An Interview with Steve Kennedy of Sciflyer
Sciflyer is the brainchild of Steve Kennedy. He’s been a pioneer in shoegaze music since the early 2000’s when the Sciflyer self-titled demo went out and was embraced by so many in the music community. The band eventually signed to Clairecords and released a number of albums. 2014 saw the long coming release of They Only Believe in the Moon after a very long hiatus due to, well, life. Steve was gracious enough to answer my questions about his approach to writing and recording, where the Sciflyer project is currently at, and about some of the intricacies of previous releases.
Hello Steve. Thanks for answering my questions. The last time we talked to you at Somewherecold was in 2004. Can you talk a bit about what has happened with Sciflyer since then and the re-release of The Age of Lovely, Intimate Things?
Wow, since 2004? Well our semi-original drummer, Roger Chandler had just recently quit then and from there we went thru four short-lived drummers until we finally settled in with Scott Eberhardt (ex-LSD & The Search For God) in late 2006 and into 2007-08, only for the band to split up in ’08 when Kim and I separated. And then bang, the Recession hits and a small mailorder business I had going and was pretty much dependent on for a living totally tanks, and being caught off guard by that I was not in a position to think about much else than trying to survive. So music got totally put on the back burner. At the same time Kim took off for a year to teach in Colombia and wasn’t very interested in still trying to play music together after what happened between us. So basically we dropped off the map entirely for about seven years until I finally had some time to think about mixing the Moon recordings. It was just something that had quietly nagged at me over the years. And surprisingly, Clairecords still put it out for us after all that time! Anyway, that led to a couple reunion shows but that was it. One was pretty good but the other was a live on-air show at KALX that was just awful. The playing was fine but the mix was so bad no one could hear shit so the vocals sound like a dying yetti. Scott played both of those but Kim wasn’t interested so Andy Liszt (also from LSD) stood in for her on bass. Andy was great and it was cool to reconnect with him after all those years, but he’s kept pretty busy with his band these days so it’s not really something he could commit much more to than that. I guess I should probably mention that I was also drumming in LSD from about mid ‘06 to early ’07. Close to 20 shows I think but no recordings. That whole thing was weird because I joined LSD back then and their original drummer (Scott E.) joined Sciflyer! Long story. Anyway, I even ended up playing two shows up north with them again just this past summer – Seattle Seagaze Festival and Portland Psychfest. That was a lot of fun.
Can you talk a bit about how you have sculpted your sound over the years and what you think of Sciflyer’s sound at present?
This is one of those difficult questions to answer because I never know it until I hear it. I know what synapses I want the music to fire, and I know what the general parameters of the “feels” are, so there is a sorta template, but it’s also very nebulous. Maybe even quantum, in that I need to actually fire it at the synapses first before I even know what it is I’m firing.
Looking back over your time as a songwriter, can you see a development in your writing process? How has your approach evolved and has technology influenced that change in any way?
I feel I’ve embraced the concept of the “epic song” more. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, like “yeah, my song is so epic”, but more in the idea of a song as a novel. Originally my concept for lyrics was to try to say as much as possible using the least amount of words as possible…and I still like that idea…but I’m also not afraid now to tell a longer story if that’s what’s required to get the concept across, or trigger the proper subconscious “receptors”. But no, technology hasn’t really changed much for me. Yes, I mixed Moon with Garageband, which does have some pros to it, but I still prefer going analog the whole way. I probably would’ve mixed Moon straight from the two-inch tape if it hadn’t been so expensive and I hadn’t been so broke. For the most part, I’m fucking sick of technology and wish a lot of it would just go away so we could live more simply and not be beholden to this new class of super rich tech-yuppies. But outside of a giant asteroid hitting the Earth soon, I don’t see that happening.
Now that you’ve had some distance from They Only Believe in the Moon and have released some long-lost tracks on Energizer, are you please with how they came out? Also, are there any favorite tracks on either release that you find just stick with you?
