Published Nov 14, 2012Mother Mother's music has always had a dark undercurrent. Their past albums have been riddled with quirky ruminations on vice and violence, while their songwriting has blended Pixies-style menace with freak-folk adventurousness. On The Sticks, the Vancouver band's fourth album, they indulge their darkest tendencies with 14 doom-filled critiques of the modern world. Many of the songs here centre around the titular image of The Sticks ― a forest where humans can escape from the bustle of city life and recede into a post-apocalyptic wilderness. Elsewhere, the group target capitalism ("Businessman"), the folly of romance ("Let's Fall in Love") and the unknowable massiveness of universe ("Infinitesimal"), and recruit a child to read a nightmarish poem ("Omen"). The collection is notably lacking the giddy tunes have previously been the band's strong suit ― there's no "Hayloft" or "The Stand" amidst these threatening rockers and minor-key dirges. Then again, a pop song might sound frivolous when singer Ryan Guldemond is busy dwelling on the "god-awful shitty feeling of dread in my heart," as he does on expletive-filled "Dread in My Heart."
The Sticks comes just a year-and-a-half after Eureka. What led to such a quick turnaround?
Guldemond: We were just having fun playing shows and making records. We had a fairly prolific spell on the road touring Eureka, and we just got really excited about the new music. We wanted to start playing it sooner than later. The whole hiatus thing is kind of lame anyway. These fiscal arrangements we've made for ourselves as earthlings can be kind of confining. You have to capitalize at just the right time in whatever quarter. Had we waited just a second, it probably would have stalled us four months. You can't release too late in the fourth quarter, so if you miss that boat, it's advised not to release too soon in the new year, because people are adjusting and figuring themselves out. All that kind of lame timing stuff comes into play.
Despite the fast turnaround, The Sticks sounds fairly intricately produced. It's not like you banged it out in a day.
Not at all. We had time to get it done. Like I said, the writing was really well taken care of while on the road. It's not like we got back from Eureka's tour cycle feeling the pressure to write. It was all done.
The Sticks is probably your darkest album yet. What inspired that direction?
I don't know. It's not like you sit down and decide upon a direction, or at least that's not really how the band works or how I write. You just kind of follow the muse and see what comes out. In retrospect, you define things a lot of the time. I guess, looking back, it could be a reaction to the upbeat and optimistic qualities of Eureka. Quite often, that's what you do when you follow something up. You kind of pose in antithesis, and I think that's natural. Or it feels very natural for us to do that. I think it's our nature to contradict each chapter with the subsequent one.
The darkness of this album feels more apocalyptic and political than personal. Would you agree?
Yeah. I kind of got turned on to that end of the world theme and went with it. It was fun. It was my first time doing that. It's a pertinent time to be thinking about that stuff. Just being in a fairly fast-moving and technologically rabid industry as the music industry, one does feel a little overwhelmed and drawn to simplicity ― drawn to more natural setting.
The central image of The Sticks seems to be a rejection of technology and urban living.
Yeah. And, I think, superficiality more than anything. All that stuff is fine and dandy, it's just what the earthlings do with it and what they allow to be done with themselves and their intellects. As a by-product of all of this brilliant stuff ― and it's truly brilliant, the industrial revolution and the technological revolution are mind-blowing, it's amazing ― but maybe our capacities aren't of the stature to deal with it properly, because it has been much to the demise of communication and intimacy and community and inter-community. It's a great subject to think about, and there's a lot of poetic vehicles as well, so lyrically, it was a lot of fun, rife with good opportunities to have punchy phonetics.
Do you consider The Sticks a concept album?
I would say that it is, but not to the extent that The Wall [by Pink Floyd] is. It sort of straddles the line between two themes. One is the naturalist, back to the land, apocalyptic. The other is just the exploitation of the human condition's folly ― which is pretty typical of the band to date. That seems to be much of what the songs touch on. There's true blue Mother Mother cynicism in about a third of the songs, which I think does fall in line with the more pronounced and specific themes regarding societal disarray. I think it all sits together nicely. But like I said, you figure out a lot of things in retrospect. It wasn't like it was a real purposeful thing to make a concept record. Things just resolve in the way that they do, at which point we like to put stamps on it.
The record was co-produced by Ben Kaplan, who has worked with a pretty diverse range of artists ranging from pop-punk to metal. How did you end up working with him?
He's a good friend. We've hung out and known about each other. He's a fan of the band. He's worked with different members of the band on different projects. First and foremost, we know that he's an incredible engineer and a fast, efficient mover in the studio. We also know that the rapport was good. That's who we wanted to find ― someone who was nice to be around and was a bit of ninja behind the board and getting sounds and that kind of thing. Upon talking to him about the vision for the record, he just resonated with it. He said the right things and it made sense. It worked really well, because I'm kind of more like a visionary producer, more like an artistic producer, less of an engineer or technical person in the studio. He can do both, but he's so gifted at capturing sounds and getting sounds quickly. It was good synergy between the two of us.
What was the sonic vision for the record?
I would say we wanted it to be more spacious and more loose. Less edits and less takes. We wanted to do just barely enough as opposed to way too much. We limited ourselves to four passes at the lead vocal and go from there. And if you don't have it, well, go back in, but don't belabour it unnecessarily. That was the whole concept for every ingredient we captured. Just barely do enough. Some of that elasticity, or that human feel, or those so-called imperfect blunder performances, we tried to view as the keeper stuff. It's much more imperfect and less precious on this record than the last couple. It's nice to let go.
You've done a lot of production work yourself, outside of the band. How has that affected your work with Mother Mother?
The more you do anything, the less you second guess it, it seems. At least for me, in this particular field. You just end up doing less of the wrong thing in the studio. You can make an amazing sounding record, but it can be the by-product of a million mistakes that you had to correct. That's really taxing. I think the more you make records, the less mistakes you make. The more you can bring a vision to fruition without misstep. I think that by working with other people and making more records, as time goes on, the process from an idea being born to the printed sound is quicker and more focused.
Do you have any more production stuff in the works?
No, not right now. I kind of don't want to do any of it right now. It's something that just kind of happened by accident, it's not really a priority. It's not really necessarily what I want to do more than anything else. It's funny ― you can just be someone with a strong idea of what they want their own music to sound like in the studio, and be qualified to produce something. That's all. It's just someone with a strong idea that doesn't allow it to go wayward, and then all of a sudden, bam, you're a producer. I think there's probably some controversy surrounding that too. Some stigma surrounding validation and qualification, but I guess it only matters if you care about any of that, which I don't. I'm happy to have fallen into it accidentally, but I'd much rather court the muse and make songs and breathe forth lyrical messages than help other people do that or present that.