piano so my mom asked me if I wanted to take lessons.
That’s an excellent answer!
Kirk: And that passion is still with me.
That’s why you hang out with these guys still?
Kirk: Yeah, Star Wars!
James: I’ve been playing viola for 40-something years now and I keep playing with these guys because hardly any other bands in the world want an obnoxious viola player.
Chris: I wanted to play guitar since I was seven. My mother made me take piano lessons for a year before that and figured I wouldn’t last. So a day to the year, I said, alright, give me a guitar. So, I’ve been playing the guitar since ’79. I don’t think I could ever stop doing it. It’s always been a part of me.
So why are you still with these guys?
Scott: Cuz he loves us
Chris: Well, great company and they put up with my bullshit. They’re probably the only ones who would do that. A lot of black book… well, things they put up with anyway.
Earl: My dad’s a ripp’n blues, rock guitar player and I always took interest in his drummer. When I was nine years old or so, he brought me home a drum set and told me if I wanted to learn that, it’s cool. If I wanted to try something else, that was cool but I always stuck with the drums. I play with these guys because they have really good work benefits [much laughter ensues].
Brian: Our 401K is awesome.
Earl: They’ve got a pretty good whiskey plan. It’s worked out so far tonight.
You’re the only band I’ve asked this question to, about why you still play together, because I knew I would get great answers.
Scott: I started playing music because I saw the Sex Pistols on The Weekend TV Show [The London Weekend Show?] on one of the nights that Saturday Night Live was off the air and I thought they were pretty amazing. I was into prog-rock before that but then I saw them and was like, wow, I could do that. And like many other young punk-rockers I was inspired enough to start a band. We were pretty terrible at first, but we got better. I’m in My Education because I was a fan of the band. I thought they were awesome. I heard them on the balcony of the convention center one year during SXSW and I was enraptured by the sound. So I started going to their shows and in 2006, I was recruited.
See, I always thought Scott was one of the originals.
Brian: There’s been two bass players.
Can you talk a bit about the history of the band and how it formed? Also, how did the current line-up come about and who among you has been in the band from the beginning?
Brian: Essentially, I formed the band in San Angelo in the late 90’s and then I moved to Austin in ’99. It had the name My Education but the band was quite different. We had a singer. He wrote half the songs and I wrote the other half which were instrumental. The singer quit and, at that point, the only other member in the band was Chris. I used to go to… What was the name of the Turkish restaurant?
Brian: Yeah, Marrakesh, every Tues and see Cinders, which was Kirk, James, and a violin player named Travis Weller and, once the singer quit My Education, I recruited Cinders to join the band essentially and we just went full on instrumental in 2001.
Kirk: And now Cinders is back!
James: Minus Travis.
Brian: Now I’m in Cinders.
James: Travis played on the first two records and toured with us one time. Now he’s not in Cinders or My Education.
So who’s the newest member?
Brian, Chris: Earl
Chris: The fifth drummer.
Earl: They keep spontaneously combusting.
Scott: Like Spinal Tap.
How do you think about music? In other words, how do you think about a piece when you are writing and trying to communicate something through music with no vocals?
Earl: I more react cuz I’m a drummer. I don’t write the melodies and the chords. So, I’m more reactionary as the songwriting process goes. You know, Brian comes up with a riff; Chris comes up with a riff and I kind of go from there and it snowballs into something bigger and better with all of us working on it. So, that’s my deal. I don’t make up a lot of riffs, but I kind of react and come up with my own thing.
Scott: I think that’s a good illustration of the process. Either one of us comes up with something and the rest of us beat it into shape or we have an assignment to do, we have a task, whether it’s a movie score or a ballet performance or whatever… we have a task at hand, we assign ourselves to the task. We all contribute ideas and through the process, which can be lengthy, we hammer it into shape and add all our individual parts. By the time we are done, we have a My Education piece.
James: And even without words, I think most of these, at least for me, there’s some kind of story or narrative that maybe nobody knows exactly what I think the narrative is, but everybody thinks that there’s an idea there, a soundtrack for something. Some of them have very clear stories and I wouldn’t necessarily say what they were to anybody but a lot of times the titles give a clue as to what it’s about. The titles are usually a reference to something we would never tell anybody.
Brian: It’s like an abstract painting. There’s a concept there but you want to leave it up for interpretation.
Scott: But tonight, I think the cries of the children in Krampus were particularly poignant.
James: We had Krampus, by the way, before the movie did.
