When I sat down with two-thirds of Sightings in the backyard of singer Mark Morgan’s East Williamsburg apartment, their new record City of Straw hadn’t dropped yet, and I had only heard a downloaded version a few times. Hearing the high production values (well, relatively speaking) and not much else, I rather uselessly suggested that it continued in the direction of their Andrew W.K.-helmed 2007 release Through the Panama. After a few more spins, it became clear that the vocals were more textural, the arrangements sparser; it is, simply put, its own beast. City of Straw is the new Sightings record, and it sounds like Sightings. It is vital, lean, and essential listening for anyone interested in new, forward- thinking aggressive rock.
In conversation, Morgan and bassist Richard Hoffman shared a relaxed but sober demeanor that bespoke a very grounded outlook. They don’t support themselves on money from their music, nor do they claim to have any expectation of doing so. “Corniness” seemed to be the ultimate taboo in the band’s world, and references to Black Flag seemed appropriate given the steady, workmanlike intensity they bring to their craft. They couldn’t see much of what I was saying about a trajectory towards accessibility and seemed to regard their work in an abstract, near-elemental light, as “the place where these three musicians meet.”
So I have listened to City of Straw now a few times and I wanted to talk a little bit about how your sound has changed over the years. To me, it sounds like with Through the Panama and now with City of Straw, the songs build out from more solid and traditional structures, whereas on some of your older records it sounded like you struck upon moods or parts while improvising and then imposed structures onto them. This of course could be way off base, but it’s what it sounds like to me. Has the way you guys write songs changed over the course of your being a band?
Richard Hoffman: From the get go, we were writing songs. It was just that the production was so dirty you couldn’t tell. I don’t think things have dramatically changed over the ten years we’ve been a band. What’s mostly changed is the production quality.
Mark Morgan: We’ve always been jamming. No one has ever come in in the history of the band and said, “I’ve got a song!” That just never happens. We are who we are, and there are general patterns and habits.
R: We’ve been really good at writing these more concise, poppier songs all of a sudden. And it seems to be, just after playing together for so long, we just have a more telepathic communication thing going on. But we’re still just coming in to the space and jamming. We went through a period where we tried to have the songs seem more like a groove, where nothing seemed to move and it sorted shifted incrementally over time until it ended up in a different place. But that was only one aspect of what we were doing.
People have said that we are trying to get popular, and they’ll point to Andrew W.K. on the last record or our move to Jagjaguwar for the new one. If anyone thinks we are going to get popular playing this kind of music … I mean it’s freaking obtuse. And not saying we’re that crazy or anything, but that’s just the truth. After 11 years, we do have a little more money. Oneida hooked us up with some good studio time to record this record.
M: Early on we tried to record in studios, but we didn’t know what we were doing and we ended up preferring the shit-in-a-can sound that we got from a four- or eight-track.
R: That became a severe limitation, and it’s been refreshing to have more possibilities to open our sound to.
M: There’s not really compromise because this isn’t our source of income and we have no illusions of becoming “successful.” If we make $100 each for a big show — cool.
“And then we see Mark come out, still putting on his clothes and followed by this border agent taking off his gloves, and he has this grimace on his face. So Jon and I look at each like ‘oh no…’ [Laughs]”
After the first few spins, “We all Amplify” stuck out from the more oblique stuff on the record because it has a graspable, repeating bass melody and the vocals are really clear and expressive. That’s not always true of Sightings songs! I guess that’s what I was trying to get at with my first question — Do you see yourself as moving toward more straightforward rock songwriting?
M: It’s funny you should say that, because that’s the oldest song on the record. We wrote it in 2007. I think that one might just stick out because it’s got like a more sensitive vocal or whatever.
R: To me, some of the stuff on like Arrived in Gold is more poppy than that.
M: At this point it’s probably my least-favorite song on the record.
[Laughs] Fair enough. The mood and flow of the record sounds like there may be an underlying narrative gluing it all together, or at least some very strongly developed themes guiding it. Can you talk about what was inspiring you when you were writing and recording City of Straw?
R: That’s what I think is funny, when I read reviews and stuff, people will impute all this intention to the artist, as if it’s all part of some greater conceptual master plan. When you actually make a record, so much of it is actually accident and compromise.
