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The Extra Lens

The Nature of Collaboration―A Decade in the Making

Dec 01, 2010 The Extra Lens Bookmark and Share

Speaking from separate states—Franklin Bruno (of Nothing Painted Blue) here in New York City and John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) back in North Carolina―the members of The Extra Lens, formerly The Extra Glenns, are still able to exhibit a warm camaraderie as they riff off of one another while chatting with Under the Radar. Their intuitiveness about each other’s personal and artistic quirks is readily apparent both in conversation and on Undercard, their new and first release through Merge Records. Although initially a project resigned to recording singles and compilation tracks in the early 1990s, soon enough the almost-mythical duo received enough interest and demand for a full-length and, with 2002’s Martial Arts Weekend, fans were greeted with an offbeat amalgam that found a perfect common ground between their respective musical identities.

Now, after nearly a decade of silence, Darnielle and Bruno return with a follow-up that expands on their debut’s charms while consolidating the strengths of what they’ve learned separately since their last outing. Over close to an hour-long phone call, the band exudes an enthusiasm and willingness to divulge at length about their new record, the nature of collaboration, and why rocking out in a chair is just as cool as rocking out while standing up.

Anthony Lombardi: To start off with something a bit frivolous: why the name change? Why switch from The Extra Glenns to The Extra Lens?

John Darnielle: You know, it has just been so long, so it was just this sort of thing where if you’re only going to make a record once every 10 years, why not monkey around with it a little bit? In high school, I’d always think how cool it would have been to have a band that always changed its name a little tiny bit, and I think it’s probably inspired, if anything, by The Rutles, which always made me laugh really hard. There was hardly any brand recognition at all with The Extra Glenns. It’s like, 500 people think that that’s a kind of decent band, but they’ll all probably be able to follow that change. We’re kind of hard to miss.

Makes sense to me. I wanted to say a quick congratulations on signing to Merge, who’re probably my favorite label in the world. How did that come together?

Darnielle: Well, I live literally four blocks from their offices, so I’ve been talking to them for a long time. Just, you know, we’d see each other at shows. Mac [McCaughan, Merge co-founder] and Franklin have known each other since…when did you first meet Mac, Franklin?

Franklin Bruno: 1992, I think.

Darnielle: Yeah, so we’ve been looking for a place to put out the record. I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s been…when did we record Martial Arts Weekend? Was it 2000 or 1999?

Bruno: Something like that.

Darnielle: So it’s been a minimum of 10 years, possibly 11, and here I’m not in the Midwest kind of casting to the coasts looking for a home…I mean, I live four blocks from the best indie label in the U.S., so why not?

I think it’s a pretty perfect fit. How did the idea for a new Extra Lens record come about? Has it been in the works for a while, or was it more along the lines of ‘Hey, why not do another one?’

Darnielle: I gotta give Franklin all the credit. I’m a pretty distractible person, and he reliably every year or two will say, ‘How are we coming along on new Extra Lens tracks?’

Bruno: Occasionally, it’d be just the two of us, and one of us would show up with a couple new songs to work out. Between those and songs that, from back in the day, never get on record, from going on 10 years now…it’s been pretty organic and slow.

Since it’s been so long since your last record, did you guys set any personal expectations for yourselves on the new one? Did it force you to approach it in any specific way?

Bruno: John should answer this one. Since our last record, John has recorded many more records and many more studio records. I mean, the last one came out before he was actually on 4AD, and since then his records have regularly featured a lot of different musicians.

Darnielle: I mean, I think for me, even early on, part of the appeal of The Extra Glenns―now Lens―is that there was less pressure. Not that the pressure of The Mountain Goats is huge, but The Extra Lens is both something outside of Franklin’s main gig, Nothing Painted Blue, and The Mountain Goats, my main gig. The Extra Lens would allow us to do funny stuff or be a little looser, or if I was writing a song that was maybe a little weirder and I didn’t know how it could fit in, I’d throw it to The Extra Lens. There are several songs on Undercard that are quite old indeed, so I was about to say that there’s a song that will never get recorded, but who knows whether it’ll make our third album 10 years from now. Who knows if there’ll be one song about chicken sacrifice that I wrote way back when, urging someone to sacrifice a chicken or urging someone not to sacrifice a chicken.

Bruno: Even though you’ve done various things, there are certain lines of elements in Mountain Goats themes.

