Architrave – You Can’t Break Music
Written by Liam Sweeny on June 27, 2020
We have a strange relationship with all things digital. We long for the analog, the feel the touch, while we rail against the touch screen. But fifty years will make everything we rail against ‘vintage’ and ‘cherished.’ And in our music, over the decades, we have begrudgingly accepted electricity to show up in guitars, basses, keyboards, and this brings us to an age where we see the computer as the instrument that controls the instruments. And here we are.
Jennifer Maher Coleman and Paul Coleman of the band Architrave combine traditional and electronic music and challenge you to find it a shelf on your music history cabinet.
We talk with Jennifer and Paul about like this side of the diode.
RRX: The hidden truth of music is that it’s math, because beneath the feeling and passion, we’re dealing with ratios and relationships. With electronic music, do you feel that you’re much closer to the math, or does feeling play the same role that it does bending a string on a guitar or sliding up a bass note?
JMC: I guess that when you’re building beats with a machine or within a computer program rather than playing actual drums, you’re looking at grids, there are actual numbers in front of you…but really, music has always been grids and graphs and math when written out as long as people have been writing music. So it’s just using a different tool. Arpeggiated synths and electronic beats are just another medium to make music and it’s only different in as much as it creates a different feeling…for me, the range of sounds available seem to access a whole other kind of emotion.
PC: Jen put it well. I tend to get inspired differently by different instruments, and working with electronic instruments doesn’t really feel all that different to me than say, switching between guitar and drums. In all of those paradigms, I’m working to express a feeling with the instrument. I’m generally not thinking about the math. I have been in bands where we did play with changing time signatures and those were straight up rock bands.
RRX: We haven’t interviewed a band that was in the electronic realm so much, so apologies for asking such emblematic questions. Do you feel that music harnessing the processing power, and maybe even just the bandwidth of an electronic interface gives Architrave a larger canvas, or can there be a “limit of the human ear”?
JMC: I actually have no idea about this very specific question. But I’ll say that working with a broad palette of electronic soundscapes has given me the capacity to make things sound like I hear them in my head and intend for them to sound. When I was young I would frustratedly attempt to make my songwriting happen via voice and very poorly played acoustic guitar, and my stuff sounded nothing like the epic, atmospheric landscape I heard in my mind. The broad palette available via electronic and synthesized music is extremely important to my aesthetic.
PC: I think you nailed it with “larger canvas”. I have less of a preconceived sense of what I want things to sound like than Jen does, but I still feel like having more sounds to work with lets me explore in an unconstrained way.
RRX: Okay, so onto the band. Jennifer, you and Paul share some duties, like putting together beats and keyboard arrangements, and you fork out with singing and guitar. When you record, or when you play out, is everything composed tightly, or do you two switch off and improv at points?
JCM: In this project everything is pretty tightly composed. There are only two of us and we’re trying to recreate the multilayered experience of the recorded compositions as much as possible, so we definitely orchestrate things in order to achieve that.
PC: Jen’s definitely the mastermind/principal songwriter for these songs. These songs are pretty tight compositionally, but we do have some leeway live as it’s not so tightly scripted that we have to come in on a certain measure. As for solos and improv, this isn’t the project for that. I do that in other projects, but it really wouldn’t serve these songs well.
RRX: It’s hard not to mention the lockdown, but I figure in this case, it’s actually worth pursuing. A lot of musicians have been down and out because they can’t practice like they used to, can’t play out unless they want to sit there and live stream. Do you all think you have an easier or harder time keeping the ship running right now?
JCM: As a married couple working together at home during quarantine, things have actually been extremely conducive to making tons of music. Since the lockdown we’ve released and promoted our album and written, recorded, and performed many new songs. It’s easy for us to slip from doing the dinner dishes into working in our little studio for a bit while the kids ignore us. Unfortunately, our other band Haley Moley has had to suspend things for the most part, but we’re getting together for a socially-distanced rehearsal for the first time since March later this week!
PC: All I have to add, is that musicians are stepping up and recording a bunch of stuff right now. Our friend Keith put together the https://518covidquarantinecompilation.bandcamp.com/ to benefit front line medical workers. All the tracks on it were recorded during the quarantine. Despite the fact that people can’t play live right now in the traditional way, people are finding ways to express themselves and that’s great.
RRX: Some have compared you to The Cure and Depeche Mode, Cocteau Twins, The XX, among others, and it’s no bother. We all have in our minds the musician that goes ape over being compared to anybody, because they think they’re being accused of copying. But you’re comparisons are all over. Why do you think comparison is a good thing?
JCM: Comparisons are just helpful as a point of reference for people who are looking for new music and would like things that fall within the range of their tastes. I’m always thrilled to hear that people who enjoy certain bands that I admire also like us and hear something of that music in ours. I want to evoke the same rush of emotion and excitement with my own music that I craved from those bands.
PCM: It cracks me up when people get hurt about being compared to famous musicians. All that it means is that someone related to you in a way that put you in the same light as some artist that they probably love. You probably don’t sound exactly like them, but you’re doing something that connects with fans of those artists. How could that be bad?
RRX: My first question was about math, so one good turn…music is math. I can’t help but think of how insane some musicians sound when they know music theory. But electronic music introduces an entirely new element, that of electronics. If math knowledge helps you with music, how does knowing electronics plus knowing math help?
JCM: I will admit that even though I’ve been an electronic dance music dj for 25 years, I don’t really feel like I “know” electronics and I definitely don’t “know” math beyond a rudimentary level. My work is intuitive and I make sure I’m capable of using the tools that I need for my particular vision, but it’s probably not any different than anyone knowing how to play any sort of instrument that speaks to them.
PC: I’m actually very analytical in my day job and look to playing music as an escape from some of that. So, yeah, it’s funny that I like as much electronic music as I do. I guess that having an analytical bent (i.e. math/electronics) helps me get over the learning curve of electronic instruments. Honestly, every instrument has a language of its own whether it’s guitar or synth or whatever. Being a kid that could easily program my parents VCR probably gives me a leg up in programming a drum machine. I’m always trying to become adept at that language, so I can get to the expressive part of an instrument. As an aside…I think the math/electronics thing isn’t always what it seems. There was a duo from the late 60’s called the Silver Apples. On their first record, the drummer composed all of his drum parts with mathematical formulas. The other band member played a cobbled together instrument made from army surplus oscillators and sang. The beats were explicitly the math part, but the electronics were played incredibly expressively. They flipped the script before there was one for electronic music.
RRX: This is where you answer the question I didn’t ask. And albums to declare? Any futuristic tech you’re stashing? Educate, enlighten, emote – the floor is yours.
PC: Well. We have a new record that came out in April called This Perfect Day https://architrave.bandcamp.com. As for tech, you’d be surprised at how little I actually have. I do have a drum machine that looks like a pocket calculator (called a pocket operator) that I’ll probably use for something soon. And here’s my inspirational quote: If you want to make music…just pick up anything that makes noise and mess with it. Don’t worry about whether it “sounds good” or even like you intend. Find something interesting in whatever comes out and run with it. You can’t break music.