M: I was the same way before I was in a band. I thought “how did they conceive of this whole thing? What a masterwork!” Probably similar to how we’ve made our records, you just start with a plan and see what happens.
A lot of the songs, I was … I mean, I wrote the lyrics an hour before the recording session, and I don’t think that deems what the song is about, because the music that is going with it … I don’t want to attach some sort of mystical meaning to it, because it’s a fucking rock song, I don’t fucking know. These guys don’t have anything to do with the lyrics, besides being editors, they let me know if something’s fucking corny. But it’s not like “Hey, Mark, how ‘bout you write a song about going to Six Flags?” It doesn’t really work that way, and it’s unfair to those guys to say, “This is what the lyrics are about, so therefore that’s what this song’s about.”
R: I appreciate that Mark’s lyrics leave it open to the listener to interpret it. Sometimes songs get too frozen in time if the lyrics are too literal.
Well, were there any music/literature etc. that had a particular influence on the record? I mean, what were the band discussions like before making the record?
M: When we first started out [as a band], it was more like we’d go to Richard’s house, and it would be hanging out with the bros, listening to music, and getting wasted. I mean we still get wasted, but …
R: Less hanging out with the bros, fortunately or unfortunately.
M: It was more of a communal thing, Jon had two turntables set up and we’d just play DJ for each other. That doesn’t really happen where we pass so much music on to one another anymore.
R: Each person in the band has a very established musical personality. When we first started, things were a lot more nebulous. It is really just a thing where we all kinda do what we do, and we have to take the places where those things meet. We can’t even really have a conversation about how we’re going to write a song of, “such and such style. I just always think of Sightings as, “this is the place where these three musical personalities meet.” We can play other things, and I have a lot of other interests in music, but that is what Sightings is. This stuff links together in certain ways whenever it does. [Laughs]
“That’s what I think is funny, when I read reviews and stuff, people will impute all this intention to the artist, as if it’s all part of some greater conceptual master plan. When you actually make a record, so much of it is actually accident and compromise.”
With that in mind, what are some of the ways you keep it from getting stale and falling into the same musical patterns?
M: It’s hard [to keep it fresh]. We play three times a week, you go through dry spells, and you know you’re just working, waiting around for something to happen that is going to continue to excite you. Obviously our ceiling for it is a lot higher now, because we’ve been around for whatever 11 years now. All three of us have slowly progressed into developing our styles, and I don’t think any of us would want to be in the band if there were periods where it felt stale for years on end. Little breakthroughs sort of sustain you.
R: We used to put more pressure on ourselves — “we must be earth shatteringly groundbreaking at all times!” — and then at some moment you go “that’s not even a possibility any way, were we ever that?”
M: And then we realized we just ARE earth shatteringly groundbreaking. [Laughs]
R: Every band has a style, and we’re not going to try to stay within our style, but…
M: Our style is our taste.
R: We know we’re not getting too far away from where we’re at.
R: Also, it’s something where, if Mark doesn’t really love a song, I know that.
M: There’s a few things about certain songs…there might be a drum part I’m not too keen on, there might be a bass part I’m not too keen on. But you gotta look at the overall picture. You know what, in an ideal world I wouldn’t have to compromise, and there are some things worth fighting for, but with a lot of things where you might think it’s lame and in a few years you hear it and it’s like “that really cool!” It takes a while for certain things to gestate.
R: Not to get corny, but you have to have a certain trust in the other people in the band.
M: Like most human beings, I have a pretty good fear of embarrassment, and if I felt like the other two people could potentially embarass me on a regular basis, I wouldn’t be in a band with them.
R: Mark and I always from the start, as the two people doing the more tonal aspects of the band, have been pretty good at calling out corniness. Owning up to it on our own parts, and calling it out on each other.
M: But there’s some times where, like, something that seems so corny to someone in an elementary way, the other person will be like “well, that’s really cool.”
R: He’s talking about me. I’m always throwing out riffs that I think are corny and the other guys will be like “sounded fine to me.” [Laughs]
After a decade of living and playing in North Brooklyn, a lot has changed, both in the neighborhood and in the underground rock and noise scenes. For one, there seems to be a lot larger audience for weirder, avant shit. How do you guys assess what’s going on right now, in 2010? Do you like being a Brooklyn band right now?
