Loma on “Don’t Shy Away” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Loma on “Don’t Shy Away”

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Feb 05, 2021 Shearwater Bookmark and Share

The latest Loma album should come with a warning sticker: AirPods not Advised.

At a time when millions of people listen to music through the ubiquitous wireless headphones, Loma’s sound just isn’t suited to in-ear speakers that are smaller than your pinkie toenail. The trio specializes in creating vast ecosystems of sound. As such, Don’t Shy Away is best experienced through the expanse of a high-fidelity stereo. Hearing it on AirPods is akin to wearing a gas mask inside a parfumerie.

Don’t Shy Away is Loma’s second album and it’s truly special. What’s surprising is that it exists at all. Loma initially seemed like a side project until it became something more. The trio started as a hybrid of two different art-rock bands: Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater and Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski from Cross Record. Their self-titled 2018 debut, a spacious post-rock record, was created while married bandmates Cross and Duszynski were getting a divorce. Which was a tad awkward. Yet the trio—augmented by touring musicians Emily Lee (keyboards) and Matt Schuessler (bass)—promoted the album with a tour of Europe and North America.

Their final show was for the Sub Pop record label’s 30th anniversary bash on Seattle’s Alki beach. At the end of their set, swimsuit-clad singer Cross dashed off stage, dipped in the frigid ocean, and returned just in time to finish the song. It seemed like a fitting end for Loma. Then the singer disappeared to record the second
Cross Record album without her former husband.

Credit Brian Eno for getting the band back together. During a BBC radio interview, the legendary grandfather of ambient music praised Loma’s single, “Black Willow.” Eno’s enthusiasm spurred the trio to reunite for another album. (For the record, Cross and Duszynski get along great.) Loma even reached out to Eno to produce the closing track on their album.

It’s not as if Meiburg and Duszynski really needed any help on the production side, however. The imagination and ambition of the arrangements and mixing on Don’t Shy Away is truly extraordinary.

The album starts off subdued with the mournful hush of “I Fix My Gaze,” Cross’ tribute to a friend who died of cancer. The strident second track, “Ocotillo,” boasts the best unconventional brass section since Radiohead’s “The National Anthem.” Led by Cross’ clarinet, the wind instruments chaotically clash and collide until the dominant musical throughline reasserts itself.

As the album progresses, the savannah landscape of “Ocotillo” leads to the lush jungles of “Elliptical Days” and “Given a Sign.” This time out, the band roped in additional musicians to add harp, violin, flute, trumpet, saxophone, and trombone. There’s a lot more synth this time around, too, and the guitar is mostly employed as a textural instrument. On these songs, striated layers of instruments swirl in cross currents to create a three-dimensional spatial placement. Each song has a distinct personality. On “Thorn,” Cross’ spoken word narration is like something straight out of a noir David Lynch movie. “Breaking Stones like a Wave,” whose synth motif is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto,” builds to a grand anthem. The distorted frequencies on “Blue Rainbow” seem as if they’re arrived from deep space. Throughout Don’t Shy Away, the sound design is more intricate than the soundtrack of a Christopher Nolan blockbuster. Nope, those white, in-ear headphones just won’t cut it for this album.

The record’s high point comes near the end. Cross’ wounded vocal on the title track is an act of open-heart surgery. It’ll floor you. The cinematic music video—which makes effective use of a drone—was one of several that the band filmed outside their ranch studio in Dripping Springs, Texas.

Since recording Don’t Shy Away, the individual band members have dispersed for new projects. Cross emigrated to a small town near Cornwall in Britain. Meiburg flew to the Falkland islands to finish up research for his first book of historical ornithology, “A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey” (Knopf, March 30). He and Dusczynski are also finishing up co-producing the next Shearwater album, due later this year.

So, will there be a third album? Under the Radar convened the three band members via email to talk about the making of Don’t Shy Away, pandemic life, and whether there will be a third Loma album.

Stephen Humpries (Under the Radar): First of all, how are the three of you holding up in this quarantine year—and where, geographically have the three of you been holed up?

