An Interview with Shoegaze Veterans Jeremy Wrenn and Andrew Marrah of Airiel
Airiel are a mainstay of the noisy, progressive guitar music we all know as shoegaze. In many ways, they’ve become the influencers of a new wave of bands that have taken up the genre and run with it. A centerpiece to the Chicago scene, Airiel released their first 7″ single in 1999 and their current album, Molten Young Lovers released in 2017, has been met with critical acclaim. Jeremy Wrenn and Andrew Marrah have taken time out of their busy schedules to answer some of my questions about Airiel‘s past, their current album Molten Young Lovers, and what is next for the band. They also answered some personal question about their history as musicians and music lovers.
Hello Jeremy and Andrew! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions.
I guess I would like to start by asking about the gap between The Battle of Sealand and Molten Young Lovers. Why such a long gap between records and what was Airiel up to in that span of time?
Jeremy: Major lineup changes, for the most part. Cory and John were gone, so Chris Debrizzio and I found another bass player and drummer so that we could go to Europe. I blew a ton of my personal finances to keep that tour going and I just couldn’t keep touring after we got back to the states. Highwheel Records had run into a major financial issue right after we had booked the tour dates, so I paid for all of the flights and hotels by myself and I’m still recovering from that. Eventually I met Andrew Marrah and Chase Johnson and we kind of started from scratch with a lot of things. Andrew started off playing drums, and we wrote the Kid Games EP together, along with the start of a few songs that would make it onto Molten Young Lovers. I think we actually debuted “You Sweet Talker” at the Chapterhouse/Ulrich Schnauss show back in 2010.
I have to say that there are few albums that come across my desk that I would call perfect from start to finish but Molten Young Lovers is most certainly one of those rare perfect albums. Can you all talk a bit about the writing and recording of the album and give us some history of these particular tracks which became what is now our #1 album of 2017?
Jeremy: Thank you! I couldn’t be happier with the reviews we received throughout the community. It’s been fantastic. Andrew and I wrote these songs with the intention of having the whole band flesh them out as if we were playing them live. With Kid Games, we did all the writing in studio, which is unusual for Airiel. With MYL, we knew we would be playing out a lot in order to give the songs that well-worn touch. That ended up being part of the problem with how long it took to get MYL finished. The drums didn’t feel quite ready, and Andrew didn’t want to record guitars until the bass and drums were 100% done. We recorded at several studios throughout Chicago, most of which are gone now, sadly. Adam Stilson I think recorded this album 3 times with us. We had a weekend booked at what was Soma Studios, where we recorded Molten Young Lovers and “Sharron Apple” on the Saturday, then realized we had an entire Sunday still booked. We told Spencer to go home and rest because we had him re-record the rest of the drums again the next day. Once that was over, Andrew and I recorded all of the guitars at Minbal Studio over 1 weekend. Adam moved into the new Decade Music studio where he currently resides and from there we finished vocals, synths, overdubs, etc. We re-recorded the bass tracks and suddenly things were finally falling into place.
I saw you play live (my first time) at Kalamashoegazer in 2017 and, again, I was blown away by your music once again. Can you talk a bit about the gear you use live and, if it differs from what you use in the studio when recorded, what would those differences be?
Jeremy: We actually use the same equipment, although Andrew and I recorded through different guitar amps than what we use live. I was reunited with a Fender showman head that I used to use for years back when I had 2 Fender heads and 2 oversized 2×12 Fender cabinets. Adam keeps that at the studio. Via the insistence of past engineers, I would take my pedal board apart and just use the pedals I needed for each song, to limit line noise. We didn’t bother with that at all this time. Andrew and I both played through the boards we use live.
As individuals, what drives you to continue to make music?
Jeremy: It’s just what we do and I guess we do it so that we always have something we know we’d like to listen to.
Andrew: Personally, I’d go crazy if I wasn’t constantly creating art. It’s an outlet, as corny as it sounds. Even if nothing fruitions, I have to try.
I have always sensed a great deal of sensitivity and openness in your music. I get this not just from your lyrics but there’s a great deal of emotive content in the way you deliver sonic choices. Can you talk a little but about Airiel as an engine for personal expression and maybe the personal aspects of writing for you all as musicians?
