The Athens band Venice is Sinking creates atmospheric music, rooted in pop but free from the constraints of predicable song structure – the melodies, and the arrangements, go where they will. The instrumentation includes acoustic guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet and viola, and like all the best pop music, they’re combined in various ways to create a distinctive sound. The vocal harmonies are rich and layered.
The band, which returns to Savannah June 4 for a show at the Co–Laboratory, has released two albums (Sorry About the Flowers and AZAR) of sublime and carefully–constructed music.
For Sand & Lines, due June 15, Venice is Sinking recorded on the stage of the Georgia Theatre, the pulsing heart of Athens’ healthy live music scene. It’s not a live album – there was no audience – but rather an experiment in ambiance, modeled after the Cowboy Junkies’ classic Trinity Sessions album, which was all cut live in the bowels of an old Canadian church.
Almost exactly a year after the Sand & Lines sessions, the Georgia Theatre burned to the ground. The album, therefore, has a bittersweet association for Daniel Lawson (guitar, lead vocals), Karolyn Troupe (viola, lead vocals), Lucas Jensen (drums), James Sewell (keyboards, trumpet, vocals) and Jeremy Sellers (bass, vocals).
We spoke with Venice is Sinking co–founders Lawson and Troupe.
Your other records are overdubbed and rather complex. Wasn’t it daunting to do all these things live, in a single take?
Daniel Lawson: When we knew this was really going to happen, we were still in the middle of mixing AZAR. On that record, I think there’s maybe three songs where there’s more than one person at a time in the room. It was very labored–over with the individual parts.
It was also really exciting, because we’d spent all this time on AZAR, doing it this other way, and I don’t think we were in any position to make another record like that. This was the only record we could conceivably do and be excited about. We were just excited about playing together in a room, and doing that kind of thing again.
Karolyn Troupe: We were pretty burned out on the actual recording process, like the mixing of everything. So it was a real breath of fresh air. And there were times in the middle of these sessions where we thought we might not get everything finished. But there was only one night where we didn’t accomplish anything. We did, I have no idea, how many takes of one song, and it just didn’t feel right. And so we had to do three songs on the next day. We just had to plan it out properly.
Was the rule “no overdubbing, no repairs”?
Daniel Lawson: The way it was recorded didn’t allow for any fixing. Because it was just the two microphones going to a two–track tape deck. He (producer David Barbe) was just blending the two microphones together, and all the mixing occurred by moving amps onstage or putting us in different places. Or telling one of us to be quieter, something like that.
So there was no chance to go back and do anything again. Because if you’re recording with mics on each instrument, you have channels to go back to. But it was just the signal off the stage, with the microphones high over our heads.
People writing about Venice is Sinking go out of their way to describe what you do as “dreampop” or “slowcore,” things like that. I prefer to think of pop music as just something interesting that moves you. When someone asks you, what do you say?
Daniel Lawson: It’s hard to describe any kind of music, and I think it’s especially hard when you’re describing something that’s personal, and that you create. But I usually just list off the instruments and kind of leave it at that.
Karolyn Troupe: The first thing that I usually say is “orchestral rock,” or “dreamy orchestral Americana rock.” There you go! I think that’s a good description of it. But also, most songwriters don’t sit down and say “I’m going to write this kind of song.” It just happens. I think that’s where it’s difficult to describe something personal.
Who, exactly, are the songwriters in the band?
Daniel Lawson: Well, when the band first started it was more me. I had songs laying around, and people would write their own parts to it and then we worked it out. But with AZAR, it was a lot more collaborative...
Karolyn Troupe: (to Daniel) On Sorry it was both you and us. There was a lot of collaboration with that.
And with AZAR, Lucas was much more involved with Daniel and I. Lucas is our wordsmith, so he would put together just crazy lyrics, very good lyrics. And with this theater record, “Bound By Violets” all four of us sort of wrote – we all put it together, we all arranged it, we all wrote everything. There’s a very odd process.
Daniel Lawson: It depends on who’s available. Sometimes it’s me and Lucas, sometimes it’s me and Karolyn. The theater record’s different, too, because a lot of the original songs are songs that we’ve playing for forever, that just didn’t fit on records. They were older.
What about “Jolene”? I’ve heard the White Stripes’ version, but I don’t think you guys do a lot over covers.
Daniel Lawson: Our bass player at the time, Steve Miller, it was his idea to do that song. He wasn’t ever one to bring those kinds of ideas to the band. But he said “I think we should do this song, really slow it down and make it creepy.” It was the kind of thing where you’d listen to him, because he doesn’t usually speak up.
Is it difficult for a band like this to win people over? You’re not a bar band, playing Bob Seger covers, and you’re not the crowd–pleasing Hold Steady. Do you guys work enough to make you happy and feel like it’s worth it?
Daniel Lawson: With some people, I think we really do connect, and it’s a lot of fun. The live shows have a lot more energy, probably, than any of our records do.
Karolyn Troupe: Whenever we do play in bars where they have what you’re calling bar bands, there’s usually a comment from the bartender or the owner, someone like that, like “This is just so unusual, and it’s amazing.” Really like gushing compliments. And that is very encouraging, as you can imagine.
That’s very complimentary to me. I always strive to create something original and unique. And maybe it’s not actually that they’re talking about, but it’s nice to hear that and expose people to a different type of music that maybe they’re not used to.
Daniel Lawson: I do think that a lot of places we play, the audience really ends up paying attention.
Karolyn Troupe: They kind of stand there and stare at us.
Daniel Lawson: But they’re definitely listening.
Karolyn Troupe: And sometimes we see them dance a little bit, but it’s not really dancing music. I think at first we were a little bit shocked, and scared in a way.
Your videos for “Okay” and “Ryan’s Song” are very, very funny. I thought that was refreshing.
Daniel Lawson: A lot of times, with our music, people think we’re somehow precious, or pretentious, or I don’t know what.
Karolyn Troupe: We just like to have fun. We really don’t take ourselves seriously.
Daniel Lawson: We’re not just sitting around being sad all the time, like our music might suggest.
Sand & Lines was recorded two years ago. Don’t you have a bunch of new songs ready to go by now?
Daniel Lawson: I think we’re starting to be ready. We’re working on new stuff, finally. It’s weird, making records and putting them out, it’s so time–consuming. We were debating whether to put this record out, or AZAR, because we had them both done at the same time. But it takes so long to get everything in order, to get the vinyl shipped, to get lead time for radio and press ... it always happens. By the time the record comes out, it feels like so long ago when we made it.
We need to start dusting off some of the Sand & Lines songs so we can play them live.
Venice is Sinking
With Little Tybee, Adron
Where: Co–Laboratory, 631 E. Broad St.
When: At 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 4
Artist’s website: veniceissinking.net
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