I have no use for summer. Let’s just forsake this excessively sunny afternoon, put on a good pair of headphones, close the blinds, and listen to a few records front-to-back, as we imagine being transported to the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest.
Was this a flashback to your adolescence in the sorrowful Midwest? If you are as guilty of that scenario as I am, then I’m sure the words Suicide Squeeze, Barsuk, and Up graced your lips far more times in conversation than your uninitiated friends probably thought it should. There’s something enternally welcome about an effects-drenched guitar spinning out dizzying arpeggios, splashing grey-hued color onto grey-hued color, painting a portrait of life in suspended animation. You know the feeling: Trying to make it past that certain someone with your heart intact, and tears docked deep in your gut. Carissa’s Wierd, 764-Hero, Pedro the Lion, Kind of Like Spitting… They’ve all agreed, at one time or another, that it’s going to end badly. The emotional kinship that Union Tree Review shares with those aforementioned bands helped me to gravitate toward them so quickly, and so assuredly. I understood every turn of phrase, note, and emotional beat, not because of predictability, but because the same blood flows through our veins. Death & Other Forms of Relaxation will likely find itself in rotation for a similar afternoon as described in the outset.
Their excellence in songwriting (and dynamic live performances) have built Union Tree Review a steady fan base in the Midwest, and that reach is about to grow exponentially with the release of their debut LP. It’s a record that reveals itself gradually, with little nuances blooming every so slightly with each listen: The slow-motion photography that concludes “Excavate”, the perfectly mannered kazoo-and-whistle accompaniment on “At The Risk” (not to mention those ghostly harmonies), the deceptively addictive amalgam that is “44”, the heartbreaking choir on “Misery”… and the list keeps growing every day. It’s no dour listening experience, either; Despite the emotionally-heavy thematic material, it’s informed by tragedy, but not defined by it. The guitars interweave attractively, the viola and horn arrangements lilt perfectly, and the rhythm section drives home the point with varied punctuation, not just the constant ellipsis that seems to plague similarly-minded artists. In my opinion, Union Tree Review are Saint Louis’ very own patron saints of the wounded at heart.
We’re happy to present our readers with the opportunity to hear it before it’s released (for a very limited time only). Be sure to get your tickets for their joint CD release show with Bo and the Locomotive at the Firebird Saturday, July 30th. We talked to Tawaine Noah of Union Tree Review about the creation of Death & Other Forms of Relaxation.
One thing (of many) I’ve love about Union Tree Review’s work is the emotional clarity of the songwriting, and how the band somehow finds a way to perfectly mirror the feel of the writing in the arrangements. How did you go about choosing what material to use for Death? Was their a unifying concept to the project, or culling together the strongest bits from a period of time chronologically?
Thanks very much. A few of the songs (“Unravel”, “Excavate”, and “Interstate”) were written before the band formed over the course of 2008-09. So, it’s interesting to hear how the songs have redeveloped and what new textures they’ve taken on, even for me. I wanted those songs to have a home. That home was originally going to be on an album that became the Unravel and Run EP we put out last year, but the recordings never came together the way we wanted them to. That EP was composed of songs that we felt content enough to give to our show-goers. Some songs, like “Parties” and “44″, were among the first songs [we] wrote together. When we started getting down to the core of writing the album, I was in the middle of a crumbling relationship, trying to exercise my personal demons while a relative I grew up with was dying in the hospital. That’s basically what the song “Death” is about. I wrote a lot of that song at the foot of his deathbed while I watched him die. That entire experience was life-changing to me, and it’s written in these songs. Not to mention Jenn, Jordan and I live together, and I’m sure they noticed those changes. I think these songs are a positive culmination of where we’ve been creatively as a band, where we are now, and where the next record could go.
Albums can go through various incarnations during the time spent . In what ways did Death evolve throughout the creative process?
It was very interesting, because we were writing while recording. Or vice-versa. Sometimes we had writing sessions, Sometimes you came in, someone hit record, and you wrote your part. It was a foreign, and interesting, way to write. A lot of the evolution came with writing in the particular frame of mind at the moment. But there’s still a deadline. Having our living room be our studio (or vice versa) gave us a little extra time with the songs, but not much. I don’t know that I would prefer to write that way, but it was a very good experience. Also,as we became more familiar with the recording equipment we borrowed from Mike Tomko, engineering became easier and gave us more time to focus on writing.
How do you feel the chemistry between the various members of Union Tree Review changed after going through the process of writing, arranging, and recording a full-length?
I think in Patrick’s (Trumpet/Keys/Vocals) case, specifically. I’ve known Pat for several years, and we’ve played in bands together, but he was the newest member of Union Tree Review, joining about halfway through the writing process of the newer songs. He caught up, and even wrote in to the old songs. It was a great way for everyone, especially Jenn (Viola) — who has been in the band practically since day 1 — to get to know Pat as a musician. It’s like we all understand how each other writes and then we can reinterpret it. Or, we completely misunderstand, and create something refreshingly different. It’s a beautiful mystery. That’s what I like most about writing Union Tree Review songs.
Artists sometimes use records as a point of reference for desired result that they want to achieve sonically. It might even influence in what format they choose to record, who they work with, etc. (If I’m not mistaken this album was largely self-produced). Are their certain records that you used in that way?
We recorded 99% of the album in our living room, kitchen, bedrooms, hallway, or bathroom, though none of us had any substantial experience with professional recording. That limited what we were able to produce. In the beginning, we had intended to ask a few engineering/producing friends we know about town to come in, and lend us some help in finding what sound we wanted. In the end, every note was recorded/engineered by one or more members of the band, and I think that helped us to achieve a sound that was not what we expected, but are very happy with. One of our points of reference sonically was Death Cab for Cutie’s The Photo Album. We all agree on that as one of our favorite-sounding albums.
Beyond what influences someone might find musically, what other literary, cinematic, or less obvious references are embedded in the songwriting, or record as a whole?
Sometimes I wonder if the people that these songs reference will recognize it when they here it. Some of those people will never hear these songs, some will, and some have. Most of the references could only be understood by a few, and some by none. But I really like to think that when people say that they enjoy Union Tree Review, it’s because they have been able to create their own references and relationships within the songs. I don’t know that I’ve intentionally include anything specific, other than what comes out of the particular situation of a song.
What did you find to be the most difficult part of the recording process?
For me personally, I had never written specifically to release an album. I’ve always just written songs as they come to me, and then, when I have a collection large enough (or small enough), they get collected into batches. With this album I felt like writer’s block occurred a lot for me, in that I was forced a bit out of my comfort zone of time to write. That made me afraid a lot of the time, that i wasn’t writing what i really wanted to write. But, now that the album is finished, it’s sort of a new experience for me to listen to what I’ve written, and make sense of it.
Another difficulty was recording on the busy, St. Louis city street of Cherokee. We had to fight with buses, trucks, car alarms, horns and you name it. It was frustrating when you would get a take that you’re really happy with, and then hearing an 18-wheeler plow down the street in playback. If this were a different type of recording – maybe something more lo-fi – I would have been all down for that, but that sort of interruption was unwelcome this time around.