I sent Raised By Swans frontman Eric Howden a list of questions to help me write a 450 word article about the band and their new album, No Ghostless Place, for the February issue of The Beat. His response was a very candid and personal 2000+ words and they are posted here, unedited.
TPU: How does No Ghostless Place differ from Codes and Secret Longing (creatively, lyrically, production/recording process)?
EH: Most of me was sent to the manufacturing plant in late November, where my guts and most of my heart and brain were pressed into a thousand compact discs and then wrapped up in jewel cases. For Codes and Secret Longing the scraped-out effect wasn't so dramatic; with No Ghostless Place I think I've actually succeeded in crossing the line between putting a brave but still relatively comfortable amount of myself out there and going way, way, way too goddamn far - hahaha. That's certainly the difference creatively - more than ever before I was strangely compelled to empty myself out, but also to be a little more honest with myself in the process - and ideally, if I could possibly manage it, less despondent and self-centred in the way I approached the lyrics. As much as it might ache to listen to the songs, there's more hope in this album, more of a need to connect, even if the connections I always seem to imagine feel (literally) far away, like someone finding a CD of ours in a seashell on the shore of the Red Sea, or like someone finding a song in 2166, long after all of us are dead and gone, and osmosing it, or however the hell one will enjoy music nearly two hundred years from now. Lyrically, I was more aware of my words this time, and became obsessed with making almost every line/title have multiple meanings; there's a lot of wordplay happening on this album, which pleases me if no one else. But it's not gratuitous; there's nothing worse than being clever or enigmatic for no other reason than to appear clever or enigmatic. The layers are all carefully considered and I mean every word (twice - hahaha). I also love hiding secrets here and there; I want people who listen to find them like one finds scribbled things in margins or in the end pages of old books; clues, codes, coordinates, names, underlined or highlighted words/passages. As always, though, and this is not a difference but a similarity that I want to share, I wanted to shut myself away and devote myself to the songs, take as much time as I/we needed to take; in my mind, when you put your head down and shut out the world and make music because you love it ferociously, take your time even though it hurts to let time pass by as you work, that music is more likely to emerge purely, and as a result, to have staying power. Good songs, to me, are like lighthouses, as unoriginal as that is to say; they're always there, tirelessly lighting up the night, even when no one's close enough to tell. They can take a long time to find, and in some cases, they should. But to be discovered, and to resonate once they are found, they have to be able to pierce heavy darkness, and they have to be built to last.
From a technical standpoint, it's funny looking back at how deluded I was at the outset of recording (or maybe not deluded, I was more like a child with my hands over my ears, shouting gibberish to drown out what I knew in my heart was the truth) - I had wanted to make the process very different than Codes and Secret Longing, which was built up in tiny increments over a very long period of time. It's not that I didn't want to give the new album the attention and time that Codes and Secret Longing received, more that it can be terrifyingly daunting to think that you might be only at the start of years of hard, hard work once you plug in your guitar that first time. I wanted to be a tiny bit more productive this time, maybe shave off a year - hahaha. Anyway, for No Ghostless Place we started out booking a few weeks of solid time at the House of Miracles, back in March or April of 2007; I figured that we would bang out the songs like a 'normal' band does (I think we only went in with eight or nine at the outset), come away with most of the tracking done, or at least the beds, and then add a few more new songs over the next few months, as well as finish up any additional tracking.
This of course led to about seventy erroneous release dates, because needless to say (and as usual), I was monstrously wrong about everything. Besides what influenced the songs themselves, the album was built up in much the same way that Codes and Secret Longing was; that first few weeks only served as an icebreaker of sorts. It was really nice to see the guys again, and to be at the House of Miracles with Andy and the rats and the renovations and the new furnace. And everyone played amazingly. But in the long run, we still ended up taking the same long, circuitous route as we always seem to take. Which isn't to say - and this is an important point - that any of the songs are pointlessly layered and layered until they're suffocating and numb (much like the way my grandma used to pile mountains of blankets on top of us when we were kids, convinced that there was no such thing as 'too warm'). The challenge for me comes from writing and recording songs as if they've been played lovingly onstage for years, each tiny part evolving slowly and tastefully with each repetition of the song - it's just as much about leaving things out as it is adding nuances and melodies and harmonizing elements.
Brady played most of the drums but Andy played on a few this time - his playing was beautiful and sparse and intuitive. There's a song (Night Fighter) where Andy and I played the percussion with our bodies - we stomped his wooden floors and slapped our thighs, kind of like We Will Rock You, but performed by two bespectacled gentlemen in an old, empty house. I had weird Australia-shaped bruises on my thighs the next morning. There is traffic sound on the album; a truck goes by in the night just before North of Light's End begins. I love that stuff. Also making appearances: creaking floors, faint conversation, wind from the eastern coast, captured on a camera. Walkie-talkies. And ghosts, for sure.
TPU: What is the inspiration for the album title?