I’m incredibly pleased with the Energizer remixes, especially the first two cuts. A little bummed that I couldn’t work them out back in the day, but I just got lost working on them back then. I got so far into them I couldn’t see the forest for the trees anymore…or the songs for all the dubs and so on. It was the time and distance away from them that actually brought them into clearer focus for me. Hell, I had completely forgotten they even existed! Or at least the extent of tracking that had done on them. I just found these rough mix discs in a box of old band stuff one day and it took off from there! As for Moon, I’m like say 95% happy with it. I sometimes wish I had brought the vocal up just a smidge on Creator. They’re perfect in headphones but get a little lost in some speakers, but if I’m gonna err, it’s gonna be on the side of too quiet rather than too loud. Too loud is the worst. Makes me blush. Yeah, I know.
What was the writing and recording process like for They Only Believe in the Moon? Why these tracks in this order and were there tracks you left on the cutting floor that we might hear later?
The recording for Moon actually started in 2006 with Scott Christy (ex-Astral) on drums. Scott had played SXSW with us that year. And shortly after that, we recorded versions of pretty much all the songs that appear on Moon, but I wasn’t completely happy with how some of them came out…no one’s fault in particular…but we only ended up using two from those sessions – So Close To Over and Zzyzx. And then Scott C. quit to play fulltime with Astral so we went back in the studio with Scott E. in early 2007 and re-did the other four. We did all of the recordings at Ex’pressions recording college for damn near free. We got to use a fully decked studio with a two-inch analog tape machine and all we had to pay for was the tape! Most of the sessions were like from 10pm to 2AM and later! I seem to recall leaving one overdub session just as the sun was coming up! And yes, technically there was one leftover track – another instrumental we called “Moonset”, but the only version is sorta incomplete and janky. I was considering fading in and out a segment of it on Moon, after Zzyzx, but it seemed to kill the impact of Zzyzx as the closer to the album so I skipped it. In fact, we had been hoping to maybe even write another song or two for it while we were recording tracks for it….if they happened organically…and I was working on some ideas…but then everything fell apart and they never materialized.
Can you talk more specifically about the tracks “Creator” and “Goddess”? What were the thoughts behind the writing and recording of each and how are they related to one another?
It would take about six months to bring you completely up to speed on this one. And I’m sure there are those who either A) would reject the notion of there being any kind of “creator” whatsoever completely out of hand, thinking it was necessarily some kind of religious idea, or B) being total materialists would find the thinking behind it just hokey in general. But I have a deep fascination with the concepts put forth by the Gnostics during the early days of Christianity. Of course, they were persecuted and driven underground and their writings burned by the mainstream church. But I think you can look at Gnostic concepts without necessarily invoking any particular religion per se. One of their core concepts being that the entity that created the physical universe, our world and us, is actually a quite sinister character. A great cosmic imposter of sorts. An incompetent, oblivious and/or obtuse rogue “god” who attempts to imitate a higher perfection that he only has a vague inkling about. It’s a long involved story, but it basically turns the entire mainstream creation story on its head. And this “false creator” is arrogant, jealous and indifferent to the suffering of his creatures. So far it all matches up with our friend Jehovah from the biblical account. And he somehow illicitly uses “sparks” or “fragments” of a higher power to fuel his deficient creation, and we, being part of that higher power at our very core, end up trapped in a physical world that’s actually not even supposed to exist at all! The Gnostics were actually talking about some of the same concepts involved in modern day quantum physics now but didn’t have the language to express it as such. Not to mention their ideas predating The Matrix movie…sans slow motion martial arts and malevolent machines. The overall gist being that you are The Man in The Iron Mask, so to speak, robbed of your birthright by a usurper and imprisoned in a limited physical body. So in a way, the title of the song is a little bit sarcastic.
