Stars of the Lid

And Their Refinement of the Decline

(Kranky; 2007)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

In typical journalistic methodology, before an interview the reporter hunkers down to read everything on the subject at hand: every other interview, book, article, press release, everything. My problem is that in previous interviews, this abundance of research dulled my natural interest in the subject, and my interviewee, sensing my disinterest, fell into merely reciting answers to my merely recited questions. If the task of the interviewer is to draw from the subject their thoughts on the supposed area of expertise, why shouldn't I try going in blind, I figured -- why not let my natural enthusiasm be my only guide?

Adam Wiltzie's such area of expertise is the music of Stars of the Lid, the venerable ambient duo behind such revered tableaus as The Ballasted Orchestra (1997) and The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001). He gained his expertise on Stars of the Lid by being half of it for the past ten years, along with Brian McBride. I rounded out my primary points of interest -- production method, album structure, all those wonderful song titles -- by talking to friends about the band, to see what stuck out for them. One thing in particular kept coming up -- sleep. When people don't like Stars of the Lid, it's because "they put me to sleep," and when people do, it's because "it's great to just like get high and pass out to." At least, this is the case with my friends, and the adjectives other critics fall into using would imply the sentiment is widespread. (From, for example, allmusic.com: "…let this music enter at will, naturally and expand until it takes you over the edge into something resembling sleep, but far more delicious.") So one thing I wanted to talk about with Adam was this conception of his work, whether he takes it as a compliment or not.

Adam Wiltzie (AW): Yeah, it's intended. I don't think it's such a bad thing to be able to fall asleep to it. People say it's boring, [but] I don't really care.

CMG: What is it about the act of sleep that you find rewarding in relationship to music? I can't think of any other form of art where you would say you could do that. Certainly not film.

AW: Yeah, that's true. I guess the intention of a filmmaker wouldn't be that you could fall asleep to it. I see what you mean. But, I dunno…sometimes right before I go to sleep I like to put on a film. I bought a season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this old American TV show, and it's cheesy, but there's these great sounds. And I put it on, not every night but lots of nights, I like to put on a random episode and I fall asleep to it just because of the sounds: the space sounds, the bleeping and Jean Luc Picard's voice. And so maybe this wasn't the intention, but it's something I find works very well with it. I don't know why this is the music that I ended up wanting to make. I'm not really sure, it's just something that I always felt growing up, that there wasn't enough music for me to really relax to.

*****

James Joyce, arguably the most successfully ambitious artist of the twentieth century, spent the last seventeen years of his life attempting to capture in words what happens to people while they sleep. He was on some heavy modernist shit, though, glassy-eyed from a mix of Eliot and Jung, and so his work vaunts through and above and behind humanity's entire body of knowledge -- a decidedly different scope than the present record. Still, Finnegan's Wake is noteworthy, among other reasons, for not attempting to decipher much meaning from the nightscape, instead letting the clutter and mix be its own meaning. Joyce found more fun in individual words than in any overarching theme or plot. Plenty -- Kafka, Kurosawa, Sonic Team -- have used dreams as a narrative or thematic device, but few find sleep, in its numbing blankness, an apt muse.

I'm not saying that Stars of the Lid's seventh release And Their Refinement of the Decline is an ambient Finnegan. It's not. Nothing's Finnegan. But something about sleep focused Joyce's talent to the infinitesimal, and the Lid, likewise, have crafted a body of work that narrows its form's pleasures to the microscopic: a single tone here, an errant syllable there. Sleep (as a muse) obliterates structures, reducing both literature and art to pure sound, to white noise and polyglot babytalk. Joyce, attempting to capture and translate sleep, created a hyperactive monster; Stars of the Lid, in merely attempting to enable it, have created something sublime, smooth, and large -- a sort of cavern into which to crawl, an aural hobbit hole.

But, let's not kid ourselves: "music to relax to" = music that's easy to listen to = easy-listening, which doesn't quite = Sting, but we're getting close. What separates Stars of the Lid from Sting, from Enya, from Pure Moods? Is it form? Is it pretension?

