Every once in a while you happen upon a certain someone who transpires to be as humbly personable as they are unerringly passionate about what it is that they’re striving to produce. Chicago-based self-acclaimed “musical soul mates” Karl Briedrick and Marie-Claire Balabanian combine to compose Speck Mountain, and the latter is one such someone aforesaid. Apparently adorable even over the unremitting hiss and spit of a metaphysical transatlantic line, to paraphrase another (though dissimilarly now defunct) boy/ girl duo, I could tell that we could have been friends.
“It’s not early; it’s not late. And honestly? I’m not up to anything in L.A. right now.” Holed up in her parents’ garage, Balabanian is sat smoking cigarettes, the groggy rasp in her voice only attesting to this. “That’s how exciting my holiday is right now!”
Though it may not be the most invigorating way to while away a January “break from life”, Balabanian and her cohort in neatly executed melancholia Briedrick do in fact have something rather more exciting to flaunt right around now. They last week released their third and most fulfilling full-length to date in Badwater – a record to have been met with a ripple of subtle critical acclaim and no small dosage of flagrant hyperbole: “Yeah, it is. It’s hard to have any expectations, ’cause we know that there are so many variables, most of which don’t even involve us. And that’s the biggest thing, so it’s always a bit of a gamble. We just do what we can our side while the label does what it can on its side. But we have no idea what to expect – ever. We’re just taking it all as it comes. And yeah, I think that’s more true of this record than it is of our previous two. We’re funny: I mean, with this album, we have this optimism right now. We’ve been getting some nice press, and some good shows going. And people are answering our emails! That wouldn’t always happen in the past.” If you’ve an unread message from the pairing lingering in your inbox, we’d at this point avidly advocate the unsheathing of the proverbial paper knife – it may yet contain, say, Slow So Long.
Though this intensified level of optimism isn’t exactly the only indwelling element to have been adjusted in accordance with the evolution of the band, for to brand Speck Mountain a twin-peaked entity would now not only be unwise, but also untrue. Balabanian continues: “Just having the whole band is incredibly invigorating. So to have four people who are all equally as invested in the music, and in making this our lives has kinda just brought a burst of positive vibes and so we’re now just rolling with that. It’s really nice, and we’re really happy with where the band’s at, and so we’re all just trying to get it rolling now! We’ll see how it goes!”
If irrefutably, and with that encouragingly confident, a tone of uncertainty whispers around her words like a wispy curl of bluish smoke about an unkempt waft of hair. It must be difficult to make concrete plans for the future, when you’ve no longer a clue as to the right hammers and tongs to have in your garage, right? Balabanian struggles with her “fancy phone”, as a technological spanner lodges itself in our previously free flowing convo. “Oh we’re absolutely living each one as it comes! I mean certainly in terms of, like, our personal lives. You know, we would all like fidelity, and security, and all that stuff. Sometimes we do think about the practical side of things or, like, the easier side of things. Going back to school – stuff like that. But obviously we can’t deny that music is what we really wanna do, and so we’re taking it one day at a time, while making sure we just keep on pushing and pushing all the time until hopefully we’re able to actually make a life outta this! But it feels as though we’re always caught between two worlds: that in which we pursue this dream, and then the one in which we’re constantly reminded of the reality of needing something to support ourselves financially. But we don’t wanna settle, so we just wanna be happy and be doing what we love. It’s invigorating – I mean it’s complicated, but things are definitely that little bit more exciting this way! I don’t think any of us are the type of people who’re future planners – we’re not your average five-year plan kinda people.”
Without an iota of doubt hanging about in my mind, I’d rather be without the five-year plans; the ten-year plans; the retirement packages. Perhaps we’re all soul mates after all? “I mean we’re kinda space cadets who tour doing what we can just at that moment. And yeah, all we can do is to just see what happens. We’ll eventually find out where this one goes!” It’s a crazy ol’ world we’re living in these days, and the unpredictability surrounding those more autonomous artists alive and just about alright in the now is a perturbing one. Though commensurately perplexing is the drab reality that increasingly, whilst there is so much artistically exemplary stuff going on in every field thinkable, much of the truest quality is confined to a disproportionately small audience. It’s not that it’s altogether esoteric or anything, but just that these sorts of things (of which Speck Mountain is one) seem to get shovelled beneath our perhaps more mainstream concerns. It must surely infuriate to be buried by this unending deluge of dreck, as much as those equipped with the conformist spades in question must surely have ingratiated to a nauseating extent along the way…
“It can be a bummer, but I guess that’s just what is in demand and what people can get really into now. Obviously there’s nothing we can really do about it, so we just carry on living in our little corner, making what we make, and just hoping that someone hears it, or that it diffuses through by word of mouth. But yeah, I definitely feel like it’s a big uphill battle. I mean, the music industry is just… well… it’s just saturated with crap. A lot of crap, but crap that people seem to adore! It’s hard, but we’re doing what we can and all you can do is to not be dispirited by it. Oh, and hope for the best! We’re just working our butts off at it.”
