I last saw A Silent Film in April at Type Foundry Recording Studio in Portland, the second stop on their not-quite-tour Secret Rooms. A reclaimed industrial space with weathered floors and stuffed with instruments in various states of repair, the room was an unlikely place for a live gig — which, as it turns out, was the whole point. The evening proved to be a combination meet-and-greet, concert and house party, and presented a completely different side to a band known for its increasingly ambitious (and elaborate) studio productions. Pared down to the core duo of frontman Robert Stevenson and drummer Spencer Walker, the band gave a relaxed, intimate performance that sought to erase the boundary between them and their audience as much as possible. They led the crowd in sing-alongs and passed out shakers for an acoustic version of “Danny, Dakota and the Wishing Well” in which Stevenson gamely played on despite forgetting the lyrics.
It was a rare treat, and too relaxed an occasion for a formal interview. Instead, we spoke by phone in late September as the band was preparing to embark on a tour — a proper one this time, in actual theaters and whatnot — in support of its new album, titled simply A Silent Film. We talked about life as a two-piece band, the influence of American sounds, and making music with your heart on your sleeve.
Dan Wiencek: A lot’s gone on with the band since I last talked to Spencer, whatever it was, three years ago, so in a nutshell: there were four, now there are two. What went on?
Robert Stevenson: [laughs] You made it sound really controversial. I think we’ve all been doing a lot of growing, growing older, and the lifestyle and the amount of work we do being on the road is very, very difficult. You’ve got to really, really love and believe in what you’re doing, and for whatever reason … it was amicable, is that the right way to put it?
Spencer Walker: It’s funny, I think that in some ways it’s more of thing for people on the outside to look at. Robert and I have been doing this together since we were about 14, and we’ve played with a lot of musicians over that time. But only in the last three or four years of that has been in the limelight enough. I think that Ali, he’d been our bass player for six years, and for him it really was he just wanted to settle down. He just didn’t want to tour anymore. He’s a really good friend of ours, and it was all very amicable and —
Robert: Yeah, it was all very amicable, we still see him regularly.
Spencer: It’s Thursday; on Friday, actually, we’ll all be hanging out then.
Dan: So when you went into the studio to cut the new album, you went in basically as a two-piece?
Spencer: Yeah, so we recorded a few things, a few bits and bobs last year, but basically this big album session, the — sorry, just gotta get rid of my dog, who’s whining … Robert has a cat, and I have a dog, and part of the process of us writing together is our pets chase each other round the house and try and get on various takes by jumping on pianos at really bad times. And so they’re in one of those moods, unfortunately. [laughs] Yeah, the reason it took a little longer to actually get to it was because Rob and I really wanted to do something … it’s been a while since it’s just been the two of us having to make all the decisions, and I think we wanted to make sure it was something we were really proud of and really spoke to us.
Robert: But a lot of the time it’s not just us in the studio. We are very, very enthusiastic about collaboration, so we’ve had various guitarists on various different songs on the album. Guitar’s definitely an area where — I play a bit of guitar live, but I don’t want all the pressure on me. I love to have other musicians play on our songs. There’s a guy called Matthew Wilcox who plays in the band and we was sort of coproducing, helping us out in the studio as well and writing all sorts of extra parts. It’s a pleasure to work with different musicians, which perhaps — if you’re a band in the old-fashioned sense of having one person who does one instrument and that’s all they do, you actually lose out on the opportunity to work collaboratively with different musicians. So that’s been a great pleasure for us on this album.
Dan: So do you see the band staying the core of you two guys for the time being, or maybe one day you’ll invite a new member and they’ll be an equal creative partner?
Spencer: Maybe. Never say never. I think at the moment, we’re pretty happy that it’s the two of us.
Dan: So you were saying earlier, it started with you two, right? You got together …
Spencer: Oh yes. I guess that’s why with Robert it seems such a natural thing. It’s always been us. We’ve been very happy to have people along for the ride, but it’s not like we feel beholden to any lineup we’ve had; this feels natural to us.
Dan: I know what Secret Rooms was because I was there, but for the benefit of the public, talk about Secret Rooms, how that idea came about and what you thought of it once it was done.
Robert: We were so pleased to have the opportunity to do it. At that time, before the album came out, we released an EP. We wanted to go out and do something that spoke uniquely to our biggest fans and friends we’ve made in America. We basically had this idea of “what if” — there was a lot of “what ifs,” I guess it got us to the point where we’re like, “What if we could play to a core audience and everybody could get the best seat in the house possible? What if we could have a real piano and play a lot of the songs the way that they were originally written?” Because you can’t really have a real piano on stage. There was, “What if we could play in unique places that aren’t really venues, and get rid of the idea of stage and audience and try and bring it all together?”