Brian: I was invited to take part in this Christmas performance art piece at this DIY venue in Austin called the Museum of Human Achievement and every group was supposed to take on a Christmas character and ours was Krampus. So, that My Education song is what I came up with. I was playing with other people than My Education at this performance art piece, but I took the bones of that and got it to My Education and we made it into a song. And hopefully the ideas start from one place but hopefully the people you are playing with make it better… like the sum is greater than…
James: It’s synergistic.
Chris: The whole is greater than the parts.
How does the Austin environment influence what you do as a band? Has that scene full of mass music creation impacted what and how you approach your art?
Brian: It’s very competitive.
Scott: It’s such a hotbed of creative ferment that you really have to struggle to stand out. Bands on the scene do support each other but at this point, it is fairly competitive.
Earl: Competition goes hand in hand with motivation. The more stuff you have, the more motivated you are to try and get that gig or get that opening slot for the national act that’s coming through. You have to fight for a little bit more but it motivates you.
Brian: There are a LOT of bands.
Kirk: We will play with other people, we all probably played in a band with all those other people at some point and time. It’s a very tight community.
Chris: There’s so many good people in town, you don’t want to embarrass yourself on stage.
Scott: Yeah, there is an embarrassment of riches as far as talent goes.
Brian: Yeah, I would put the Austin scene with New York, L.A., any other major city but the city is a fraction of the size of those. The amount of talent… it’s a special place.
You released 5 popes in 2001, so about 15 years ago. Can you talk a bit about how your song writing and recording process has transformed over the years?
Brian: When you listen back to 5 Popes, it’s a more guitar-heavy record. James isn’t really that involved, he wasn’t a fulltime member. So, after Italian, James came on as a fulltime member. So, yeah, the first two records are more guitar heavy.
Chris: We really didn’t have a hand in the recording process. We were in a studio and when James came in, he built up his own recording studio to where we could figure out songs at a slower pace in his studio without spending money and having the songs ready to go in recording. You know, knowing how they are going to turn out.
Brian: Yeah, we have our own studio now. The Sunrise record we recorded at our own studio. We took it to The Bubble to mix but we tracked it all there. Every other record we’ve done in another studio. What we do with our own studio, we demo the whole record before we ever start paying money to record. So, when we go in there… we don’t have a ton of money… so when we go in there we just hammer it out.
James: That’s another thing about every band that’s been around as long as we have, we all went through the digital revolution. We had pro-tools when we were starting, but it wasn’t in every studio, so those first two records were recorded on tape. There was actual punch-ins and tape-cutting, which never happens anymore. Then, as time progressed, we started recording on computer and that changes everything about what you can do. So we were able to like, we don’t do a lot of chopping up or looping or anything, but we do some of that, so the freedom to go beyond just linear recording… that’s happened to everyone from our generation.
Scott: Mad props to James though for being able to run the pro-tools and pull that off for us. It really helps us out a lot.
Kirk: He’s got plug-ins and stuff.
James: All the best plug-ins.
Your last disc, Sound Mass II: Spiritual Docking, was a collaboration with Theta Naught. Can you talk a little bit about how that collaboration came about and what it is like writing music with another group of musicians outside of My Education?
Brian: Essentially we did the tour for Sunrise and we had two performances booked in Salt Lake. We did the Sunrise live score at Tower Theater and then we did a show with Theta Naught at Kilby Court and Ryan Stanfield, the bass player and band leader of Theta Naught, put us up for both nights, he was a fan of the band and I had e-mailed him and he helped us set up the show. He also owns a record label called Differential Records and he wanted us to do a split EP but I misinterpreted what he said, like I thought he just wanted us to play with them. So we showed up and there was like 14 of us between two bands and set up in one studio… the first Sound Mass record was the first time we ever played together.
Chris: Acoustic instruments in one room, electric instruments in the other. It was all improvised.
Brian: So we did five or six songs and they are improvisations. Me and James, they sent us the tracks, and we mixed it down into a record. Later that night we did the show at Kilby Court and there was nobody there. And I was like, fuck it, why don’t we just play together. So we set up and played together and it was so loud that people from blocks away started showing up. It was a great experience. From there we kept on doing it. We had gotten into SXSW a couple times, we’ve done the Utah Arts Festival a few times, we’ve toured Utah and Texas.
James: We played right here at The Foundry last time.
Scott: By the time the second record came around though we actually had some more composed pieces. We had done so much work together that, by the time we did the second record, we actually had some really good framework to work around. So, the first record is completely improvised but the second record has a lot of much more composed pieces. I think it works really, really well and I’m really proud of it. We managed to convince Cleopatra to release it and I think it’s some of our best work ever and it got very little attention. But, what are you going to do? It’s a crap shoot.
James: It has cool cover art.
Scott: Yeah, bizarre Polish, eastern European cover art.
