Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Interview with Caroline of Imperial Topaz

Photo Taken by Jennifer MacDonald
It's no secret that I've been recently into a lot of synthesizer-driven music. Having recently read the 4AD book Facing the Other Way, I've found myself covering a lot of gaps in my electronic music knowledge. This has given me opportunities to learn about a lot of artists I hadn't heard before such as Bill Vermette or given me cause to reperuse Hausu Mountain's Mugen cassette series. In addition, Light in the Attic put out a great New Age compilation called I Am the Center, which I've been listening to lately.

The point is that hearing Imperial Topaz could not have come at a better time for me. Caroline Teagle and Zachary Zierden make rhythmic, synth-driven music overlaid with ghost-whisper evocative vocals. The duo began in 2012 in Brooklyn, New York, a veritable breeding ground of interesting musicians. Since then, and after a lineup change as well as two cassette releases, Imperial Topaz has released their first full-length 12" record titled Full of Grace,  a powerful record sometimes reminiscent of a slowcore Cocteau Twins. I'm not going to say too much about the record now, since Caroline elucidates the subject matter and nuances later on and we wouldn't want to ruin the surprise.

I have yet to see these guys play, though I have a ton of interest in doing so. If you find yourself in the greater New York area, I would highly recommend seeking out a live show by these guys.

The album is out on the consistently great Tranquility Tapes label and can be streamed at their Bandcamp Website or on the Spotify streaming service. In addition, you can keep up with the band through their Facebook Page.

Jordan: Imperial Topaz is a type of mineral, right? How did you choose to name your project after it?

Caroline Teagle: It is, yes. I wanted a name that sounded geological. I always liked the idea of precious stones because they’re these beautiful, otherworldly-seeming objects that are completely of the earth. I was also fond of the word “Imperial”, and it’s the name of one of my favorite songs by the great band Unrest. Everyone who is reading this, go listen to that song right now!

The Album Art for Full of Grace
J: When did you start making music? Your description on your Facebook page says that you met on a rooftop in Bushwick and liked each others' music. Was it really that simple for you all?

CT: Imperial Topaz actually started out as a collaboration between myself and a fellow named Jake Pepper in 2012. He and I were dating at the time, and had both been in a few “guitar bands” prior to recording the songs that ended up being our first release, Imperial. Our personal relationship fell apart pretty soon after that release, but Imperial Topaz was my brainchild and I was determined to keep making music under that name. I had met Zach at the aforementioned rooftop party a few weeks before the break up happened. It was there that he heard Imperial and he must have liked it because when he caught wind of my situation he reached out to me. It turned out he had just recently moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis and was looking to make music. Meeting him was just one of those serendipitous events. We work really well together, and we’re also roommates now.

J: What came first for you guys recording music or playing live?

CT: Recording came first. When Jake and I first recorded songs together we had no idea how we were going to execute them live. There were a lot of layers of sound happening and only two people to pull them off in real time, and I don’t think either of us knew much of anything about creating live electronic music then. When I started working with Zach, he opened me up to the world of MIDI and sequencers, so now it all seems much more practical. We dissect our recordings and find the most sensible way to recreate them live. I think it’s nice for the live version of a song to have it’s own unique personality in a way, too.

J: At a live show, is there room for improvisation? How much of your live show is part of mapped out songs and how much is spur of the moment?

CT: We don’t have much room for improvisation currently. It’s all sort of sequenced and mapped out with very little room to stray. It’s a vulnerable place to be when performing live, if one piece of gear fails us then we’re toast. That’s happened a time or two! I think as we continue to play together and develop our live set it will allow for more impulsiveness. At least I hope so, to me that’s what makes live music great.

J: A few adjectives that often describe your music are "drone," "ethereal," "ambient," "new age," but there's also an element of pop. How did you arrive at this mixture?

CT: Ha, I actually dislike the word “ethereal” just because of how overused it is in music journalism, but maybe it’s appropriate? I think what we’re doing is applying “new age” and “ambient” textures and sounds to a pop music format. That doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to the traditional verse/chorus song structure, but frequently it does. I think often times when music is anchored by vocals then it’s pop to anyone who hears it. The human voice is pop. I love to sing. I love melody. Imperial Topaz music is rooted in that.

