Interview with Brother John

7STOPS editor Josh T Franco caught up with Jeffords and Chapman, following the release of their limited edition, box-set EP, the tiniest bones, the infinite everything. The small run EP is limited to a strict printing of 200 and features handmade and hand-typed album sleeves, hand-stenciled boxes, custom hand-printed wrapping, artwork by Caroline LeFevre, ReadWriteBooks, and Laura Sterm, as well as a book of original album inspired poetry by Tim Felton, Justin Vollmar, Travis Chapman of the band Balmorhea, and more. Franco pulled his (26/200) off the shelf, keepng it near at hand while Skyping with the sleepy-eyed twosome, coffees in hand a little after noon on a Saturday.

Josh T Franco [JTF]: I want to talk about the track you sent, Brother John, and this business [holds up boxed edition of EP]. I thought about why we are doing the interview with y’all for the theme ‘Intentional Limitations.’ It seems like collectivity and the asking lots of people to make music, even unexpectedly, goes against that. So this thing about thinking collectivity with intentional limitations…tell me about the track you sent over and why you submitted that for this theme.

Travis Jeffords [TJ]: So, the track’s called Since the Big Bang. The structure of the piece—it begins with two short arpeggiated G-chords. So basically it starts with [makes riffing noises] and just keeps building on that. That’s the beginning of the piece and the end of the piece. And from there the only thing that happens is it builds from the inside. So every four iterations you get another piece of the progression but on the inside. And then that loops four times and another piece is added, always from the inside, so the beginning and end of the piece are there from the very beginning. And all you have is a slow increase of parts and fleshing out of a harmonic progression. That’s why I thought it fit. It’s basically one kind of simple harmonic progression that grows from the inside out.

JTF: I see. So, for those of us who are less musically articulate, what is an example of something that’s totally the opposite of the limits you put on yourself to make that track?

TJ: So should I explain it in a simpler way?

JTF: No, that’s a great explanation. I’m just asking for an example by contrast? Just to get something in my ear.
Austin Chapman [AC]: Maybe the contrast would be in the title of the song, right? It’s Since the Big Bang, which is about the great expanse of the infinite universe; certainly unconstrained in every way that we can rationalize and imagine. And this song is about taking something that’s so huge and incomprehensible and putting it in terms that we understand.

JTF: Oh. That’s pretty great actually. When you think of the big bang, it contained everything, so if you can think of that, you can think of everything.

TJ: Yeah, so in the limits of the song. From the very beginning its all there and just sort of expands from there. There’s new harmonic material but it’s still within the original tonality. So it’s not going anywhere new. It’s just kind of expanding on what’s there and slowly adding until it ends.

JTF: I want to go back. Travis, I am thinking about Brother John but also music you’ve made in years past and how important the notion of collectivity is to you. Constantly it changes what that means in your head. I’m thinking about your senior thesis in college where you had the audience play the instruments under their chairs [that they didn’t know were there], so they became part of the collective without even expecting to. And living in collectivity… I mean you guys live together there in the house and with [Travis's wife] Ashlee…

TJ: And the new guy!

JTF: Oh? Ok. So this issue is in part about the intentionality of limiting yourself. And that idea and collectivity aren’t mutually exclusive. So how do you see them relating in the way you create music, the way you live in the house, or the way you put together the box?

TJ: Sure…

TF: I mean, you have a lot of pieces in Brother John. How do you strike a balance between the collectiveness of that and what limits you set? And what limits do you ask each member to set on herself?

TJ: Well, they’re pretty limited because we write all their parts. [laughing] So they just kind of show up and play. But what we deal with a lot that’s really difficult—we have fourteen people in the band, with computers and 17 different instruments. So there is always the risk of the really wide possibilities of what you can do. We have to be really careful to have a focused, consistent sound throughout. But somehow there’s something uniquely a Brother John sound that comes out of who we are and what resonates with us instead of having one song being completely different from the next. There’s a real emphasis on that. We call ourselves a “minimalist orchestra” which seems like a contradiction, but there’s really a lot of times when people are just waiting for their moment. And so I think intentionally limiting the moments when all of a sudden everything breaks through and there’s just this wall of sound and sound swimming around—always being a little pulled back from that. Using small subsets to create emotion that way.

AC: And apart from the music side, we’re not just dealing with 17 instruments, we’re dealing with 15 people. Certainly, there’s a lot of community there just by the nature of how many people are involved. We try to balance that with finding the focus of the sound, making this cohesive thing, which is sometimes hard to do.

JTF: Do you notice that having all those people on stage affects the audience differently rather than being alone or with one other person on stage? The impact of that visual of having a bunch of people just standing there waiting?

TJ: Yeah, I think so. There’s definitely a spectacle aspect of it, right? Which maybe is good. I don’t know. I think it makes those quiet parts more meaningful. It’s not quiet because we only have those two guitars and can’t get any louder. It’s quiet and intimate because we’re choosing to contrast the potential noise and the potential atmosphere that we are going to create later with these sort of intimate moments. So it’s kind of this dialogue between the individual and the collective. It’s always moving between. We don’t have words, except sometimes.

