The self-described “post-pop” band Alta Mira (from the Albany, NY region) were a welcome discovery this past year, a rare treat of a band who quickly grew to become on of my favorite “new” groups. They have been together a number of years, but I discovered them through a friend who played me their amazing 2012 release I Am The Salt. The album soon became more played than almost any other for me in 2012, a sensual and yet not indulgent true record that grows with you and constantly reveals more warmth, musical talent and lyrical depth. There are only so many albums you can put on when you need a pick me up, are entertaining friends with wine in the kitchen, just want to rock or are daydreaming.
I had it in the back of my mind that I had to interview Alta Mira and spread the word to new fans, but I was selfishly for once inclined to actually enjoy the music for myself for a while. I write up so many reviews and interviews for various genres and magazines that sometimes you don’t end up listening to anything that isn’t an assignment! This band was a little refreshing escape and a gift that kept on giving. Fate had other ideas, I guess. I was doing door at a fancy cocktail bar where I work during a health care benefit concert and I suddenly realized I knew all the songs coming from the stage at the back of the room. It was very cool to randomly meet the band I had been listening to most lately and get them to agree to share thoughts on their music.
Morgan: I Am The Salt is such a fully realized album. I was so happy to discover your band. It really is one of the most memorable albums I heard all year and got much more rotation in my home than much “bigger” bands. Can you talk about how the band came together and ended up creating this record? Was it a statement of purpose or just the outcome of free creation?
Tommy: There was definitely a master plan at the beginning. We knew we wanted something different than the 2009 album, which was made up of much longer and more intricate songs. There was a lot of discussion throughout the writing of I Am the Salt about simplicity and the craft of writing songs, so we really tried to focus on emphasizing singular melodies and trimming any excess from the song structures. There was also much more consideration for the listener this time, which sounds silly but we really wanted this record to be something people would want to hear more than once. I think all of us have a lot of respect for pop songs and a simple melody that somehow seems genius. They seem to be hardest to write but this was our attempt at moving in that direction.
Morgan: I can hear a sort of progressive streak and a love of dynamics in your songs, but also some world music as well (like the outro of “The Elephant”). There is a lot of range in the playing but it all combines into a very distinctive band sound. You guys remind me of how excited I was when I first heard Mew, who have such a sound-scape of their own, and how it somehow made perfect sense they had J. Mascis as a guest on a song. And I had assumed this was your first release, for some reason. But can you talk about the back catalogue as well? How do you think you’ve grown?
Tommy: I think those first couple releases were necessary steps in the progress of the songwriting. Like most bands, we’re not particularly fond of the old material but we recognize the fact that they were a stamp in time. We wrote the songs we wanted to write at that moment and held on to the ideas that seemed to work for future use. Over time we felt the need to try and do more with less. You’re right about the progressive streak. We tried so hard to steer away from that and somehow there are still traces of it throughout this album. It might not be the hippest trait of the band but I’m content having it there.
Morgan: The band plays live often. Any favorite haunts or regions on the East Coast to speak of? Amusing anecdotes?
Joe: After our tour this summer, we were really happy to come back to our friends and fans in the Albany area. We’ve played at Valentine’s so many times I've lost count. But we also had a blast in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and Boston is a frequent stop for us—we recorded our first album and our EP out there and the Brighton/Allston area is always fun.
Anecdotes? One time we played a house party and Hunter drank two huge Four Lokos beforehand…
Morgan: The lyrics to me convey a sense of confidence but also soul-searching. Can you talk about some of the themes of the album or even the story behind the record title?
Joe: I’m glad you see them as being presented with confidence, but one of the major lyrical themes of the album is my dealing with a complete lack thereof in my songwriting process. It’s hard to take oneself seriously as a musician, shaping all of my stupid, crap feelings and fleeting, misguided thoughts into an enjoyable structure, into melody. And then to make someone else listen? Songs such as “Pretend Eccentric” and “Good Enough” address this directly, and the first verse of title track “I Am the Salt” pokes fun at the bravado—faked or not—that I have to muster up in order to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is who I am, this is what I am doing, and I want you to take me seriously for a few minutes,’ because any jerk with a guitar can get up on stage for half an hour and extract an applause or two. What makes what I’m saying any more valid, special or interesting? It's a struggle I'm not quite finished with yet.