For me, “Sammy’s Sounds, Saturday Night” sticks out to me as a unique track on Sound Mass II. Would you talk a bit about that track, what inspired it, and what the recording process was like?
Brian: So we were doing a tour in Utah and we were playing at a pie-shake place called Sammy’s. So, we show up and it got moved to a picture perfect, whitest suburb, Republican… I mean, Salt Lake City is an awesome city, it’s liberal, I like Salt Lake City, but the suburbs around there are pretty conservative. It was a place that didn’t serve booze and we show up and we were drinking beers behind the venue so we wouldn’t be seen by the cops. So, we go in and we play, and our projectionist guy, who isn’t here tonight but usually travels with us, he was doing like crazy pentagram, dancing Vicodin pill projections behind us.
Kirk: There were kids running around drinking milk-shakes.
Brian: But it actually was an incredible show.
Scott: There was a van parked out in front of the venue that had an advertisement for their music series and the place was called Sammy’s Pie Shake Palace and the music series was called Sammy’s Sounds and it was every Saturday night. So we got this in our heads and started chanting “Sammy’s Sounds, Saturday Night” and that was the birth of the piece.
Chris: I’m not sure anybody had a pie shake.
James: The burgers were great.
Brian: I drank beers in the bathroom.
Scott: There were a lot of kids there and Ryan Stanfield from Theta Naught passed out earplugs to everybody just in case it was too loud. And, it’s funny, the staff kept asking the first band to turn down but we had the lights and the noise and they didn’t have the nerve to ask us to turn it down.
Brian: There were like fifteen of us.
Scott: Nobody really left.
Brian: No, it was a great show.
For the gearheads who read our site, can you talk about your gear you use both in the studio and then live? If there was any piece of gear you could get your hands on that you don’t already own, what would it be?
Brian: I use a Vox AC30 from the 80’s. Gibson SG from ’94. I have a re-issue Les Paul studio that I’m borrowing, it’s from 2002 or something. A lot of pedals. I would want a Gibson ES 335 from the mid-60’s.
Kirk: I use a Nord Stage Classic and a Roland Juno 2, I’ve been using one of those since the mid-90’s. It’s to the point now where I have to get another Nord that I’m going to have to sample this one into because its dying. It won’t take repairs anymore. In the studio, whatever they have… there’s your Hammonds and your Rhodes and your Moogs, all those things. What would I have? Well, I would have a Steinway Grand. Sure, why not?
James: I think we also need a Mellotron… I’m pretty happy with the viola setup that I have. The best thing I have purchased for it is the Eventide H9. Kirk got one too.
Brian: That’s the best thing you have?
Kirk: Well, you know, for his Viola setup.
James: Well, you know, guitar players need more things because their instruments don’t sound very good by themselves. And to cover up for… well, anyway. I think, for me, we need a bigger recording studio. More mics.
Chris: I have a ’79 Strat and a ’73 Les Paul Deluxe and a ’96 Matchless Chieftain. I would like to have a ’52 Black Beauty Les Paul P-90 running through like a ‘60’s Marshall Plexi.
Earl: I’ve got a Pearl MLX all maple shell six piece from the early/mid-80’s with DW hardware and Zildjian Custom K cymbals. If I had my dream kit, it would probably be like a vintage Ludwig psychedelic red four piece or Outlaw drums. They are a boutique shop that makes some awesome stuff like a maple/pine kit or something like that.
Scott: I have an Ampeg V4B all tube vintage head which is my favorite amp that I have ever had. I actually got it for free out of a building that was about to be demolished.
Brian: This studio had a fire and some stuff got left. Like two days afterward, he found this bass head sitting in the rubble.
Scott: It was abandoned. I did spend a lot of money to get it restored, but it’s the best bass amp I’ve ever had. It’s preferred by a lot of players. I can think of no better bass amp that I would ever want to have. I have always wanted a ’62 Precision [bass]. The Precision I have now is a 2005 because my ’86 got stolen in Houston because I’m an idiot because I left the back of the U-Haul open.
Brian: If fell out of the back of the truck.
Scott: Yeah, I would love to have a ’62 Precision but that would cost me about $12,000.
So, what’s next? Is there a new album in the works and do you have an expectation of a possible release window if there is one? Do you think about the future of the band beyond that point?
Brian: We have a new record coming out in Spring.
Scott: New single in January.
Brian: Yes. The new record will drop around the time of SXSW. We are playing SXSW.
Scott: We will probably start a pre-sale soon.
Brian: Yeah, and hopefully tour Europe in May. Hopefully tour New Zealand, Japan, Australia maybe later in the year.
Scott: We played a bunch of the new record tonight.
Thanks so much for spending time with me and answering my questions.