CMG: How do you perform stuff live?

AW: We have a sampler, because some of the sounds are hard to reproduce live. It's kinda like a cross between a classical music gig and listening to some strange ambient thing. It's basically two guys with guitars and then we have a sampler that has sequence loops playing, and we're just sorta playing along with that.

CMG: Do you try to recreate specific moments on the album or is it more improvised?

AW: No, we don't improvise anything at all, actually. We both hate improvised music. It's all very, very planned. We spend probably too much time working out the parts. I mean, obviously there's always an element of accident, but we're pretty much playing tracks from the record, or something that we worked up in practice before.

CMG
: That's interesting. A lot of other ambient and noise-based musicians I know work the opposite way, attempting to recreate in the studio the crescendos of their live shows.

AW: We don't really listen to much ambient. We like a couple Brian Eno records here and there. But most of what influences us is classical, so it's all very composed. That's kinda what we base our compositions around. I guess I can appreciate jazz a little bit, but, we're not really very good musicians in that way, so we just don't feel really comfortable doing it. We just don't like it. We never have.

*****

Dancing through these comments it's right there: my answer, a pretension toward classical composition that the band -- stunningly, imperceptibly -- honors in their music. Because while this certainly is ambient music, full of long drones resolving in single-plucked piano notes, a music that weeps and glows, there's also something greater here, something barely perceived at first that surfaces slowly. The resolving hum of "Even If You're Never Awake (Deuxieme)" crystallizes the melancholy undercurrent of the previous tracks when a horn sifts through, lowing softly in a bizarro inversion of the album's sad soothing sound. "Hiberner Toujours" is the album's shortest track, a violin meditating on three notes, but in those two minutes the dimensions of the melodic figure are revealed infinitely through shifting lights. Unlike Natural Snow Buildings, there's classic structure girding these soft sounds; the slow sounds are beautiful, sure, but though slow they're going somewhere. And unlike William Basinski, that structure isn't just one of collapse; check the lifted pop structure of "Don't Bother They're Here" or the baleful segmentation of "Tippy's Demise." And unlike Max Richter, it's not maudlin, self-serving, "important."

But it does take time, time to know and appreciate, like learning the true dimension and character of an old house, where the creaks come at night, the rush of water through pipes. And, like an aging architect perfecting his family's dream home, it took time to create.

AW: Before you put out a record, when you first put it out, your whole life before that is leading up to this point. And then after that, maybe some people start to pay attention to you, and I think it can go to your head, and you start thinking maybe more people like you than they do. And I think, just, in general, you start to put out way too much material. Just because someone wants to put something out doesn't mean necessarily that it's a good idea. And I think that no matter who you are you only have an ability to make so much good music. In the past we were putting out way too much music, so I felt like we needed to slow it down a little bit, spend some time and just get back to really simple things. And I think that's why it took me so long to make this record. Not only did it take me a long time, I just really wanted to spend a lot of time on it; I just didn't really see the point of doing this whole, record a record, go out and tour, and start right back over the next year. I think I can make an example of…Low. I mean, they're a great band, but they're the classic case of a band I never wanted to become like, because they lived off their music, and they kinda have to keep this going. But they have to sorta turn over and create music all the time. And I think if you listen to their early records compared to their late records, there's a big difference. They're sorta under the gun at this point. It's really, really hard to create one good song every five years. To think you have to do this every year, I mean, it's not really humanly possible.

CMG: So the difference between early Stars of the Lid and more recent stuff is that you've meditated on the songs more? You've lived with them more?

AW: Yeah, slept with the songs more. Kranky doesn't put a lot of pressure on me, but I know they want the record as soon as possible. It's very easy (when) the song is not quite finished, and you think, "Oh well, it's done, let's just let it go." And I didn't wanna do that. I still feel, even after six years, I could've taken a couple more years on it.

