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Not What You'd Expect: The Music of If Thousands

by Dave Heaton

If Thousands' Lullaby album bears the note, "Please listen to this recording at as low a volume as possible to induce & aid in slumber." That's no ordinary warning, but If Thousands is not an ordinary band. Christian McShane and Aaron Molina have both played in other bands, yet for If Thousands they decided to purposefully play instruments they weren't skilled at, to try to explore the ways that inexperience can lead to brilliant surprises. Though McShane mostly plays keyboards for the group, and Molina mostly guitars, both also use whatever they can find to make unusual and unexpected sounds. Their Yellowstone album includes "children's instruments, walkie talkies, circuit benders, samplers, noises" among the instruments they used. Their vision of music seems to include whatever they can find that works. And that approach does work. In the last few months, they've released two albums, each with its own mood but both fantastic. Lullaby (Silber Records) is exactly that, an hourlong instrumental trip through gentle and dreamy sounds. Yet it's also much more, as established early on by the way a man reading a melancholy poem is looped over and over. Their Yellowstone (Chairkickers Music) album is similar in its use of repetition, mysterious sounds and an overwhelmingly contemplative atmosphere, yet it is also filled with surprises. There's even vocals on a few songs, one a haunting cover of Joy Division's "Isolation." On both albums, what's especially striking is the duo's ability to pull you into their world, to immerse you in a mood. Their music has true presence; their anything-goes, open-ended approach to music is something music fans should be grateful for.

{Note: In the interview below, the answers except where noted were written by both band members, together.}

The way I understand it, with If Thousands, both of you are playing instruments that were new to you, that you hadn't played much before. What can you tell me about that decision and what role it has played in your sound?

Yes, it has everything to do with our sound. We decided to drop what we knew and explore what was unknown to us - as we say the naive approach. We hope that we never stop learning and that this fundamental idea keeps providing.

Your bio describes the two of you as "a classically trained vocalist and guitarist" and "punk-rock bassist." In what ways does that seeming discrepancy---between classical and punk--affect your music and how you each approach music?

We're polar opposites. We have a strange blend together. What shouldn't work actually does and we have no idea why. There's actually very little punk or classical going on in if thousands, but when you smash the two together, this is apparently what happens.

Sidenote From Christian: The "classical" aspect of what I'm usually described as is quite a bit off the mark, actually. True, I received classical training in voice and guitar until I was 18, but I fought along every inch of it. In college, I studied to be a composer and ended up quitting for a couple years because they wouldn't let me study anything outside Bach. I ended up majoring in journalism because of this. Maybe a better description of my style would be "classical punk".

What else can you tell me about how the two of you met and what lead you to form a band?

Oddly enough, the stereotypical classified ad in the local paper. Aaron was looking for a rehearsal space and Christian had a studio. We both had our separate bands that weren't working out and one night we decided to play together. As we played, we both heard something we'd been lacking all along in every other band we'd been in.

Yellowstone was recorded at Sacred Heart Studio, which was once a church. What is that place like and how do you think it affected the way the album turned out?

Sacred heart is a wonderful place. The atmosphere is like no other. 30 foot ceilings in a 40 by 80 foot room with stained glass from one end to the next. Everything is made of hardwood. There's even a ghost to boot. You can stand at one end and snap your finger, wait a second and hear it back 5 different times. The natural reverb with an ambient mic's placement about 30 feet away was like another instrument. Most of the recording was done at night with very dim light and most of the CD was recorded as it was felt. Somewhere around 1/2 the album was improvised. That's how we work.

Though it has separate track titles, Lullaby feels very much like one piece. Did you conceive it in that way? Was the goal, as the title and the liner notes point to, to create music people could fall asleep to?

You've got it. One song, one take, all improvised. We actually put our amps in a separate room, shut the door and could barely hear what we were playing. Blind leading the blind, we wanted to see what would happen. The whole purpose was a minimal, quiet CD made to aid in slumber.

How would you describe your songwriting process?

It's a process that is rarely reproduced. We do have some songs but they are far from conventional. Practice usually consists of a great deal of improv and experimentation and we usually end up asking each other, "How did you do that?"

The list of instruments the two of you play---including as it does things like walkie talkies, children's instruments, and misc. noises--suggests that you take an anything goes approach to what you use to make music. Are you always searching for new sounds and new things that make sounds? What are some of the most unusual devices or sounds that you've found or used thus far?

We're both sound whores. Some things we've used are: a motorized steel spinning wheel, a fetal monitor, an electric razor, short wave radio, walkie talkies, found sounds, circut bent instruments, old school reel-to-reel tape loops, etc. It's endless.

Yellowstone has vocals on a few tracks, where Lullabydoes not. I haven't heard your other recordings, but was wondering: when you first began, did you think of If Thousands as essentially an instrumental project? In general, how has the way you think about the band changed from then until now?

Basically it's an instrumental project. Sometimes the human element is necessary and it completes what we are doing. Like we said Christian is a trained vocalist and does none of the singing. Aaron has no business singing and does. if thousands isn't what you'd usually expect.

Do you perform live often? I noticed you have some upcoming tour dates scheduled with Alan Sparhawk and Haley Bonar. How would you describe the type of performance people coming to see you will witness?

We used to perform live more often, but loud bars & drunk folks = not a very good atmosphere for live shows. We still perform live but we're focusing more on the road shows rather than locally. Duluth is a great place to test something out and spread your wings, but you'll eventually starve yourself and your audience to death if you don't move on.

Your music is used in Travis Wilkerson's film An Injury to One, which I haven't seen but have read great things about. How did that come about?

Travis is currently working on a film that took place in Duluth called "Elegy 25". 2 years back a good friend named Tim Anderson's close friend Michel Lenz was murdered in Boston. He wanted to memoralize him and the best way he and Al Sparhawk decided to do so was with a 25 hour long drone. 1 song for 25 hours straight. They opened this up to anyone and everyone and we were a part of it. Travis got word of Elegy in Michigan and wanted to do a documentary. Thats how we met and Travis asked us to provide music for other film projects. More films are in the works with Travis and a video as well.

What other upcoming projects or recordings are you involved with?

Well, beyond the film work we're looking forward to our next CD and would love to collaborate with other bands or artists. Christian runs a weekly show with Alan Sparhawk in Duluth called Experimental Tuesdays where participants are encouraged to break the rules in sound, film or art. He also runs a side business in graphic design and has teamed up with local mountain musician Charlie Parr to make a line of handmade bottleneck slides. We also both contribute to local musician's recording projects as much as possible.

I've never been to Duluth. What's it like?

As they say, that's a mighty big lake out there. Its somewhat of an industrial city with ships and steel. If you don't play music, write, make art or knit, you drink. Low's music describes the area very well. We've been told if thousands does too. It's also a beautiful place--just 5 miles in any direction from some of the best camping, fishing and wilderness you've ever seen. Come on up!

Lastly, I always hesitate to ask bands about their name, but If Thousands strikes me as an especially effective name, since it's suitably ambiguous. Could you either tell me about where the name came from or, if you prefer to leave it a mystery, describe what you like about the name?

Ambiguous is a great way to describe our name. After laboring over a band name for an absurd amount of time, we saw the word THOUSANDS in a magazine. We liked how it looked so we got some paper and wrote it down. Then we wrote other words around it: if, then, why, how, who, could, blue, red, etc. "if" & "thousands" stood out. wa-la, a band was born. For whatever reason, the name sticks in your head. It fits well.

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