interview December 7, 2005
I've been friends/fans of brothers James & Martin Newman since I first saw burMONTER in 1994. Yeah, that was a long time ago. Some of you might remember a burMONTER interview back in QRD #3 in 1995. Yeah, that's also a long time ago. So what are they up to now? Kicking ass in Boston as a band called Plumerai. If you think the name sounds familiar, it's taken from the lyrics of a French children's song about depluming a chicken so you can cook it. I didn't really talk about what there music sounds like much in the interview, terms like shoegazer, dream-pop, & bliss-pop are common descriptions.
QRD – The name Plumerai was originally used by James for an industrial/noise oriented side-project, how did it become the name for your main band?
Martin – I refused to get involved with naming the band, so James & the singer at the time battled it out.
James – No one could agree on a name for weeks, so I brought up Plumerai & everyone was like, “Sure, whatever.” Then the label suggested “fuma” & we’re like, “That’s ok, we’re all set. We’re Plumerai.” The label did want to change the name because people couldn’t pronounce it.
Martin – The label also suggested “Puma Ray” as a compromise.
QRD – What are the biggest differences between burMONTER, December Sundays, & Plumerai?
Martin – burMONTER was a bit more derivative in the music & at the same time a bit more experimental, whereas both December Sundays & Plumerai are more developed musically in a more traditional song structure sense... even though we play with more effects & different types of sounds/instruments than we did in burMONTER. December Sundays was somewhat more of an experiment than a legitimate band, it was kind of a bridge between burMONTER & Plumerai. One of the biggest differences with Plumerai is the group is more energetic & a little more diverse than both of the previous groups & doesn’t rely as heavily on post-punk or goth elements.
James – Singers. burMONTER was around a while so the repertoire was really diverse. Happy shiny pop to goth. December Sundays only lasted a few months, but did have some catchy tunes. It was like ten years of burMONTER in 3 months. It also included a song by Jorge Martinez (alcove). Plumerai started off as a dark pop band with a triphop influence, but after months in a studio things changed. & on stage the sound further changed. It’s a dark pop kinda band with a bit of groove, but not in a hippy no soap kinda way. Even when we think we’re rockin’ out someone will say it’s danceable.
QRD – Over the years you’ve had quite a number of musicians in your bands, how can you tell if someone is going to be a temporary or semi-permanent member?
Martin – Sometimes when they join you can tell they’re short-timers, other times you can just sense that their time is limited. It’s a feeling you get... nobody has ever quit or left that I wasn’t expecting to do so.
James – When I tell someone how the song goes & they respond with “I’m not feeling it”; they’re temporary. We’ve only kicked out two people in fifteen years. People usually bail out on us, which usually works out for the best except for the time lost finding a replacement.
QRD – What position is hardest to fill in the band & why?
Martin – Drums. Not just because many drummers are retarded... but it’s difficult to find someone that understands how the drums should fit in our music. James should be the bassist, but we could never find a drummer that could both play and understand the drums role within the music we do. They typically are more concerned with showing off their skills and wind up being complete bores.
James – Drummer & singer. Either position can have a noticeable affect on the songs, so we have to be picky. The singer’s vocal style & melodies make or break a song. The drum parts aren’t difficult (except playing to guitar effects), but it definitely has to be played a certain way to convey the feel of the songs. We can’t have someone showing off or playing AC/DC kinda beats.
QRD – How many people would you ideally have in Plumerai?
Martin – Six with one member being a multi-instrumentalist. I’d like an accordion and string player... but probably not on every song... so they’d also have to be able to play guitar or keyboards as well.
James – Five: singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer, & guitarist/keyboardist.
QRD – What do you do about guys that start out saying your band rocks & follow up with asking you to rock in their bedroom?
Elizabeth – I tell them, the show is going to have to stick to the stage tonight because the only thing I’m interested in making is music.
James – I point them in Martin’s direction. Homey don’t play that.
QRD – You seem to run into problems with finding an engineer who can capture your live sound in the studio, have you found any good solves for this?
James – Nope. Maybe record on a stage.
Martin – Not yet… but I think that may have to do with how we record…. We don’t play live – we track drums & then layer everything on top of it, so some of the life is lost, but we haven’t had the opportunity to go into a real studio that makes playing live a feasible way of recording. We also have had the luck of our previous engineers not understanding the music & wanting to just apply their one size fits all techniques to a style of music they obviously don’t understand. Currently we’re recording in our bassist Nathan’s basement studio & so far it’s come closer than any of our previous attempts… but we haven’t officially finished any of the recordings, so it’s too early to talk about the outcome.
QRD – Why do you use a baritone guitar on some songs & a standard guitar on others, how do you decide which the song should be played on?
Martin – I actually use a BassVI which is more of a bass guitar than a baritone. If I write a song on BassVI, I usually play it on such & the same for standard guitar. Stuff that’s played high up the neck typically sounds better on the BassVI & a bit too poppy & goofy on a standard guitar & likewise songs that use full chords typically sound better on the standard guitar... unless it’s a slow strumming, but we don’t currently have any songs like that.