R: I don’t think we ever thought much about that. It’s just like any other town: different characters come in and put on shows, and different bands are there..
M: And then they just pass away into the sky…
R: I’ll go see shows and occasionally I’ll really enjoy the performance of a local band. But I’d never buy the record. Because a lot of this stuff, for lack of a better term, in the noise-rock world, it’s about energy and performance. It’s not really about some sort of incredible sense of songwriting a band has.
M: I guess I was more excited about things when I was younger, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the transformation of this particular area in Brooklyn. It’s more just my age. If I can get excited about three records a year, I mean I’m fucking … stoked. And I don’t think it’s necessarily that I have such gold-plated bullshit detectors or anything. I was just telling Richard I just heard this record last night; I’ve never heard anything like it before, it’s a truly remarkable record, it made me really feel alive, like for five minutes I was 21 again and I was like “This is awesome.”
What was it??
M: This Japanese band Gedo — from 1972. A live show that was treated in the studio with some sort of Roland space echo thing. It sounds like a vat of Robitussin was thrown on the thing and it’s like “blrghhaaaaa.” But it sounds very musical, it’s just a little slower than it should be.
It sounds like you don’t necessarily identify real strongly with any contemporary noise scene, and reviewers are often at a loss to identify your musical influences. What lineages from the past do you tend to connect with?
R: I read somewhere on the internet that we’re “a band without antecedents,” which is bullshit. We’re one part Black Flag for sure. I’m a big jazz head.
M: We’re all pretty avid hard-rock fans.
R: Well, more than just hard rock.
M: The idea was always, we wanted to rock but we didn’t want it to sound like a riff. I mean there are riffs there, but we wanted everything to rock but be obtuse at the same time. To have a hooky element without it sounding like anything I’ve heard before. We could be a band that imitate the same idiot riff from a million records that have come before, but it’s like find your own fucking sound.
R: Well, yes, to an extent, but sometimes I think, Mark, that you don’t want to admit that we are trying to sound like anything. When I first started playing bass, I wanted to sound exactly David William Sims [of The Jesus Lizard], because that guy was a fucking badass!
“Little breakthroughs sort of sustain you.”
You mentioned Black Flag, and one of the things I always identify them with Greg Ginn is maintaining your day job as a way to keep motivations “pure,” which goes back to what you were saying before about not compromising. What do you guys do to pay rent?
R: I’m an art handler, and I also work at a thrift store.
M: I’m a project manager — assistant project manager — at a construction company. And Jon’s a maseuse.
R: Mark and I especially have a fair amount of flexibility schedule wise, which is great, but then it kind of sucks for things like financial security. So we better get rich and famous quick, Mark.
M: Meh it’s not going to happen.
You are about to leave on a 3-week tour in support of City of Straw. Can I hear a good road story from the annals of Sightings tours?
M: [smiling to Richard] Should we tell him the strip-search story?
Yes you should. What’s the strip search story?
M: We were crossing over from [Bass County]? in Spain to the southwestern border of France and we get to the border check.
R: The guy driving in front of me did this sort of idiot maneuver in his car, and right away we knew we were going to get stopped.
M: Sure enough they open up the van and bring in the dogs and everything. We had been hanging out the night before with people who were smoking hash, which we did not partake of, but the smell was all over my jeans. So the dog is going crazy and biting at my ass and everything. So they take me to this little shed off the side of the highway. I had a good chunk of cash on me at the time from touring Europe for a while, and of course they’re asking me what I’m doing with all this money. So they tell me to take off my clothes, but they have me leave my socks on, which I thought was like that thing were you feel most humiliated when you are totally naked except for black socks. And I was starting to prepare myself for the full cavity search when they told me to put my clothes back on.
R: In the meantime, Jon and I had been jokingly going over the worst-case scenarios of what could be happening. And then we see Mark come out, still putting on his clothes and followed by this border agent taking off his gloves, and he has this grimace on his face. So Jon and I look at each like “oh no …” [Laughs]