Five years ago, when A Sunny Day In Glasgow finished their seminal breakthrough Ashes Grammar, I moved to the Bay Area from Chicago under turbulent circumstances. Turmoil played a role in the creation of the album, too: Playing through a stressful period that bore a hurricane and several lineup changes, the Philly outfit only formed into a cohesive bond upon completion of the record and touring. Then, each member moved, with bandleader Ben Daniels relocating to Australia with Annie Fredrickson, while Jen Goma returned to Brooklyn.
Still, the bond stuck, and hearing them talk, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from a group of friends you’d see at a bar. And from this, you can understand the cohesiveness that went into their first album in four years, Sea When Absent.
TMT spoke with A Sunny Day In Glasgow on the separation and absence from the scene, as well as what happened to that pony.
You guys have been out of the game for about four years, since Autumn Again. What kept you guys away?
Ben Daniels: Logistics, mostly. We’re all in different cities, spread out across countries, and that contributed to it. But also, working in a professional studio, we were subject to that schedule as well. That did just as much, if not more, to stretch out the time. We also ran out of money along the way and had to get some. So yeah, it was mostly logistical stuff. It wasn’t like we weren’t doing anything for four years.
Jen Goma: “Yeah, let’s not do anything for four years!”
Josh Meakim: I think we all needed a break from the last tour. We took a year before we talked about doing anything.
Daniels: I did think this album would come out last year.
Meakim and Goma: Yeah.
Have those four years have changed how you approached music?
Daniels: Some things, necessarily yes. When you live that far apart, it becomes very important to the process. It’s maybe not something you think about when you think about music.
Goma: Approach is such an interesting word, too. I guess I’m curious about what you mean by approach.
Not just how you view it, but how you view the creation of it.
Goma: Like, how did taking that much time change it?
Daniels: I don’t know. It’s frustrating, I suppose, that it took that long. A lot of the demos for these songs were from 2010 and 2011. It’s so long ago. I feel like I’d have to write more songs to see if it changed.
Goma: How we’re approaching it now feels the same in terms of, you know, we got together and practiced. We had things we wanted to accomplish for the tour. But again, that time frame was never in the grand plan. It just happened.
Meakim: Of course, things change about how you approach most things in life.
Daniels: I hope so. I hope that the next time we record music, it’s different. It’s been different every time.
Goma: I guess how we record it will definitely change how we approach the next album. [laughs]
What was the studio you recorded at?
Meakim: Uniform Recordings. It’s in Philadelphia, run by a friend of ours, Jeff Ziegler.
Daniels: You know The War on Drugs? That was kind of his priority. We all thought the album would be done before they started recording, and then that didn’t happen. So he had to devote a lot of time to that and other projects.
There’s a song on Ashes Grammar called “Miss My Friends,” which is there because I didn’t see my friends for, yeah, six months.
Jen, you’re in New York, Ben, you’re in… Australia, right?
Daniels: Originally from Philly, but yeah.
Right. So, has Philly changed for you since then?
Meakim: How do you mean?
I guess spending time in Philly since the last album.
Meakim: Well, I lived outside of Philly for a very long time, and at the end of our last tour — actually, the week we got back — I finally moved to Philly.
Daniels: Like Philly proper. You weren’t that far away.
Meakim: True. Anyway, being in the city has changed a lot of things. I’ve definitely become more engrained in the music community there. It’s alway been a good home base for me, and I’m pretty happy there. A lot of my friends are there.
And has being in the music community helped in any way?
Meakim: Oh, definitely. There’s a lot of great people there. Like Jeff is a good friend, and I played in his band. I’m playing in a lot of bands there. The War on Drugs are good dudes, I got to tour with them not too long ago. I’m not exactly sure where my answer is going.
Goma: But yeah, we always go to Philly in the end. That’s where the van is. That’s where the basements are that we can practice. It’s very comforting to know we can go there and we know how everything works.
Daniels: I think it’s finally broken for me, but a long time [ago], Philly was the only place I could write and do music. It’s a weird thing, which I don’t know if you get, but at least when I move to a new apartment, I can’t do anything in the space. I’ll be like, “Oh, I’ll set up my gear tomorrow and I’ll watch a movie tonight.” I’ll do that for six months, and then it’s like, “OK, I can push buttons and play guitar.” I’m kind of over that now.
It’s funny you say that. I was kind of like that for a while, but once I got back to Chicago, I started writing again, naturally.
Daniels: I’m a huge believer in place influencing your personal psychology and stuff like that.
Now, what drew you back to recording?
Daniels: Why did we want to make another record? I guess it’s the same reason you want to make the first record. There’s probably something wrong with you enough to adopt this lifestyle!
Goma: It was in our heads. It wasn’t a question of “should we?” It was more of a, “So, about the next record…” That’s how we feel about the next record. We didn’t exactly take a poll of, “Hey, do you want to do this or not?” You just start talking about it, and then it starts happening.