Goddess probably addresses the divine feminine of the perfect realm, above the false creator. Maybe. They definitely felt related somehow when they came out. The idea that there might actually be a divine Mother as well as a divine Father got completely lost thru the ages, but I don’t know anyone here who only has a father. Do you? And as above so below and all that…
Slowfire refers to that inner core I mentioned earlier and where it finds itself at the moment, so it seemed to be a no-brainer as the next song in the sequence. And then The Nation being a statement on the sad shape of the whole thing, America in particular, it seemed to fit in nicely as well. So Close To Over is actually what I imagine the false creator might say if he were to ever come clean and admit the whole damn thing has been a failure. And, to me, Zzyzx sounds like a sonic desert dust storm or what the universe might sound like as it breaks apart, so it was always gonna be the closer.
On They Only Believe in the Moon, you return to the tracks “Slowfire” and “The Nation” and revise them. Why did you feel the need to return to these tracks and what motivated your choice to sort of rework them?
We had been playing Slowfire since 2002 and I just got sick of the bombastic feel of it and wanted to try something sparse and breathy with it. Something kinda like Galaxy 500 vocal-wise. Instrumentally I was thinking of those really slow and twangy surf songs, believe it or not. We started performing it that way when Scott C. came on board and we liked the feel of it so much we felt a re-do was in order. Not to mention that the original version was only on a self-release up until that point. The Nation wasn’t as pressing to re-do but since we had access to that pro studio we just went ahead and re-did it more like we had been playing it with Scott E. Not necessarily better or worse, but a little slower and a little more in a pocket groove so the words could linger a little more than on the original. And it just seemed to fit with the sequence, so…
I have heard that you really have disowned the Sciflyer self-titled EP and the Melt EP. Why is it that you feel a need to distance yourself from those recordings?
Mostly because the first disc was originally just meant to be a demo for getting shows and maybe a few reviews here and there. But for some reason it took off, much to my surprise, so we committed to treating it more like a proper release at the time even though it really wasn’t. And then Clairecords started distributing it thru Tonevendor and it kept getting more college airplay and Dan kept re-ordering so we just went with it. But in retrospect, it was just a very rough and amateurish sketch of what I really wanted to do with the band. And maybe cuz it’s just a little too lo-fi? Melt, probably because it was sort of a compromise. There’s a long story about this guy who was briefly involved with the band, who sorta had his own agenda going on the down-low kinda “sabotaging” our original sessions with Matt Piucci (from Rain Parade). It’s complicated. And then us having to re-record just the few songs we could still afford to at the time. And the mix-down at home wasn’t the original idea but a last resort for that one, and I feel it could’ve been a lot better than it turned out. It probably would’ve been longer as well if things had gone differently. Also something about the mix sounds forced to me, but if others like it then that’s cool too. I just don’t consider it part of the canon proper anymore because we started hitting the mark closer to what I was hearing in my head once we joined up with Claire officially. I think we needed that boost of confidence and that small amount of positive pressure of being on a real label. In other words, let’s not screw this up!
Are there any musicians, visual artists, or writers you see as influences on your music, how you approach art, or how you think about music in general?
Well obviously Adam Franklin from Swervedriver. The guy’s a genius. If we were even a tiny fraction as good as them I could probably die happy. So it looks like I’m gonna die miserable because that’s totally not the case. I also dig Ash Bowie from Polvo a lot. He has this very mystical, almost quasi-Gnostic way with lyrics, not to mention his unique guitar style. Philip K. Dick is a big one with his constant theme of questioning the nature of reality and are we in some kind of simulation and all that. And of course the usual guitar suspects like Bob Mould, J. Mascis and so on. There’s also my close friend and former bandmate (since 1985), who was also sort of a spiritual mentor as well, who had a profound influence on my lyric writing. He died in 2012. He was kinda like a big brother of sorts so that was huge for me. It still is. Moon has a dedication to him in the liner notes.
For our gearheads, what sort of gear do you use live and, if different, in the studio?
