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Interview: Shortwave Dahlia

 

All The Way from Memphis

 

ImageBased in legendary music town, Memphis, Tennessee, Shortwave Dahlia, is comprised of founding member Jack Alberson (keyboards, vocals, electronics), Mark Simmonds (electric bass) and newest member, Paul Blanda (electric guitar). An interesting mixture of electronic dance music, pop sensibility and punk's DIY ethic, SD exists to bring a little bit of Factory-esque moodiness into this musical city's landscape. 2005 saw the release of three digital singles and a full-length album, Illuminated. The group released another digital single this year, expanded from a duo to a trio, and in November of this year, had their first performance. 2007 promises another full-length release as well as more live performances.

 

Jack, Paul and Mark were kind enough to answer a few questions about their sound, their new lineup and their upcoming album release.

 

First off, Jack - let's discuss what was the inspiration that prompted you to form Shortwave Dahlia?
Jack: I had just started dabbling in digital recording and sequencing after spending a few years learning my way around a four-track. I had been working on putting a band together based around those original songs, but our timing really wasn't working out and I disbanded the... uh, band. So really, it started with me trying to make a very hard-edged industrial act along the lines of Front Line Assembly or Nitzer Ebb.

 

What would you say were your primary influences, musically?
J: Initially, it was the above acts, and break beat stuff like the Chemical Brothers. In a lesser way, hip-hop figures in there somewhere... especially the late-80s stuff like Public Enemy. Then over time I let other influences creep in.

 

Listening to your first album, Illuminated, I can hear a variety of influences: New Order, old Depeche Mode, some alt rock, some old school industrial. There is also a heavy electronica aspect to the songs, some more straightforward and some more experimental. Do you feel that your music tends to fit better with the electronic feel or are you also delving into the more organic approach (using more guitars, acoustic drums etc)?
J: It's hard to say. I think any songwriter worth their salt simply uses what they're familiar with and pulls other philosophies in as they learn about them. I'm not the best guitarist so that's a large part of why Illuminated is so rooted in electronic music. I'd say with Mark and Paul (more on him shortly) the scope of SD is widening somewhat. I doubt typical drum kit will ever figure in, but never say never!

 

Mark, what influences do you bring to the mix, musical or otherwise?
Mark: Ironically that question is at the heart of a lot of what has gone into this album (hey Jack, I think there is another song here...) Seriously, that "otherwise" opens a pretty big door. Historically my musical tastes have been all over the map: from GWAR to Puccini. As for people, why they do what they do has always been more important to me than what the do. So, to keep this answer out of the realms of an essay, I guess I would say that it is the drive to get to the next layer down.

 

You're officially listed as the bass player for the band. What other instruments do you play, either on the album or live?
M: So far the bass is it. I was a fairly decent pianist in my youth, but we proved that was a long time ago. So right now I am concentrating on the bass. One thing you learn around Jack is how to get every possible sound out of an instrument.

 

There are a few songs on Illuminated, like "Reliquiae" & "The Gradual", where the music is a study in Minimalism. It works for the song, and evokes a certain mood. Other songs, like "Manic, Impressive" are busier, with more layers to them, conveying a completely different mood. Do you find that, when composing, you have a specific emotion in mind when choosing how much or how little to put into a track?
J: I love a lot of minimalist music, like Brian Eno's ambient stuff and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II (big influence on the quiet part of "Manic, Impressive!"). As far as composition goes, though, it seems to work like this: we pile a bunch of stuff on a song and 'carve' away pieces here and there to build a dynamic. I think that's the benefit of working in zeroes and ones, the power of editing.

 

Illuminated has some tracks that are instrumental and some with vocals. For your next album will you continue that balance or will you be changing it up a bit?
J: We're about half in on the recording process and it looks as if the balance is tipping in favor of vocal/song-based compositions... at the moment!

 

You've kind of been a cottage industry unto yourself for most of the music you've produced for Shortwave Dahlia. Do you plan on bringing the rest of your band mates in for the next album, or do you prefer the more hands on approach?
J: Mark and Paul will be involved, definitely (Mark has been involved in the writing of this second album from the start). I don't want to hog the process, because the push and pull is half of the fun!

 

How do you feel that Shortwave Dahlia has progressed from the first album to the second?
M: Well, the easy answer would be that the second album is a lot more spontaneous. With more people involved, we are coming up with more on the fly, working it in then moving on while the inspiration has hold. Sure, there are still days where it seems we get nowhere grinding away on some detail or another - but, so far anyway, there are far more when someone will throw something out there, eyes widen and heads nod and we are off again.

 

Jack, your lyrics are very introspective, some addressing what sounds like global problems and some, the personal insecurities we all feel. The tone of the lyrics suggests a hopeful outcome. Do you feel that you write with an inspirational goal in mind? (And I mean just generally uplifting, not religious inspiration.)
J: As it turned out Illuminated wasn't much of a statement about my personal life, but my personal philosophies definitely surfaced in the lyrics. Memphis is a very racially galvanized city, and I tried to touch on the violent nature of people ("The Human Condition"). I was also working in a job I wasn't enjoying and that's what "The Gradual" touches on. It's a very idealistic record. I don't know that I would ever want to make another such album, just because Illuminated is so idealistic.

 

Mark, Jack mentioned that you bring a solid background in lyric writing to the band. How would you describe your lyrical style?
M: Well, I love a good story and my favorite songs are those that tell one. Of course, with a song you have a much lower word count to work with, so it almost requires that you pack in as much meaning as you can. That takes a certain amount of subtlety - something that I am working on.