EH: It comes from both hopefulness and hopelessness; it's deliberately two-sided because most of us are pretty much torn in half, I think - I tried to articulate my own confusion on this album better than I perhaps have in the past. From a positive angle, it's meant to be a comfort; the idea that everyone and everything is gently haunted, powered somehow by our/their interactions with the world, and of course by memories - for my grandfather who passed away this year, whose memories died before he did, it's meant as words to take with him wherever he is now, to suggest that even in the burned-out world of confusion he occupied for the final months/years of his life, there had to be something way down deep that kept him warm, kept him safe, kept him connected, kept him alive, somewhere beyond what anyone could see or imagine. There had to to be something. Even something untrue, something idealized. But even if it's not true, the title makes it so, obstinately. I want to make it so for him, retroactively, even now that it's too late. I want to believe that once a forest burns down, something stirs above and beneath the layer of ashes (and I'm not just talking about in a biological sense), that the spirits of the trees somehow remain, or at least, as echoes of themselves or as dormant, restrained energy or whatever the hell I'm trying to say (this is why I love Hayao Miyazaki's vision of the forest spirit, and the kodama, in Princess Mononoke so much - what a beautiful idea, and so much better articulated than my chimp-talk). On the cover of the album you can see a faint (horizontally inverted) mirror of the trees (which are meant to also represent roots/shadows of icicles/beheaded sound waves) reaching up from the bottom of the panel - to me this gives the image warmth, and hope.
But there are two ways of looking at it. When it comes to the darkness and frustration in the title, it's about our filthy, clogged up pasts, all of us, and about how every square inch of the planet, even the invisible parts, the microscopic parts - everywhere is crawling, humming, twitching, piercingly loud and blindingly lit up with energy, noise, used objects, conquered territory, blinding fucking light everywhere - it's kind of horrible when you think about it. You can't see the true sky at night anymore, not even when you escape the cities; light pollution makes me absolutely furious. You can't find a tree in the wilderness that doesn't have a crumpled up plastic bag or an empty beer can abandoned beneath it. Someone's been there, and they haven't even been kind enough to maintain the illusion that they haven't. The tiniest electrical component, a clod of dirt in a farmer's field, Antarctica, the jungles, the moon - our hands are all over and into everything. The mysteries of the world are dying, even inside our own bodies, because we're compelled to plug ourselves into social networks and spread ourselves all over everything and everybody like too little butter on too much shitty, stale bread. It's boring, and it makes me feel old and used up sometimes. But you have to come to terms with it, somehow. I have no idea how. But you have to. Werner Herzog, like Miyazaki above, is the one to go to for a better articulated rant on the death of adventure. On a smaller battlefield, though, with the past and the phantom histories that have destroyed relationships of mine a million times over, lately I'm trying desperately to see the past as a friend as opposed to an enemy. Or maybe not a friend. As something I have to better understand, and somehow accept. Because memories certainly aren't the enemy. But lately the planet is buckling under the weight of too many of them.
Or maybe I just need to move far, far away. Maybe Neptune. So long as I had my books and Number Six and a couple of friends, and some oxygen, I could do it.
TPU: Did writing and recording this album help you to exorcise any personal ghosts?
EH: Sort of. The problem is that it's attracted a big, jostling crowd of new ones to make up for the ones I managed to shake free. And the old ones haven't really left, they just pretended to. They tiptoed away, stifling smiles, but then crept back when I had my back turned. They hang out like thugs around my bed as I sleep. Sometimes they poke me or slap me or whisper terrible things in my ears. I wish I was joking.
TPU: Which song on the album do you consider the most personal? Why?
EH: When I think of each one of them I feel like a fish that has swallowed a fish hook; a sharp painful tug happens way down in my guts. I tried answering this question but got bogged down almost immediately. All of them are equally personal to me but for different reasons, all of them are precious and beautiful and incredibly special, achingly so. Sorry, that's all I have for this one right now.
TPU: It has been five years since the release of Codes and Secret Longing. Why has this album taken so long to come to fruition?
EH: I work full time, which is a big part of it. Getting home after eight hours of work and picking up a guitar or bending over a keyboard or a bass or a notebook so heavy with ink it's twice its original thickness can be so exhausting it makes one want to burn the entire city down. But exhaustion aside, I also work very slowly on music, and since I'm developing each part from scratch, and also devoting as much care and attention to each part as I can muster, it tends to take a long time. That said, and I have no idea why anyone reading this would believe me, I have every intention of releasing another album before five more years have passed.
TPU: How did your music come to the attention of Canadian/Armenian filmaker Atom Egoyan?
EH: Atom's been a fan for a while now - he's a genuinely wonderful, talented and kind man who we're proud to have been involved with. Our music now appears in two of his movies (Adoration (2009) and Chloe, which is out in 2010); the coolest thing about being involved with him is that years ago, it was The Sweet Hereafter that first made me think of how lovely it would be to have a song in a movie so beautiful and chilling. So it's been pretty unreal to work with him.