Back in the day, I was using my trusty cheap 2001 silver sparkle Squire Jagmaster, a USA Fender Jazzmaster and occasionally a Rickenbacker 330, specifically on The Same Thing Goes For Christmas. That’s all Rickenbacker. Burning Down the House is mostly Ric as well. In the beginning, I used a Telecaster, but traded that for the Jazzmaster in 2003. My pedal board was mostly Electro-Harmonix, including an old-school Memory Man, Big Muff, etc, and a few other things that I’m still using now as well. I briefly messed around with the Line 6 multi-modulation pedals when they first came out and everyone was using them…the blue one and the green one…I forget which did what, but then I re-did the board in ’03. I regret selling my Dan-Electro Back Talk reverse delay since then. That was a great pedal.
As for amps, for a long time I played thru a 68 Fender Twin Reverb, tho I switched to a reissue Vox AC30 in 2006. Today it’s still similar, specifically the exact same Jagmaster, but now a reissue Squire Jazzmaster since I had to sell the Fender back in 2009 to make rent thanks to the Recession. The Vox went in 2011 I think for the same reason. But now I have a beautiful Peavey Classic 50 which is based on the old tweed Fender line. I think it might be my favorite amp ever, so it all worked out in the end I guess.
For the super gear heads, the board as of today is: Morley Wah-Volume (old), EH Little Big Muff (new), TC Electronics MojoMojo overdrive (new), DOD FX60 chorus (old), EH Doctor Q envelope follower (new, tho I used the MXR Q-Zone for that effect back in the day), Danelectro Dan-Echo (old), MXR Carbon Copy analog delay (new), Boss TE-2 Terra Echo (new), and an EH Holy Grail Reverb (old). Not as many as some of my peers, I know. I’ve been thinking about messing around with the EH Pitchfork if we start writing new stuff. Or maybe I’d even go for the Digitech Whammy if I can get a good deal on an older one…though I’m kinda lazy when it comes to those pedals with a million different menu options. It’s kinda why I like to stick with EH and analog based shit – simple buttons and knobs and no choice overkill.
Regarding “effects”, one thing I like to do when recording dubs at home that we didn’t do with Moon is just plug directly into the board and then overdrive all the inputs! That’s the fuzz sound on Chemical World (from the Age reissue) and a few others! I got that from My Dad Is Dead. Mark Edwards uses that to great effect on Out of Sight Out of Mind (1993).
If you could have any piece of gear, and money was not an issue, what would that piece of gear be?
Probably the original DigiTech Space Station. I saw Tom Lugo from Stellarscope use one when we played with them in Philly in 2003 and he was getting some sick shit outta that thing! They go for around $500 on eBay these days!
Thanks so much for spending time answering my questions. I guess there is only one more to ask. What is next for Sciflyer? Any new music coming down the pike?
For one thing, I’m not done picking the bones of the LSD ex-pats yet! We’ve been playing lately with Sophia Campbell on bass. Just rehearsals so far tho. Sophia is the female voice you hear on both LSD EP’s. She’s no longer with LSD and she also plays guitar so I hit her up for bass. Her birthday is also the day after mine so it seemed like an omen of sorts. I’ve also reconnected with Roger (Chandler), who played on everything from Melt to Age (with the exception of The Nation and Come Up To My Cloud) recently and there’s a possibility he might be joining us for some shows in the future. None of that is 100% right now tho. Everything is still cool with Scott E. but he’s also in another band fulltime, expecting his first child this year and very busy with his day job, so we’re not able to get together that often. We thought it might be good to have a pinch hitter ready if needed. We’d definitely like to do a show or two while the Age reissue is still being talked about. Which by the way was graciously re-released by Ben Vendetta on his Elephant Stone label. He’s been great to work with. One of my favorite people actually. And yeah, we’d like to start writing and recording again if possible but nothing so far. Maybe after we nail down a few loose variables that could happen again. I need that band interaction to write. It’s never a top-down kind of thing. At least not at first.
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