Darnielle: Well yeah, this record also, one thing that’s different is―and another good reason for the name change―I wrote all the songs for The Extra Glenns, but with The Extra Lens we’ve opened it up. Although, since we haven’t made a big deal about it on the one sheet, people think it’s just “10 more songs by John,” which it’s not. It’s some by me and some by Franklin and some other collaborations, so for me it’s a great exercise because I can explore that terrain of actual collaboration, which is pretty cool.

While listening to the record, I actually felt that one of its strong points is that it seemed like it allowed you to sprawl out a little. That goes along with what you were saying about how if you had songs that didn’t fit into another particular project, you’d shape them into Extra Lens songs. Did you feel like it allowed you to sprawl out a bit?

Darnielle: It allowed me to look at things in a different way. A side project is sort of an empowering thing, and allows me to stretch over a limit. It allows me to write a song like “Ambivalent Landscape Z,” which ends with a really sort of elliptical lyric. I was trying to put it on a Mountain Goats record, and it’s like, here’s 11 lost love lines, and one that’s almost impossible to parse. But in the context of The Extra Lens, the lyrics go far and wide, they go over here and over there, and they’re about all manners of things. And I think they’re a little more like puzzles, and for sure The Mountain Goats is a very emotional exercise. What I try to do in The Mountain Goats is make a connection, where in The Extra Lens, I think, there’s a connecting thing but it’s a little more spindly, you know?

Right, and I feel like your songwriting has always had a pretty singular quality and has always been immaculately detailed, but with The Extra Lens it seems a little less linear. Is that subconscious or does it have intent? What separates a Mountain Goats song from an Extra Lens song? Do you know while you’re writing it, or only afterwards once you’re examining it?

Darnielle: For me, the only one that rings in my memory is “Ambivalent Landscape Z.” After I wrote the first couple lines, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to show this to Franklin, this is one that Franklin will kind of appreciate.’ But otherwise, it’s more like after I’ve written it, I look at it and I think, ‘Oh, you know where this would really have a good place, and where it might find its proper inspection is if Franklin were playing on it, and maybe if it was just me and Franklin.’ That’s the other thing, The Mountain Goats aren’t a duo anymore―The Mountain Goats are a trio―and working in a duo is a different thing, and with The Extra Lens, when I write something I send it over to Franklin, and I let go of the reigns. I don’t give any input, I don’t contribute to what it should sound like, I do my part and then I go outside and get a sandwich. So it’s different in that way, but when I write the songs―the ones I write―I don’t think about what it’s gonna be until after it’s done and I look at it and I ask where it would fit.

Bruno: I was going to say, after that, when I do play on a Mountain Goats record, I try to be a good sideman. I mean, I offer suggestions, but ultimately, it’s John or whoever’s engineering or producing who says, ‘Don’t do that, we’ll probably execute this,’ and I’m game. I don’t stay around for mixing, I don’t put any input after that, whereas with The Extra Lens, I’ll use my producing instinct, and John doesn’t really stay around for mixing, so it’s kind of like that end of it.

Well, even when the album hits its bleak lyrical territory, I feel like the enthusiasm on record is palpable, which really makes it remarkable. What was the actual recording like? Was it as fun as the record makes it sound?

Darnielle: For me, I mean it’s just that it’s been so long. When we did Martial Arts Weekend―John Vanderslice and Scott Solter tell stories about that session―because I was kind of like a feral child at that point. I didn’t go into recording studios and I didn’t want to go into recording studios, you had to sort of make me do it. The first thing I would say when you sat me down and said, ‘Point your guitar at that microphone,’ was, ‘That’s not gonna happen, I move around when I play, you’re going to have to deal with that.’ Well, in a studio, that’s not really how it works, you have to sit still and point your guitar at the microphone. But there are stories about how they’d tell the engineer, ‘Okay, well just sit there next to him and move the mic around as he moves.’ So for the new one, I know better about what I’m doing. Also, Franklin came down here for the first session. We did one at the Rubber Room in Carrboro, North Carolina, and the other at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn, and so Franklin was in my territory, and we got to hang out and have dinner where I live. It was really fun and really relaxing for me to think, ‘I’m going to do my part and let Franklin bring it to fruition,’ that was really nice for me―it did take a lot of the heat off, so it was fun.

