One of New York’s finest bands Here We Go Magic are about to embark on a North American tour. Their latest album Be Small was released October 16 on Secretly Canadian – their first release since the stunning 2013 Nigel Godrich-produced A Different Ship. I spoke to Luke Temple on the phone at his home during a film-scoring session.
AMBY: Where are you right now?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I’m in Hudson. Hudson, New York.
AMBY: You’ve been living in New York for quite a while. Has the city had a big influence on your songwriting?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I think so. Not consciously. I don’t work within the lineage of New York bands necessarily, but I think New York is a pretty eclectic place so there’s a lot of room to try a lot of stuff. It’s so fast paced, and there’s so much information flying around, that you’re sort of influenced by that whether you realize it or not.
AMBY: When was this new record Be Small made?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: It was made last year. I was living in Chinatown in New York. I only had the place for seven months, and it was nice. It was the first place that I had to myself for a while, so it afforded me the luxury of being able to work pretty consistently without interruption and I decided that I wanted to start recording and writing for the next HWGM. We had taken a break for a couple years, and the band that was HWGM for the majority of its existence kind of broke up. So we were trying to put together new lineups, and trying to figure out different studios we were going to record in, and I just finally decided that it would be best if I just started it myself and not wait around, you know?
AMBY: Did you write/demo all the songs on guitar or the computer, or both?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I don’t really do demos usually, so it’s recording and writing simultaneously. It was done on computer, and guitar is my main instrument so I would write on that. But then in some cases I would come up with a drumbeat or something and that would sort of dictate the song. But usually it’s guitar… if there’s more complex parts or changes, it’s usually something I’ve written on guitar. If it’s more linear, it’s like a groove I came up with and then I just go from there.
AMBY: What kind of guitar do you play on this tour?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: Lately I’m just getting into playing my nylon – it’s like my favourite instrument. I have a National electric guitar that I’ve always played in HWGM – it’s the only electric guitar I have. But when I’m home or writing, I tend to just play my nylon – it’s easy on the hands… warm… feels really good to play.
AMBY: Does it have a name or are you not one of those?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I haven’t named it no [laughs].
AMBY: Do you feel like in recent years the computer has crept into your songwriting process more?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: Yea. I mean it’s certainly way easier to edit. I think for better or for worse it’s crept in. On the better end, it makes things much more convenient – there’s definitely that. Whereas if you work with tape – unless you know how to splice tape, which I don’t really know how to do – it’s a lot more time consuming. On the worse end of the computer, there’s something to be said about having to commit to an idea, but when I would record on tape you have to record the whole thing one pass, all the way through. So it has continuity to it – it’s really subtle – but can be lacking on the computer. I try to record on the computer and maintain some dynamics, but it’s a double-edged sword, I think. And also, you can record so many tracks, and the impulse to just keep adding stuff is very easily satisfied on the computer, whereas if you keep adding to tape and it degrades the sound. So you sort of have to be more economic when you record to tape, which is a good thing.
AMBY: Did you record to tape for all of the previous Here We Go Magic releases?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: We did, yea. The very first HWGM record was done on 4-track cassette. The second one Pigeons was done on an 8-track, which is a little bit more hi-fi. Then A Different Ship was recorded to tape, but that was like 2-inch really, really nice beautiful studer tunage tape with Nigel Godrich. And then this one was recorded in pro tools, as well as my last solo record.
AMBY: If you’re starting to make a record like this, do you pick a palette of sounds and then flex within that palette to make a cohesive-sounding record? Do you find a few synths that you like… or drums machines… or the cohesion come later?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: My palette is usually limited only because I only have a few different synths and one guitar and one bass, so that’s just a given because it’s all I have. But within those synths I try to vary the sounds from song to song to try and make it sound as eclectic as possible.
AMBY: I think you’ve said before that your music has a bit of a futuristic quality to it. Is that something that still interests you post A Different Ship – furthering that sound or looking for new sounds?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I think so. Synth is a very easy instrument to use. It fills up so much sonic space so easily in terms of arrangement. And it’s not acoustic so you can record silently – no one else has to hear it. So a lot of me using synths is just out of necessity. It’s not that I choose to use synths over more acoustic instruments or organs or whatever, but just a lot of times I have to be working on my headphones. I do love a lot of earlier synth work. I love Kraftwerk and Can and Vangelis… sort of cheesy late seventies/early eighties synth stuff. Like 60s Startrek episodes. I’m more attracted to that old analog stuff, so my taste tends to lean in more of a retro way for synths, but I think that in the end for whatever reason it doesn’t sound derivative or retro because the kind of music that I like is not necessarily to any genre. So I think it sort of ends up sounding more futuristic.