Jeremy: Well, the lyrics always come last, sadly. I’m no poet. Many times, I’ve finished lyrics on the day that I was scheduled to record the vocal tracks. I’ve played shows without finished lyrics and even pulled some Elizabeth Frasier “I don’t have a clue what she’s singing” type of stuff. I really woke up to music during the prime days of MTV’s 120 Minutes, back when Dave Kendall was the host. It was the best time to be a teenager. I fell in love with the Manchester scene and always loved the beats by The Charlatans UK, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, etc. I’ve always liked dance music in that regard. And I also love sad, emotional music, and I just keep tying the two together. It’s very, very rare that I write a song about a real person. I’ll leave it up to the historians to figure out who and what song. I’ve mostly written about imaginary relationships, or ideals, I guess. I’ve also made a point to keep the lyrics sexless, in that you can apply the song towards a man or a woman. I like that people can take our songs and have it be “their song” or that our music has helped them get through some tough times. I don’t know how we ever pulled that off, but I always appreciate it when people tell me about it.
I like to ask about specific songs on a band’s most release to get specifics about those tracks. Can you talk about writing and recording both “Mind Furnace” and “Keep You”?
Jeremy: “Mind Furnace” is the one track we wrote in the studio. That came about from some drum edits and a guitar part that I kept messing with, which Andrew started playing over. Adam came up with a synth thing and we just started messing around. The lyrics, like all Airiel songs, came last. It’s just a simple song about lust.
“Keep You” must have been written in the late 90’s. It was definitely while Sean Delaney was still in the band, while we were in Bloomington, IN. Unlike what I said about the songs being sexless earlier, this one is about a guy, trying to stop screwing up when he goes to pick up his girlfriend. It’s a bit goofy and feels like adolescence. Nikki Navarro, who used to play in the fabulous Chicago band Star Tropics, actually recorded a vocal part to sing opposite me. It was like 2 people telling their side of the story at the same time and how the relationship was just doomed. I liked how it all laid out in the recording but I didn’t have enough votes on my side to keep it in the final mix.
Of your prior releases (before MYL), what really strikes you as important or, to put it another way, what most stands out to you, stands the test of time, and why?
Jeremy: In a weird way, it’s cool that our old songs still get tagged for new things. “In Your Room” made it on two episodes of the TV show Psyche, and it was also in Gregg Araki’s “Kaboom”. That song was written in maybe 1998 or 1999. The EP it was released on came out in the early 2000s. I like that I can listen to the progression of the recordings and the contributions that all the band members have made as Airiel kept on recording. Sealand had its moments but ultimately, I hate half of that record, for many reasons. Kid Games made me feel a lot better, despite the lyrics being a bit dark. I liked going back to Airiel’s roots and using drum machines again. That EP was a lot of fun to make.
What is your first memory of music?
Jeremy: Oh geez, I have a ton. I had so many cassettes and 45s growing up. Listening to Ian and Sylvia, or Gordon Lightfoot in my dad’s study. Hearing New Order’s Substance in my sister’s car. I think the first 45 I ever bought was “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr. I grew up in a somewhat musical household, luckily. We had a piano. My mom made me take lessons. My older brother played saxophone in high school, and my sister played the flute. My first live concert was Weird Al opening for the Monkees.
Andrew: My dad throwing on AC/DC records and jumping up and down on the furniture like he was Angus Young. The first album I ever purchased with my own money was “Bleach” by Nirvana.
Jeremy: That is literally the exact opposite of my dad listening to Ian and Sylvia in his study. LOL.
Alright, lets talk a bit about the strange things that can go on when playing live. Do you have a story you’re willing to share about a time when something went strangely wrong on stage but maybe the audience didn’t notice, or it worked out for the better, creating a very unique and special moment?
Jeremy: Very early on, probably 1998 or so, Sean and I were playing at a house party at Indiana University. Back then we used a couple of Alesis SR-16s and a Boss DR 660. We were playing 500 Deep and I accidentally stepped on the start/stop footswitch for the drums. Killed the song over half way through. Got a good laugh, though. I remember Chris Debrizzio getting shocked over and over again during a soundcheck because a wire inside his amp head was touching metal and sending current right through his guitar.
Andrew: Back when I was still playing drums, one of Jeremy’s amps blew during our soundcheck when we opened for Chapterhouse. Since then, I’m constantly trying to keep my tremolo bar from falling out of my Jazzmaster. The struggle is real when you begin to flail.
What’s next for Airiel? Tour? Are you writing again already?
Jeremy: We were lucky to meet Nick Berlting a few years ago and he’s been with us on drums and bass since then. We’re making things easier for us to record on the fly and we have some live recordings and another video that we plan on releasing soon. We’re still working on touring, working with some other bands to put some dates together.
Thanks so much for answering my questions!
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