QRD – What side-projects do the current band members have & how do they differ from Plumerai?
Martin – I have my Goddakk side-project. Which is different than Plumerai in that it’s a bit more experimental & improvisational. Using mostly heavy reverse delay, tremelo voice, & ambient effects... not as much structure of chorus verse chorus... & a lot darker. A lot of the songs are written & recorded with one take & minimal overdubs if any. It’s kind of droney, but rhythmical at the same time.
Elizabeth – I’ve just started making jewelry, which is fun because I can’t paint or draw so it’s something I can be creative with. I also do scenic photography, which I find to be the most personal means of expressing myself. When someone looks at a photograph, they can see the world exactly as the photographer intended. It’s like crawling in someone else’s head for a moment. The main difference between photography and music is that I can hear how a song goes in my head with all of the different instruments, but even if I try to explain what it sounds like there’s no way of translating it exactly. Photography is exact, while music is very interpretational & abstract.
James – I have The Breakup Tape, but it’s mainly instrumental pieces I’ve done in the past.
QRD – How does your heavy metal background as a teen affect your music today?
Martin – We play harder than most bands in our genre & do a lot more down-picking.
James – Shhh! No one’s supposed to know.
QRD – It seems like James is hitting the drums a lot harder than he used to, has he been working out?
Martin – He would be lying if he answers otherwise.
James – Steroids.
QRD – What is the current effect set-up for guitar?
Martin – I play through a Crybaby Wah into a bunch of Boss pedals... compressor, DD-5, DD-6, the older style Boss Tremelo pedal, & a botique Chorus that James had bought & I can’t remember the name of now. The order: Guitar (Metropolitan, Jazzmaster, or Fender VI) to Wah – Compressor – Chorus – Delay5 – Delay6 – Tremelo to amp which is a JC120 & I typically use the amps reverb, but that quit working during our last tour... so I’ll either have to get that fixed or buy a reverb unit.
QRD – Why no distortion pedal for the guitar? Why a distortion pedal on the bass?
Martin – I’m mostly anti-distortion on principle... it seems like you can’t see a band that’s not country that doesn’t use a distortion, it seems to be more of a crutch than a pleasant addition to most guitarists’ sound... so I only really use it now for noisy accents. So many people use it so poorly that I’m never inspired to buy one, I should though for those few times that it would be great live to have that extra boost.
James – Haven’t found a good distortion for the guitar. As for bass it’s to add some diversity to the sound.
QRD – What do you think it would take to get Plumerai to the level of a band like Cranes?
Martin – Decent press & tours opening for larger bands as well as being able to get our releases in stores. We’ve been really inspired by them, especially when some of us were in burMONTER... but I think we have the potential to be much more successful just because Alison Shaw’s voice is somewhat of an acquired taste; I love her voice, but I think with our current line up we have more cross-over appeal than they do & would be able to reach more mainstream crowds than they can.
James – Get on a decent label & then get dropped.
QRD – I know you’ve occasionally talked about changing your headquarters from Boston to a less expensive city, what are the main benefits & deficits of being based in Boston?
Martin – The main benefits are that it’s easier to network and go to shows & easier to hear about going-ons that we may want to try to be involved with & it’s easier to get people out to the shows because people live right down the street from the venues & don’t have to drive half an hour to get there, making a decent walk in potential. & many bands want to try & help you out because they think you’ll be able to get them a show on a Saturday night at the decent venues in town in return for a Monday night on a North Dakota gig. The downside is the rent really requires you to have a decent paying job because besides a place to live we need rehearsal spots since we can’t play in our apartments & we have to rent vans all the time to play gigs. So a lot of the money made from gigging is being spent on actually being able to play the shows & parking tickets. So a lot of the dough that could be used for more merch or promotion & such is being spent on other things.
James – No one told me nothing. I might be temporary.
QRD – What’s a band someone else in the group likes that they’d be embarrassed for people to know?
Elizabeth – I’d have to say the whole tour was a blur of bad CDs. I kept asking James, “Who’s CDs are these they suck?” & he would say, “They’re Martin’s,” & then I’d ask Martin and he’d say, “Not mine! They belong to James!” However, the last CD we listened to was Prozakk (courtesy of Martin), needless to say I’ll be bringing an iPod the next trip!
James – Billy “The Piano Man” Joel.
QRD – Martin does some film work on the side, are you planning any music videos?
Martin – They’re in the works. Probably our first video will be made early next year if we get the time to do it.
QRD – What promotional/sales product would you most like to have?
Martin – A CD I was proud of would be a nice improvement that’s for sure, besides that... maybe big blingy Plumerai belt-buckles.
Elizabeth – I love cars, so if we could swing a Porsche RT 12 Turbo with Plumerai tagged on the side I think we would get a lot of attention. As far as stuff that we can sell... Plumerai action figures would be pretty cool.
James – Plumerai hoola hoops.