THE SOUND OF ANIMALS FIGHTING
The Nightingale on why this might be the last album from the collective
The Sound Of Animals Fighting is the best post-hardcore band you've never heard of. Despite the big names associated with the band, The Sound Of Animals Fighting has been resolute about maintaining the separate identity and creative purity of the project; going as far as wearing masks, and insisting the media only refer to them by their animal names in write-ups. New album The Ocean and The Sun sees the band combine the experimental sounds of their second album with the guitar-driven template of the first; creating a ground-breaking record that made our Staff Picks of 2008. However the changing circumstances of the band, and the restrictions of the pact made at its creation may mean this album will be remembered for other reasons. Ruth Midget caught up with The Nightingale to find out why this might be the last ever record from the The Sound Of Animals Fighting..."There's something to be said for bands that in the past have stopped while they were ahead, you know? A lot of TV shows come back 'cause all of a sudden there's money and demand, and I just... I don't know, I'm rambling now. Interviews have been different since I had a kid. This is only the second one I've done and usually I'm very eloquent and precise in interviews, and these last two I just find myself rambling. That might be because there's so many things on my mind, I don't know..."
We may not have caught The Nightingale at his best. Former full-time musician, now English teacher, the frontman for experimental project The Sound Of Animals Fighting is Very Tired Indeed. Two weeks ago, his wife gave birth to their first child, their baby girl. It’d be pretty understandable if that was the only reason why he was feeling a bit out of it, but on top of it, he’s got a new album The Ocean and The Sea to promote. And as if being knee-deep in nappies wasn’t enough, RM is calling on the same day that the In-Laws have come to visit. Um, oops...
Then again, as a band who never tour, the promotional junket has always been a little strange for The Sound Of Animals Fighting. In a way, that's kind of how The Nightingale likes it – after all, getting away from the usual music industry structure is after all why he formed the band in the first place. However, the re-evaluation of life that comes with bringing a new child into the world isn’t the only thing on The Nightingale’s mind. Right now it seems that his own personal return of Saturn will also bring some pretty big changes to his creative life too.
The Nightingale brought The Sound Of Animals Fighting together four years ago with a specific idea in mind - to get back to the roots of what they loved about music. An outlet away from the four founding members’ existing bands, the idea was to preserve the creative purity of each album as much as possible. Each member recorded their parts separately; there would be no touring, no massive press junkets. The band even went as far as to ditch their identities completely, wearing masks in all promo shoots and insisting write-ups only referred to them by their animal names - The Nightingale, The Walrus, The Skunk and The Lynx (though a quick search on wikipedia usually comes up with the goods).
This has meant that the band have had to find less "conventional" ways to grow instead; from giving away limited edition masks to numbered 7" releases. This time it’s their move from Equal Vision records, the label who released their first two albums, to Epitaph. While he says the band are still friends with their old label, Nightingale admits part of the reason was simply wanting to change it up "just because". "The main reason is that all of my favourite bands have albums out on different labels," he explains. However, a large part of the decision was more practical.
" When you're a band like us and you’re not touring, you gotta figure out ways to get your music out to people [and] grow in creative ways. Since all we have is our music, putting our music out on various labels exposes us to various channels of listeners, if that makes any sense... We definitely don't get rich off of this band, that's for sure. I have a full time job, my wife has a full time job and we're still struggling like anybody else."
However, the decision to avoid the touring circuit isn’t one he regrets for a moment.
"No, not at all. It's actually kind of cool!" explains The Nightingale. "In my opinion, making music is the magic of it and that's where I get enjoyment and I'm sure that's how it is with a lot of these guys."
"It's fun to play in front of people, there's no doubt about that, but really that's just kind of a strange ritual where the band is onstage like ten feet above the crowd. In a weird way it's almost like bands get their ego stroked performing live, because if it was really just about getting your music heard and appreciated, you don't need to play live to do that. So why do bands play live? Because they love their music so much that they just want to play it in front of people live? Why can't they play it through a stereo? I think that underneath it all, most live musicians enjoy the ego boost that comes with playing live!" he laughs.
With all that in mind, it’s impressive that the band have made such an impact on the punk rock scene in the States. Many RM readers may already know the band from their second breakthrough album Lover, The Lord Has Left Us...; though originally, the popularity of the record was never even on the cards. Not an easy album by any means, the band’s taste for abstract melodic sound had taken on a more electronic bent and broader cultural influences from the East into their alt rock. But the allure of tracks such as the hypnotic ‘Skullflower’, helped along by the plethora of guest appearances, meant that Lover... was a hit on the US indie and punk rock scenes. So much so, that the band decided to go ahead with a weekend of one-off live shows (eventually documented in We Must Become The Change We Want To See DVD in 2007). They sold out almost immediately.