Again, that aforementioned optimism assumes an explicitly paramount importance. It ought to stand the band in a comparatively sturdy stead, with this comparison for instance coming against their faintly similar, and similarly criminally underrated Montréal contemporaries (if ones of which Balabanian is as yet unaware), The Luyas. “Well, some of the best artists just seem destined to go forever under-appreciated and now that we’re subjected to this constant bombardment of music from these powerhouse publicity machines, it’s all become so in your face and all-pervasive that a lot of people just latch onto all that stuff. I mean it’s all around them. But yeah, it is sad that these incredibly talented people are just not given much attention but people do what they can.” It’s a musing which is highly redolent both in tone and topic to one diffidently shushed by Kathleen Edwards when we last spoke. Bon Iver’s betrothed then told of harbouring reservations as to whether her most recent full-length recording, Voyageur, may yet prove to be not only her fourth, but also her final. She feared it may be her “last kick of the can” though mercifully, it’d seem she’s still trucking.
Yet whereas Edwards’ unshakable scruples centred around solitude and a one woman crusade in kind, Balabanian is not only alone but adopts a more collective approach when affronting the innate travails of the average independent artist. “They’re still amazing, and they strive to support one another and help each other out. Which, you know, is kinda nice!” Her own life, however, is these days lived out in Chicago, Illinois – a city perhaps best known, and musically renowned, for its progenitive structuring of house music. And yet still, Chicago sounds to be the ideal resting place both personally and creatively – or collectively, rather – for Balbanian and her band: “I fuckin’ love Chicago, I have to say” she gushes, her lips bursting with effusive approval. “It’s a great city. I mean I went from L.A., to New York for five years, and then Karl and I decided to live in the middle of the country. And it makes for a real nice mix of the two actually, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a lot going on in terms of the arts, and there’s a really strong community of people out there.”
It’s of course an intriguing insight into the city, given that little, to none other than the usual litany of clichéd Frankie Knuckles liturgies tends to cross over… “Yeah, well there’s actually a really good community of musicians out there! And you know how some cities can be really competitive? Like, with all the artists feeding off this gross sense of oneupmanship? I feel like New York can have that attitude amongst its musicians, but I think it’s a real Midwest thing with Chicago – everyone’s just so nice! And that’s not a lie. They’re all really nice, and supportive, and I love it out there. I’d imagine I’ll be there for a little while.”
Though these are future concerns, and Speck Mountain are a band that ought to be living for the now, in light of their latest. Badwater, however, was conceived and long since completed in a now distant then: “It’s been several months since we finished it up, and so even at this point it kinda feels surreal that it’s coming out at all! I think at the beginning, we were all just really excited but the wait time has kept increasing and at some time, I think i just forgot that the record was even being released!” Though this excruciating wait and the subsequent impatience engendered all seems strangely apt, for Badwater is a quietly spectacular record which only grows into itself upon recurring exposure. Moreover, it makes for an overwhelmingly cogent listen in an era defined by what Balabanian disparagingly terms “a kinda music ADD”, whereby we’re “listening to playlists as opposed to whole albums.” So the troupe made a concentratedly concerted effort to make sure it could be listened to as a complete and utter whole then, surely? “You know what? I don’t really think so. We knew that some people maybe wouldn’t have the patience for it, but we also knew that there must be people like us out there who do have that patience; who appreciate subtlety, and so we reckoned that somebody had to appreciate the record, however it was made. Even if it was just that one person..!”