Meakim: It’s very rare to find six people willing to commit to something like this. It’s there, we should take advantage of it. Hard as it is at times, I do enjoy making music with everybody. I couldn’t imagine not doing it.
Daniels: This is what I do for fun. I don’t really go out. “What are we gonna do tonight?” “Well, I’m gonna drink wine and write songs.”
By the way, is there just one van?
Goma: Oh yeah.
Meakim: One’s enough, there’s no reason for two. A headache.
Daniels: One is more than enough. [Annie Fredrickson walks in] This is Annie.
Fredrickson: Hello, sorry.
No it’s OK! Anyway, going into the recording process, was there as much tumult in this album as there was in Ashes Grammar?
Daniels: Yes. So, when we recorded that album, we rented this dance studio in rural New Jersey, an hour-and-a-half drive from Philly. We only had it on the weekends. So we’d go out on Saturday morning, be there until midnight, come back, go out on Sunday again. That was great, because it was beautiful where this studio is. You’d take a break, and it’s really pretty: There’s a river there, it’s really nice. That was a really good time. But then the week was just pure stress: My day job was crazy, it was just so stressful. This record was annoying because it took a long time, and it was frustrating. But it was nowhere near as stressful as Ashes Grammar.
Meakim: Ben and I worked full time.
Daniels: There was a moment when Josh was going to be the lead singer of the band. So we were like, “We’re done, we’re finished.”
Meakim: But yeah, it would be we worked 40 hours a week, mix every night…
Daniels: More like 60 hours a week, because my job was awful.
Meakim: Yeah, he would work even more. Then the weekend comes. I don’t think I saw my friends for about six months.
Daniels: There’s a song on Ashes Grammar called “Miss My Friends,” which is there because I didn’t see my friends for, yeah, six months.
Even while you’re communicating about how to make this album while the dot is moving along — we are communicating, things are happening — the whole time you’re like, ‘This could be better,’ or ‘We can do it different.’ And so even while we definitely made progress with this album, there’s still so much more progress that we’re all really wanting to happen.
I would write about that too. Anyway, there’s a lot of experimentations in Autumn Again and Ashes Grammar. Was there any more of that this time around?
Daniels: The stuff with Ashes was cool because the studio was enormous. You can fit a small airplane in there. So it was really cool to spread mics out, do the weird make-the-room-resonate thing sort of like that Lucier album. There was a lot of this in the new album. It was more “set up and do it.”
Meakim: It was pretty straightforward.
Goma: I guess the process was more the experience.
Meakim: But in getting sounds, we were pretty much trying to reproduce demos better, getting more synth sounds. It was more tweaking and less, “Let’s have fun…”
Daniels: With Ashes, usually Philly doesn’t get hurricanes, and the remnants of one kind of came up while we were reocrding there. The studio had tin roofs, and it was so loud. We set up all the mics to the ceiling and recorded an hour of a hurricane. Stuff like that we weren’t going to do while paying a fortune to record.
Absence seems to be hinted at a lot with this album. I sort of noticed this from the beginning with the first track, “Bye Bye (Buried At Sea),” but in other places as well. Was this due to an absence from music, or from being so far apart now?
Goma: That was a thing we talked about, but again, it’s so crazy to answer a question, the answer of which spanned years. It wasn’t like, what was it you said, distance in music?
It was not so much about being distant from music itself, so much as it was being absent from…
Daniels: Being absent from the scene?
Yeah, and that you guys are living in three different places now.
Daniels: The geography is there. I don’t see it being four years since our last album as really a thing, because every one of us has probably played music every single day in that time. It’s not like we threw our guitars down and said, “Screw this!” But yeah, absence is there.
Meakim: As far as the song titles, though, [looks at Ben]… I haven’t asked you these questions, but the whole concept behind the record, how much does that play a role?
Daniels: There’s a bit of that. I hesitate to talk about this because it’s something that people might give more importance to than it deserves. But I had this idea for a story, and I hope someday I’ll write it. I kind of wanted to explore some of those ideas for that in this album. It’s not a concept album. It means different things to different people.
Goma: If I could use this metaphor, it felt more like we had headphones on, and we were listening to all of the ideas that we were bouncing off of each other; and the end result is what we talked about while those ideas were in our heads. It wasn’t like you were listening to what we were listening to, you were listening to what we talked about in terms of the ideas that we were thinking about.
Daniels: In terms of just me, the first song is kind of like when a movie starts with the thing at the end, and then it goes on. It doesn’t go backward, but it does remain linear, maybe.
Goma: Ideas. It’s ideas about ideas.
Meta-ideas, I guess. Or metaphysics.
Daniels: Sure, or both!
Going back to the geographical separation, has that changed the dynamics of the band?
Daniels: The biggest change to group dynamics is the fact that there’s been six people in the band for five years. Since that has happened, we’ve been spread out. And those kind of happened at the same time. We didn’t have a dynamic, and then we all moved apart to these far-flung places, and yet we’re a band.
