En “It’s important to me to approach creation from a perspective of authenticity.”

Released at the tail end of 2015, when the majority of music blogs were busy compiling year-end lists, En (Maxwell August Croy and James Devane) dropped a stunner with City of Brides, the duo’s first full-length in three years and second release for esteemed noise/drone imprint Students of Decay. Originally from the Bay Area, Croy and Devane stack gorgeous acoustic instrumentation (kota, guitar, and piano, among others) against a dense sonic background of warped sounds, spine-tingling keys, and manipulations of said acoustic instruments.

City of Brides, a sprawling double LP that was “deliberately constructed to be diverse,” as Croy remarked, was put together while Croy was in Wyoming and Devane remained in the Bay Area, with additional work done when the two reconvened in California. The result is a massive step forward in the duo’s sound, and while it’s easy to indulge in hyperbole and say every track is worth your time, it really is the case with this one.

Since the three of us are separated geographically, a proper sit-down interview was out of the question, but Croy and Devane were kind enough to answer my questions via email.


Can you tell me about your respective musical backgrounds, and how En was formed?

Maxwell August Croy: My musical background was poignantly hit or miss. I started with guitar in my adolescence, played in a two-person emo band in high school, then upon entering university, thinking I wasn’t any good, effectively quit music. After school I joined a Seattle band called The Maldives and was subsequently kicked out just before their first show. A few months later I moved to Japan where I took koto and piano lessons… Returning to the States in 2007, I moved to San Francisco, reconnected with my old friend Jefre Cantu and got involved with Root Strata.

James sent Root Strata a demo (what was originally a digital release on the now defunct Bremsstrahlung subsidiary TRANS>PARENT RADIATION) sometime in late 2008. Though we weren’t able to release it at the time, I was inspired by his rich, real-time processing of acoustic loops. Maybe six months later (around the time I’d begun exploring using a cello bow on my koto) we ran into each other at a show, started talking about music and a year later released our first record, The Absent Coast.

James Devane: My background is mostly in jazz. It was the majority of what I listened to in high school and what I studied in college. I had a few close friends, however, who were really into electronic/experimental music that I found really interesting. The idea of focusing on the texture of sound as opposed to melody or rhythm provided a nice balance to my academic relationship with music and helped to keep me inspired.

After college, I moved to San Francisco because there seemed to be a cool experimental scene in which I wanted to get involved. I eventually ran into Maxwell at a show; he had already heard my demo album, and we started collaborating from there.

The first two tracks, “Blades” and “Dead Ringer,” are a great example of the varied sounds found on the record, with the former exploring dense synthesizer tones and the latter a delicate koto-based piece. I’m curious to learn how the record came together, and how you approached City of Brides compared to previous albums?

JD: Although our aesthetics overlap quite a bit, I would say the approaches Maxwell and I take to making music are quite different. Maxwell uses more minimal, raw textures, where I tend to create dense, obscured walls of sound. Finding a middle ground between those two can be pretty tricky, so with City of Brides, we were happy to find a way to highlight both.

A fair amount of these tracks started via email — Maxwell had an artist residency in Wyoming and was sending me hours of koto, piano, and noise recordings. I picked pieces I liked and started processing the hell out of them and adding new layers. Once he returned we started curating and fleshing out the results.

Other tracks are material we prepared for live shows, including one we performed in the middle of nowhere at 3 AM just as people were coming down off their last round of whippets.

One thing we’ve learned is that the same setup sounds different through every set of speakers, so we’ve often had to change set plans last minute to fit the room better. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise, as some of these last minute changes and improvisations gave us ideas for new tracks. It’s also more exciting since we’re never quite sure what’s going to happen.

MAC: City of Brides was deliberately constructed to be diverse. Over the years we’ve recorded countless hours of music and ideas, selecting what we both considered to be most compelling for release. As with all our records, most of the material is generated either playing ideas live in our practice space (as with Blonde is Back for example) or using conservative mixing methods, collage and patchwork (i.e., Mendocino Nature Rave edited from an hour long live piece down to a 9-minute burner) to complete a track.

