Shield Patterns is the project of Claire Brentnall and Richard Knox. Their newest release, Mirror Breathing, made it into our top albums of 2016 for its beauty and brilliance. The duo takes the organic and synthetic and blends them into lush masterpieces that have incredible depth and complexity. The duo was kind enough to take the time and answer some of my questions about Mirror Breathing, their writing process, and the history of their project.
Hello Shield Patterns! I thought I would start off with introductions. Could you both introduce yourselves and tell the readers your role in the project?
CB – I’m Claire and I write and play instruments and sing.
RK – I write, sculpt, destroy, rearrange and process sounds and play a bunch of different instruments.
Shield Patterns seems to be a relatively new collaboration. Can you tell us how you both came together to make music?
RK – It’s not really new anymore, I guess it’s just over three years since we’ve been working together. Claire started out the project in solo form and I happened to be at her very first show in Manchester as she was opening for some friends of mine. I really enjoyed what she was doing and we got chatting after the show and it went from there. I’d just moved to Manchester at the time and it all happened pretty quickly to be honest.
Claire, you find these beautiful melodies that float on top of sometimes amorphous music. Can you talk a bit about your process in developing your approach to vocals in Shield Patterns?
CB – Thank you, that’s kind. The music usually comes first, then I make vocal melodies on top. I listen and try not to think too much and see what comes out. I like to try and find the gaps and spaces that exist in the music and make vocal melodies from these. But it’s a balance between giving the music room to breathe and not overcrowding the space I think.
How do you both approach the songwriting process in this project?
CB – We write separately and pass ideas between each other. After the first album was released in 2014, I recorded lots and lots of new music and had the core of what would become Mirror Breathing. The way I write is I don’t usually have any plan, and I don’t tend to think ‘I want this song to sound like this…’ I record lots of ideas just sitting at the piano. I listen back and it can be half a second of a sound or a bar or a beat or a chord or something, then that can kind of becomes the belly of a whole song. I like the John Cage quote: ‘Don’t create and analyze at the same time, they are very different processes’, I think that’s very true! When making stuff it’s important to not think too much about the end result. That probably sounds strange! But I think that’s the best way to tap into your unconscious when making music at least.
You explore these beautiful tones and textures throughout your music. What attracts you to particular textures and tones in developing a track?
CB – That’s very kind. It can depend on the mood of the piece of music really. When writing or mixing it sometimes feels really clear what kind of texture is needed at a specific point. I’ve always loved contrast in music, where really bassy, rumbling sounds can throb underneath glittery piano melodies and things like that. And we both obviously love reverb!
Mirror Breathing is a masterpiece. There are these incredible moments on the album where inorganic sounds are dominating the soundscape and then Claire’s vocals come in to create this beautiful human touch. Can you talk, perhaps more abstractly, about the tug-of-war between the organic and the synthetic in the way you think about art?
RK – The basis of it comes from the fact that we are both really interested in a vast amount of different music, so the influences are very far reaching. I very much enjoy exploring the darker corners of music, it’s where I’m most comfortable and the beauty of this project is that it began in a sphere that I wasn’t particularly comfortable in, so it was a matter of working in a different way, using a different approach and different instruments. The challenge itself was really interesting for me, and because Claire has a much more natural writing style and process than I do it was intriguing and challenging to find a way to make the whole thing work. I’m not interested in doing things that have been done before and while you can probably draw certain lines to certain reference points I honestly feel like you can’t easily pin down the overall sound we make. For instance we might record a free-jazz clarinet part or a vocal into the computer and then send it back out, through a bunch of distortion pedals and delays, through a guitar amp with a mic on it and back into the desk. Now I’m not for a moment suggesting that hasn’t been done before, of course, but it’s that kind of more experimental approach, coupled with some traditional elements that gives it the edge it has.
On your website, you talk about having a DIY ethos. What does that mean for both of you, Claire and Rich?
RK – From my side it’s just how it’s always been. If I want to do something I’ll just teach myself how to do it. I grew up (musically speaking) influenced by stuff like Fugazi, Dischord Records, Constellation Records, Godspeed You! Black Emperor etc so it feels like a very natural way to operate. The point is to be able to be self-sufficient and to not have to rely on anybody else. To be able to make your own decisions based on your own judgment. Shield Patterns now is just an extension of that ideal. We have our own studio, I run the label, we book all our own shows, we do all the artwork, make our own t-shirts… the list goes on. I’m certainly not against working with like-minded folks if they believe in what we do and have passion for doing something independent but if those people don’t show then I want to be able to carry on regardless. I’ve mostly found that as soon as you start venturing away from DIY, independent-based ways of working, into a world where profit is more important, then that’s a pretty rough and soul-crushing path.
CB – For me, it means being free to experiment.
Since Contour Lines came out in 2014 and was your first LP as Shield Patterns, what did you learn about the recording and writing process between that album and Mirror Breathing? Did your approach to songwriting and recording change or evolve?
RK – It was actually very similar. We took more time over Mirror Breathing though. Claire had an intensive writing period initially and then we kind of just sat on the first sketches of the songs for a while until we found the right energy to move forward. We did both records in our own studio and mixed them both ourselves. The mixing part is really difficult because you are dealing with so many individual sounds and trying to find a place for them in the mix. That end part of the record is painstaking and takes a severe amount of work and patience. However, we are aware that in making the sounds and the mix so complex it’s adding something special for the listener and hopefully something that folks what to keep coming back to and can hear new things each time.
“Balance and Scatter” is a track that really sticks out to me on Mirror Breathing. Can you speak specifically about the writing and recording it?
CB – I think Balance & Scatter was the most fun to record. The beats and bass line I’d made really early on and kind of put to one side, but then we revisited it and decided to make it more abstract and free. I enjoyed recording the clarinet part!
RK – Balance & Scatter was two different pieces initially and it came together quite late on in the making of the album. We were pushing a few more abstract ideas around at the time and looking to expand on some of the weirder stuff we had done. It was a total experiment of throwing a bunch of different ideas into one place and seeing what stuck.
Since Shield Patterns isn’t just a recording project, how do you see the tracks translating into live performances and what sort of difficulty do you see in translating them for a live audience?
RK – We’ve been playing shows right from the beginning so it isn’t anything new in terms of how we translate it. The difficulty is always trying to figure out what is actually feasible to perform in a way where we don’t have a laptop on stage. Because there are so many layers in the songs it can be tricky
finding the right path and there are a few songs that we haven’t even tried live. So, breaking down the track into parts and samples we can trigger or manipulate, working out bass lines etc. Honestly, it’s not an easy process but touring is important for us so it’s something we work hard at to find a result that’s both interesting for us to play on stage and also interesting for the audience.
What artists, whether musical, visual, or otherwise, influence or inspire your art?
RK – I can find something inspiring or interesting in almost any art form. I wouldn’t want to name anything too specific. It’s quite common for me to listen to some classical music at 7am while making coffee only to sit down in the office half an hour later and blast something super heavy!
Thanks so much for spending time to answer my questions! Any other comments you would like to make for our readers?
RK – Thanks for taking an interest in what we are doing and thanks for all the support you’ve given us through Somewherecold – it’s very much appreciated.