Longtime followers know that we only feature the bands that we love. Leave the cataloging of every crappy indie band to the others. We only care about bringing you the creme de la creme. Having said that, how do we impress upon you the greatness of Stripmall Architecture? While other bands strive to reach the top of the mountain, Stripmall Architecture peers down upon them from the stratosphere. Combining the musical complexity and beauty of Radiohead (gulp) with the lyrical mysticism of early Siouxsie, they take their influences and create a sound that is uniquely their own. In our world, this band would be headlining Lollapalooza, Glastonbury and topping the charts worldwide.
As members of San Francisco’s celebrated Halou, Ryan and Rebecca Coseboom built up a remarkable body of material and worked with a wide range of iconoclastic artists including DJ Shadow (on his infamous Radiohead remix), Low, Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie, and the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. When Halou came to an end after a US tour with indie legend Bob Mould, they regrouped quickly and launched their new project, Stripmall Architecture. Their new album, “Feathersongs for Factory Girls” is truly one of the best albums to be released this year. Ryan Coseboom answered some questions about the intricacies behind the genius of Stripmall Architecture.
TDOA: There are certain bands that write music based on a single guitar or vocal melody. Stripmall Architecture’s music appears to be densely structured and complex in a way that we have rarely heard before (do we dare reference Radiohead here?). Can you talk about the songwriting process and how you approach it conceptually?
RC: Usually, the production and the songwriting are intertwined right from the beginning. Since a lot of the sounds go into the songs right at the start, a lot of them end up staying so that by the time we’re done, there can be a lot of different things going on. Ideally, the songs have enough going on to keep you interested enough to listen to them several times, hearing new things each time. At the same time, we pay a lot of attention to dynamics so that if things are really dense at points in the track, we’ll make sure to peel it all back somewhere else. It’s sort of like depth-of-field – you have to know what small sounds like in order to appreciate big.
TDOA: Can you explain the transition from your previous band, Halou to your current incarnation? Was the decision to split with Count due to personal conflict or creative differences?
RC: A lot went into it. The simplest answer is that it was just time to end that project. The arc of our work as Halou is pretty wide – we started as 100% electronic and ended up with almost no electronics at all on our final album. The name of the band had almost no meaning to anyone who would use it as a compass to indicate what direction we would go next so I think the fact that Rebecca and I have a new name shouldn’t make much difference. Our methods and interests are the same as they were in Halou so I think it was pretty easy for people to make the leap to the new project. Of course, we’re really glad that people have continued to follow what we do.
TDOA: We’ve become enamored with a number of bands who are releasing music through Bandcamp, just as you do. Can you talk about how this system has worked for you and your feelings about controlling your own releases, versus through a record label?
RC: Bandcamp, specifically, has been the only service to do all the right things at the same time: no charges for bands, no advertising, great stats, control over design, etc. A lot of different people have tried to do it, all while holding something back, which gave things a less-than-genuine feel. The two online services we’ve really leaned on in the past year have been Bandcamp and Kickstarter, and those are the two available to us that I think do operate with a bit of altruism in mind. Maybe that’s naive, but I can’t really find anything to knock about either of those platforms.
I think record labels have their place and their specialty. We’ve done that and it’s another way of doing things that works for some bands. I don’t know which is ultimately going to make more bands more money or fans or whatever, but for us, we have never sold more music than we do now. We struggle to keep up with the sales-side of things because this year it has stepped up so dramatically.
TDOA: Obviously, a lot care is put into all of the artwork associated with the band. Can you tell us who overseas this aspect of the band and what principles guide your art?
RC: Yeah, and it keeps getting more and more important, it seems. For our current album, our good friend Max Medina (of the Mystery Parade) has been art directing the project using these incredible illustrations from Jody Pham. We were really attracted to Jody’s thin-lined drawings and when she agreed to draw our crazy idea, we got really into making the artwork into a whole world, really. Max has a real strength in typography and his work, I think, contrasts perfectly with the inherently organic nature of the drawings.
TDOA: There seems to be a great deal of thought put into how you number and release your music (your Object releases, etc). Is this a conscious decision and if so, can you talk about what influenced it?
RC: It’s conscious, but it’s not really mapped out. We realized recently that there were a lot of releases and ephemera that we needed to organize if anyone that followed us could have a hope of keeping track. Originally, we were going to use the “Object” releases to sell at our shows while pretty much everything else would just be download-only. For the last several years, we’ve all read that music fans are moving away from physical items and that everything would be digital downloads. We took a chance when we put out our first album and offered CD’s, shirts, poster sets and a limited cassette-only release and we learned pretty quickly that our fans are into physical releases; pretty much exactly the opposite of what we thought was true. That was sort of the beginning of us opening up and really just full-on having a back-and-forth with everyone that listens to us.
