Features | Interviews

Ravens & Chimes

By Andre Perry | 16 February 2011

In the fall of 2007, a New York City band called Ravens & Chimes emerged from the thrall of other ecstatic, large ensemble indie-pop acts vying for the listening space of overwhelmed rock fans. They were young, they were precious, and they struck a balance between hushed moments and raw sonic outbursts. They weren’t the only band that had adopted such posturing but Ravens & Chimes always had their own sound—wild, but pristinely arranged, never bloated—and they always had their own voice: mouthpiece and band leader Asher Lack. Their debut record Reichenbach Falls was lush, exciting, and lyrically compelling; it made immediate fans and the media seemed poised to elevate the band to a more national status. The band toured, the bloggers blogged, and then, as new bands and albums filled the spaces around our ears, Ravens & Chimes simply disappeared.

A chance meeting with Asher Lack in December 2010 confirmed that the band actually still existed. I saw them play a live set in Brooklyn (they are as sharp as ever) and chatted with Lack, who passed along a copy of their unreleased second album Holiday Life. After spending some time with the new record it puzzled me why music so good, so well-crafted and catchy could go unreleased. I wondered, as I always do, why some bands catch and others fade away; and I wondered how many other great bands are still out there crafting albums that will only make it into my hands via chance meetings and fate. I followed up with Lack in the New Year and we caught up about Holiday Life, the missing years of Ravens & Chimes, and the future of his band.

Cokemachineglow’s Andre Perry (CMG): Where has Ravens & Chimes been since Reichenbach Falls?

Asher Lack (AL): We played our last show of the Reichenbach Falls tour at Bumbershoot in Seattle at the end of August 2008. We came back to NY and weren’t quite sure what the next step was. I wanted to keep touring but the label and our agent both wanted us to start work on a new record. The feeling between everyone (the band, our agent, and the label) was that our first record had not broken out the way we had expected and that the early critical response had predicted. My feeling was that if we kept touring for a bit longer the audiences would eventually hear it and the momentum would keep building. But I think on the business side of things the solution was for us to get to work on a new product right away while we still had fans’ attention.

I didn’t feel like the writing was really in place for us to start thinking about new songs. On top of that the relationships between us had become frayed over the course of touring the record. I think the synergy of constantly having the concrete deadline of doing shows was what was keeping us together and we didn’t really know how to trust each other enough to work on new material again.

We scheduled ten days of sessions with Howard Bilerman (who recorded our first album and recorded Funeral and a ton of other great records) and Larry Crane (who runs Jackpot Studios and has done albums with the Decemberists, Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, etc.) Then September and October 2008 happened and everything went a bit to hell. Due to the economic meltdown the label scaled back their financial commitment to us doing the new album and we had to consider canceling the sessions or at least cutting them down. Without concrete label involvement a few of the relationships in the band couldn’t hold together and a couple of members left. A few people decided to stay in but things were very tenuous.

We started work on a new album in April of 2009 but the sessions didn’t yield enough material for any type of release. We were completely broke, the label was tapped out (and also their distribution was scaled back). I asked our agent to put us out on the road supporting one of his other acts so that we could earn a bit of money or build some buzz to get some interest from a new label to help us finish the record, and he promptly dropped us. That really hurt. It was like “Hey, what am I supposed to do to get out of this hole?”

So with very little recourse we all put the band on the back burner and started working day jobs. I started working as a substitute teacher at my old high school (Stuyvesant). I was saving up money to finish the record but I still didn’t feel like the writing was entirely there. A part of me felt like whatever spirit I had might have turned its back on me. Then, super-randomly, one day I got an email from the label asking if we had a song that might work in the Twilight 3 soundtrack as the music supervisor was looking for submissions. I came home from work, fell asleep on the couch for an hour, woke up and wrote a song that’s on the new record called “Carousel.” I was so energized from writing it that I knew I had turned a corner or something. After that the rest of the record just came pouring out. I wrote it over the course of two or three months and we did the arrangements and used the money I had saved to finish recording it this summer with Howard Bilerman and Radwan Moumneh at the studio they co-own with the guys from Godspeed in Montreal. Now we’re working with a new manager and starting to play our first shows around town for it. A long story, I know.

CMG: It sounds a lot like life. I mean, sometimes I think about all of those great Russian artists, writers, and filmmakers—you know, Andrei Tarkovsky hiding his reels of film from the government, fighting cancer, just trying to get his films made, or Dostoyevsky in Siberia—and I’m like, maybe things aren’t so bad! Nonetheless, it sounds like you guys went through a tough period. What has it been like, playing your first shows in years?