Maxwell, does running a label (Root Strata, which is co-run with Jefre Cantu-Landesma) and being on the logistics and management side of the industry influence the way you approach a project? Do you look at your work at any point in the creative process from the perspective of a producer/label owner?

MAC: No to both. It’s important to me to approach creation from a perspective of authenticity, both with my own work and with anything Jefre and I choose to release on Root Strata. I don’t rely on my art for economic support. Perhaps I’d answer differently were that the case but I hope not.

Justin Almquist’s artwork for the cover is so compelling. There’s a certain grotesque beauty, but it speaks for itself and is a perfect fit with the record. How was Justin chosen for the project, and what influence did the two of you have on the piece?

MAC: I met Justin in Marfa, Texas, in 2014. His painting, Religious Rally or their Satanic Majesties Final Request was actually completed in 2011. City of Brides didn’t yet have artwork and once I saw Justin’s work, I snapped photos and sent to James. We both agreed that Religious Rally just fit. I can’t speak more highly of Justin’s work. He’s an incredibly talented, underrepresented artist.


Alex Cobb has forged a unique space with Students of Decay, releasing more than 100 records that favor quality experimental, drone, and ambient works over trend-hopping. How did you first get involved with Students of Decay, and what has the experience been like, compared to working with other labels?

MAC: Firstly, Alex is a good friend and collaborator. In many ways Students of Decay is a sister label to Root Strata. Both have operated for a decade, both have put out each other’s operator’s work respectively, both maintain a similar aesthetic. As an artist, working with Alex as a label head is very positive. He’s deeply committed to his roster, painstakingly oversees all aspects of release and promotion, which these days is sadly an increasingly Sisyphean task.

In the past how have you approached En live shows? Do you try to be faithful to the recorded material, or do you feel free to improvise? There’s nothing listed as of this writing, but are there plans to play live in the next year?

JD: I would say it’s an even mix between composed work and improvisation. Over the years, we’ve used lots of different methods of processing and mixing sounds live. One thing we’ve learned is that the same setup sounds different through every set of speakers, so we’ve often had to change set plans last minute to fit the room better. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise, as some of these last minute changes and improvisations gave us ideas for new tracks. It’s also more exciting since we’re never quite sure what’s going to happen.

MAC: With the exception of a few locked-in sets we’ve played on tours (Japan 2012 especially), we use performance to try out new ideas and systems. I don’t think we’ve ever attempted to recreate a song from one of our records to a live setting, while much of what we experiment with live can and does make it onto released recordings. We work hard to come up with interesting and unique sets, which takes considerable in-person practice and rehearsal, part of the reason our records take so long to complete.

It’s important to me to approach creation from a perspective of authenticity, both with my own work and with anything Jefre and I choose to release on Root Strata. I don’t rely on my art for economical support. Perhaps I’d answer differently were that the case but I hope not.

There are no shows planned primarily because I no longer live in the Bay Area. We continue to work on material remotely, but given our process, prepping for shows is short of impossible.

Affordable housing in the Bay Area has attracted a lot of national attention, and I’m curious if either of you have noticed a change in the ability of experimental music to thrive in an increasingly stratified area?

JD: I’m not sure why an artistic community would not thrive in a town where you primarily overhear conversations about Javascript patterns or software development strategies, but it does seem to have to diminished a bit in the Bay Area. Despite that, there have been a decent amount of shows and events going on throughout the year. I just hope it can last.

MAC: I left the Bay Area about a year-and-a-half ago for a number of reasons. While the state of housing didn’t personally affect my decision, its repercussions on the scene and the area’s cultural shift have changed the experimental art landscape there immensely. A number of our friends and fellow artists have escaped to Los Angeles, New York, and abroad (I myself went to Berlin), supporting venues have closed, the vibe is discernibly, palpably different. Still, some have stayed and are doing incredibly important work: Dena Beard almost single-handedly transforming The Lab being the first that comes to mind. San Francisco has a long tradition as a haven for alternative culture and forward-thinking art; only time will tell if its current and future residents consider that important enough to conserve and foster.



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