Emily Cross: I am holding up pretty well to be honest, I’m enjoying being in the very quiet countryside of England.

Jonathan Meiburg: I’ve been mostly in Texas, in an RV Dan refurbished and parked next to his house out west of Austin. It’s a 50-foot commute to the studio. Days are wonderful, but nights can feel like The Shining, and I often forget what day it is.

Dan Dusczynski: I’ve been here in Dripping Springs the whole time. I’m generally socially distant and isolated to begin with, so life hasn’t changed all that much for me. I’m lucky to be able to work from home doing what I love to do (running my studio). www.dandysounds.com. Shameless plug.

Which albums, songs, films, TV shows, books, podcasts, live streams, video games, board games, etc., have been helping you get through the quarantine?

Emily: (TV) Peep Show, First Dates, This is England, QVC Livestream on Youtube, (Podcasts) Ram Dass Here and Now, This is Actually Happening, (Book) On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Jonathan: I’ve been so focused on completing my book that I haven’t spent much time with anything else (besides a dalliance with Cannery Row).

Dan: I just binged The Undoing. Highly gripping drama. Also rewatching The X-Files.

Cast your minds back to the release of Loma’s debut album and the subsequent tour. From your perspective, how was that record received by fans and the media and what are your most enduring memories of the tour?

Jonathan: I didn’t have any expectations, so it was a nice surprise that the album found as many listeners as it did. But the tour was really grueling. I’ve been touring for almost 20 years, so the thrill of playing small clubs with iffy PAs and indifferent management is long gone for me—and after a few months of lugging ourselves across the USA and Europe, we came back deeply in debt. We could have made a bunch of interesting videos and two new albums for the cost of that tour. I was like, I’m done with this.

Emily: Some enduring memories: Staying in the tour van inside of a ferry—I felt naughty because you’re not supposed to do that, but I was really tired. Visiting our friend’s family bell factory in the Czech Republic. He surprised us with custom Loma bells and I screamed, then cried. Having tea with Emily Lee in some very strange hotels and Airbnbs.

Dan: I have good and mediocre memories of touring in general, although I’ve done much less of it. Playing shows is fun and I’m glad we got to do a full round on the last album. I think we planted some seeds and expanded our small but dedicated audience. Some of the shows were my favorite musical experiences I’ve ever had, and if things lined up I would do it again.

At that point, why did the album seem as if it would be a one-off? What changed your minds?

Jonathan: It’s not that I didn’t enjoy performing—our touring lineup, with our friends Emily Lee and Matt Schuessler, was one of the best ensembles I’ve ever played in. But after three months in a can we were tired of it; and the last show at SPF 30 was so pleasant and fun that it seemed like a good capstone for the whole thing. But a few months apart (and in one place) made us miss working together. And then there was the shout-out from Eno.

In turn, want to give a quick shout out to your favorite Brian Eno records?

Jonathan: Where do you start? I guess Ambient 4:On Land and Discreet Music are the ones I reach for most often. They just aren’t like anything else. I also really love Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Thursday Afternoon, Evening Star, and Lux.

Dan: Another Green World is always classic and relevant. I also love his work on the Bowie stuff and Devo.

Emily: Thursday Afternoon.

Where the first album was fairly spacious and organic, this one is often lush, densely textured, and notable for the ambitious production ideas. Did you begin work on Don’t Shy Away with some sort of overarching vision of how you wanted to differentiate it from the first record? Were there albums by other artists that offered reference points for the sound and feel you were after?

Jonathan: The fun of the first album was that we had no idea what we were making. We wanted to have that feeling again, so we started with a few ground rules: don’t play guitar (unless you have to), don’t do things you would “normally” do, and only finish the songs that draw you in. We also added some new instruments, like a Prophet-6 and a Moog DFAM, and we started monkeying with Ableton a bit. The fact that we didn’t really understand these gadgets very well made them fun. But my favorite sound we recorded is probably Emily’s clarinet, which lit the path through the album.

Dan: I do love the exploratory feeling of Lomait’s like reaching into thin air never knowing what you can grab onto, or discovering buried treasure. We often listen to other records for references along the way. Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk, Portishead….Those come up a lot.