So what we ended up with was a sort of performance area in the round, but every seat was in a circle around the center, so everybody was as close as they could get to us. And then we only allowed ourselves to sell as many tickets as could fit into that circle, you know what I mean? We did lots of cover songs by artists that have inspired us, as a way to show that through the music. And we chose locations that would be exciting, unique and kept them secret as well up until the last minute, so if people bought tickets to a secret show and they only found out 48 hours or so before the show where it was gonna be, and it ended up being somewhere — there was a bookshop in Boston, wasn’t there? A little side shop in Chicago … it was just really, really fun to shake up the idea of band and audience and do something completely unique and intimate. And give back to our biggest fans a little of what they give to us.
Dan: Did any recordings come out of that that might see their way to the public?
Robert: Yeah, we recorded and filmed everything that happened so we’ve been posting videos online. There’s a lot more material that we may or may not release in the future, all sorts of other bits and bobs. We had a wonderful moment in New York where a couple proposed, which was just a real once-in-a-lifetime thing to happen during your set. And we were actually trying out new songs as well, so two of the songs that we played for the first time at Secret Rooms ended up on the album. So definitely that process has informed how those songs ended up. It’s just a really inspiring thing to be able to do.
Dan: Do you imagine doing something similar in the future?
Robert: We’d love to. We would always want it to be fresh and new, so not repeat the same idea, but the principle. To give people a completely unique experience.
Spencer: Honestly, we were planning Secret Rooms 2 after … [laughter] … I think we were already like, “Wait, next time, we could even do this.” I think it will probably never be that same format again, because the idea wasn’t about that, the idea was to do something unique and it just opened the door for us of showing us that it was possible, and it was amazing to do.
Dan: Yeah, it was amazing to be a part of too, so I hope something similar rears its head in the future.
Robert: Yeah, we’ve got some plans.
Spencer. Oh yeah.
Dan: Do you go into a new record thinking, “OK, the last record was this, now the next record’s going to have to be something new, something else”?
Robert: It’s hard. It’s a slippery slope to go in with an agenda. You just want to be as open as possible to something that you’ve never done before, in order for it to be an interesting record to yourself, and if you set down any kind of agenda, I guess you’re limiting the possibility of doing something new. I guess the only one consistent thing is to be open-minded to where it can go.
Robert: And another thing I like about our new way of working is to allow other people to inspire us and offer something and be great, and not try and control what’s going on, and believe like, “Well, this is what this band should sound like, so you have to do this.” We want to get great people in the room with us and let them do what they do best. And that’s an exciting way to work.
Dan: One of the impressions I got, having listened to it a few times, is, in contrast to your previous records, it feels like the lead vocal becomes in a way just one more element in the mix. There are a few tracks that seem almost ambient to me, like it’s very moody and very sort of soundscape-y, where the music is not necessarily a bed for the vocal to sit on, the vocal is just one part of the mix. Does that jibe at all with how you hear it?
Robert: Yeah, I think that’s key to a lot of alternative music. It’s borne out of a very ambitious way of writing, which is where every single instrument makes up part of the picture. That’s a very, very exciting thing to do if you can pull it off. I’m really pleased you said that, that’s great.
Dan: My wife, who you recall is something of an academic music person, compared it to Impressionistic music.
Robert: YES! Debussy! Claude Debussy’s one of my favorite things. Yeah, that definitely hits home.
Dan: A couple questions about songwriting. Having heard you through a few albums now, there’s something about your writing that I find uplifting and very free of irony. I think you guys are kind of “heart-on-your-sleeve” writers/musicians. And I want to know, first of all, am I right? Do you think that accurately describes what you do? And if so, does that reflect who you are?
Robert: I think definitely. We always approach music from an emotional standpoint, try and avoid it from a cynical, being-part-of-a-scene or a movement kind of thing. We like to take our own time and be our own thing. I’m always looking for that tiny little seed of an idea that gives the song itself its own meaning and space to exist. Sometimes I wonder, when you don’t have that, what is the purpose of finishing music at all? Are you just creating content to be part of … what? You’re just trying to be a musician that makes music. What does that mean? I actually come back all the time; it’s like, “What does it really mean? What are we trying to do?” It’s that connection to another human being and that music is one person to another. It can be personal, but it’s the artist then speaking to the listener, or it can be something that you share with your friends. To me, that emotional thing, it’s just so special that music can move people in that way and that’s what we’re chasing.
Spencer: I think that the lack of cynicism is exactly right, and I think that you’re right in the sense that it’s not only in our music. I think that Robert and I inherently, that is how we see this whole thing, this is our life and this is what we want to do. So when we go on the road, it’s why you see us hanging out and trying to meet everyone after shows, because we genuinely want to meet people who come down to our shows, and it’s why we’ll continue to do everything ourselves. We’ve never really been one for labels or necessarily being part of a scene, because this is our work and this is our lives, and we’re pretty open about letting people in.