AMBY: Were you listening to anything at the time of the record that might have influenced the sound?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: The stuff I listed I guess wasn’t what I was really listening to at the time that I made it. I love Robert Wyatt – he’s amazing. He’s done a record called Rock Bottom that he made in the 70s that’s a lot of really cool synth stuff. And I love Brian Eno…
AMBY: I have to say you’re one of my favourite lyricists. I don’t think you always write blatant love songs, but – you can do this thing sometimes where you tap into romance in a really subtle way that I’ve never heard anyone do quite like you in popular music. Are words easy for you, is the music easier, or does it all come out stream-of-consciousness?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I think the best songs are the ones where that happens in tandem. It’s just like you have some little word sequence that you’re messing around with, and then some kind of abstract imagery or some mantra or words that you keep saying… and you consider that and what that means as a metaphor… and what that means and work on some rough narrative from there. Sometimes I’ll be really specific working within a narrative and try to be very clear, so I guess in that sense those songs are sort of topical. Then other times, I’ll keep it very open and won’t worry about making it too overtly clear – I’ll just string these sort of metaphorical images together and leave it for the listener to kind of connect the dots. I think it’s fun to write like that. It ends up sounding more poetic, I think, in a way. I think writing lyrics, for me, it’s better if I don’t take them too seriously. But then again, I’m always trying to steer clear of clichés… and how would you describe like, “the sky above.” I mean you hear so many people have lines like that, “the sky above” meaning anything’s possible… I mean how would you describe that without being literal about talking about the sky, you know. It’s like little problems you pose for yourself that you have to solve.
AMBY: Do you have a favourite way to listen to music – phone, or… do you have a vinyl collection…?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I don’t! I’m not a collector really at all – I’ve never been. I have a ton of music on my computer and my phone that I’ve just like, picked up throughout the years so I listen that way.
My favourite way to listen to music is on vinyl, but I unfortunately – I have had vinyl in the past, I tend to not hold onto things. It’s kind of a weird thing with me. I give stuff away or shelve things… I don’t hold onto things very much. Partly because I’m moving around so much, I really don’t stay in a place for more than a year. Part of moving up to Hudson was to kind of find a home and stay put for a while. So I’d like to actually start a vinyl collection again and get a record player. Because that’s the best way to listen… What’s great about it is not only does it sound better, it’s easier on the ear, but it forces you to listen to a whole album. You put one side on and just listen to the whole side.
AMBY: You guys are going out on tour soon. What’s your favourite part of being on the road, and you’re least favourite part?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: Playing the shows is my favourite part. My least favourite part is the lack of sleep – that gets rough. I’m not the youngest guy anymore. I started HWGM when I was already in my mid-thirties, so I still had a good gust of wind to do the five years we spent on the road straight. But no, I’m not so interested in sleeping on floors and getting five hours of sleep every night. We haven’t toured really for two years so we’ll see how it goes!
AMBY: What’s your drink of choice right now. You’re a Coors fan, is that right?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: You know, I don’t really drink anymore! Occasionally I do, but my big drinking days are over. That was something actually that I had to come to terms with. Because when you spend years on the road, you can develop an alcohol problem without even realizing it. You’re constantly in bars, you’re tired… You have a bad show, you wanna drink… you have a good show, you wanna celebrate… it takes the edge off. You’re so tired, you get to the club, have a cup of coffee, and then you’re kinda wired, and then you have a shot of whiskey to mellow you out before you get onstage… if you keep doing that every night, in the bosom of touring, it sort of gets absorbed into your environment and you don’t necessarily notice how much you’re drinking. And then I stopped touring, and I kept drinking the way I was drinking, and it was suddenly exposed to me how much I actually drank. When I made Good Mood Fool I went to this cabin upstate by myself… in this little cabin for a winter, and recorded that record, and I was drinking a ton. And I was drinking lot of Coors… but too much, man! Too much!
I mean it was an amazing time, it was kind of this like, if it’s solo time to be romantic, it was a very romantic time being up there. I’d record all day and then at night I’d go get my booze and listen to what I made and drink every night, you know? Whiskey or beer. But I came out of the woods kind of like an animal and I’d gained all this weight and I was like oh man, this has gotta change. So that was like my last hurrah, and then I stopped drinking completely for a couple years, and now I drink occasionally. I think probably my drink of choice is maybe like… a pinot noir wine, or like a good glass of whiskey occasionally, but I don’t really overdo it anymore.
AMBY: Be Small comes out October 16. Where should someone listen to this record if you could choose?
HERE WE GO MAGIC: I always like listening in the car, if you’re by yourself, or with a friend… even if you’re not driving. Someone maybe likes to maybe smoke a little weed, sit in the car, put it on – not too loud, but loud enough so that it surrounds you – and just sit there and listen to it that way… Or just like, in a living room if you have the vinyl and just listen to it from beginning to end. There’s definitely a whole movement to the record, I think, and it’s important to listen to the whole thing. Even though people don’t really do that so much anymore… but I would suggest they try to do that. The songs are all sort of relative to each other, and there’s a context for the whole record… and I think certain songs make sense when you hear them in contrast with the rest of them.
AMBY: Well, I look forward to hearing it – can’t wait.
HERE WE GO MAGIC: Sweet.
Thank you Here We Go Magic, for giving us your answers!
Interview by Rosemary Fairweather