They Meant to Do That
"The common criticism of this kind of music is that it's too easy, that you just step on a pedal and then it's done," says Brian McBride, the Chicago-based half of the ambient duo Stars of the Lid. "That's not what it's like for us at all. We labor over these things. We're not experimental; there's nothing accidental about it." It's easy to see how the music he makes with Adam Wiltzie might be seen as the result of a passive process: warm clouds of sound undulate meditatively, with no beats to guide the casual listener. But for every five minutes of this, says McBride, there are hours of discussion, editing, and compromising. Pretty intense, especially considering that the duo's latest release--The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, on Chicago's Kranky label--takes up two CDs or three vinyl records.
Fortunately, give-and-take is what McBride lives for. In high school, he followed an older brother's footsteps to join the debate team, and got "addicted." He continued debating as an undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin, and went on to help coach the team while in grad school there. He moved to Chicago in 1998 to pursue his doctorate in communication studies at Northwestern, where he's paying for his education by working as the assistant debate coach. For the last year and a half he's also worked part-time for the Chicago Debate Commission, which helps start debate programs in inner-city schools.
Stars of the Lid started in McBride's UT days too. He worked at the college radio station as an undergrad, and in 1991 he launched a regular program called The Dick Fudge Show. "It was very much a sound collage thing," he says. "There wasn't a point in the day back then when I wasn't with my tape recorder. I was always recording different things--the sound of the wind, a refrigerator hum, or inane conversations. It was easier for me than keeping a journal or having a camera." McBride would manipulate his recordings on a four-track tape machine with a primitive delay effect and take the results to the station. "I'd try to layer all of these quiet things and ideally some shape of a song would sprout out of it."
He met fellow DJ Wiltzie as both were riffling through a pile of records the station was about to jettison, and Wiltzie began contributing occasionally to The Dick Fudge Show. He was interested in sound engineering, and had been running the board at shows for the Austin rock band Ed Hall. That band liked what they heard on the radio show and asked Wiltzie and McBride to contribute between-song snippets for its 1993 album, Motherscratcher; the CD also concluded with a 20-minute piece by McBride and Wiltzie. It was the duo's first recorded work, and "it made what we do more deliberate," says McBride.
It also led to an invitation to perform at an Austin art gallery, and forced the duo to give their project a name. They put characteristic thought into the choice: "It's the space in between your eye and eyelid that only you can see," says McBride. "At the time, it connoted an intimate and almost natural connection to what we were doing--but also the likelihood that the music would be misunderstood. Everybody gets stars in their eyes after a good rub."
They played with a nitrous oxide tank on the side of the stage, "so there was a steady line of people filling up balloons while we were playing," McBride says. "That was our cheap gimmick." The performance in turn generated an offer from an Austin experimental label, Sedimental, and in 1995 they released a full-length called Music for Nitrous Oxide, constructed entirely of Wiltzie's quiet guitar abstractions and McBride's hissy analog sample manips. Compared to the frosty synthesizer textures that were as ubiquitous as dry-ice fog in postrave chill-out rooms, the record had a lovely homemade quality.
The sound caught the attention of Kranky owners Bruce Adams and Joel Leoschke, who were already releasing the caustic ambient music of Labradford. In 1997, following a U.S. tour with Bedhead, the duo released an album on the label, The Ballasted Orchestra, which expanded their instrumental palette to include didgeridoo, slide guitar, and harmonica, but under heavy electronic treatment the new ingredients were hardly recognizable. Before McBride moved to Chicago, the duo also collaborated with painter Jon McCafferty on Per Aspera Ad Astra (Kranky) and recorded Avec Laudenum for the Belgian label Sub Rosa (Kranky has tentative plans to reissue it domestically in the spring).
McBride's relocation added a new wrinkle to the duo's music-making process. "We're pretty slow as it is," he says. "I thought being geographically challenged would make it even slower, but it really didn't affect us that much." He says the current situation allows them to be even more reflective about the material. To make the new record, begun in 1999, he and Wiltzie mailed each other DATs filled with rough ideas and spent days letting the sounds soak in, isolating passages they liked. Then they'd get to work. "I'd begin a sentence and he'd complete it," says McBride. "Here would be 30 seconds of a phrase, and he'd add another 30 seconds, and then we'd be off."
They assembled the results on a computer, though McBride stresses that they used Pro Tools to carry out ideas, not to come up with them. The music remains weightless and ethereal, but the textures are noticeably thicker; individual sounds are etched in greater detail, and the usual drift organizes itself into some simple but elegant melodic patterns. "We didn't want to make an ambient record with this one," McBride explains. "We didn't want it to be static. We wanted melody to be more overt."
After putting the album to bed this past March, Wiltzie moved from Austin to Brussels. "He was just sick of the States," says his bandmate. "He said he was sick of watching truck commercials on TV." McBride doesn't think the increased distance will affect their process any more than his move to Chicago; they've already begun working on new material and in January they'll reunite for a European tour. There are no current plans for any Chicago performances, but the local band Sur la Mer, in which McBride plays sampler, performs at the Hideout on Wednesday, November 14.
When Ben Kim took over as editor of the Illinois Entertainer this summer, one of his stated goals was more hip-hop coverage, and the November issue makes good on that promise, with a cover story on local rappers Twista and E.C. Illa. Unfortunately, the story was written by Matt Sonzala, who as recently as June was pushing E.C. Illa's latest record as a publicist for his label, A-List Audio. Kim says he had no idea.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.