It’s a key theme then, is that of patience and increasingly, I sense that Speck Mountain may get their reward for waiting around seemingly unendingly, if only in the end. Though one thing which seems to have stuck with each and every listen in which I’ve indulged is that outwardly indelible Mazzy Star influence: “We definitely get that a lot, and I can definitely get where that’s coming from but it’s funny, ’cause Mazzy Star is definitely not one of our influences. Though that said, I think we perhaps share certain influences – maybe Spiritualized? I feel like I read somewhere that they were fans, and we certainly are so yeah – it’s just that particular time in the ’90s and the entailed style of music that we’ve always loved.” Though the whole influence thing – and that process of being influenced, or indoctrinated, or what have you by one’s stylistic forebears – is one artists seem increasingly to be disassociating themselves from: “Look: at the end of the day, I don’t find it in any way offensive because I mean, you know, had we not heard what’s come before us then we probably wouldn’t be doing what it is that we’re now doing. I think it’s just inevitable – people are influenced by what they’ve heard, and yeah! Everybody absolutely wants to claim originality and so on, and we certainly don’t want to sound purely derivative but there are things that are undeniable in terms of that which has influenced us. I think it’s therefore pretty pointless for us to fight against that. But I think also, it’s good for people to be able to create comparisons, and so I think in that respect it’s just useful for the listener in some kinda way.”
Though one could feasibly propose that, given the exponentially increasing amount of audible aural things floating about out there in the world wide web, to even attempt to achieve an authentic originality, or even a genuine innovation is becoming ever more untenable – even as a mere foggy notion. “Yeah, definitely. I mean at the end of the day, I would hope that we bring our particular Speck Mountain vibe to it all, and I think that now there are certain things which have become very much us. And I think what we’re really trying to do is to bring together all of the genres that we really love – gospel; electronic; classic rock; ambient: all that stuff – and just put our own twist on it. I think a lot of so-called creative people have an idea of what it is they’re looking to create as they enter the process, but I tend to find that it is completely useless to have even the most vague idea of what you’re going for, because I feel completely unable to control the sounds I make. Whatever’s gonna come out is gonna come out, and I have no idea what it’s gonna be. It frightens me – it’s very anti-intellectual, but it just kinda happens, you know?”
Though again, the uncertain and the overpoweringly unpredictable prove the default MO. Certainly, it’s always preferable to expect the unexpected than it is to slip into the unsurprising and, more often than not, uninspiring. Nonetheless, the unpredictable can also serve to disconcert and not only are the myriad ways that we listen to music evolving with this same irresolution, but so too are the ways we live it. The live experience, for one, looks to have an if not ephemeral, then undoubtedly temperamental future ahead, whereby the timeworn trend of writing, recording, releasing and then touring ’til you’d fall to the floor no longer stands on its own two feet. Speck Mountain are keening to come back over to Europe (as indeed am I for them) but I believe people are still adjusting, or perhaps rather struggling to adjust to the financial actualities of touring – the costs of keeping a band on the run as it were: “Yeah, I agree that a lot of people have absolutely no idea. We’d love, more than anything, to come back over, and above all to return to the UK. For some reason the UK has always seemed to really understand where we’re coming from – more so than anywhere else. We had a week’s worth of touring over there a few years ago, and it was just amazing start through finish – such a positive time. And so now, we’re obviously dying to get back over there but we’re looking to do it in a smart way. With a proper booking agent, proper shows – just slight things to ensure it’s not completely disastrous..!”
Now “99.9% sure” they’ll be rolling through a hopefully less wintry London sometime soon, to take that same train of thought and derail it only slightly, is the here and now perhaps not the finest of times to be in a functioning band? “I mean that’s what it sounds like”, Balabanian defeatedly reckons. “Obviously things were very different in the past, and it’s no longer about selling your records ’cause that’s just so difficult to do. But constant touring, and the other money that goes into that makes up to a really large amount for bands who are basically just starting out, or for bands who aren’t getting paid a ton of money. It’s all pretty difficult, but then again I guess what we’re trying to do is to be that little bit pickier as to which shows we book, and which tours we embark upon – we’re just looking to book things that’ll be worth our while. We’re not expecting, like, amazing sellout shows or whatever, but we’re just trying to be a little more strategic with everything and hopefully, the more you do it, the more exposure you get and the easier it’ll be to keep getting the right sorts of shows. ‘Cause we definitely wanna keep doing this forever! It’s our lives.”
Perseverance and tenacity are indispensable virtues to the present-day artist, and Marie-Claire exudes veritable oodles of both even in an half hour. And before any further thoughts of Speck Mountain becoming the next Mazzy Star ought to be thunk, it should be stated that they’re a band not only in need of your unwavering attentions, but a necessarily essential lot in their own right. So please: find the time, the patience, and maybe even the pounds to support the closest thing to Chicagoan indie originality conceivable.