Interviewed by Kai Slater and Asher Case
Boston duo Sweeping Promises released their debut album, Hunger for a Way Out, in August of last year on Feel It Records and quickly caught the eyes of the indie world, with their belted and saturated brand of post-punk, teeming with melody and spirit. It was simply an instant classic and we are so excited to talk to the duo! (C: Caufield Schnug, L: Lira Mondal)
1. So, the band is still pretty newly formed - what did that look like? Did it feel like you were quickly thrusted into the pandemic to become more of a recording project, or was the short period before that fruitful still? C: Quickly formed, yes, with the caveat that we have been making music together for 12 years in previous bands. We've been accused of serial band-starting. We'll start a new one just because we joked about it over lunch or something. While recording, we weren't very cognizant of the developing global pandemic. We were 85% done with mixing/mastering when shutdown came to be.
2. This album sounds amazing, yet you’ve stated before it was recorded entirely with one mic (this must be mentioned in every interview because it’s so badass). How did this differ from previous producing in bands like Mini Dresses and Splitting Image? C: Mini Dresses was similarly low-equipment yet that band had some sort of stake in "sounding careful" so there it was lo-fi battling against its own damage. The technical side of Sweeping Promises is more straightforward. Specs: we just tracked in logic pro x. We use the computer passively - we're not big believers in plug-ins and digital editing. Mic position is the only technical thing that determines everything. We don't use headphones so every new track introduces a layer of bleed, which makes for a kind of phasey effect. One mic (Shure KSM 32) set up centrally in our old concrete bunker room. There were overdubs, we would just position the amps or voice around the one mic.
3. A lot of bands might get scared at the prospect of being as immediate as you in both the writing and recording process, how did your process pan out? Was it scary? Invigorating? Dreadful? Fast? Slow? C: The way we figure is that we only have so many hours in a week to make music so we have learned to practice efficiency. An infuriating fact of life, especially in the last generation - you're very lucky if your hobby gets like 6 hours per week! That bands and musicians are learning to minimize their processes and "do less with more" is generic to capitalism, and we should all rebel together against that dogma, but in the meantime SP has decided to embrace the symptom. The hardest part about writing quickly is communicating in a way that is critical and curious enough without breaking the flow of what's happening. An interesting aspect of speed recording is that things are too changeable for feelings of protective ownership to emerge and take over the song before the song is actually done. Fetishization, obsession, and perfectionism can happen easier in longform sessions because there is more psychological time for fantasies to grow into fixations. That's not a bad thing (really good writers know how to rework their fixations), but those kinds of mental concretizations can become stumbling blocks that require "conquering" before one can begin a collaboration in earnest.
4. It’s easy to lump you into the flourishing post-punk sound right now, but you’re doing something different in your approach that sounds timeless. How did the project start and when did you start thinking, “there’s an album here”? L: That’s very kind of you to say! We wrote the first half of the album in one evening, with no premeditated plan to start a new project. Having access to a space with all our gear set up and ready to write was a HUGE part of capturing this newly rediscovered spontaneous songwriting energy; after we wrote those four or five songs in one go, we said to ourselves, ‘Huh, maybe we should keep this up and see how far we can take it.’
5. Now that there’s presumably more time for leisure, what have you been listening to/reading? And if you’re feeling courageous, what were your most cringe-worthy musical and/or literary phases as a youngin? L: We’re currently making our way through Agnès Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, the first really thorough philosophical (and not strictly musicological) treatise on pop music that systematically tracks pop’s historical morphology, placing a particular emphasis on pop’s industrial production and physical reproduction/dissemination, and how the very nature of pop as a recorded work guides the creation of its various and overlapping aesthetic modes ranging from studio production methods, codified vocal affectations, even dance crazes.
NTS Radio recently did a program on the composer Julius Eastman, so I’ve been going on a deep dive of his and came across his piece for ten cellos called “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” which totally knocked me out. It’s heavy and foreboding and full of tension, both enchanting and terrifying all at once (which is probably how Joan of Arc felt when she realized she could talk to God...).