JTF: Let’s talk about that. If you were to have to put a name to it, to what end do you do that, limiting the words?
TJ: You can’t hear it on the CD, but between tracks when we’re playing live we have electronic components come out with spoken word. And from that it moves on to the next track. So those are all related to different concepts of time. We wanted to give people different ideas about time and give them something to focus on and then pull away from those electronic sounds and give them something slow and organic. To give them a chance to contemplate that and sit with that. In a time where we’re always going and moving we wanted to have a space that was a chance to meditate on meaning and music and just sit on that for a while.

JTF: Stillness…

TJ: Yeah, “stillness is the move…”
the tiniest bones, the infinite everything

JTF: [laughing] So let’s talk about the box…

TJ: It almost killed us, or almost killed me anyway.

TF: Well I remember the last time we were together in Austin and what you were first thinking of… What resulted is totally different. I think you dealt with that frustration well. Do you want to describe that first thinking?

TJ: I can’t remember. “Shoebox of memories?”

JTF: You were looking for tiny toys. It was a really nostalgic, childhood kind of deal.

TJ: Yeah, which is kind of in there, in the sleeve, but not to that extent. That seemed really trashy. We talked to [our friend] Bharat and he was just like, “This is unfocused! This is just a box of shit.” And damn it, he was right.

JTF: I really love Caroline LeFevre’s contribution. And it may be the perfect example to talk about with collectivity and limitations together. So if either of you wants to describe what it is…

TJ: Because we have very limited words in our music, we wanted to give listeners lenses through which to listen to the music. So we told Caroline about the idea of the box and sent her the music. And she came up with the idea of doing a large nature print, because there’s a pastoral quality to the music. She broke up the larger print into 200 pieces and had the idea of giving everyone a piece.

JTF: I have number 27 out of 200. I think there’s a pine cone in it. I was supposed to contribute something and I didn’t. Sorry. I suck.

TJ: That was another thing about this project; you really realized who were your friends and who weren’t.

JTF: [laughing] I’m sure. Travis… do you have any reactions to any of the other things in the box?

TJ: I think that the different things in the box, like the scraps of randomly generated numbers or scraps from yearbooks, old textbooks…

AC: Psychology journals…

TJ: These little objects work as a metaphor for the way we structure our music. We have small acoustic objects which are repetitive and become objects that you observe and analyze. Then something larger happens and you can see the musical potential within the object or how it relates to something bigger than itself. So it seemed appropriate.

JTF: I like that you say you had the same approach you do with music because one of the things I have always loved about how you make music is that it’s always an invitation to others to make music when it doesn’t necessarily have to be. And you included this little notebook in the box, which says, “Here, write your thoughts down.” After Caroline’s work, this is probably my favorite thing. Did every box get a little booklet?

TJ: Yeah, she made 200 of them.

JTF: Oh so this is a company?

TJ: Yeah, she’s really nice. Readwritebooks at etsy. Big size, little size, any size. I think another thing that’s self-limited about what we do has to do with touring, making the music widely distributed… Those things aren’t very possible because of our size and logistics. But playing Bloomington and the local area and really becoming part of the community…

JTF: And to play with Balmorhea! So tell me more about all these people you ended up recruiting.

TJ: So we had the core, us and one other singer. Then I wrote a few parts, started sending out emails, and got more responses than I expected. So then we just thought, “Alright, let’s just make this thing huge.” It’s a mix of students from the university who want to have a break and a chance to play at a bar and to play some kind of indie music… Is this indie music? Folk music? I don’t know. Then there’s this drummer who’s in a metal band and is awesome.

JTF: I was struck that you called it “minimalist.” Can you talk about that?

TJ: Yeah. It draws a lot of influence from classical minimalist composers. So the use of our vocals that don’t have words, but are doing repetitive arpeggiations a lot of the time.

JTF: Who are some of those composers?

TJ: All the trendy names right now. Arvo Pärt, John Adams, Steve Reich, Michael Torke.

JTF: And you said something about seriality, the seriality of the sound. This is a happy problem of minimalism in the visual arts as well: especially when it came time to install, Donald Judd, as just one example, always had to deal with the problem of where to begin and end series of whatever he was showing in each new space. So how do you decide?

TJ: Just do it ‘til people are sick of it.

JTF: [laughing] Good answer.

TJ: Until you run out of ideas for ways to orchestrate it that will work in the confines of classical folk music. In the classical world you want to get as many variations as you can. That’s your capital in a lot of ways. But in music like Balmorhea’s, they don’t have a lot of variations. They just repeat it over and over again. We are trying to find a way between those two. Where no one’s happy!

JTF: This seriality. It’s really apt that you call your work “minimalist” for the reason I mentioned about Judd but in dealing with repetition over time in general. Another thing that’s so striking about visual minimal works is that they’re often based on mathematical contrivances, yet a lot of people, myself included, when encountering them have very emotional reactions. Your song Stanley Messenger it opens with this sound “ha lalalala” and, maybe because it’s you Travis, my friend, singing it, but I cried as soon as I heard it. And I really think I would have if I didn’t know you at all. There’s something so elemental about that sound. It’s part of prayers all over the world, it’s part of history. How did you come to that sound? And how did you think about its seriality?
TJ: Oh man, this is going to be disappointing.
AC: [We] listened to a lot of Dirty Projectors.

-Source 7STOP
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