AL: Oddly enough I read The Brothers Karamazov during this period and was also really moved by the idea that Dostoyevsky had been pardoned from being executed at the last minute. It’s funny because I felt like the possibility of us not pulling through and finishing a good record was hanging over my head like a noose the whole time. I think that ended up working its way very overtly into the lyrical content of the songs. There’s a lot of ceremonial imagery on the record—I felt like I was constantly being lead to the rope. Sometimes it’s very direct and I’m literally saying “rope” or “scaffold” and sometimes I’ll be singing about some other type of formal thing like a wedding or even some fixed process of nature but somehow it was all a way to describe the feelings of inevitability, fate, and being trapped.

As for playing shows we had done a few sporadic shows here and there but about two weeks after we finished recording, before we went back up to Montreal to mix, we got to open the final Voxtrot show at the Bowery Ballroom, which meant a lot. I think the best thing about doing shows now is that I forgot how lucky we were to have anyone care about us making music. Not being sure if we would ever get to make music in a serious way again put a lot of the silly arguing and problems that surrounded touring the first album in perspective.

CMG: Inevitably the struggle following the first record affected music on this new record. What other ideas, thematically and sonically, were you guys consciously pouring into these new songs?

AL: I think the biggest instinct was survival. That comes out in a sort of lyrical call and response throughout the record, where on the one hand we’re constantly asking the question, “What are you supposed to do when you find yourself somewhere you never expected to be?” and then deciding, “Despite what’s happened, circumstance will not dictate our actions any more than it has to.”

This album also talks a lot about nature. I definitely tried to use images like weather, tides, birds, and trees to stand in for things that are beyond human control (at least somewhat). I think the lack of control that we all felt over our musical futures was at first really jarring but gradually came to be really freeing. Lyrically a lot of these songs surf that border.

In terms of composing the songs there was a really apprehensive air around the work, and I think that caused the writing to be very oriented toward what I would consider “craft” at first, rather than the weird emotional other component that if you’re lucky comes to a song. Because craft is something more straightforward that you can work on and depend on. I think that was what made us able to start working on something when we were tapped out and not getting along. Then, after we got comfortable in our new set of circumstances, the emotional stuff came back and that was when I think we really hit our stride.

Another influence on this record that I really never expected to have was hip hop. I didn’t pay much attention to rap at all growing up, but something about how dire things are in the place that so much of it comes from, and yet how it’s expressed really artfully and without losing a sense of humor, really spoke to me while we were working on this album.

When you work on music that’s “serious” you run the risk of things becoming really joyless. There was an air of innocence and spontaneity that surrounded doing our first album (and I think doing anything the first time). Trying to move on from this is (I think at least) what plagues so many bands and other artists who burst onto the radar with some product and then burn out when they try to replicate it. You can try and recapture the same thing you just did without growing or you can falter under the “seriousness” of the attention being given to you and try to make something “important” because people are watching.

A lot of hip-hop walks that tightrope really well, so I definitely was looking to that as an influence during the writing. By no means am I an expert but I really like how scary, intense, and yet hilarious “99 Problems” is. The title of the album is a partial reference to the “Thug Life” tattoo that Tupac had. I kept hearing this voice in my head saying “Holiday Life!” and I couldn’t figure out what it was referencing. Then when I realized I laughed out loud because here we are doing a “serious” record of “serious” songs when really all the tough stuff we’ve been through is not close to as bad as what so many other people have to deal with on a regular basis. We’re on holiday comparatively. Rather than chastise myself about being lucky, I thought I would find a way to point out both sides. Things might be tough but there’s always room for them to be harder so it’s best for us to keep going and enjoy it.

We’ve started working on new tunes as well.

CMG: Now that the catharsis of making it through this second album has come and gone, how do you even look forward to the future? Do you plan to get back on the “typical band track” of tour-record-tour-record or do you have other plans?

AL: I think after getting through the “survival mode” of making the last record it’s been such a relief to enjoy being in a band again. Right now we’re really excited to tour this album once we set a release date. We’ve never gotten to go to Europe on tour so that’s a big goal this time around. Haven’t set any definite plans yet though.

In terms of new material we’re talking to Kevin McMahon who produced both Titus Andronicus albums (he got in touch with us about doing something together and we’re all big fans of his work) about doing our next album together so we’ve been using the down time between shows to write some new material. The feeling has been really good and relaxed so it’s making us all feel free to bring our best to the table. We just sold out a show in NY for the first time ever, which is crazy. Beyond the regular touring and recording elements of band life I think we all have some bigger ideas for creative projects that we need to get a bit more successful in Ravens to put into action.