The other major theme is…well, it’s not a theme so much as a girl. The lines the album title was taken from use a lot of imagery as metaphor—the image of a shoe dangling from a phone line, of salt being tossed over one’s shoulder—and then to say that I am that particular grain of salt, gone to waste, or that unusable, unattainable pair of shoes, as a portrayal of rejection...this is the heavy undertone sprinkled into almost every song: in “Off” at the end of the album, where a lonely character is writing down someone’s number in a bar, waiting for that certain special anyone to distract him; the voice in “Red Red” attempting to recreate the details of a moment that will never be again (à la Requiem for a Dream); the verses of “Up and Gone” reference the Sirens of Greek mythology, wooing sailors to shipwreck with their voices while “Organ Anthem” serves as a preliminary warning call, albeit a playful one, against such potential wrecks. Instead of rehashing my little drama in story form, I wanted to pick out small, fractured moments and zoom in on them.
On a separate note, we didn't set out to make a themed album or an overarching concept at all...these are just ten songs that we wrote. But there are definite lyrical threads throughout that link certain songs to one another.
Morgan: Do you guys kind of get along easily or does this music get written by pulling teeth? You all seem to be very tight on stage as friends and as a band, but is it ever hairy coming up with some of the more complex arrangements?
Hunter: The "hairiness" of the song writing process is really unique to each song. Sometimes a song will come together out of noodling around in the practice room, and the pieces will present themselves in a very obvious and natural way. Other times, one of us may have a strong vision for a song that really clashes with the rest of the group. Arguments are not a rarity. We deal with musical disagreements the same way we deal with any other disputes. Sometimes you can plead your case and sway the other parties to your way of thinking. Sometimes you compromise and blend two or more ideas. Sometimes you can filibuster and get the others to concede out of exhaustion. Many times you just ditch the whole thing come up with something cooler.
Some of our earlier songs have arrangements that are way more complicated than most of the songs we wrote for Salt. I remember fighting for weeks about a song called “Apnea” off of our first EP. It's long and sprawling and has tons of key and time-signature changes… and we haven't played it in years. Somewhere along the line it became more rewarding to write tighter, more simple arrangements, which tend to lead to fewer artistic spats.
Morgan: Do you think democracy is an absolute must for a band or can it be a hindrance? I have been talking to lots of groups about songwriting lately and would like to know your thoughts on this.
Hunter: This is a point of conversation which comes up a lot when talking to other musicians. The answer is different for every band, and it usually depends on how the band is formed. Lots of bands start with a songwriter finding a group of musicians who he/she feels suit the nature of his/her songs. The songwriter, in many instances, has final say, but it really depends on the personalities and egos of each member. Sometimes leadership ebbs and flows between different members at different stages in a band's life. I think there are plenty of well-documented examples of that kind of dynamic throughout popular music.
For our band, democracy is an absolute must. And a hindrance. We don't have a principle songwriter, even though Joe writes the lyrics. The rest of the band usually writes the music and arrangements first. In the process of fitting vocals to the instrumentation, everyone has fair say in every aspect of what will become the final version of the song. This is where the answer to the last question becomes relevant.
Morgan: Any upcoming cool stuff in the NY capitol region you have going on soon that you’d like to plug? How is the scene up there these days? There is a great band called Playing With Sound you should play with. Also adventurous. They are cool girls. You’d probably dig them.
August: The guiding force behind a lot of the aesthetic on Salt was the intention of releasing it on vinyl. We put quite a bit of time researching where/with whom to record, and how things should sound on the record. Frank and Seamus really came through in helping us realize a lot of that. That'll be out shortly into the New Year, which we're pretty excited about. We're only having 100 copies made, and 50 are spoken for. Keep an eye out for the release date if you're interested in having one, they might be tough to get your hands on.
There's a ton of good music happening in Albany. Matt Durfee, Charmboy, Maggot Brain, and The Disposable Rocket Band all put on great shows, to name a few. Playing With Sound, we'll have to check 'em out.
Morgan: Your music really comes off as a true kind of modern pop. It has depth and musicianship but also engages the listener. Something like “Pretend Eccentric” really creates a mood to get lost in, while not being beholden to boring structural formats either. I think my favorite thing about Alta Mira is the interplay between creative “risk” and accessibility. Nothing feels forced and you certainly invite the listener in, but it is still your world to make, so to speak. Does that ring true?
August: You bopped it on the nose. Having a more 'poppy' sound was a conscious goal for this record. As backward as it may seem, going in that direction while trying to maintain our structural integrity and chordal interestingness, was really an experimental move. Not having formulae for structure or chord progression, I think inherently invites a certain amount of risk to accessibility. But, that's a lot of what makes it fun to do. That's the challenge.