Emily: I feel as if our approach has always been kind of “take it one day at a time.” We also have always operated with the knowledge that even if we’ve spent hours and hours on a song, if it’s not working we will leave it behind or table it for the time being. Nothing felt permanent until the very last moments, sending it off to mastering.

What are the musical touchstones that the three of you share in common? Conversely, what are the artists that each of you listen to that the other band members cannot fathom why you like them?

Jonathan: Our tastes agree more than they disagree. But I tend to like music that slowly absorbs you into feeling or a mood instead of yanking at you with hooks, while Dan has a slightly sweeter tooth. Emily might have the strongest appreciation for pure pop, but she makes songs that are like abstract paintings—pure sounds, pure images, no conventional structure at all. We’re always tugging at each other.

Dan: Agreed on JM’s take. And the center of the Venn diagram is what makes Loma interesting to us.

Emily: I don’t think there are any artists we can’t fathom the other band members liking. Yes, I have been known to listen to top 40 radio (and genuinely love it) but I think the boys get why it’s enjoyable to me, even if they wouldn’t listen to it themselves. They’ve never played me anything I didn’t like, really, so I’d say our tastes do mostly agree.

As a democratic trio, what are the arguments that each of you have won over musical direction of Don’t Shy Away? What are the arguments you’ve lost? How do you negotiate the art of compromise—without feeling you’ve compromised the art?

Jonathan: If we all walk away feeling the album wasn’t quite what we had in mind, that’s probably a good thing. Some reviews have singled out what I see as the album’s weakest spots, and others have praised those very same things. So go figure. Sometimes it’s a great relief to be wrong.

Dan: I have to say, some of the things I fought hardest against have since become my favorite parts of the record. I learned long ago to never entirely trust my instincts and to actively challenge them. Working with JM and EC does that in a way that no other people can and that relationship is what makes Loma so special for me. There are other things I’m glad I pushed for. It’s a nice balance.

Emily: Honestly, I can’t remember. All I know is that the boys gracefully put up with my contrary attitude.

Dan, music publications often overlook the mixing aspect of making an album. While listening to songs such as “Elliptical Days” and “Given a Sign,” I imagined that it must have been fiendishly difficult to mix the various bits and pieces in those songs. How many strands were you weaving together on some of those songs? Take us into the process of the art of mixing Don’t Shy Away.

Dan: Loma songs are often challenging to mix, but there is usually a thread to follow or some kind of logical next step as we develop our relationship to each piece of music. Mixing a Loma song can feel like a marathon; many of the songs brought moments where I found myself wanting to give up or toss them aside. Stepping away and pushing past those emotions can often reveal the most exciting parts of the process. Each track is different of course, and some come more easily than others. I’m thankful that JM and EC push me to the limit of my skills—that has yielded lots of artistic growth.

You produced a series of self-directed and self-shot DIY promo videos for this album. I imagine they were incredibly low budget—but they sure don’t look it. They’re richly cinematic and based around strong concepts. Tell me about this cinematic side of Loma, from the inspirations and influences to executing the concept without anyone getting killed by shooting off horizontal fireworks.

Jonathan: We had very little time, very little budget, and very little freedom of movement. Luckily we all agreed that the strongest videos are usually the simplest.

Dan: I was excited to be more involved with the visuals this time around. Learning to fly a mini drone and shoot “Don’t Shy Away” and “Elliptical Days” videos was really fun.

Emily: Luckily, all of Dan’s practice flying remote controlled helicopters paid off when it came time to introduce the drone.

One thing the three of you have in common is a love of animals. Some of them even show up in the recordings of your albums, music videos and Instagram posts. So tell me a bit about what these creatures mean to you and how their presence enriched the process of making an album.

Jonathan: During the pandemic, our animal friends in Texas—wild and domestic—became even more important. They remind you that there’s a world outside the internet, outside your own worries and preoccupations, outside you in every sense. It’s such a relief to dip into that world. And you never know what’s going to turn up at the ranch; I’ve had surprise visits from coral snakes, giant centipedes, curious armadillos, even a bobcat. One afternoon I looked up to see a huge V of sandhill cranes above me, on their way down to the Texas coast from somewhere in the upper Midwest.

