Band of the Week: Track By Track: A Lot Like Birds, No Place
Stream the band's third album and get the lowdown on each song in this exclusive track by track discussion.
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A guide to 'No Place' by Michael Franzino (guitar), Cory Lockwood (vocals) and Joe Arrington (drums) from A Lot Like Birds
No Place (album concept)
Michael: This record was much different for all of us because it was decidedly going to be a concept record before a single note or word was written for it, and furthermore we knew that the concept would be a house. So instead of facing an infinitely blank sonic canvas when I sat down to write, I now set myself to work within the confines of capturing the mood of a room, and more specifically, Cory's concept for that room. There were many long phone calls between Cory and I where I would pick his brain on what each room would represent symbolically, what kind of dynamics he thought would work well, or what specific emotions I was to try to convey. He would tell me things like "the room with no purpose should be conflicting between calm acceptance and chaotic unrest stemmed from purposelessness," or "the beginning of living room should be calm and welcoming and slowly devolve into dark and sad." I'd never tried to portray an idea that developed with just sounds before. It was an extremely interesting way to go about it. There were also songs like 'No Nature' and 'Recluse' (one came rather quickly after the other) that were simply ideas that spilled out that started to embody a basement or attic and were moulded to be such.
This record was also much different because it was far more ambitious than our previous effort, and the stress of realising our visions was very heavy. Kurt (Travis, vocals) and Cory had a lot on their plate writing to songs with multiple time signatures and difficult phrasing. Joe wrote parts stretching his brain and limbs out to their limits. The guitar/various other instrument melodies were extremely hard to keep in order and in mind. I don't think any of us have done anything as hard as this album before, and might not again.
The writing process for this album was accomplished entirely through two means. One being the aforementioned process of translating concepts into a demo on my computer, which I would take to the band and work out kinks/adjust. Two being Joe and I jamming out some core riffs/rhythms in a dark room with a projector displaying moody imagery, and I would take these home and demo them out/structure them/expand upon them and bring back to the band for finalisation. Or both. Then Cory and Kurt wrote their final lyrics and parts in studio.
Michael: This was literally the last thing to be written musically, which added a lot of pressure to it. The entire interlude/song was written around the doorbell, knowing that it would open the album. This was difficult because the doorbell sound by nature is a rather welcoming/pleasant melody, and I knew the content of the song would be kind of sad/reflective. I made the guitars constantly ascending, as if to represent the reluctance in approaching the front door, and then falling into dissonance when the window breaks. An interesting thing about the doorbell idea, is that the following song, 'No Nature', is essentially a fucked up evil version of the doorbell melody.
Cory: The entryway of the house seemed fairly obvious to open the album, but we didn't want to make it overly easy on ourselves. So Mikey decided to incorporate the use of the extremely familiar doorbell melody into an instrumental interlude of sorts and we layered it with a very short story about the central character/narrator and how he had trespassed so much into this house that he had mistaken it for his own, while the house itself resents him for it and punishes him as he tries to leave it behind. I wanted to immediately set a tone opposite from the expected; that a home is a dangerous and unwelcoming thing, and that it can be more possessive of us than we are of it.
Joe: This was Mikey and [Cory] Lockwood's vision. I actually enjoyed not having a hand in this one, especially where Mikey programmed drums, as it gives a break from the major intensity of the drums on the rest of the album.
Michael: This was my first attempt at a heavier song on the album. I had a lot of anxiety about how to go about the idea of 'heavy', because I have grown bored of most of the dynamics that make up today's heavy music. There is a lot of pressure to have double bass, lower tuned guitars, breakdowns, etc. We agreed from the get go to not do any of these things, so where do you go from there? This song was initially absolutely devoid of any time signature sense at all. We tamed it down to the still nonsensical beast it is today, but this was always intended to be the bat shit creepy schizophrenic song, because could a basement be anything other than? All of the parts to this song were written to rhythm ideas Joe had come up with that were assembled and structured as I demoed my ideas out. I generally start drums up with anything heavy.
Cory: The basement is definitely the most abstract and least personal song on the album. Basements are so strange to me. We don't have many of them on the west coast but I had seen many growing up in Florida and visiting family in Kentucky and Tennessee. A room is basically made of what you fill it with and basements are either used for storage or ominously empty. Also, one of their primary uses is in case of emergency: tornado, hurricane, apocalypse. So to continue the dangerous tone set by the intro, we followed it with an equally menacing song that filled the basement with the supernatural and the promise of harm.