J: What, to you, is the role of pop music? Is there a reason to listen to pop music?

CT: Pop music, traditionally, reflects the human emotional experience. I think we all crave that. It comforts us in times of sorrow. That’s powerful. I also think we’re entering a post-genre age where pop music can have an experimental nature, and experimental music can disguise itself as pop. It’s getting more and more difficult to make these distinctions.

J: Conversely, what do you like about ambient or new age music?

CT: I believe in the healing power of music. Pop music can soothe a broken heart, and ambient or new age music can be balm for the soul. It can ease anxiety and physical discomfort. I listen to Iasos when I feel overly stressed and he helps me maintain. I would say just as we crave the smallness of human emotions, our minds crave the expansiveness of experimental music. If pop music is our guts then experimental music is the air around us. Although I have to refer back to my answer to the question above.

J: Are there any artists who have particularly influenced you?

CT: I listen to music constantly and I could gush about my favorites for paragraphs on end. But to the point, I spend a lot of time working on improving my voice and my vocal delivery. As corny as it may sound, I go to my practice space weekly and try to sing like Karen Carpenter and Dionne Warwick. I’m so moved by a succinct, emotional vocal performance. When I hear a song like Walk On By or (They Long To Be) Close To You, it brings tears to my eyes. That motivates me to become a better singer. Musically, I’m always inspired by one of my all-time favorite bands, Young Marble Giants. I’m so attracted to their subtlety and sparseness. I love the idea of stripping away the excess and making these sublime, minimal pop compositions. I’m inspired by the austerity of it.
J: There are a lot of emotions on your new album Full of Grace. Were there any experiences that affected or led to certain lyrics or themes on the album?

CT: Around the time we were starting to write songs for this record, I received the news that an old friend of mine had taken his own life. That was something that weighed heavily on me while I was writing lyrics for this album. A lot of the songs are about him. I wanted to remember, and meditate on that particular kind of loss. There’s real-life sadness in there.

J: What was your experience like creating the album? Were there any stand out moments for you?

CT: It started out easily enough. Tracking all the synths was the fun part. A lot of that stuff is done in just one take. Often times the first take is the best take, there’s a sort of energy you can’t recapture when you’ve been playing the same line over and over. Recording the vocals was laborious for me. I started out by spending hours and hours on each song, deleting take after take that I thought wasn’t good enough. Towards the end I was doing less takes per song and trusting myself more, something that can only come with time and experience. Feeling your confidence grow is one of the more joyful aspects of making music.

J: I know you and Franklin from Tranquility tapes are siblings. Was it easy working with your brother? Do you guys enjoy similar music?

CT: Working with my brother is totally easy. In fact it doesn’t feel like work at all. When it comes to Tranquility Tapes, our roles are clearly defined. He runs the label and decides what to release and when, I provide the visuals. He pretty much let’s me have free reign, so it’s fun for me because drawing is something I love to do. And yes, we do enjoy a lot of the same music. Although I think his knowledge of music is much deeper and more extensive than my own. Our tastes are similar though. We go to shows together sometimes. We’re siblings, but we’re also friends.

J: I know the album just came out, and don't want to totally bombard you, but do you have any plans for the future?

CT: Another release is already in the works. We’ve done a good amount of recording already, but there are no plans so far in terms of releasing it. We’ll figure that out when the time comes. We’re focusing on shorter songs this time, which has been fun. It might be too early to say, but this release is feeling a bit more light-hearted than the full length. I really like the direction it’s going and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all takes shape. I’m excited about it!

J: Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? (I personally am Team Edward mostly on behalf of Robert Pattinson's cheekbones) 

CT: Definitely Team Edward. I’m not into the whole sweet, baby-faced thing. Give me chiseled and moody every time.

J: Was Courage the cowardly dog really that cowardly?

CT: I’d actually never heard of this show, I had to google it. I’m going to go with yes though.

J: Anything else you'd like to say? 

CT: I love Todd Rundgren.

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