TDOA: We’re pleased to see the degree of internet savviness the band exhibits. We’ve seen the gamut of experiences with bands internet presence, with a variety of results. How much weight do you put upon things like social media as a means of connecting with and growing your audience?
RC: For us it’s a pretty big part of how we communicate with the world. It can’t be the only way, though. We use Facebook and Twitter – and they’re pretty amazing ways to reach out to people – but we also stand on street corners at night and give CD’s away to people when shows get out. We get a lot of crazy ideas and sometimes we do them before we ever figure out whether they’re worth the time or not. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work – similar to the way making records is, actually.
Back when we were on a major label, there were a lot of people who’d say that you still had to do a lot of work – that the label wasn’t going to be the thing that made you successful. Now, it’s strange to see some of those same people totally refusing to use social media. At first, Facebook and Twitter seemed like a distraction from more important things, but now we’ve embraced them as just another part of what we do. We have done releases that only go out over those particular channels.
The way that we keep it meaningful for ourselves is to actually try to connect with people in a real way. We’ve all been through the Myspace days when being a ‘friend’ or a ‘fan’ had pretty much no meaning in 90 percent of cases. It’s kind of a luxury now to have such a direct two-way line with actual listeners.
TDOA: On your blog (!), you wrote about your love of vintage synthesizers. First, can you talk about what you use on your albums?
RC: Yeah, I grew up around synthesizers and I guess they’ll always be part of whatever music we do. These days, I just don’t have the room or the money to keep a collection of them around which means, like a lot of people these days, I’m using a lot of software. I get way more excited about playing with the CS-80 or Moog Modular than some of the newer, more esoteric stuff that has come out in the last several years. I definitely think of the Moog as being at least as foundational to what we do as guitars are. I find the sounds of those synths totally satisfying to use and, in a lot of cases, really beautiful to listen to.
TDOA: When OMD and some of the early new wave bands of the 80′s started using synths, some music critics complained that they were “cold and impersonal” compared to the guitar-based bands of British punk. Can you talk about you use synths to add to the atmosphere of your music?
RC: Well, I think the synths give us a way to differentiate our arrangements enough so that each song sounds unique. I’m sure it comes from being raised in close proximity to synthesizers and electronic music, but my ears really want to hear a different set of sounds on each song. I enjoy listening to plenty of all acoustic music and other more ‘traditionally arranged’ songs, but I think we’ll always be trying to find new noises to decorate our songs with.
TDOA: You’re obviously very comfortable in the studio. Given that, would you rather perform live or record?
RC: I enjoy them both a lot for totally different reasons, though I think playing live is ultimately more satisfying since it is us taking ourselves straight out there to people and playing for them.
TDOA: You’ve done production work with a disparate list of bands. How do you motivate yourself to work with music that isn’t necessarily “your cup of tea”?
RC: I think that whether I’m doing production or programming or Rebecca’s singing on someone else’s track, we’re just trying to push ourselves into doing some new things. There have definitely been things we’ve worked on that were hard to get into at first, but once you find a direction, it’s actually pretty easy to get excited about any project if your collaborators are friendly, creative people.
TDOA: What can we expect from Part 2 of the brilliant Feathersongs for Factory Girls album? What does the title reference?
RC: Part two is more uptempo, but still really textural and melodic. Parts one and two together will be an eclectic listen, for sure, which is something we wanted from the outset. We’re are being careful to make part two consistent with the first, but it will also be a contrast in some ways. That’s pretty vague, but we’ve still got a ways to go before we’re finished with it. Releasing a record in two parts seemed odd at first, but now I think I actually prefer it to doing it all at once. I think 5 songs (or one side of an album) is plenty to chew off at a time for both bands and listeners. I’m not sure how popular an idea it will become, but I wouldn’t mind doing it again.
The title is just another part of the imagery that songs like Radium Girls and Pripyat have. It’s difficult to articulate – especially without sounding like I have my head up my own ass – but it suggests that the songs themselves are pretty atmospheric but the subject matter is not.
TDOA: What are your plans for the rest of 2010 and what kind of goals have you set for yourselves in the future?
RC: We’ll be finishing the album for the next couple of months, probably, as well as continuing work on some pretty amazing collaborations we’ve been involved in this year. Consider how the first half of the year went, I can’t believe I’m saying that I think the second half will be even crazier. Definitely looking forward to it all, though.
To learn more about the band and purchase their music, visit their website here.