A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Interview
“We let go of our egos and found a way to trust each other.”
Collaborations are tricky things. At their worst, they result in two artists compromising their vision to exist on the same recording. Sometimes, the whole concept is so out of touch that the results are simply baffling. However, at their best, as is the case with A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s self-titled debut, collaborations can bring out the best in artists and give a strength and weight to the music that may not have been present if they were going it alone.
On A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Adam Wiltzie provides the blissful seas of sound he perfected with Stars of the Lid, while Dustin O’Halloran’s piano work, mixed with evocative string arrangements, pushes out from that sea of sound to create a sonic landscape that both experiments with classical progressions and shows a mastery of emotional resonance. Apparently, a few of us at Tiny Mix Tapes enjoyed the results.
Wiltzie recently took the time to explain to us what went into this album and what the journey so far has meant to him.
Can you tell me about the first meeting between yourself and Dustin O’Halloran? How did you know you wanted to work together? Were you already fans of each other’s work?
May 24, 2007, Bologna, Italy. I was on the road with Sparklehorse, playing guitar in the band at this point in what would be his final tour before [singer Mark Linkous’] death. Christina Vantzou, my partner at the time, was playing mellotron in the band as well, and she had made the videos we were showing as background during the concert. Dustin happened to be at the concert as well. He loved her videos and came backstage to inquire about them. We were not aware of each other before this night, but we found out that he had scored [Sophia Coppola’s] Marie Antoinette. We had just bought the DVD the day before in Milan. I though the indie-rock score used in the film was annoying, but Dustin’s piano score was mesmerizing. I fell in love, and the rest is history.
“Right now, with the ACME string ensemble by our side, we are producing some really beautiful chamber music for the 21st century. I just wish more people were coming out to the concerts.”
In the time between then and now, how has your personal and working relationship evolved?
The main change is we have become very close friends. We each have a bit of a phobia of meeting Americans in Europe. Neither of us had made a friend of this type, so it felt good in a way to have someone you could just speak normal English with.
As with any friendship, it gains trust, and then the music can benefit from this emotion.
Can you tell me about the creative and emotional space you were in during the composition of A Winged Victory for the Sullen?
Very, very melancholy. We were both going through some sea changes in our personal lives, plus the death of Mark Linkous a few months after we started put a huge emotional weight in the recordings.
I understand that the two of you traveled Europe to find the right instruments and locations for the recording of the record. What elements were you looking for?
The main element was to be in the same room at the same time when composing. We wanted to leave behind this idea of bunkering down in the studio all by yourself and getting lost in your own headspace. Instruments and locations just inspired this “old fashioned” writing process.
Outside of Stars of the Lid and The Dead Texan, you’re well known for the sound engineering work you’ve done for groups like the Flaming Lips, Iron & Wine, and Sparklehorse. Given your experience, how much control did you exercise personally in the recording process for this album?
Control is a loaded word in these circumstances. I am very hands-on in general, in any capacity of collaboration. Even with the bands for which I am solely the soundman, I like to be very involved with the set list, coming up with special tricks with effects, etc. In the end, the soundman is really the difference between a good concert and a great one.
Compositionally, your partnership with O’Halloran is interesting. You’re known for your more ambient, slowly evolving pieces while his work, especially his solo piano tracks, have many structural hallmarks of modern classical composition. How did you make these pieces work together?
We composed this record to the point that we let go of our own strengths and almost swapped places at times. Me writing piano parts, Dustin coming up with soundscapes; it is the true definition of a collaboration. We let go of our egos and found a way to trust each other. I really believe you can hear this in the recording.
“In the end the soundman is really the difference between a good concert and a great one.”
Much of the work you’re most known for has consisted of a core creative duo. You’ve worked with Brian McBride in Stars Of The Lid, Christina Vantzou in The Dead Texan, and now Dustin O’Halloran in A Winged Victory For The Sullen. Is this just circumstantial, or is there something that attracts you to the one-on-one creative process?
Technically, The Dead Texan was a solo record. Christina and I just collaborated on the visuals. I am not sure what attracts me to the creative duo style, though. I guess I never thought about this until you brought it up this minute.
How are you Dustin O’Halloran adjusting your performance relationship and setup to facilitate touring? Have the pieces changed or opened up?
They have opened up a bit with the addition of the live strings that we bring with us. Obviously there are moments we recreate exactly from the recordings, but there are new elements as well. [For example], having the strings play some of the voices I played on guitar, and vice-versa. Right now, with the ACME string ensemble by our side, we are producing some really beautiful chamber music for the 21st century. I just wish more people were coming out to the concerts.
Does A Winged Victory for the Sullen have a conscious timeframe, or will you two continue indefinitely?
This project will continue for as long as we are both alive. We have so many more stories to tell the earth…