So you basically went in and laid down your parts, the songwriting and then recording it, and then, Franklin, you’d come in and do your arrangements and either dress it up or dress it down?

Bruno: Yeah, more or less―I mean, it wasn’t religious. There was one song, on “Communicating Doors,” I did the guitar part and John did the piano part. Sometimes we’d mix it up a little bit, he’d play electric and I’d played acoustic, and usually it’s the other way around. Generally, the pattern is what you described. Sometimes we’d play live, electric and acoustic or acoustic and piano. The very first stuff we put out was all done on 4-track that was where John would come over and record a song―guitar and vocals―on one channel of a cassette 4-track, and me using the other three tracks and presenting it to him. So this is kind of just that method with much better microphones.

I think that’s one of the most winning aspects of the album, Frank, how you dress John’s songs so accordingly. Even though you two have only done two full-lengths, you seem really intuitive about how you approach John’s songs.

Bruno: That’s good, I worry about doing too much. There’s really early stuff with just basically noodle-soloing over a song. I’m not a great guitarist, so obviously doing that isn’t a good idea. Sometimes the approach is to leave a song; sometimes the approach is to take it into a weirder direction. There’s definitely some keyboard and guitar effects that I don’t think John would necessarily think, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want.’ So what I do really just varies with the song.

John, when you’re recording these songs, do you ever think to yourself, ‘Maybe Franklin will do this with it?’ Do you hear what you think he may do and write or record it accordingly, or do you just knock it out and let him do what he wants?

Darnielle: I am the most near-sighted songwriter of all time. It took a long time―a very long time―for anybody to be able to talk me into adding anything. As soon as I put down vocals and guitar, my instinct says, ‘That’s it, there you go, you’re done, you’re finished.’ It has been a decade long project for Peter [Hughes, Mountain Goats bassist] to go, ‘Well, what if we put this on there?’ My usual reaction is, no. So with Yhe Extra Lens, the strength for me has always been that I view it as a project where I let someone else use what I write as sort of material of which to make a bigger thing, it’s liberating and freeing. But I try to not think about what to add. If I do, it’s only in the moment in the studio, where if Franklin asks, ‘Should we put anything else on it?’ I might say, ‘Well, maybe some organ.’ But I generally don’t think ahead, I expect that if there were huge pits in the Earth and I was walking around, I’d fall into the first one I walked into.

Bruno: That said, I think with John, there tends to be songs that have a little bit more space in them. There’s structured instrumental time between each verse of “Adultery,” for example, whereas if that were a Mountain Goats song, I think maybe that wouldn’t be there. So I think there’s more space in the songs.

Darnielle: And that really seems to be the case. When people used to ask what kind of music I played, I’d think of punk rock. I’d say, “I play three chords that are done in two minutes.” I used to joke that if a song had four chords, it went to The Extra Glenns.

That seems pretty apt to me. I think there’s a tangible difference in The Mountain Goats and The Extra Lens. I don’t think it’s really obvious, but it definitely has its own distinct quality.

Darnielle: It’s nice to hear that. To me, it really does have its own identity. Peter commented on that too when I sent it off to him. Peter really likes The Extra Lens, he’s like, ‘Boy, this is a great one.’ There’s something really cool about this side thing that doesn’t happen too often and doesn’t make a big flashy presentation of itself. It just peaks its head out from behind the curtain and says, ‘Hey, here’s 12 new ones, see what you think.’ It’s kind of cool.

The great thing about collaboration is I feel it brings out different dynamics and artistic components that may not reveal themselves otherwise. What particular aspects do you think it brings out?

Bruno: I’m not much of a storyteller, not as much as John, I’m a little more abstract and more involved in extended metaphor. So it was nice to bring out a little more of that. Also, I can’t define how, but in the way I play and the arrangement choices that I made, I think some things altered the emotional aspect of what was going on. That’s not to brag, it’s just an observation that’s actually mysterious how it worked to me.

Well, there’s obviously a deep-seeded camaraderie between you two that’s kept you guys collaborating for so long. Even before Martial Arts Weekend, you guys recorded some singles and compilation tracks together, so really it’s been going on 15-20 years that you two have worked together on-and-off. What do you think keeps bringing you two back together?

