Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Midtown Dickens Talk "Home"

Midtown Dickens Lounging on a Grassy Knoll
Earlier yesterday, I got the chance to sit down at my desk and, armed with a handy new voice recorded, call Catherine Edgerton, one of the two founding members of Durham's Midtown Dickens, a band that makes music as fun as their name sounds.  These guys had their proper debut back in 2006, but have steadily helped cultivate both their own music and the local music scene.  Kym, the other founding member, is one of the owners of The Pinhook, which has so many great acts come through, I don't even know what to do with it.  Midtown Dickens' first album "Oh Yell" is clearly the most whimsical and minimal of the two albums that have been released.  The second, which was self-released in 2009, is "Lanterns," an album with a new producer and a new sound.  On April 3, fasten your seatbelts, folk-heads because their third album "Home," a self-described album based on the musings of the ideal of "home" comes out, and it's gonna be a killer!  Just listen to the single "Oh Brother," which gets mentioned in our interview on their website (http://midtowndickens.com/).

Midtown Dickens create their own kind of folk that has a little bit of pep, a little bit of punk, and maybe a little bit of Riot Grrrl in it.  Always a blast to see live, and always cheerful.

I ran into Catherine at Bull City Records a couple weeks back when she bought the new Perfume Genius album and we got a-talking, with Chaz and Rothko of course.  Anyway, I was really interested in the album, and I figured music-heads may be as well, so here goes.

The band will be playing Cat's Cradle on April 7 for their album release party!  Be sure to check 'em out.  They will not disappoint!

Without further ado... Catherine Edgerton of The Midtown Dickens!

J:  So where’s everyone in the band from?

C:  We’re actually all from Durham and Chapel Hill.  Kim and Jonathan and myself are from Durham, and Will is from Chapel Hill

J:  Do you find that your band has a large local focus?

C:  I wouldn’t say we are focused locally: I would say that being located in North Carolina has played itself out through our art.

J: Would you say the triangle area has any impact in terms of your lyrics or musical stylings?

C:  Yeah, I think both; I was definitely raised around folk and bluegrass and so I feel like you can’t not internalize a lot of space and region.  It comes through lyrically and the instruments we chose to play and sort of the folk style.

J:  Who are some of your inspirations when it comes to playing music?

C:  I’m a big Bill Callahan fan, and Will is too.  I guess a lot of folks I’ve been influenced by aren’t necessarily reflected in my music.  For example, I’ve been listening to Ray Charles my entire life and Nina Simone.  But I’ve also picked up a lot from Bob Dylan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Wild Oldham, and all of his projects, and the Magnetic Fields and more recently Mount Moriah, Moldy Peaches, the breeders, velvet underground.  Leon Russell was kind of big for me in high school.  Trying to think of some of the less normal…neutral milk hotel.  Yeah

J:  Do you find that you all have pretty equal roles in the band or how do you divide up songwriting versus recording roles?

C:  Do you mean in general or just for this record?

J:  I guess both is pretty good

C:  This record has been a lot more equalitarian with regards to writing roles. With regards to music writing, it used to be that Kym and I would write songs more often than not together and then whoever was with the band at the time would basically play a backup role to us performing the songs that we had written together, some of which we had written individually, but most of which were a collaboration with the two of us.  This album we mostly wrote the skeletons of songs separately and brought them to the band and then the band as a four-piece pretty much split the musical compositions, writing, especially in the studios, adding lyrics to songs, drums, little piano parts to songs, they were kind of shared responsibilities.

J:  So would you say aside from the musical composition, it has been recorded a lot like your other two albums?

C:  No, it was a really different process.  Do you mean like the way the recording sounds or the process?

J:  Both, like how the recording process went, like if you were using the same studio…

C:  So “Oh Yell” was like totally different than the other ones “Lanterns” or “Home.”  We recorded that with Zeno Gill right here in Durham: we would record Tuesdays and Thursdays for an hour or two.  But, “Laterns” and “Home” we recorded with Scott Solter and were different in that we pretty much had all the parts written and we recorded and mixed all in like 6 days.  So we basically went in and played and then mixed it, but with “Home” we had more time spread over longer amounts, so we went in and did some bass tracks and took them home and starting cultivating a new vision, like sculpting it from the basic, like we threw stuff down on a canvas and were able to sculpt it as the four of us, and came back like three times to record and were sort of always working together with what we had which was funny because this year we became more practiced musicians towards the end so we wanted to re-record everything anyway.

J: Would you say there’s a marked difference in the actual songs in this record?

C:  Yeah for sure. “Oh Yell” was definitely a whimsical tribute to everyday life and friendship, and there’s a lot more kind of useful exploration.  “Lanterns” was kind of a step towards taking ourselves seriously and becoming introspective and allowing ourselves to grow that way and then “Home” is pretty much really different from “Oh Yell” and is kind of a progression of “Lanterns.”  I don’t want to say seems like a momentum going from childhood to growing up and being realized with the way we want to realize our art and showing that all of the stages seem like really important parts of our preface and there are some parts of the “Oh Yell” days that we miss but there is a lot of depth and being in touch with harder and more complex emotions that was absent from 2006.

J:  I heard your new song “Oh Brother,” and I thought it sounded way more confident than how things sounded on “Oh Yell” and more comfortable with the music and sounds you were making.  Was that just something that happened because of time spent as a band?

