Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dumpster Diving with Mr. Dream

Interview and article by Ryan Sartor

On Friday, November 18th, I saw Mr. Dream perform at the small Milford, CT music venue of Daniel Street. Before they took the stage, I was only aware of Mr. Dream as “those three Pitchfork writers who became musicians.” Such a description fails to do the band justice, especially since bass player Matt Morello has never written for Pitchfork. When Mr. Dream pulled into town, they had no idea that this gig would take place at a soon to be shuttered venue (and neither did the audience). Alas, it was announced two weeks ago that Daniel Street is being sold on January 3rd, 2012 to a buyer who plans to transform the space into a pizza parlor/hip-hop club. As far as funerals go, Mr. Dream band members Adam Moerder, Matt Morello, and Nick Sylvester sent Daniel Street out on a high note, engaging with their few passionate fans, and ignoring the vast majority—ambivalent philistines, sipping beers from atop padded bar stools. Adam, Matt and Nick seemed oblivious to their chilly surroundings, having more fun on stage than seemed necessary or fair. Such unbridled enthusiasm is so rare in music (and life) and I felt compelled to speak with the band about the 2011 debut album Trash Hit, their distinct sound (which can best be described as “garbage pop”), and why they only use a Boss EX-2 Guillotine sustain pedal (rather than an EX-3).

Ryan Sartor: When I saw you perform at Daniel Street, I was quite unaware of Mr. Dream, but upon listening to the first song, I became instantly enthralled. How important has touring been to your band?

Matt Morello (vocals, bass guitar): Well, first of all, thanks a lot. I think that’s one of the main things you’re hoping for on the road, that someone’s going to get excited about what you’re doing, the songs, what your idea of a show is. Hopefully lots of someones. Getting out and doing it night after night you learn a ton, not just from playing the songs a lot, but because you have so much new shit to deal with every night--like at that Milford show, we had some issues with Adam’s guitar, and there was that cool ledge to jump off of at the front of the stage, and this really receptive core group up front but also this big, maybe-indifferent sports bar in the back, and every night it’s just like, alright, here we go.

R: The most obvious translation of “Trash Hit” is a really bad, successful song. I’m sure that view is too simplistic though. What were you guys aiming for with that song, and how did it being the title track inform the rest of the album?

Adam Moerder (vocals, guitar): No that view is totally valid and not at all simplistic! We liked the ethos of “Trash Hit” (feel free to start making exaggerated masturbation gestures here) because we felt like garbage men. A lot of music that’s trendy right now can be (and has been) called pretty, chill, hazy, etc, and we feel like we’re collecting all the dirty stuff that everyone discarded long ago.

Nick Sylvester (drums, producer): But in the same breath, “Trash Hit” is also a joke on Mr. Dream. “It’s not my cup of tea but what the hey.”

M: The guy in the song thinks he’s doing a diss track about us in a diss track that happens to be about him.

R: I feel that a listener needs to be much more sophisticated than I am to pick up on the musical references in your work. The Pixies and Husker Du are probably the two more mainstream examples. I think that if those two bands were concerned with using pop music and stretching it out, Mr. Dream is about going one step further, poking your head out on the other side—past pop music, past “power pop,” and into something else. Do you allow yourselves to be aware of the musical history that led to the music you’re making, and how does that knowledge inform your work?

A: Every musician is painstakingly aware of his musical lineage. Some namecheck their influences constantly and even admit whom they’re copping, others like to give off the impression that they don’t even know who the Beatles are, like they’re operating in a vacuum of their own musical genius or something, but rest assured all of them know their history. And...we’re no different.

M: I think there’s a sense of possibility that comes from having listened to a ton of great things, and a sense of purpose from wanting to hear more of certain things that might not get made if you don’t make them. You get ideas as well as encouragement that there’s room for what you do.

R: I was quite glad to have Ryan Kattner push me to the front of the venue right before you guys took the stage. He seems like a fun guy to be around. How has it been touring with Mister Heavenly?

N: Ryan, Nick, and Joe were super supportive. They watched our set what had to be almost every night and--yes--did stuff like push people all they way up to the front of the house. That’s not something the headliner usually does.

M: Those guys are masters of that sort of thing, connecting with a crowd, making a show work. They’ll also close and re-close your van if you forget to take the key out of your pocket and keep accidentally hitting the trunk-open button during your set.

R: I wrote this at Daniel Street: “Mr. Dream is an ideal tour mate for Mister Heavenly. They have the lyrical fun of Jonathan Richman, the casual vocals of punks, and the tight awareness of melody and energy that you’d hope for from any decent pop band.” Has Jonathan Richman been an influence on your band? Are there any specific punk bands you guys admire?

N: Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman is a different beast from solo Jonathan Richman, but all that Modern Lovers stuff is pitch perfect. He figured out a way to be punk but without being nihilistic, pop without being dumb, smart without being pretentious. I like that guy fine.

M: We’re not hardcore kids by any means, but I think we’ve all had plenty of holy-shit moments with punk bands via recordings or YouTube. Wipers, Black Flag, Minutemen, Descendents, the Dictators, Fugazi if you count them, it’d be a long list.

N: Wire, Pil, Killing Joke. The usual suspects.

R: You seemed to have more fun onstage than any band has a right to, the rhythm section in particular. What’s the key to your ecstatic energy at a venue?

A: This’ll sound stupid, but we try to write songs that we can get excited about playing night in and night out. We’re not making music to study or fall asleep to.

R: I’m really curious as to what you guys will sound like in five years. Do you think that you’ll mellow out a la Nada Surf, or go deeper into the rougher aspects of your sound?

