The cult of Courtesy
Over the years Courtesy's Drew Ryan and Kirk Rawlings have graced us with music that offers music outside the scope of conventions and conversations pertaining to the canon. From movements from Memphis to Chicago, from a cycle of releases dating back to 2011 from Idmatic, Slow Bruise to Hey—Courtesy has sharpened their mesmerizing angles of dissonant hymns toward a new aesthetic economy. Hey finds the group joined by Doug Malone to complete the triumvirate that expands the creative alchemy to an increased focus on tightly woven sound galleries that host rhythmic paintings and portraits.
The opening title track delivers motorik Oberheim DX machine displays of welcoming invitation, leading to the spring orb of radiating wonder on "May Loop" and down into the burrowed "Earthworm" burroughs, to the succinct and studious chants of splendor that saturate the consciousness on "Future Gap". The trio entertains an entire narrative to be extracted from clever instrument arrangements on "Process" that provide a privy view to the creative craft in progress, while the "Koto" completes the record in an odyssey assembly that bridges electronic abstraction exercise closer to their organic acoustics counterparts (with a touch of ambient brass for good measure). To gain a better perspective, we had the pleasure of talking with Courtesy's Drew Ryan, Kirk Rawlings and Doug Malone in the following interview discussion:
Insights on the evolution of the Courtesy process leading up to the new album Hey.
Drew: The premise for the band has stayed pretty consistent from the beginning, but I think we've refined our process in some ways and disregarded it in others. The idea has always been to focus on recordings and experiments—the songs will work themselves out as we go. We've always been a bit ramshackle and scrappy, but we used a drum machine on this one, so there's the illusion that we have our shit together.
Kirk: As Drew said, the process is mostly still the same as its always been. Just some of the materials have changed. He, or both of us together, makes raw slabs of music we consider source material, I cut it up, and then we pass it back and forth till it feels good. After Slow Bruise, Drew was getting into house and techno and dance music quite a bit more and purchased this Oberheim DX drum machine. He was making long stream of consciousness tracks as he always has, but this time the DX gave everything a cleaner and more perpetual feel than the previous two albums in which we sampled ourselves playing an acoustic drum kit.
Doug: Most of the sounds are snippets recorded on a cell phone, laptop microphone, tape machine or some kind of mobile recording device but mixed in with synthesizers and drum machines. This eventually evolves into a sort of overall oblique sound that is arranged and mixed with a computer. Every found sound be it a sample of someone talking or machinery- still contains a pitch which can inspire some type of rhythmic or melodic idea.
Reflections on how the addition of Doug Malone has further advanced and impacted the overall aesthetic.
Drew: Doug has studied music theory and recording, so he will tell us things like our set list is like a circle of 5ths and other stuff that is over my head. I think Doug wanted to join the band 'cause there was a lot for him to make sense of. The first time we jammed with him, he had already figured out some of the synth patches we were using. He has a fresh ear, he can get technical and he's wonderful at troubleshooting. A true creative thinker, though his creativity comes more into the way people perceive us sonically. We have too many ideas and Doug helps the band be more articulate musically.
Kirk: Doug's been invaluable. He's a professional recording engineer and owns a legitimately great studio called Jamdek. So having him around to reign in the mess Drew and I make is a sincere relief. And from the start he helped figure how to play some tunes from we didn't think we'd ever be able to pull off live. He really helped in the back end of the new record as well coaching me thru how to mix records. Even the dick-off jams we have at practice are pretty great, so we're excited to have him be a part of the source material from now on.
Doug: When I first heard the previous album released by Courtesy, I was completely entranced by the the rich layers of sounds and I felt that I could help facilitate these sounds into an actual live set. I work full-time at my own recording studio in Chicago recording and mixing bands, but Kirk and Drew completely shook my idea of the standard taught recording process. Their recording process was full of noise with clicks and pops—almost archaic at times which taught me how to record more creatively and to challenge the listener by including things into recording that others would typically fraught over. Quantizing, auto-tuning, and noise reduction devices can completely suck the life out of a song so I feel like we embrace the chaos really well and have fun doing it.
Thoughts on mixing arrangements of the subtle with a sense for the psychic and intuitive encrypted & etched into song.
Drew: I don't think we try to inject our songs with any sort of hallucinations or encryptions or intentional trickery. People can find a face in static on a screen or a burnt piece of toast—what I mean is that it's human nature to try and make sense of things, to instill meaning when nothing is there. On the flip side of that, people can look at those Magic Eye books and can't see the illusion. People see what they wanna see. There's a lot of ear candy in our records, excess surface noise and tape hiss. Maybe in the way we distort things and stretch things out and disregard fidelity, it can be perceived as psychedelic and elastic. We take small sounds and try to make them sound large to give a weird sense of scale, texture and perspective, and I think that could also add a surreal element to our songs.
Kirk: Heady question. I don't know if I get it, but I shall do my best. This band was made on the idea of pulling from the periphery. Drew and I used to have long g-chats about this kind of thing. Its partly what fuels our keeping of first takes and initial reactions when recording. That first reflex allows you to skip focus and skip design and surprise yourself. Its more fun and real and all that shit. It makes Courtesy's music way more intuitive less lame feeling than sitting down and everyone learning a song one of us wrote.
