Last year, Tim Breen came to our attention with his photography work in the lead-up to Matt Christensen’s Constant Green LP.
Since the release of Constant Green, Breen and Christensen collaborated on the brilliant Different Cliffs LP released in January this year, however today’s focus is on Breen’s main artistic vocation, Slow Planes.
Breen being the chief architect and drafting in a number of guests (including Christensen) began in 2016 with their debut album, Yearlong, with follow-up, Superterrestrial, landing last year.
Over the two records, the Chicago band produced the kind of fractured slowcore splendour the Arcade Fire should have adopted instead of becoming an insufferable parody of themselves. Their loss is Slow Planes’ gain, of course, as both Yearlong and Superterrestrial are imbued with a kind of modesty few bands deliver these days.
And while Slow Planes’ third LP, Seven Dances, is far removed from its two older siblings, the humility remains. There is noodling and there is noodling and Slow Planes do it the right way, with seven sonic sketches that are amongst some of the finest experimental soundscapes we’ve heard so far this year.
With the meandering Greenbaum, the shadowscapes of Riparian Corridors, the cinematic blur of North Northwest, Southerly Wind and A List of Animals, to the purely majestic Not Through But Of and Electra, Seven Dances is delivered from a collective of musicians that hold no ego or self-promotion. Essentially this is how music should be, and from front to back Slow Planes showcase this perfectly throughout Seven Dances.
Shortly after the release of Seven Dances, we had the opportunity to ask Breen some questions about the album and his ideas about songwriting and composition.
S13: What was the inspiration behind Seven Dances?
Tim Breen: “My partner showed me a photograph of the Pleiades taken in 1894, a four hour exposure through a telescope driven by clockwork. It seemed like a great feat of human and mechanical cooperation to get this picture of a constellation 444 light years away exposed, printed and distributed to a curious population. It got me thinking of systems in general, eco systems, star systems, regional vernacular, cultural and emotional values.
“I was reading about riparian corridors at the time as well, and my thought about this music kept switching back and forth between these environments. These vastly different bubbles of interactivity are connected by their systemness, the cooperation of multiple entities over distance and time, influencing each other and influenced by their surroundings.
“Pleiades is the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas and Pleione, (even though the constellation has nine stars) grieving as a unit, chased across the sky by Orion. The mythology maps the physical universe into some inevitable choreography. I was nearing seven complete song ideas so I just went with it.”
S13: It’s really different to your last two albums. Was this intentional or did it just work out that way?
TB: “It was intentional. There are plenty of surprises along the way but every album we have made has started out with a core idea that guides the action. The previous records focused on a group aesthetic. With the band working through motifs in rehearsal over and over again until we have a lucid understanding of the material. It’s really rewarding, but it takes a lot of effort.
“In this case I wanted to get back into recording at home and started with a few tunes that hadn’t quite worked live. My teenage tour through four track recording came flooding back and a lot of that early joy as well. I think that general vibe was there whenever I put the headphones on. Each person was recorder individually in different locations, so no one really knew what the full picture was. There was a dimensional quality to the sound that I discovered after some many hours in the stew.”
S13: There are several contributions to the album, too. Was there any compromise between yourself and the artists in the final recordings?
TB: “The only agreement that’s made in Slow Planes is that I will give you something and you give me something back. Everyone who contributed to the music was allowed to do what they wanted, and I was allowed to edit the thing as I needed. We are all old friends and trust each other implicitly.”
S13: The contrast between your three albums is so vast, which got me thinking. Who do you consider to be your major musical influences?
TB: “I tend to be influenced by attitude and environment more than style. But there have been profound musical motivators. A number of years ago I was driving in the smokey mountains listening to Steve Reich’s The Four Sections when the landscape and the music collided in a really sublime way. I’m pretty obsessed with any live recording of Nina Simone, her directness and command of space.
“Growing up in Chicago during the ’90s had an undeniable influence on me. Getting to hear bands like Califone and Tortoise play with musical traditions and then explode them. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of early music, specifically the EMI Reflexe stuff. I should also mention that this record was heavily inspired by Skylab #1, the Howie B and Toshio Nakanishi ambient trip-hop record from 1994. I have always wanted to make music like that. I hunted down a copy a couple years ago and it’s as good as ever.”