C:  When we picked up instruments at the beginning, it was just me and Kim and we didn’t really know music and we didn’t know bullshitting either.  That doesn’t have to do with why we developed the confidence we have, but there’s a socialization among women to step up and take charge of a stage or room or instrument and I think we were kind of working with taking that risk without having much confidence behind it, so when we realized that what we were singing had real meaning and should be put out in the world, I think some of the confidence grew, and then also with time and practicing, which we didn’t do for the first few years we were a band (laughs).  And then our relationships with Jonathan and Will have been integral to the direction of the band.  They are both accomplished musicians and incredibly driven and we love them.  Jonathan and I have known each other since the day he was born.  And so, being able to collaborate with him has definitely brought a new level of intention and confidence to our work.

J:  Did you collaborate with anyone other than the members of your band during the recording process?

C:  I think every moment of every day is a collaboration.  We’re always talking to our friends and having wacky crazy experiences and seeing bands like Megafaun and people who are going to push our understanding of what it means to play folk music and so I think we’ve collaborated with a shit ton of people and it hasn’t necessarily been directly: no one came and played on the album but I think that, at the risk of sounding cheesy, every day is a collaboration in the eye of the artist.  I think it’s really exciting to more and more be able to own our title of being musicians and songwriters, recognizing that you can’t lock yourself in a room and say that it wasn’t a collaboration.  You can’t say that you’re only a songwriter when you’re writing a song.  I can do whatever I want and I’m a songwriter.

J:  It’s cool to think all of your experiences can add up and make something like a song

C:  Also, for us, collaboration comes in playing with other bands, like Jonathan plays with 5 other bands, and I have a side project and collaborate with other bands, and Will is in like 4 other bands and does Trekky and Kym plays in other stuff and it helps pushing our comfort zones and helps us contribute new music.

J:  What’s your side project?

C:  It’s kind of silly, but I play a one-man-band called Harvey Sue.  I put it together for a vehicle through which to tour.  I had to drive across country anyway, and so I was like, “Oh I’ll just tour,” and so I wrote a bunch of songs and I started getting really into sequencing beats our of found sounds.  I have a little H4 and Zune recorder and I was sequencing all kinds of beats and writing songs over it.  I’ve played a couple shows.  It was good.

J:  Would you say that anything or anyone has inspired you for the upcoming record “Home?”

C:  We spent so long writing these songs, and it’s been like a couple years in the making.  I can’t think of any isolated person or event that gave us the impetus to write the album, because it was kind of like songs trickling in over the course of a year, year and a half, and we wrote them down and looked at them and it was like “oh my god, it’s all about home and how we find home, see home, and redefine home.”  It wasn’t like we decided to write an album about home and there were the songs, they just came in from all over.  In terms of person or people, I think it depends on the song.  Because there were definitely certain people who influence certain songs, but as a whole, I think it was sort of us stepping back and seeing everything as a whole.

J:  How do you think you end up defining “home” on the record?
The Fantastic Album Cover to "Home"

C:  That’s a good question.  Let me pull up my computer, I actually just wrote something.  I think one of the main things was that we didn’t end up defining it but we know that the definition of home can be isolating for people, especially when you use a socially-constructed ideal like home and say that home has to be this that and the other.  I’ve found that there’s a sort of idea that home is inside.  I’ve found home inside myself and outside and taking risks.  (Finds her file.)  I think we were basically utilizing our common home, in North Carolina, to explore our relationship with, step outside the boundaries of, and redefine home.  I think the redefinition is unclear but no one can define it for you.  It can be anywhere I guess.

J:  So what can you say about your upcoming tour and the Retribution Gospel Choir?

C:  So the tour dates, I don’t know them by heart, but they’re on the Trekky blog, and I don’t know anything about the Retribution Gospel Choir.  Two people have been like “dude, that’s so cool.”  But I have not sat down and looked at all the bands we’re playing with and listened to them and done all that good band stuff.  I’ve actually been focusing less on booking and more on art.  And so, I’m super stoked about the shows.  I’m really excited to go to the West Coast, but I haven’t given myself to the full excitement of what’s to come.

J:  What are some of your favorite albums of 2011?

C:  The Mount Moriah shit I can’t get over.  It’s really blowing my mind.  Megafaun album was killer.  Gillian Welch was amazing.  Blew my mind.  Lost in the Trees is awesome.  I’ve been trying to focus on local music so I can be up to date on that shit.

J:  Any last words?  New music?  Future of the band?  Your life?  Anything?

C:  I think moving into 2012 is really exciting.  I think artistically it feels like a year of self-exploration through identity.  It seems like it’s the year of saying “Fuck whatever you do for a living if you don’t like it and call yourself an artist.”  It feels like people are sticking out on a bunch of branches and saying “global capitalism isn’t gonna last very long” and seeing that things are crumbling and we’re pulling through capitalism and being able to embrace ourselves and each other as who we want to be as artists, or nurses, or electricians or whoever we want to be in that moment, cause that’s what we are.  That feels exciting to me and it’s where it trips my head.  I don’t think you have to say that you’re what you make money doing, and there’s a shared momentum with artists, and musicians, and gardeners and anyone who’s doing what they love to do and saying “we’re gonna step up and say what we do.”  That’s the excitement of this year, being able to stand behind what we do as a community.  It’s what I do as a sometimes electrician.
Editor's note 4/07/12

These guys are playing Cat's Cradle Today, April 7, 2012 as an album release party: they will play "Home" in its entirety.  It is a $5 show and they will be playing with Karaiba.

Get your ticket Here

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