Joe: The first song actually finished on the album. It began as my bizarre trip down a path to create a series of odd and even groupings in 6/8. The song masks itself in other time feels quite often and most of the drum parts were extremely hair-brained ideas I'd mess with late at night when a full moon was present. After deciding that we were definitely going to make half of this album feel very chaotic, I gave the collective drum beats and groove ideas to Mikey and wished him good luck. Thus, the song was born. The chaotic nature of this song comes from the various phrasing in 4 and 5 and all of the triplets, despite the song actually staying in 6/8 the majority of the time.
Michael: I knew the living room was going to be one of the most dark and emotional rooms lyrically, so I put a lot of thought into the mood on this song. After talking to Cory a lot about it, the living room also probably had the most direction from the get go. I think this song is probably the song that the lyrics and the music came together the most effectively. I remember talking to Kurt about it as soon as he heard it and him having a strong emotional tie to it stemming from his childhood immediately. One thing I try to do with all of our songs is have a thematic melody that persists in different ways throughout the song. It may be on a different instrument, it may be in a different time signature, it may be just a harmony of it, but there are always one or two core melodies or ideas grounding all of our songs if you listen closely. I don’t know if anyone would catch it without my saying so, but in this song it is the melody that happens during the tom build up. It is also present within the string arrangements, and also the very end.
Cory: The living room was one of the more fascinating ideas to me when we began to write. I always found the name interesting, because it seemed so misplaced. Why would we call a living room a living room when people spend almost no time living out their lives inside one? It's the place where your TV and your entertainment centre go, you plug in and pause your life, stop living and just let time pass. Another association with the living room that ended up leading the song into its ultimate direction, was the idea of how in movies and TV shows and stories the living room is like the throne room of the patriarch. It's where a father sits in his reclining chair and dictates the decisions of his family, at least in an outdated traditional sense. So I wanted to attack that idea by removing the father from the equation and to elaborate further, discuss how the absence of a father can impact a person.
Joe: When we pumped a simple demo of this song out and Kurt heard it for the first time, he instantly had a flashback and some visions of what it reminded him of. The song begins with a light-hearted feeling and ends up becoming an uneasy, heavy, tumultuous vision of despair both thematically and musically. There was no question what kind of song Lockwood and Kurt were destined to make this song become. Also, it’s the first song you'll hear with a full string section.
Next to Ungodliness
Michael: This song nearly didn't happen. I had promised EVR and my band ten songs, but by the time we had to leave for Portland to record, I had only come up with seven (with plans for two interludes to be written in-studio). If there was to be a 10th song, it had to be written within the few days Joe was going to be there. Somehow, Joe had the beginnings of a really cool song in 5/8 up his sleeve and after some very-late-into-the-night jamming, the skeleton of a punk song in five was taking shape (to affectionately be nicknamed punk in fi). Kris was generous enough to let me set up my demo space station in his old empty house that was up for rent, and I stayed up all night until the thing was finished. It was nerve-wracking to write this one because we knew the album needed a single, and writing a song with the intention of being a single can make you over-think and water it down, but I think the confines of 5/8 pulled some stuff out I didn't know was there. This was my first attempt at that time signature.
Cory: The bathroom was a song idea that I had wanted to flesh out since the beginning but as each song was written, the bathroom never fully came together - until we got to Portland. While we were up there we decided to add it. Mikey spent a day in a house alone with direction from the rest of us (we wanted something aggressive, short and loud) and came back with this song. It worked perfectly. Bathrooms are where people do everything they would never want the rest of the world to see. And even though you would never want anybody else to see you there, it's one of the only rooms where you get a chance to look at yourself. It's so private and odd; it's where a person can either be vain or self-deprecating; fantasise about their incredible future or scrutinise themselves to the point that they want everything to end.
Joe: This song is probably the easiest to follow for a listener, but ironically one of the most complex at its core. First of all, this song was written in two days in the studio, after Kris Crummett went home for the day. We'd track drums and then work on writing this sucker late at night. Talk about pressure. A Lot Like Birds is not known for writing 'short songs' but we wanted to approach this song with the "get in, say some crazy things, get out quickly" mentality. It's an up tempo song in 5/8 and so we nicknamed it 'Punk in Five' (which soon became punk in fi... Pumpkin pie?...) Anyways, this song is bombastic and dark, exactly how we wanted it to be. It is the perfect soundtrack to one's mind while under pressure in the studio.
Michael: This was another song that was heavily influenced by Cory's direction. We had decided together than the song would start slow, distant, and soft as if the music were coming around the corner of a hallway, and gradually speed up as if it were breaking into a frenzied run. Cory had asked for it to have a feeling of urgency and panic to it, and that it should remain pretty uptempo throughout the song. I tried to convey that by using unresolved phrasing and sporadic riffage. I was really nervous about the middle section of this song being too weird of a time signature wise for vocals, but Kurt and Cory completely took it to another level.
