Chicago-based four-piece Speck Mountain’s shimmery, psychedelic space rock has (very) slowly worked its way round the world since their self-released debut album Summer Above slipped out in the USA alone in 2006.
Now signed to Peacefrog, Marie-Claire Balabanian’s voice and the band’s textured and near-drumless songs have been released in the UK in time for summer.
musicOMH tippety-tapped questions across the ether to Chicago, from where answers were tippety-tapped back…
musicOMH: On Summer Above, it felt like Marie-Claire’s vocals were another instrument in a sea of music – the words were drawn out and floaty, and there were a lot of extended instrumental jams without singing. Was this the intended effect? Were there any known influences on her vocal style?
Speck Mountain: Everything on Summer Above was very deliberate. Marie-Claire is constantly compared to Hope Sandoval and that is definitely not even an influence… so that is weird for us. Her biggest influences are Mavis Staples, and too many other soul singers to name… also Stevie Nicks.
OMH: What did you learn from self-releasing Summer Above? Did things become a lot easier when Peacefrog came on board for UK distribution?
SM: Releasing our own album was a wonderful experience. I now understand what a record label really does, which was a total mystery before we started the label. There is a lot of work that goes into it but ultimately labels try to make it seem like something much more elusive and magical than it is. We want an American label to handle us because we’re terrible business people and don’t want to concentrate on that aspect.
OMH: What are you looking for in a label to represent you this time around? Are you looking for a hands-on label that will really get involved in your recordings and promotions, or one that would simply release things “as is” without much input? Perhaps a happy medium?
SM: We’re looking for a label that really believes in what the band is doing. Who trust the ideas of the artist and will ultimately go with those ideas. We would want complete freedom creatively. We would take a lot less money to be on a label we respect and vice versa.
OMH: The songs on Summer Above seem very fluid. Were they all conceived fully before going into the studio? Or was there some in-studio inspiration that influenced the arrangements?
SM: Every sound was conceived outside of the studio. We went in knowing exactly what we wanted.
OMH: Did your method for recording your most recent album change based on your experience making Summer Above? Did you work with any producers or seek advice from outside the band on your most recent recordings?
SM: We recorded at the same studio with the same engineer. But this time he is producing because we trust him. We’re focusing much more on writing a collection of great songs rather than walking in with this fully conceived thing. This album is also much more adventurous and definitely shows the extremes of some of our stylistic influences.
OMH: You were spread out over Detroit, Portland, and New York, but came together in Chicago. It seems bands can have members spread out like this when they are not on tour because they can keep in contact via the Internet. What’s your impression concerning the impact of the Internet on groups forming or staying together, especially when band members are spread out?
SM: I think ultimately it is cool bands have that option. But if you don’t live in the same place you won’t play often and really connect as a band (especially live). I think it is much better for bands that have main songwriter and just use the other players as their bands.
OMH: What sort of live set-up do you have?
SM: We perform as a four piece. With guitar, vocals, bass electric piano, compact organ, and paired down drum kit.
OMH: It seems like your songs could evolve in a live setting. When playing live, do you try to keep the songs true to the original arrangements, or is there a pull to try different things here and there?
SM: The live set has a lot more energy. We can’t recreate the sonic beauty of the record so there is a different energy.
OMH: Many artists are inspired across media. Are there any things outside of the music realm that impact your songwriting or performances?
SM: The books of Bret Easton Ellis, poetry of John Donne, photography of Francesca Woodman (are all) huge for us, also the film A Nos Amour.
OMH: Is your band name a) an oxymoron – a mountain the size of a speck; b) a philosophical insight – we are but a speck on a large mountain; c) an actual place – Speck Mountain; d) none of the above?
SM: d) It’s the first and last word in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.