Red Sparowes have a history of matching their cavernous, righteously beautiful instrumentals with suitably lofty conceptual angles. The LA post-rock act is responsible for tracks with names like "The Sixth Extinction Crept Up Slowly, Like Sunlight Through the Shutters, as We Looked Back in Regret" and "A Message of Avarice Rained Down Upon Us and Carried Us Away into False Dreams of Endless Riches."
In 2006, they shaped a record around the "Great sparrow campaign," Chairman Mao's disastrous mission advocating the extermination of sparrows, rats, flies, and mosquitoes--animals considered pests to Chinese crops. The liner notes of Oh Lord, God of Vengeance, Show Yourself!, a live album issued after thieves stole their gear, featured this most poetic curse for the culprits: "Always know, we shall forever be against you as a crocodile on the water, as a serpent on the earth, as a raven in the wind, and as an enemy in this world and worlds to come."
Compared to those doses of grandiosity, the title of their latest record--The Fear is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer--is practically lightweight. Before the Sparowes play The Glass House this Saturday (August 28), bassist/pedal steel extraordinaire Greg Burns dished on cults, being called post-rock, and why they (thankfully) abandoned those exhausting song titles.
OC Weekly (Reyan Ali): Both Red Sparowes' latest record and a song on Aphorisms, the last EP, are called The Fear is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer. What made the band want to reuse that phrase?
Greg Burns: Dave Clifford, our drummer, was the one who came up with that. When he originally came up with the song title, I remember thinking of everything we had used as song titles, that one sounded the best. The rhythm seems really evocative. It ties into the concept of the human need to make meaning out of things where there might not be anything and how that becomes part of the evolutionary process. These false truths that perpetuate are taken as they are and can change the course of things. That's really driven, we feel, out of a human fear of the unknown.
In a past interview, you mentioned that 9/11 and its ensuing conspiracy theories as examples of the title in action. Can you think of any other events or situations that support that idea?
There are a couple, [like] any sort of doomsday cult. People come up with this meaning for a date and decide the end of the world on that day, and for this group, it becomes the truth. Even if that doesn't happen, there will be some other truth that supports the reason for it not happening. Dave was telling me about a cult where that doomsday date came and went, and [the cult leader's] reasoning for why the end never came was because God saw that they had all gathered and were ready to kill themselves, and [God] decided to change the course of events.
There was this Internet hoax the other day that theChive.com started where this girl supposedly quit her job. It was all over Facebook. No one bothered to figure out if it was actually true or not. With more and more information becoming so readily available, people accept things as they are because their friends posted it on Facebook or they saw it on a website. In the liner notes [of The Fear is Excruciating], there are a number of examples. In World War II, there was a point where Germany was bombing U.S. forces in Europe. The U.S. put all these resources into trying to figure out this bombing pattern. They eventually came up with this pattern they were sure was it, and it turns out that it was just completely random.
Why do you think people aren't predisposed toward filtering such information or being skeptical?
I don't think everybody does that, but most people do. People are exposed to information that they don't care really so much about, and they're willing to accept it as it is because it really doesn't have that much impact. Obviously, there are some cases where that's not true. I think someone could put out something about an entire continent getting destroyed and I'm sure people would take it as face value. It's a little bit easier to do that with things I'm not personally invested in, like that theChive.com example. I don't really care if that girl quit her job. It was funny, I read it, and I believed it. I didn't have anything at stake, so I didn't research it. My hope is that if it is something substantial and meaningful, people will look into it.
Red Sparowes have all these ideas you clearly want to express, but everything is instrumental. Doesn't it get ever get frustrating having to convey these things without lyrics?
Yeah. As a band, we approach things a little bit differently when it comes to songwriting. We try to express things we couldn't express through a story. That's different from maybe a Coldplay song, which is about falling in love. We try to leave things pretty open for people to relate to it the way they want, including ourselves.
Why did you guys drop the really long song titles for The Fear is Excruciating?
There's two reasons. The first one is, honestly, our whole goal for this record was to become more concise with our songwriting. All the songs are relatively short compared to what we've done in the past--there are no 15-minute-long songs on this one--so that was a big thing. We wanted our song titles to represent that. Also, as time has gone on, we've realized that there are big disadvantages to having long titles in terms of business and logistics. I hate to say this because I'm sure no Red Sparowes fan would want us to think about it this way, but ASCAP, who tracks music royalties, could never get it right with our song titles. The database won't even support song titles our length, which is cool--it's fun to fly in the face of the industry in any way--but at the same time, this is one of the ways we get paid, and when it starts disrupting that and the money goes to ASCAP instead of us, that's a little frustrating. Those shorter songs allow us to tie that in a little better.
One of the major problems with most contemporary post-rock bands is that they rehash the same ideas or motifs, like having a song start small and gradually exploding into effects over the course of somewhere between five and ten minutes. What do you feel is the major difference between Red Sparowes and any of the other major bands classified as post-rock, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Mogwai?
I honestly don't really think about it that much. I think we have a lot in common with the bands you talked about. I've heard bands that I think are very different from us have the term post-rock applied to them. Tortoise is a good example where I really like that band, and I think that there are parts of Red Sparowes that pay tribute to that, but that's not as obvious as if you like Godspeed or Mogwai. It's not that different than [differentiating] tonal harmony in classical music like Beethoven and Mozart. A lot of people just hear [both] as classical music, unless they're interested in classical music, in which case they can hear really big differences between those two composers. Take us and Mogwai. I've heard people compare the two all the time, but I know people that really listen can hear differences. In Red Sparowes, I see there being a real separation between the guitars and the rhythm section. What Dave and I do together creates this layer underneath everything, and we try to work that way. We use a lot of effects. Cliff [a.k.a. guitarist Bryant Clifford Meyer], especially in Isis, had a really distinct guitar tone and certain effects that I don't hear in other music. Anyone who takes the time to know the music will start to hear really big differences. But yeah, we are post-rock.
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A lot of people in bands classified as post-rock have a great distaste for the title. Does anybody in Red Sparowes have an aversion to the word?
Yeah, I think everyone does. I used to. It's like having an aversion to "psychedelic rock" in the '60s. I decided at a certain point that I can't get that upset about it because first of all, I don't have any control of it, and second, I understand that people need to categorize things. It's not a bad thing that we've been called post-rock. For people that are interested in post-rock, it allows them to pick up on us right away hopefully. Any music I've ever known in any band has had a problem with the label. When I used to play in hardcore bands, every hardcore band was like, "Well, we're doing more. We're not a hardcore band." Yeah, true, but it's still hardcore. That said, I like to think of Red Sparowes as an experimental psychedelic rock band. We all listen to way more of the music that was going on in the early '70s: Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu Orchestra. It's not like we all listen to a lot of post-rock. As a musician, I understand why people call us post-rock, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor--as much as they'd hate to hear me say it--they're a post-rock band, and so is Slint, and that's just the world we fit in. It doesn't mean that they're limited to that, but if someone had to put on a tag on it, that makes sense.
The Fear is Excruciating and other Red Sparowes releases stem from ideas the whole group hashes out in conversations together. If you had full control of Red Sparowes and were going to dictate the way the next record would sound, what kind of theme or story would you focus on?
That's what we always spend a long time trying to figure out. On our last record, I was feeling really hopeful and positive. If it was just me making the call, there would be more extremes [on] the next record, and it would definitely be a darker, angrier record--not just because I'm angrier but because I feel like the general tone of things in my life has been more aggressive and less optimistic. My way of expressing that would be playing heavier and darker stuff [that was] really spacious and really weird.