As for cringe teen media obsessions, I was a huge music biography nerd. My beat-up, internationally-shipped copy of Deborah Curtis’s Touching From a Distance was one of my most prized possessions, and I even based a high school history project around Jeff Buckley because I’d read Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. Try as I might, I failed to convince my history teacher that Jeff Buckley’s contributions to music and his untimely death made him a modern-day hero. *sigh*
6. You’re from Boston. People in the DIY music scene often talk about how much of a struggle it is to be an artist in Boston, price-wise and career-wise, and this could only be heightened in a pandemic. Has this been your personal experience with the city? Are you still in Boston? C: Without institutional backing, we would not recommend moving to Boston if creative media tendencies constitute a significant aspect of your life. We mean no slight to the heroic organizers there who are trying to make the city more hospitable to the underground - sometimes the beauty continues on against the odds! Boston is exhausting, shiny, financialized, prohibitive: it has very thin social links. Caufield grew up in Austin pre-2008 - a much different place! The slacker dream of cheap rent, artist collectives, and "weird" non-goal-oriented curiosity was still around in spirit, not as cynically sloganized as today. That said, it is the worst Austin cliché to say Austin is over. We have been quarantining here so we haven't seen the city in action. The feeling we get from local friends and acquaintances is one of mixed rage and hope.
7. Less personally, how has your view on our late-stage capitalist America been, and with vaccines coming out, what are your hopes for this country once the pandemic rolls over (fingers crossed)? L: We talk frequently about how it took nothing short of a global pandemic to encourage folks to imagine a different kind of existence, a different kind of life for themselves. I think a lot about how, in those first few weeks of lockdown, one of the major news stories was how the canals in Venice had cleared into a crystalline blue, for the first time in years. Numerous studies emerged about how the air quality in major cities had vastly improved because no one was flying or driving anywhere. Something like 40 million Americans filed for unemployment, while billionaires simultaneously saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars. And as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor shocked and horrified the constantly news-facing public, an amazing number of activists took to the streets, masked up and socially distanced, yet still in solidarity with one another.
We hope that, as more and more people get vaccinated and the calls to “return to normal” intensify, that the memory of this past year and all that it laid bare — the chasms of social and economic inequality, systemic racism, ecological collapse — does not immediately fade from view, but rather inspires folks to keep fighting for a more equitable, just, and sustainable future.
8. Many artists have used the pandemic to make new music, and are waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel to put it out (for touring and in-person promotion, of which I’m sure you’re very aware). How does the process for this project look now? Has it changed, in rehearsal or recording? C: No change, except we lost our recording space and now record in Caufield's parents' sound insulated bathroom. That part is hellish, haha, but many other bands have been more thoroughly derailed. We just constantly make music, no matter who's listening or how. We're definitely wanting to tour a lot at the end of 2021 and through 2022. But nobody can hang their hat on music plans; it's best to just keep making music as if no one will listen.
9. Similarly, what has your lyric writing process usually looked like? Where do you draw inspiration? L: Most of the time, the lyrics are improvised on the spot, usually borne out of some subconscious reckoning with the day’s events as a means of psychic self-reclamation in the wake of work-induced mental and spiritual exhaustion. Songs like “Hunger For a Way Out” and “Safe Now” emerged out of mantra-esque repetition, phrases around which the rest of the song was built.
10. Finally, Lira, you’re a seasoned pastry chef - what baked good would you recommend as solace for the sad and uncertain people of the world? L: Modest though it may seem, I would say nothing really comes close to the spirit-restoring powers of a freshly baked homemade cookie, mere moments out of the oven. The beauty of the cookie is that it is endlessly adaptable — whether you enjoy a chewy or crisp cookie, as a simple buttery-sugary confection or studded with a bunch of inclusions like toothsome nuts, melty chocolate, or warm fragrant spices (or all of the above!) — the cookie is reliable, unfailing, a welcome hug that warms you up on the inside. I baked a lot of cookies throughout the pandemic, and it was always a good decision. Word to the wise: make a double batch of your favorite cookie dough recipe, scoop it into your desired size, and save ‘em in a zip-top bag in your freezer. Future You will be forever grateful.