"I think that even though I believe The Ocean and the Sun is our finest moment as a band, I feel like years from now, Lover... is going to be that one that people that care about our band say that was the swansong. Like I said, I think this new album's far better, but I think that there are ideas and sounds that are still not appreciated on Lover... and I think that people will also look back and think of how cool it was that so many people were involved - but that wasn't our intention."
While you would imagine the success of the last album would make it easier on the band, new album The Ocean and The Sun would turn out to be a tricky record to put together for the four members. With the increasing success of the main projects of the band members, other commitments would mean sessions would often be split across 2 month periods; even though each member had the luxury of a week to record their parts this time, rather than the usual one day restriction put on past records.
However, the biggest problem wouldn’t be scheduling, but would simply trying to get their thoughts together. From Tiger and The Duke the band had the choice of going back to the guitar-based sound they missed on the last record; from Lover.., experimentation and dabbling in Oriental structure. Trying to reconcile these two different sides of the band originally led The Nightingale to post on the band's Myspace claiming the record was "a difficult album to tame".
"When I say tame, I just mean focus the plethora of ideas that were there. There were so many ideas, we didn't want to just throw them all onto this album in just disarray and end up with complete chaos. Honing in on what made the most logical sense and filtering through the many, many ideas we had was quite difficult." In the end, the resulting album almost served as the band's 'greatest hits’, with tracks like ‘Uzbekhistan’ hinting at a Warp-influenced sound, while elsewhere, songs like the title track explored the band’s rockier roots.
As on past releases, the new record sees the band paying tribute to work of their favourite artists and writers, including Herman Melville ('Ahab'), Dostoyevsky ('On The Occasion Of Wet Snow') and Kurt Vonnegut ('Blessings Be Yours Mister V'), while Sheldon Hunt was recruited to apply his trademark photographic/geometric style to the cover. However, the writer whose work resonates throughout the record is that of Stephen Crane, author of the novel The Red Badge Of Courage; specifically the poem 'In The Desert', which appears twice on the record – once in English, and once in Faarsi.
"I'd always known about the author, but I didn't realise what a brilliant poet he was. I just happened to come across that poem one day last year, and I just thought it was so cool and short and beautiful that I just wanted to make it a part of this album.
"I just I love music so much, it's so much a part of me, that I just love to feel like the people that make me want to do art are also a part of what I do. So when I read something like the Stephen Crane poems and they resonate in me like those did, I just so badly want to make Stephen Crane a part of this band. So then kind of to pay tribute that poem becomes a part of our fabric."
However, one big difference fans of Lover... will notice is the lack of guest appearances in comparison to the last record. "For Lover... we were going to continue with the four of us and maybe have some people drop by. But so many people started dropping by that [it] fueled us to put even more people on it, and then it just became like a big, one long kind of cornucopeia of guest artists... When this third one came, it was just time to strip it back down again and kind of see the band off with the original four."
When The Nightingale says "see the band off", it’s not just an expression - this might very well be the last record from The Sound Of Animals Fighting. When the band formed, another part of the pact they made put a limit on the number of records that the band released. Many things have changed since the band's first release three years ago, with various members starting other solo and band projects, all of which making The Ocean and The Sun, as The Nightingale acknowledges, "the hardest record to put together so far". However, with the birth of his first child, and the unexpected success of the band's second record, The Nightingale has already begun to reconsider why the band first started.
"A lot of things have changed in each of your lives over the past few years. How has this affected recording?"
"The record was done long before my child was born, but definitely the pregnancy put a different perspective on life for me," he recalls. "The first version of The Tiger and The Duke I put out myself in 2005, so it's only been about 3 years, but I look back to where I was, what I was doing and how I acted, and I am completely different. I can only assume that that is the same for the other guys. So that's going to affect the music and that's the drive to continue putting out music or not. This very well could be the last album, we don't know. We don't really have an intention to continue after this release."
"I was actually going to ask you about this. You'd said in the past there would always be a third album because, as you said at the time, "trilogies feel right", so I've always wondered what the future would be after this."
"You know, I don't wanna just take the option completely off the table," muses The Nightingale, "but I just feel like the project's served it's purpose. At the beginning, the project was completely just raw and pure and a complete escape - an outlet outside of everyone else's band. What has happened is that now this project has started to gain some success, it's starting to change how the songs are written and what we have in mind to do. We said we'd only play one weekend of shows, but now that there's a new album out, there's a question of should we do another weekend of shows. I don't like how a little bit of success can change attitudes and stuff. Even though I've grown as a person and I'm different than I was, I'm really trying to uphold kind of the pact we made in 2005 [which is] I'm not interested in playing more shows and continuing past the third album.