Emily: Animals and plants and insects, etc., and our love for them are the most important things on the planet earth. Being with them, watching them, trying to understand them—it’s an endless source of inspiration.

Emily, how do you manage to inhabit the lyrics so deeply/authentically when they’re mostly not your own words, or even perhaps your own ideas?

Emily: They’re important to me even though I didn’t write most of them, and that’s what makes it easy to get into. I think JM does kind of get inside of my head, or rather, Lomalady’s headit still feels collaborative. Sometimes I don’t want to know what it’s about and sometimes I ask a lot of questions. JM is so good at being vulnerable in that wayit would be difficult for me to churn out lyrics like that and just hand ’em over.

Other side of the same question: In what ways do Jonathan’s lyrics end up different because he’s writing them for Emily instead of for himself?

Jonathan: I try to write words I imagine would sound believable coming from Emily, or my idea of Emily. But I’m not always right, and sometimes we still have to hash things out. Often I’ll offer her multiple versions of a line so she can try them on to see which fits best. To Emily’s credit, she never makes me feel like I’m just handing her words to parrot; it’s always like we’re working together to solve a shared problem.

Question for Jonathan and Dan: Where does the sound and songwriting come from for Loma that’s different from where it comes from for Shearwater? Are the creation processes for the two bands completely unrelated and unselfconsciously distinct? Or does you consciously have to “reframe” your thinking to ensure that the upcoming Shearwater sounds different from Loma?

Jonathan: I have a mild sense of allegiance to what Shearwater has been like over the years, and it’s nice to be able to swim with—or against—that current. That said, I think the best work always comes from where and who you are in that very moment. Which is always shifting.

Dan: With both projects I try to remain open to the moment and follow where the songs take us. We have an awareness of where we have gone so far, and for the most part we don’t like to repeat ourselves. We do use familiar sounds or tools that we love but I always try to find new ways to express a feeling with them.

Sort of a commercial/career question here, perhaps for all three members since you all do separate projects independently: How do you decide where to prioritize your attention between bands or among projects? Does commercial or critical reception influence your choice? Is it even a choice at all (rather than just a response to creative urge)? . . .. I’m obviously thinking of Jonathan in particular here, since he’s got an “old” band as well as “new” one—and old established bands like Shearwater are very hard to push to a new, higher, and more sustainably remunerative level, since the music world tends to value novelty.

Jonathan: The things I want most from life are freedom of thought and the ability to work on projects I care about. The fact that there’s variety in these projects—the bands, the book, that screenplay I’ve dreamed about—lets them nurture each other. And I’m very, very lucky to have a small but loyal group of Patreon supporters to keep the lights on and the work flowing. In the end, I think I’d be greedy to want anything more.

Emily: I work on what I want to work on whenever. I’m certainly not thinking about commercial success. Maybe I should, but I can’t be bothered. I jam in music and art between working day jobs and just feel fortunate that some people like it.

Dan: If I ask myself “What am I doing today?” and the answer is “making music,” I’m in good shape.

Given the great reception Don’t Shy Away has received, is a third album on cards? And, also, will you tour once live music becomes viable?

Jonathan: We’re all curious about what a third album would be like. The wonderful part is that we don’t have any better idea about that than you do. As for live shows, I’d love to do it—given the right circumstances. Maybe a small number of special events, with enough time to prepare and rehearse so that they’re really special. The shows I put together for WNYC to celebrate Bowie’s “Berlin” trilogy reminded me that performing live is a joy when you’re equipped to do a proper job, but I’ve had enough of the small rock clubs of the Western world to last a lifetime.

Emily: Haha, JM’s answer is perfect.

Finally, what are your personal hopes and wishes for 2021?

Jonathan: I’d like to hug a human being outside my small circle of friends again.

Emily: Yes, that would be nice.

Dan: More hugs, less computer crashes.


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