Despite using improv as much as we do musically and lyrically, all of our albums are riddled with self-referential Easter eggs and sounds from the previous albums. Encrypted to a degree. Just in case someone digs deep enough to notice.
Doug: Each song has both the extremes from a large, otherworldly spaces to completely stark, dry elements. This can be jarring at times and completely unsubtle but sort of the overall aesthetic for the entire record. We had several conversations on what should be the focus points for each track and how the use of delays, reverbs, and panning could help further dramatize the song. I really appreciate the fact that I can find little past recycled melodies that crept into new material.
Behind the scene stories on the day-in-the-life visual for the title track.
Drew: The first vocal take was stream-of-conscious, then later refined a little more. I don't listen to much storytelling or lyric-heavy music—Bob Dylan doesn't do a lot for me. I don't pay attention to words much, but more the way words are delivered or presented, or their cadence or context (Elizabeth Fraser knows what's up). Occasionally, some words in a song will really strike me, and I am fully aware that World Music IS storytelling music—it's universal—so how can I present lyrics in a way that feels comfortable to me? Mostly I think that lyrics manipulate the listener and everything that is happening with the music...language sorta sits outside of sound. But Kirk and I have been getting more into mantras and chants and other lines of self-reassurance and meditation, stuff you repeat to yourself to get through the day and make yourself feel better. As for "Hey" the title track, much of what was popping through my head was Ronald McDonald as a cool James-Dean-type, who now goes by "Ron" and is hanging out with the grim reaper too much, trying to use his employee discount in the McDonald's drive-thru window even though he was fired years ago. Other themes include punishment for naturally-occurring bodily functions and talking to yourself.
Doug: HEY is dark and comical all at once. Drew's lyrics are abstract yet paints this complete picture for the listener containing dark undertones up against a totally grooved out bass line worth dancing your ass off to. Life can really suck at times, well most of the time, and I always interpreted HEY and this sort of anthem for that repeated mundane depression that corporations seem to over-shadow our everyday lives. It's a celebration against our current overindulged, glutenous, desperate-for-online-attention on social media lifestyle we have somehow accepted as being a standard way of living. The lyrics seem silly—and they are...but still contain a large amount of truth.
Movements that have been informing the creative process lately of Courtesy.
Drew: I've been pulling inspiration from work trucks, construction zones, signage, slang, jargon, sales pitches, amateur design, naive thoughts, the CoBrA Collective art movement, any notion or idea of authentic work versus a bootleg, etc. I've been watching lots of art forgery documentaries about people working in the style of artists like DaVinci or Matisse in order to pass as the work of the masters. I love the idea of bootlegged products and artwork, that people may never know the difference between knock-off designer shoes and the real thing.
Kirk: I'm not sure if you're referring to social movements, but its impossible not to be effected by our current climate. It definitely crept into the album a bit lyrically, but not in any way that we are trying to make any statements or say anything poignant about politics or social justice.
Doug: I fell that the main conciseness to our creative process has always been to rely completely on this sort of stream-of-consciousness, free composing approach which could reference several different art movements and approaches from the Dadaist and Fluxist movements. The idea is to never over think something and always try every idea that might arrive in your head no matter how cliche or extreme it might feel at the time. Truly a liberating feeling to approach when you think of art as something a bit more disposable and that nothing is sacred. Everything we do is sort of caught accidentally in some moment in time and there is no way to replicate that.
Artists & activists of inspiration.
Drew: Amateur artists, people creating freely and without consequence or objective, children, people with an extreme lack of self-awareness, intuition, etc. No specific artists or activists come to mind.
Kirk: Bowie died while we were making HEY so it was hard not to be affected by that a bit. You can see it in songs like "Future Gap". Other than that, we don't like to hang on to a lot of specific activists or heroes. At least in any referential way.
Doug: I still listen to and read on several different sound artists that constantly challenge the idea of sound. I constantly reference James Tenney and Alvin Lucier for new inspiration and insight into how sound can be perceived as well as represented both electronically through speakers and in a live acoustic environment. I have also been really into live installations that combine sound, photography, video, and film which I feel will eventually be the next focus for this project.
Spring through summer dreams?
Drew: Playing plenty of local shows this summer. We're about to start working on a split 7" with Pool Holograph, not sure when that'll happen.
Kirk: As a band we just want to get better and be more invested in each other and what we're making. This has always been a project we squeezed in wherever we could, but we are now excited to put more energy and focus into it and see what comes out.
Doug: Travel more and work on my own projects that have been put aside for a few years after college. I love recording other musical projects but I have learned the importance to make time for your own artistic needs to remain inspired and keep a healthy balance.
Drew: Hope we can tour soon, we aren't great about playing out of town.
Kirk: A new coat.
Doug: Fix my Oberheim synth.
Additional thoughts & epilogues.
Drew: See an idea, why not take it.
Kirk: Not really. Even though HEY is a short album, it has a lot going on so give it a few spins in headphones. Hopefully you'll dig it.✌
Doug: Don't over-think it and remain modest at all times. Say Hey to everyone and always talk to strangers.