M: Five years is a long time. I think by that time, probably a lot of stuff with contact microphones, vintage tape effects, that sort of thing. Really expensive stuff.

N: Exactly. By then the music will have taken a backseat to Matt and Adam’s modeling careers.

R: Perhaps lingering too much on the album title Trash Hit, I began to think of your music as “garbage pop,” meaning that you have these beautiful melodies and fantastic harmonies, and you bury them under a heap. I find that in digging down to the core of each song, everything I pass along the way is fascinating. Was your album structured this way by design?

N: We’re never asked this kind of question, which is weird considering how much time we (and clearly you too) thought about it. But yes. By design. We like range. That said, I don’t think we buried anything pretty on Trash Hit so much as we just tried to have really strong contrasts. That means within the album--so you have a song like “Knick Knack” and also a song like “Walter”--and also within each song too. To say nothing of the lyrics and vocal melody. The rawest lyrics tend to be attached to the catchiest vocal melodies. Stuff like that.

R: “Crime” is an especially melodic song—very, very catchy. It feels in some ways slightly more accessible than the rest of the album. Did you know when you recorded ‘Crime’ that it would be a single?

N: We didn’t really know until we recorded and mixed it. “Crime” felt pretty puny when we practiced it. But songs with less going on can sound huge when you record them.

R: In “Scarred for Life” and “Holy Name” there is a repeating of phrases: “The same, the same, the same” and “It never made sense to me.” Is that structure planned out while writing the lyrics, or does the music inform the repetition?

N: I don’t remember the specifics with either, like if Adam or Matt went into lyric writing mode with the idea that “OK I want to make sure I repeat phrases this song.” But we all love when lyrics and arrangement communicate with each other like that--poke fun at each other, undermine each other, etc. Matt singing “the same!” over and over again. Stuff like that. Lennon and McCartney are the kings of this obviously.

R: The lyric in “Shotgun Tricks,” “Honey, go get my shotgun” is quite evocative. Do you think of these lyrics as coming from a character, are they metaphorical, or are they just the words that best pair with the energy of the song?

N: The way I always understood this song was that it’s from the perspective of a person who really, really gives a shit about being good with shotguns. “It’s not a game to me.” Like shotgun virtuosity past the point of functionality, let alone past the point of people caring. Caring to the detriment of relationships outside the one with the gun.

R: Mr. Dream the live band and Mr. Dream on record song like different acts to me. What you’re doing on the album feels very specific and I admire the care that goes into its construction. The live show displays a similar attention to musicianship, but there’s also this raw energy that I don’t think could ever be pinned down on tape. An example of this is the opening guitar riff on “Winners,” which sounds technically wondrous on record, but almost sliced off the top of my head when Adam played it live. I don’t mean it as a way of disparaging the album, but I’m just wondering if the differences between album and live performance are intentional, beyond the usual ways that a live show and album will always be different things?

A: We got a lot better at playing our instruments since recording Trash Hit. Also, my equipment in particular has drastically improved. I’m now playing out of a ‘65 Fender Bassman. It’s a super loud amp and does a great job of cutting through live. The near-decapitation you experienced during “Winners” can be attributed to my new sustain pedal, the Boss EX-2 Guillotine.

N: You want to make sure you get the EX-2. The EX-3 has different capacitors and it’s--it’s fine but it’s not an EX-2.

R: How did the song “Knick Knack” come together lyrically?

A: I was listening to a lot of British invasion music and thought it was funny how there were all these really sweet, catchy songs with really harsh lyrics directed at a girl (e.g. the Rolling Stones’ “Yesterday’s Paper”). I don’t condone the message, I just wanted to try writing one of those “I’m awesome, you’re shit” songs.

R: The rumbling guitar in “Croquet,” and the song in general, with its refrain of “Oh my god” and lyrics like “It’s all just a game” feels really exuberant, tragic, and epic all at the same time. Did the song affect you guys emotionally the first time you heard it completed, or at some point during the songwriting process?

A: Our friend Matt LeMay mixed that song. In its early, lyric-less drafts the song was something of a joke to us. We’d sing the chorus as “They’re ice bros/Bros icing bros/they’re ice bros”, so the first time we heard a finished mix we were surprised it sounded like an actual song.

R: There is a spectacular amount of verbal fun being had on the closing track, “Learn The Language.” What is the lyrical aim of the band in general?

A: We don’t have an official band philosophy on writing lyrics, but our vocals are pretty front and center, so we try to make them evocative when we can. Anything that’d look good on a t-shirt typically works.

R: I would remiss if I did not mention Adam and Nick’s history writing about rock music [for the site Pitchfork, as well as other publications], though I may not even put it in the piece as it seems distracting and beside the point and I imagine you guys are sick of discussing it. All that being said, how has your background in music journalism affected your songwriting?

A: It really hasn’t at all. The two processes aren’t really that similar.

N: Ditto. People seem to overestimate how much music journalists actually know about music.

R: I got a real kick out of Matt yelling, “What is this, the fucking Sea Grape in Fairfield?” Have you guys ever played at the Sea Grape, or do you have a personal story from that bar, Matt?

M: We have never played the Sea Grape. I dated a girl from Fairfield for a while, and I know we went once or twice but it’s always been more of a running joke for us, how her friends referred to going to the bar as “graping it,” which in turn we supposed made them “grapists,” etc. Arija was actually supposed to come that night but couldn’t because she was busy with med school. So basically, the story of our band: inside jokes for someone who’s not there, overheard by other people who get them anyways.

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