Cory: Connector is placed directly in the middle of the album in relation to its location in the house. As the hallway, it serves to connect all of the rooms to each other. Since the house is meant to seem alive, the hallway acts as a spine and it was important to discuss how the collapse of the spine can cause the collapse of everything it holds together. It was also an opportunity to lyrically address a part of each room (ghosts, a lack of self-worth, disconnection, panic and fear) in this one song. This was a fun one to have Kurt and I trade back and forth with who would sing a part or scream a part.
Joe: This song began as an improv jam that the band as a whole was messing with and one of our more proud moments. Once the figures in the beginning were devised, we added some lead guitar that had come to Mikey when we jammed in the dark while a projector was playing odd films on a wall. I was able to toss in a collection of drum grooves and ideas I had waiting on the sidelines. A song that was meant to be one of our more 'straightforward' ended up having tempo shifts, more than three time signatures, and probably some of the most insane moments of the album.
Myth of Lasting Sympathy
Michael: My favourite part to do on this song was trying to make something original, but familiar enough to sound like a wind-up music box happen at the end, to set a childhood-like mood. Also, the chords in this song had to be done in one take because it was so heavily delayed and verbed. The problem was, I was not as familiar with playing the progression as I would have liked to be (the progression is extremely long without repeating directly), so I was having trouble pulling of the volume swells/effect modulation and playing the right parts. Ben and I ended up having to do the strangest cooperative guitar performance ever.
Cory: The closet is bittersweet to me. The original monologue was much longer but was cut short to fit the interlude. I wanted this song to act as a reverse time capsule, to go back in time and speak to myself as a child and warn myself about all the mistakes I'll end up making and how little innocence I'll have left at the end of it all. I wish I'd had more room to describe the closet itself as a conduit for going back in time, and how it had that power because a closet is an extremely appropriate space for imaginative fantasies. I wanted to take the terrifying nature of a dark closet in a child's bedroom and use how powerful that can be, in a positive light.
Joe: Another one that was left to Lockwood and Mikey. And all for the better!
Hand Over Mouth, Over and Over
Cory: The bedroom was the one spot on the entire album where we felt it was appropriate to address the idea of romance. It seems too easy a topic to pick sometimes and where Conversation Piece had a fair amount of it, we wanted to keep it to a minimum on No Place. But there's no way to discuss a bedroom without discussing love, and so this song happened. Every relationship I've ever had has changed the most within the setting of a bedroom. It's where two lovers connect physically, but it's also where they'll tend to argue in private and shout at each other and really hurt each other. I wanted to use this song as a way of admitting fault in the end of many of my relationships and how very, very deep connections tend to have a very painful separation. Kurt also uses the song to confide that he has physical symptoms of withdrawal when apart from his wife and it can sometimes make his heart feel like it's going to explode in a very literal sense. He was actually going through that harsh withdrawal during the recording process so the song rings exceptionally true because of it and the way he belts out the word heart is one of my favourite moments on the album.
Michael: The first half of this song is probably my proudest musical achievement so far. Exploring this side of our sound is the most rewarding for me. I got to incorporate all of my favourite instruments in this one (brass, strings, and vibes). I feel like making something flashy, heavy, weird, angry, happy or technical is just world’s easier than making something that I think is pretty, and the difficulty to do so makes it sweeter when I achieve it for myself. The first time I heard the vocals on this song I wanted to cry, because it was my baby and I was scared of it changing, but Kurt and Cory added a whole new dimension to it. As Cory said, when Kurt sings the word 'heart', mine breaks. Funny enough, the second half of this song was originally going to be an interlude on Conversation Piece. Very glad we kept it in our pocket.
Joe: This movement is what the album needs, on many levels. If A Lot Like Birds were to attempt a 'ballad' this is about as close as we'd come. Kurt really came to life in a way I've never seen before on this song and the strings tied it together for me in the end.
Michael: This was the first song I wrote for the album, which makes the fact that it ended up being a single funny to me. The first effort is usually never the successful one. This song was a fun challenge, because I wanted to attempt to make a four on the floor dance-type-thing sound interesting and emotional. It is something I respect Mew for, their ability to make something that sounds completely simple, but upon further inspection is pretty tricky. This is one of the only songs that I didn’t have direction from Cory, and just threw out there that the mood reminded me of a balcony. It wasn’t until Kurt came up with the concept of attaching the call of the void to it, that I fully realised how well it fit.