S13: Matt Christensen is a regular on our site, and you also released the collaboration album with him earlier this year in Different Cliffs. How long have you known Matt for?
TB: “Matt and I have known each other for about eight years I think. My pal Jaime (AKA Mind Over Mirrors) introduced us. Matt shows up with his heart open and an easy approach to the creative practice.”
S13: Electra is a such a beautiful finish to these recordings. Firstly, how did this one come up, and secondly, did you know it was going to be the album closer as soon as you finished it?
TB: “I love Mikis Theodorakis. This one particular piece is based on suite 5 from the Electra soundtrack. I had already been down the Pleiades road for a while when I connected the dots of the star Electra and the music I was working on, [it was] kind of impossible to ignore the signals at that point. Once I got the hang of playing it I knew it would make a good closing song, a moment of reflection on the distance we’ve travelled. I decide to record it last so that reflection was there for me as well.”
S13: I like the idea of North Northwest, Southerly Wind. I’m not sure whether you have seen the film Tenet, but it kind of reminds me of that. Can you tell us about it?
TB: “I have not seen that film but I’ll give it a try. As far as language is concerned I write a lot of things down throughout the day. Phrases and such that have power or finesse. This particular song was played over a long period of time. I was traveling around the northwest of the lower peninsula of Michigan and had written ‘North Northwest’ in a notebook, and kept thinking of it when I played this song. But when I recorded it, I found the song really boring to listen to. There was a disconnect from what I felt while playing and what I heard as a listener. So I messed with it in the cassette deck, recording the song over itself a number of times until the composition had some weird energy and movement. I guess the southerly wind hit me at that point.”
S13: Songs like Riparian Corridors and Hersey Drip have a real ethereal vibe to them. Almost like you can see colours instead of hearing the sounds. Is this something you thought about when writing/recording the album?
TB: “Definitely. Those pieces are environments as much as they are songs. As a visual artist I have always been interested in form and texture. I listen to music while making art and that experience feeds into what I think the musical function is. I like to psychically travel with a piece of music and feel its tonality or its environment changing over time. I think the more a piece is allowed to breath the more surprise and nuance you can uncover. That’s the same for visual and sound art. Both of those songs had colour and energy and movement that presented itself in the outset and went along for the ride.”
S13: Sometimes when you look at a piece of artwork you just know that you’re going to like the record and that was the case here. Can you tell us about the artwork and why you chose it?
TB: “I like to attach a visual element to music early in the process and it’s often a way to collaborate and try something new. I shared some of the initial ideas behind the music with my friend Izzy Fradin and asked her to work on a piece inspired by the riparian corridor song. She made this piece of cut and colored film that really captured the meandering quality of the river on the landscape as well as an element of time, with the light illuminating and projecting through the piece. We took some photos of it with the winter light coming through her windows and I really enjoyed the depth of it. It’s shadowy and radiant and uses time. Which I think works well for this record.”
S13: The press photo on your Bandcamp page really feeds into the vibe of the record, too, I think. Was that the idea you had?
TB: “That’s the best photo I could take of a band that doesn’t want their photo taken. A long exposure resulting in ambience over clarity. It was taken while we were working on the Superterrestrial record, spending a lot of time rehearsing at our friend Dan’s apartment. He’s in the photo, too, so it’s got a kind of family band vibe I like. There’s some time in the photo. Vagueness as a more perfect truth.”
S13: What are your key ideas behind and approaches to improvisation?
TB: “I heard Daniel Higgs say something like however it turns out will have to be acceptable. That’s kind of it. Every musician spends years playing on their own to find a voice and then you let it loose and there it is. Your intention is everything. It’s in the air and if you are here for it and you want to receive it its yours. I’m not much of a technician, so I’ve gotten comfortable with a more expressive, vulnerable approach.”
S13: When you’re making an album, do you have a daily routine, or is it a case of constantly thinking about creating and recording?
TB: “Immersion is important. Focusing on one thing at a time. But I’m not militant. There have been weeks of not working and then suddenly an outpouring of information. I want to make sure I can finish something in a reasonable amount time and share it before it gets stale. Making art is timely to me. This piece will always represent this time and place and I’m grateful for the opportunity to express it.”
Seven Dances is out now. Purchase from Bandcamp.