Goma: But there’s like a big crash course in becoming a band by being together constantly for a year-and-a-half, between 2009-10. Those ties are still binding us today.
Fredrickson: It’s kind of like how you grow up at home, and then you leave home eventually. But then you come back home and visit.
Goma: The timing was right for all of us to get together.
Daniels: Yeah, and it was the best of times and the worst of times, too. [laughs] If we had done that touring and it was like, “Oh, it was fine,” that doesn’t form a bond. It’s when it’s horrible and great that you get that bond.
Goma: Right, you’re never thinking of an alternate version of life. You’re thinking, “This is life. This is how it happens.” [Josh pulls out his phone] Josh is going to start recording too, if you don’t mind.
Meakim: I’m just charging my phone.
Well, we could just record the recording, and make that into a sample for the next album.
Daniels: It would be like, “This is what Josh sounds like: ERROOOOOOOOOO”
Fredrickson: We’re doing jokes now. The next album is just going to be really off-putting.
We always go to Philly in the end. That’s where the van is. That’s where the basements are that we can practice. It’s very comforting to know we can go there and we know how everything works.
Now that you’ve gotten a grasp at how it works out between all of you, do you think this current situation will be workable for the next album?
Daniels: There are a lot of things to sort out, but it’s definitely workable. There are things I learned from this process that I would love to depend on or lean on, and that’d make me happy.
Goma: It just goes along with the theme of everybody is in it. It’s not a question of, “If we’re gonna do it,” but, “How we’re gonna do it.” Those are the conversations we’re having, because if every conversation is: “If, when, how,” then we can’t do it. The conversation’s always been “how.”
Daniels: When I made Scribble Mural [Comic Journal] with my sisters, I didn’t even know what they could do. I didn’t know what I could do. I remember that when that was finished, we have some leftover songs, and we worked on those, and put that out
Goma: But I think we’re all still just talking about what that process has taught us in terms of how to communicate. Even while you’re communicating about how to make this album while the dot is moving along — we are communicating, things are happening — the whole time you’re like, “This could be better,” or “We can do it different.” And so even while we definitely made progress with this album, there’s still so much more progress that we’re all really wanting to happen.
Bouncing off-topic, the song “Double Dutch.” What was the deal with the cut-off?
Daniels: What do you mean?
The singing stops, and then there’s this background.
Fredrickson: Because Jen goes into coughing fits!
Daniels: Oh yeah yeah. That’s a funny story. So originally that song’s going to be the ending of another song that isn’t on the album, but we’ll probably put out eventually. We were like, “Wow, we really like this bit, and it should be its own song,” even though it’s short. So we made it its own song. It was in January 2013, December 2012, and this flu hit the East Coast, and everyone you knew got the flu. It was horrible. Jen never had the flu before, and she got the flu. I had the flu horribly while we were in the studio working. It was just a part of this record. There was a funny day where Jen had to do a bunch of singing, and she was battling the flu. She was hacking her lungs out in the bathroom. Jeff recorded some of this, and I don’t know what half his stuff did, but he quickly pitch-shifted Jen coughing. When Jeff played it when Jen came back from the bathroom, it sounded like this giant “ooourl oourl ouurl” coughing. It was really funny, and Jen was laughing a lot. Then he recorded Jen laughing at herself coughing.
Meakim: And then pitched that down, and recorded her laughing to that.
That is close to Circulatory System-level shit right there.
Goma: Circulatory System…
Daniels: Now, in that song and the song that follows, there’s a certain joy to it that was important to me. So I thought, “This would really go with that.” I wanted that in there.
Fredrickson: Makes me laugh every time I hear that.
Daniels: I was either starting the flu or just getting over it. So I wasn’t fully gone yet.
Goma: I feel like I can laugh at that too, because it doesn’t exactly sound like me, because I am sick. It’s not like when I laughing I’m like, “Aaaaah” all the time like some cawing eagle. It was a funny time.
Daniels: But it was real. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the mic, let’s do some laughing.” That was a very honest moment.
Yeah. It was like that time you mentioned you were going to kidnap a pony.
Meakim: Oh yeah, Pancakes. I just remembered where that came from, too! It was actually [looking at Ben] your parents’ cabin. It hit me, we went back, and we hadn’t been there so long. I guess one of Ben’s relatives’ children, they drew a horse, and it was Pancakes the horse. So every animal we saw after that was Pancakes.
Daniels: While we recorded Ashes Grammar, along the way to the studio, we pass this pony farm — I don’t know what it was, it was really pretty out there — and there was this one tiny, super-adorable pony. We named it Pancakes every time we [drove] by. We were like, “Pancakes!”
Meakim: But he would always be apart from the herd. He would just be off doing his own thing. Pancakes; he was great. We wanted to kidnap him.
Daniels: Yeah, we really wanted to.