Cory: I had sort of assumed that this song would be a dark horse in the way that 'Blowtorch' had been for Conversation Piece, a song that didn't initially receive a lot of attention but ended up growing on people and resonating with them on more than just face level. I couldn't be happier that this song will be representative of the album, because whereas 'Vanity's Fair' was the single on CP - being catchy, dance-y and all over the place – 'Kuroi Ledge' is the opposite. I'm glad that people can enjoy us in both respects, because this song is probably my favourite story. It deals with the unavoidable loss of friends that happens as you get older, and how you deal with it or how you might be unable to. The protagonist pleads at the top of his lungs not to be left alone in the middle of the song and it may be the only part of the whole album that has an uplifting feel to it, since it's composed of one person promising to another that they'll be there for each other forever. However, the end of the song is anything but uplifting and deals with the main character having been abandoned by the other and choosing to leap off of the balcony of the house, but I still wanted to describe the suicide as though it were something beautiful in its own right. The idea of portraying suicide beautifully was strongly influenced by a documentary I had watched about the Aokigahara Forest in Japan, where dozens of people kill themselves every year. It became known for this after a book entitled Kuroi Jukai was published where the main character killed himself in that particular forest.
Joe: This song scared everyone as much as it excited us. One of the first songs finished for the album. The song was beautiful, but hard to play, listenable, but a major risk, and we are so glad we took those risks. So far, between family and peers, it is the album favorite of most. It features multiple polyrhythms and odd changes masked by a very listenable facade. We've only played this song twice live so far and the entire venue felt the change in mood on both occasions. That is was this song is for.
Michael: This is another song that mostly derivative of Joe's ideas. An interesting challenge we set ourselves to do on this, was writing a part that has a 4/4 kick pulse with a 6/8 snare rhythm. The bass is following the kick, and basically everything else follows the snare. Also, I spent about 75% of the time it took to write this song working on the big part before the end. The chord progression/harmonies there are definitely among the proudest moments of the album for me. Somehow half of this record is written in 6/8. I have no idea how that happened.
Cory: The attic parallels the basement a lot and works well at a second to last spot where basement is second. The idea is another eerie, dangerous one and consists of the idea that once we designate a room to hold our unwanted belongings, those belongings become wanted and used by the unseen residents of the room; In this case, spiders. A lot of the song is spoken from the perspective of the spider itself and is directed towards the person entering the attic, as they're told that their things are not theirs anymore and this house is not theirs anymore either, just as the line in 'No Nature' states "this isn't your home anymore, it's mine, it's ours." This song has probably my favourite musical portion of the entire album. The spacey feel that Mikey had been going for near the end of the song came out sounding so big and I was glad that Kurt and I were able to accent it a little, with sad melodies on top.
Joe: If there was ever a song that combined ideas, styles, chaos, melody and batty time signatures...this song is even worse (better?!) We took our strange phrasing ideas to the absolute limits with this song and on top of all the madness, Mikey decided it needed a 1980s Hellraiser synth on top of most of it. This song should make your brain hurt, because playing it hurts ours. Lyrically they couldn't have captured it better. This song is a culmination of the chaos we screw around with on a daily basis when we write music. The melodies are the darkest we've ever dared and the song is like a roller coaster without a shoulder harness, especially in the middle where there are two time signatures happening at the same time.
Shaking of the Frame
Michael: The core of this song contains a chord progression I wrote in one fit of inspiration when I was 18, along with several ideas that have all now become songs throughout our three albums. I have always come back to it to see if it fit with anything because I really connect with it. I think it finally worked out for this song because I think the idea behind this song really represents a feeling Cory and I share. We made a conscious effort to try having the music breathe more on this song than others we have written, and I like how it was pulled off.
Cory: The first room that I had been eager to work on upon deciding the album's concept was actually not a specific room at all. In each of the houses I had grown up in, my family always seemed to have one room in the house that nobody ever used. Sometimes it would be a second, non-functioning living room, or a spare room that we called the office but that was never used as such, or a bedroom for a person that had recently moved out. These were the rooms with no purpose. The eerie feeling that these rooms left me with when I would wander into them as a kid was hard to describe. It ended up being the last room on the album and one of the last to have lyrics put to it. It was an appropriate point of closure, and while I used the room to represent my own feelings of purposelessness, I always felt like discussing the haunting ability of a house to breathe even when nobody is inside of it. The last few lines discuss how, even after burning down the house of the album, it would still manage to reassemble itself and live. I wanted to discuss how a home doesn't just disappear because its residents have left or even died, and how powerful that is. How a home can outlive its residents.
Joe: This song is Mikey's 7 minute Doom Western that Tarantino will inevitably consider but ultimately discard for his next film's soundtrack. We wrote it about the gunslinger of the psyche wrestling with the immortal insanity of being in a room with no purpose. What better way to wrap up the album?