Darnielle: You know, you see the great interviewees of the ‘70s, like Bowie, who instead of answering questions honestly and directly―which has always been what I aim to do, hear the question and respond honestly―and you watch those interviews, and you can see, they’re just making shit up. I think, how much fun it would be to go, “We’re not working together because we’re feuding, because we’re at war, and we actually communicate through an intermediary, who’s finally forced us to come together in a recording studio,” but obviously none of that is true.

Bruno: I think John and I just respect each other’s writing and what we do. Listening to Mountain Goats records and hearing the emotional grounds he covers, I think there’s a certain amount of craft that I always think, I’d like to add my technique to that.

Darnielle: What I do is kind of primal, I avoid revising and I try to release songs as quickly as possible, whereas what Frank does it more studied. But I think that we both have toes in the water of each other’s aesthetics. You can hear the two spheres meeting and merging.

So, you feel like The Extra Lens allows you guys to meet on common ground and kind of see what the other side may be like but also step outside of your own comfort zones?

Darnielle: Yeah, although for me, I would say I think there’s a sense of the creative process of what people think and then do, but I act on instinct and later I hear it and think, ‘oh, what was happening there?’ and then it’s exactly as you described it, but I certainly don’t go in with any forethought. For me to work, I just sort of have to feel as natural as I can.

Bruno: People think that I’m probably analyzing things a lot more than I am, but I work in a sort of similar way. I write or I play, and then if I have time to address it later and it does work, I get to ask myself, ‘so how did I put that together?’ but it’s not what I’m thinking while I’m doing it.

Playing together is obviously different than playing with your own respective projects. Do you guys take any different approach to playing live? Is there a different energy for you two than when you’re playing with your main gigs?

Darnielle: I’ll tell you what’s going to be weird for me: the last time The Extra Lens played together, I had not yet gotten used to standing up when I play. For years, I sat in a chair, right, and the night I got a guitar strap was at a store in like 2003 in Atlanta, I was wandering around and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll buy a guitar strap,’ and I’ve been standing up ever since. So that’s the thing I keep thinking about: Wow! We’ll be standing up together at opposite ends of the stage! Which is a little different for me. But, besides that, I don’t second-guess it, I just feel like it’ll be Franklin and I in a backyard in 1992 covering Bruce Springsteen songs.

Bruno: Other than some backing vocals, I don’t really have to sing, so I get to really concentrate on playing and I don’t really have to be concerned that I’m delivering a song well. And also, what we’re doing live, we try to be a little more visceral and direct than the records. Obviously in the studio I’m playing more than one instrument, whereas live I have to select the right thing to do. It’s fairly direct in that respect.

So do you feel like the pressure is placed on John since you don’t have to worry too much about vocal delivery?

Bruno: I still feel a pressure to play well, and when I sing harmony I have to sing well. Even though I’m probably a better songwriter than I am a singer or a musician…but I think getting into bands was to express myself as a songwriter. But I still love playing guitar, and even when I’m playing live―as part of someone else’s project. I love creating notes and parts that will help make it a fuller piece. I enjoy that aspect.

John, it was actually funny to hear you talk about how you used to play sitting down and how you had to buy a guitar strap and learn to play standing up. You’re always so animated live, so it’s foreign to think of you resigned to sitting in a chair.

Darnielle: Well, I wasn’t really sitting, is the thing. It was the same sort of deal but I was on a chair…but I would seriously lift it up and back and forth and I looked maybe like someone whose ankles were tied to the chair and I was trying to get free.

That’s an image I can totally seethe animation of you playing live is one of those things that always brings a certain energy.

Darnielle: Well, I can still bring that energy from a chair! Believe me. I feel like maybe we should do a separate tour―like The Chair Tour―so I can demonstrate for these young upstarts just how much can be accomplished from a chair.

The Rocking Chair Tour!

Darnielle: Hey, hey, hey! Watch it!

No! I don’t mean you’re old, I just mean then you can rock back and forth like an old blues player.

Darnielle: No, no―the chair only rocks because I’m sitting in it.

Understood. Well, I wanted to thank you guys for taking the time to talk with me and congratulate you guys on your first new record in a decade. I was excited about its release and it didn’t let me down.

Darnielle: It’s always nerve wrecking to send these things out into the world and see what everyone thinks, so cool. Thanks.

Bruno: Yeah, thanks a lot. It was great talking with you too.



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