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Interviews

Chicago Underground Duo: Two Voices, One Sound

By Published: April 3, 2006
AAJ: Yeah, I conjured up some kind of device in my mind—a sort of invented, tonal analog box. Which, I suppose, is what an organ is.

RM: That is what an organ is, and we did take it to the next stop by using this old Echoplex and a ring modulator. Then, in post-production, I think me and John pushed it even a little further; I think we ended up using a little pass filter or something like that. But on the fly—there's nothing on it that's through it all the way.

Just like on "The Glass House, I think you can tell it's an mbira, but the sound was kind of meant to transcend the instrument a little bit. Instead of having someone say, "oh, this is a nice mbira song. we'd rather they think, "this is a nice wash of color. There are no drums on "The Glass House ; the bass drum that you're hearing is controlled by a drum machine that's controlled by a noise box. So you get those little squiggles that come through that song and it's part of this noise box that this guy in Sao Paulo gave to me. Really subtle.

So for "Pangea, we wanted to do a similar thing where you try to mix these tones in a certain way. Certainly, the end of the thing, when Chad is rolling on his cymbals and you have that last chord, I don't even know what that is [laughing]. You listen to that mix of sounds and it sends chills up my arms everytime I hear that part. Once again, I'm not bragging about my own playing, but what happened was special—I guess you could call it a "special frequency moment.

AAJ: So you can actually listen to and appreciate your own recorded music. That's pretty nice and not so common.

RM: I've always kept a kind of promise—my way of making sure that I can live with myself and be cool with what I've done—at least with the Chicago Underground. I made some records before then that I'm not super-happy with. But anyway, since that time, I've wanted to make things that I'd want to listen to in my own home. So I'm not one of these guys who make records, who make films, who make art, who can't even listen to or watch or look at their own stuff, ever. Then why did you make the thing? It's strange. But maybe I'm strange.

AAJ: "Funeral of a Dream really has that funeral-procession quality to it with that steady kick-drum and bluesy cornet.

CT: That piece was improvised. I got some gongs, some Chinese gongs, that I was working with. So we improvised the piece, and I'm keeping the steady pulse with the bass drum. Actually, I've been playing a lot with [multi-instrumentalist/composer] Cooper-Moore and part of how I was approaching that was dealing with some of the rhythmic things that he does—where he plays in time and out of time at the same time.

So that's what I was working with and [laughing] I'm not sure what Rob was thinking about. It sounds like there are some effects on that one, but if I remember correctly, that's what it is. We just played it. It has a very echoey sound, but that was just part of the room sound.

AAJ: Yeah, I thought I heard an electronic snare of some kind.

CT: It's funny—sometimes you can play acoustic sounds that will sound electronic and electronic sounds that sound like they're acoustic, and that's just one of those places where it sounds like there's some other thing going on, but it's just acoustic.

AAJ: The last song on the record is "The Light in Between, which has percussion, vibes, maybe piano and maybe celeste. Lots of instruments, actually, and a kind of mysterious goodbye to the album.

CT: That was a prepared piece that we did. I took the vibraphone and prepared it with different metal objects and paper and wood—I don't even remember what I did. Rob did the same thing with the piano and I think he was playing some kind of keyboard too.

AAJ: That's a beautiful piece. Any electronics in there? I hear a sort of whooshing panning going on.

CT: Yeah. There's some stuff we did with it in the post-production. Exactly what, I don't really know, but we were looking for this specific sound. So we prepared everything for that piece—with the vibraphone and the piano—played it, and then went back and worked on what we did. It's sort of a strange way of putting something together, but that's what happened.

We really consider that post-production stuff part of our sound—for the Duo. The other Underground stuff is different, but the Duo has always considered the studio as another instrument to use.

RM: We had long discussions about what should be the last song on the record. We had another song that was more songlike that I thought would be a better piece to end the record, just because I thought perhaps we had enough things that had the qualities of "In Praise of Shadows. But as I listened to "The Light In Between more and more, I said, "this piece sounds like a written piece to me. It doesn't even sound like an improvisation —which it was, and I think this one was also one take.

The only thing that was added was that swooshing stuff you hear. I was playing, I think, celeste and piano at the same time, and the bells you hear at the end. I can't remember if I play a little bit of harpsichord as well—maybe one little note. For the swooshy part, I took a really small gong and rubbed it on the strings while holding down certain notes on the piano. Just as it is, it sounds beautiful, just kind of a scraping sound that has some overtones and tonality to it, but in post-production I decided I wanted to put a little bit of a harmonizer on it to try to bring out the harmonics of the scratching. And we got this weird kind of slipping and sliding effect—you have to be subtle with this stuff. You can't force it at all or you look like an idiot. So we had to be very careful, but I think it's just enough to give that piece a little bit of a curvature, so you can't quite see around the corner of it.



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