"There's something to be said for bands that in the past have stopped while they were ahead, you know? I think eventually the people that are into our music, while they'll still appreciate it, could possibly grow themselves and find other things to listen to. I don't know if you get Seinfeld there, that stopped while it was ahead, and never came back. A lot of TV shows come back 'cause all of a sudden there's money and demand, and I just..."
He stops for a moment, a little frustrated. "I don't know, I'm rambling now. Interviews have been different since I had a kid. This is only the second one I've done and usually I'm very eloquent and precise in interviews, and these last two I just find myself rambling. That might be because there's so many things on my mind, I don't know...
"But what I do know," he continues, finding his thread again, "is bands like Refused or Operation Ivy, these bands stopped, and never came back. I don't know if we'd be doing the band or the world good making seven albums. Why exactly would we make seven albums? I think three is a good number. If anybody involved wants to continue having an outlet on the side they can form something new, and that would keep the excitement going more than a fourth, fifth, or sixth album from us."
"It’s always been important to you to preserve the separate identity of the project. Now that the band has its own popularity, it seems that to preserve the creative purity of the project, you feel like you have to end it. Do you feel that reaching this stage was almost innevitable?"
"Yeah, I think just listening to you talk right now, you're exactly on the same page as my thoughts. Almost to preserve the purity of the project, I feel like we almost have to stop. Whether or not it was innevitable, I may have never realised that until now. Looking back, I should have always known that all bands come to an end, but not until now does it seem clear to me that we've done what we came to do.
"Our lives aren't going to stop, our music careers will not stop if this band never makes a new album. As far as I'm concerned, it's only put us in a better position to start even more projects, which will a) prolong us as musicians; b) keep everything fresh; and c) kind of preserve The Sound Of Animals Fighting as something natural that happened between a certain period of years, that eventually will be re-discovered throughout many many years to come. The new wave of people that are interested won't stumble upon a band that put out seven albums, and by the seventh album they were hated because too many people disagreed with their ideas or whatever. I'd just rather it be the pure kind of segment of time that it is.
"This is almost turning out to be like a 'Sound of Animals Fighting announces a break-up' kind of interview!" The Nightingale laughs. "But it's not like that. Anything can happen, these are just my thoughts."
Whatever happens, it seems it certainly won't be the last project from any of the members.The Lynx and The Walrus are currently touring with their own bands, while The Skunk is currently working on a new album with his new band, a solo project and a rumoured third side project involving members of Chiodos and Emarosa.
"These other guys involved in the band are so talented, I mean they're ridiculous, ridiculously talented," enthuses The Nightingale humbly." I have no doubt that if The Sound Of Animals fighting broke up, first of all everyone else's bands are more successful than this project anyway, so they're not going to be hurt, and they need to expand their horizons anyway... There's no reason to kind of say, 'oh crap, we didn't know that this band was gonna be so successful and now it is, so instead of exploring the fear of the unknown and starting a new project from scratch, let's run this one into the ground.'
"So what sticks with you most from The Sound Of Animals Fighting – all the music you’ve created, all the memories?"
"Out of all the memories, I think that weekend we did shows in Southern California. Basically everybody flew in and we got together and had a little party, and then we practised for two days and then we had the shows. Before that time I was the only person that knew everybody, because I essentially recruited everyone into the project.This was long after Lover... was released, so there had been two albums out - that at that point had started doing really well - and still the band had no idea what anybody else was like! And so that first night when we all kind of gathered in the same room for the first time after doing two albums together, after never having a conversation in the same room, I think that that was pretty cool. I definitely look back at that and smile."
"So what happens next?"
"Well, the album comes out and we just wait and see what happens, and what people think.You know, people say don't pay attention to reviews, but I have to, I love seeing what people say. My blood starts boiling when the kids on the internet start trash talking cos it's so funny. Like Lover... comes out, everybody hates it because it doesn't sound like Tiger..., and when we release ‘The Heraldic Beak’, there's a lot of good feedback, but also there's a lot of kids that are like ‘oh you should make it sound more like Lover...’. It's just like ‘oh come on!’ You can't ever win, people just love to be negative on the internet... but I can't stop reading it either! At the end of the day I laugh, but man, sometimes it really strikes a chord and..."
He stops and sighs. "Oh well. That's one thing I need to work on as a person, is not letting things get to me like that."
At this point we leave The Nightingale, making a recording his father-in-law on the guitar, for the family to pass on for posterity - and hopefully a nice long nap. Will The Sound Of Animals Fighting make another album after this? Who knows. In The Ocean and The Sun he’d be justified in feeling they had completed the trilogy with an album as beautiful and complex as he could hope for; and something they could easy move on from with no regrets.
Click HERE for our The Nightingale’s Track-By-Track guide to The Ocean and The Sun
Click HERE to enter our competition to win The Sound of Animals Fighting masks.
The Ocean and The Sun is out now on Epitaph.