 

When you're composing/writing lyrics, do you bring things you've written to the table and match it to the music, or do you let the music inform the lyrics?
M: In the past I have started with the music. Between schedules and the pace we try to keep when we do get together, I have been writing more with no music in mind. I find that without the rhythms and dynamic of a song to build on I wind up putting more effort into the words themselves. Since Jack is almost constantly coming up with new pieces, we then try to find the right match of words and music. Of course, if there are no matches that sound right, we go back to the drawing board for one or the other.
J: I think one always informs the other... well, most of the time. Sometimes instrumentals end up as such because the words never really come to them. Again, it really depends on the song. Some of the new material began as words on a page and other tunes were music first.

 

Do you enjoy the collaborative process of writing as a band, or do you prefer the "bring it finished to the table" approach? (i.e. you work on your bits and hand it in and it's brought together at mixing)
M: I love it. I love being able to e-mail Jack lyrics that I have gotten stuck on and have him find just what they are missing. Of course, I am also relatively new to music writing. I have to say that Jack has been amazingly generous in his encouragement of my own experimentation - both with thing he has written and new material. And Paul is a guy who clearly knows what he is doing. So while I am certainly throwing my two cents in there, I am learning more. And having a hell of a good time at it.

 

Jack, you've mentioned that you have worked on remixes for other musical acts. Could you give us some insight into how those came about and how it was to work on them?
J: I begged and pleaded to remix other people and foolishly they went for it! Well, in the case of Konsumer, I became friends with one of the guys first: in fact, he sings on a version of "Sunlight" which was the first single I put out as Shortwave Dahlia. I've remixed a song for both of their albums. With other folks, I found a song I liked and asked if they'd let me take liberties with it. Usually, they oblige and voila!

 

You've recently added a new member to your band. Tell us a little about him.
J: Yeah, that's the big news. We "tried out" a guy on guitar last night by the name of Paul Blanda, who's played around town in some other bands (The Family Ghost, DiMilo). He's got the chops, pardon the term, and he understands and appreciates a lot of the big musical touchstones that inform the band. He's got real rock 'n' roll hair, too. I also want to make mention of Mark Simmonds, as well, though he joined the band just after I released Illuminated. His joining was really a catalyst for a lot of good things in the band... a more unified sound, a lyricist with some real background as a writer, and facial hair. He's the beard of the band!

 

Since you are kind of the newbie in the band, (although with fab credentials!) why don't you give us a taste of your background before joining Shortwave Dahlia?
Paul: I've been playing and performing around Memphis with various bands since high school. Most notable for indie cred was a stint playing bass for the original line-up of the Compulsive Gamblers. They were still going by the name Painkillers at the time. I was between places to live and sleeping on Greg Oblivian's floor. I credit him for teaching me how to arrange a decent song. The band that I am most proud of was Grendel Crane. One review labeled us as "post-alternative" in the midst of the alternative trend of the day. I just heard yesterday that an anthology CD is in the works from JK47 collecting all the studio + live recordings. There have been many others off + on over the years, but these are the only ones interesting enough to mention.

 

What prompted you to join Shortwave Dahlia?
P: In addition to the wealth and fame? I was already a fan of Jack's music prior, so all he had to do was ask and I was there. Or here. Or somewhere.

 

Jack mentioned your Rock & Roll hair. Do you have the wardrobe to go with it? Will you also be acting as style consultant for the band?
P: Yes. There will be a dress code established where we each choose the color and animal prints that defines our personalities and wear those exclusively on and offstage. We may look silly but it will be a great marketing ploy when we release our line of Shortwave Dahlia action figures next year.

 

Besides Hair and Guitar, what else do you feel you bring to the band?
P: My personal mission is to help add textures or accent what's already in the music without losing the atmosphere and feel of the current structure. As we collaborate on new songs, it is my hope that I can help with the initial writing and composing.

 

Just to take a sideways jaunt into guitar geekspace: What types of guitars do you prefer and do you have a preference between acoustic or electric guitars? Are there any other instruments that you have in your repertoire? What guitar influences do you cite?
P: I've always liked Fender Strats a lot. For studio and live performance, I prefer electric. When sitting around the house, I have an old classical acoustic I play with. My primary instrument of choice has always been the bass guitar. I learned to play the 6-string primarily for songwriting, as the bass is limiting in that area. When I played with The Family Ghost a few years ago, they would switch instruments every other song or so. This required me to play guitar + keyboards live and in the studio. I also do vocals on my own projects. For guitar influences, I like the sound of the Banshees, Cocteau Twins, the Cure, that ethereal floating kind of tone. I try not to copy anyone directly, but I admit that I like to find something with a similar effect to what those bands achieved for this style of music.

 

As noted on your website, shortwavedahlia.org, you hadn't played a gig yet but were looking forward to doing a few. Now that you have an expanding roster in your band, are you planning on pursuing more live dates, maybe even a full blown tour? (ETA: The band had a gig in November)
J: Yes, we are all up for the idea. It's just a matter of finding places and people sympathetic to the cause. We have enough fans through the MySpace page that I think we could feasibly play a good show here or there.

 

When can we expect new music from Shortwave Dahlia?
J: I figure we'll finish the new album by February. I'd like to put out a single for it, but that depends on if we have any songs that don't fit the original concept - can't have a single without a b-side.

 

Author: Heidi Ellis

 

Photo: from left to right, Paul Blanda, Jack Alberson and Mark Simmonds
Photo by Meg Seigenthaler

 

Shortwave Dahlia can be found on the web at www.shortwavedahlia.org and they can be also found at their MySpace site where you can listen to samples of their music at http://myspace.com/shortwavedahlia.

 

To download one of their songs:
http://audio.shortwavedahlia.org/synchronic/song_for_vara.mp3

 
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