*****

And Their Refinement of the Decline is my favorite Stars of the Lid album, and it is also my favorite Stars of the Lid album title. These facts are plainly interrelated. One of the dirty secrets of ambient music is the appeal of its (typically excellent) packaging. For example, in the Glow's review of Eluvium's Talk Amongst the Trees (2005), the last great ambient record, Christopher Alexander's final points centered on the album cover's shadowy correlation with the snowy music therein. We love to pair our ambient music: with record covers, with imagined movies, with books, with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (cough), and, at times, with sleep.

This is part of why I love Stars of the Lid And Their Refinement of the Decline -- not just for its adaptability, its capacity for wonderful pairs, but for its knowing, smirking presentation. I would appreciate this music to the core of my music-loving soul if it were pressed onto CD-Rs by some unknown Swede, but in this packaging, with these titles, I have something to hold onto. I love it, still, but I also know it (like the nocturnal whispers of that old house). The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid was a great title, for sure, both self-effacing and egotistical, with a wise-eyed "tired" nodding toward the record's likely (and intended) use, but this new title maintains all that charm with a more erudite air. "The Decline" isn't a Western or moral one, it is a personal one, a mental decline, the word stripped of negative connotations by its "refinement." This is music that absolves itself into nothingness, free of message or meaning. It melts, and the title enables and encourages it to do so. Every reason to love this record is in those six succinct words. My 2500 is sheer indulgence.

Oh, and some anticlimactic edification on those wonderful song names:

CMG: We were talking about Keith Fullerton Whitman's Playthroughs (2002) earlier, and it made me think, those track titles are just random series of letters and numbers -- it's gibberish. I was wondering how you come at the song titles on here.

AW: The titles are really specific events. Things that really only mean something to one or two people in the world. Generally the titles emerge from the moments that I'm coming up with the piece of music, with something that's happening right then, that's scribbled on a CD, or the name of the file on Protools. They really only mean something to me and Brian or the person that the song's about. They're silly, of course, but not random. The last track on the record, "December Hunting For Vegetarian Fuckface," is about this idiot I used to know that lived in Austin.

*****

I'll not be attempting, if you haven't yet noticed, to specifically pinpoint what makes Stars of the Lids' music so effective. This is less a review than, perhaps, something with which to pair the record, a peak behind the curtain with the artist at hand, buttressed by some of my own thoughts after a month of listening.

It's difficult, after all, to truly love ambient music. Often we like it out of convenience for weeks before we realize how attached we've become. If nothing else, Stars of the Lid have achieved Adam's goal of making music "to really relax to," abjectly defying intent listening, laying waste to the established vocabulary of music production and appreciation. The decline is refined to subsonic, subconscious liquid. Check, for proof, how ineloquent Adam himself gets when I pry too deeply:

CMG: So, uh, how is a Star of the Lid record born? How are those sounds chosen?

AW: A song is started with me on piano or guitar, and I come up with a melody or an idea, and it's usually born from that, just a simple melodic structure, maybe a repetitive pattern that leads into something else, and then I try to recreate a guitar sound around that. But we're using a lot more piano now, too. It really is just starting in a really simple form. Obviously, things get added. There's always this time after recording where I like to spend six months at least on a song.

CMG: So the six month period, what does that really consist of. Studio work, overdubbing?

AW: A lot of both. Everything's recorded at home, so we're not under the gun. It's not really . It's hard to, uh…every song's different in how we approach it. There's the very simple melody pattern, and it's born from there. There's usually a repetitive section, and that's the foundation of the song. And sometimes songs go off in other, and you have, I dunno, choruses, or refrains, or changes in the song and maybe sometimes those come a little later, sometimes that's just out of boredom, or you feel like the song needs to move in another direction, but, uh, yeah. It's also very difficult to describe. After I work on an album for so long, after I finish it, you know, I never wanna hear it again. I'm so tired of listening to it, you know. It's always a little bit weird to talk about it.

No kidding.