Dan: One of the clichés you hear is someone in a band will write a song and it doesn’t feel like a “band song,” so it goes in the bin and maybe one day ends up on a solo record. So I guess for you that doesn’t really happen? So whatever comes out is A Silent Film?
Robert: Yeah! Definitely. There’s no holding back there.
Spencer: Well, I hope not! I should check Robert’s hard drive.
Robert: [laughs] Yeah. What you see is what you get I think, if it’s not too much a cliché to say that.
Dan: Would you say your writing is autobiographical? Can someone hear your lyrics and get something about your life from it?
Robert: It’s about 50/50. I’ve been trying to get a little bit closer to that. I remember when I started off writing almost avoiding singing about my own problems, and in a way that was because I felt like I had nothing to say in my life experience. But the older I get, the little wiser I believe I get, the more traveling, more worldly I think I feel, I feel like I’ve got some stuff to say. And it’s enjoyable to get a little more autobiographical and not be afraid of that.
Dan: Do you have a vision for the path this band is on? Do you see like, maybe ten years from now, “We’ll be at such and such a point,” or it’s just happening, and it goes where it goes?
Robert: I mean, on the one hand, it goes where it goes. But on the other hand, I want to take this to the Grammys. “Is it good? Is it good enough? All right, let’s take it to the Grammys!”
Dan: Do you feel that exposure to American audiences and America as a place has continued to impact the way you work and the way you write?
Robert: Without a doubt. Absolutely. I think in the way that since I wear my heart on my sleeve, so to speak, and what you see is what you get, we’re also very realistic about our influences. It’s not contrived, it is what’s happening to us, that influences how we feel. I feel all of the time as well that we’re like sponges to what music we listen to and stuff like that. As with anything in life, if you get out there, if you wake up every morning and do something with your life, and then got more to talk about and more to experience. And just being on the road, being able to just go into a museum or something, or actually go out and see something and experience something, it all feeds back into the music and what you can talk about, and what makes up you as a person.
Spencer: It’s just building also on the fact that we started out both of us pretty into ‘70s Americana and we listened to a lot of American music. So for us, it’s almost like musically, we’re coming home in a way.
Robert: I think we can join the dots in certain places.
Robert: You go to Louisiana and we’ll be playing Dr. John in the van and going there being like, “This is it! We’re going to discover it!”
Spencer: Right. It’s kind of weird. I think there were a lot of English people listening to a lot of American music, especially our age. For whatever reason, that was a big deal for us when we were kids. It’s actually not as unusual as it could be seen to be.
Dan: Could you characterize what exposure to this country means to you, and how it’s affected your trajectory as artists? Is there a way you can articulate that?
Spencer: It’s a little hard to articulate. What’s happened in America has been, without a doubt for us, the defining characteristic of the band so far. It’s opened the doors for us to experience things we could never imagine experiencing. Just being able to do what we do — I mean, for a lot of people it would be a big deal just to travel across the States. We get to travel across the States and we get to play music to people, and it’s not just anyone’s music, it’s our own music and people come out to see it. It’s the most amazing feeling, it’s an incredible country to tour and I think especially being an outsider, the perspective you get is quite special.
Robert: And also I get such a kick out of being invited to a city like New York City, which has such a musical heritage, and you know that there’s a gig there, the tickets been sold for people to come see you. It’s not a trick, you haven’t lied or cheated to get here; you’ve been invited to New York City to play a gig to New York City people. That to us is such an amazing compliment. And the opportunity to effectively be part of the big old forward-driving arts of music in America, we are now a part of that. We’re a very small part of it, we want to be a bigger part of it, but it’s happening, it’s real. That is what all music is, it’s basically a lot of musicians all making music and everyone’s reacting together in this big melting pot and it all drives it forward, and everyone’s influencing everyone else. We’re a part of that.
Dan: Do you write all the time, or set certain times to create?
Robert: It’s tricky, isn’t it? I’d love to believe it could just be an ever-flowing …
Robert: Tap. [laughs]
Spencer: But sometimes the weather’s dry.
Robert: But then it’s slightly sad isn’t it, because the quality of the output can only be defined by how hungry you are for it. If you take it for granted, perhaps you won’t notice there’s a quality. But I definitely believe you’ve got to need to make music or have something to say if you’re going to create something of meaning for someone else. We tend to have periods where we’ll be incredibly hard-working, and then we’ll take our foot off the gas a little, as you would say, in order to recharge. And there’s so many other things you can do with that time, and honestly, when you’re in the middle of concentrating on music, you’re a little bit of a nightmare for the people around you, like friends and family, so it’s important to take a break for other people’s sake sometimes.
A Silent Film’s self-titled album is available October 16.