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QRD #39 - April 2009
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interviews with:
Nicholas Slaton of slicnaton
Sarah June
Northern Valentine
Hotel Hotel
Brian John Mitchell of Silber
Melissa Spence Gardner of XO
Lisa Uber of WRSU
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Interview with Northern Valentine
March 2009

I guess it was a little more than a year ago that I interviewed Northern Valentine for our “couples bands” special.  Since that time they ended up doing a release on Silber Records & are working as hard as ever on their indie ambient music.

QRD – How would you describe your music to someone only familiar with pop music?

Bob – As a lot of our recordings fall within an ambient, drone, & largely instrumental space, I find that it’s easier when describing the sound for people to draw a connection from a lot of our music to the patterns of classical music than directly from our music to pop music.  Even if someone doesn’t know the name of any piece of classical music, or any of the composers, etc., they at least know what it is, how it works & can hopefully recognize how pop music has borrowed many elements from classical music.  As much as I dislike drawing comparisons to other artists to reference sound, many people can make a more popular music connection if I talk about the classical connections of bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor & Sigur Ros, & how they use orchestral definitions to convey their sound.  It makes it easier to hear how it’s done, in many cases, without the use of traditional “vocals” or any voices at all.

QRD – What’s your favorite review of your music?

Bob – It’s difficult to choose just one.  It’s been humbling & exciting to see all of the show & record reviews that people took the time to write.  We were particularly psyched to see that Phil McMullen from the Terrascope & Ned Raggett from AllMusic enjoyed the new CD on Silber Records.  I think one of our most enjoyable “personal reviews” came from our guitarist Jeffrey’s father.  After he heard the new CD, he said “This is nice...  thank God I don’t have to tell you I hate this.” The response to our new recordings has been very warm & positive from the people who have heard it.

QRD – Where does your band name come from & how does it relate to your music?

Bob – Before Northern Valentine, we had originally decided upon another name, only to find out that there was a band in California with that same name.  Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t pick that other name, so I won’t mention it.  The name of Northern Valentine came about largely by chance.  I’ve always liked the way the word “valentine” sounded... & it was kind of an homage to My Bloody Valentine, who really changed the way I thought about sound.  I wanted to incorporate the word “valentine” into a song title.  The more we ended up talking it over, we thought it sounded better in a band name.  Amy & I started searching words to surround it & she was the one who came upon “northern.”  She said the two words together for the first time, & it just sounded right.  I guess the relation to the music has come after the fact, more than before.  We’ve defined what it means by how we sound at any point in time.

QRD – So Northern Valentine is your first band.  Did you start it as soon as you bought a guitar or had you been trying to find a band for a while, but couldn’t find like-minded folks?

Bob – It was a lengthy process getting to this point.  I bought a guitar in 1993 & it sat in my room at home & at college & I barely touched it until 1999.  I finally started doing some things with it & I was intimidated at first, because everyone kept telling me I had to learn to play it a certain way.  When I met Amy & she heard what I had recorded & liked it, that was one of the strongest confirmations that I was doing something right & I knew I wanted to create something bigger & play more music.  The music started coming into its own around 2000-2001 & some of our friends started jamming with us & we met more people as we toured.  We’ve found a number of like-minded people over the past three years & have been playing with them on & off stage.

QRD – You come from a background of being in college radio more so than being in a number of bands.  How do you think this influences your music?

Bob – Working in radio exposed me to styles of music that I might not have otherwise experienced.  I was responsible for shows that featured new music to me... bluegrass, jazz, industrial & electronic music... all of which I hadn’t really paid much attention to until that point.  I heard some things that opened my ears more & let me find things to love about different forms of music.  I came to love the grit & heartache of bluegrass, the isolation & darkness of some of the industrial music, the repetition & patterns of electronic music, & the overall freedom of jazz.  It helped to hear all of that music & to know that it was okay for me to let go of what I thought I knew about music.

QRD – Northern Valentine live has anywhere from one to five members.  What’s the ideal number & instrumentation?

Bob – The ideal number is really however many members it takes to convey that particular song.  We have been talking about this lately & we’ll be incorporating it more into our live shows.  Where we find a song is more powerful with only 1-2 people, the other players will wait out that song & come back in when it’s time.  Instrumentation is tricky.  We have taken a lot of other instruments through our songs, though the root of most of them seems to come back to the electric guitar.  I think that’s a core instrument of our sound, so definitely something with the root sound of the electric guitar would be in most of our songs & then whatever else we build around that.  We’ve done some amazing things with just 2-3 guitars, though it’s nice to get the full drum kit in to play on songs as well.

QRD – When looking for potential band members/collaborators is musical ability or personality more important?

Bob – Personality is very important.  We’re an ego-less entity made up of nice people who want to play the music & have a good time with it.  This is an escape from the world for us, so we tend to gravitate toward people who feel as strongly about wanting to make & share music as we do.  Musical ability is also very important, but not so much that we’re looking for people to have mastered an instrument & play it perfectly.  More to the extent that whoever joins in with us needs to be able to hear the music & be able to play off the other members, often on the fly, & give it a certain sound. 

QRD – Do you think having Amy in the band puts a limiter on the testosterone that calms the band down?

Bob – We’re a pretty calm bunch of guys to begin with, but I think Amy definitely brings a sense of balance & harmony to the music.  As a bunch of guys, we have been known to get out of hand from time to time, but Amy can definitely hold her own in our midst & she will often “one-up” us & have the last laugh, usually at our expense.

QRD – Your music is heavily improvisational, do you have any ideas or discussion before starting to play?

Bob – A lot of times we just play & go with where the music takes us, even if it’s a live show & we have no plan going into it.  It’s nice feeding off of that energy.  Sometimes when we get together to play at home, we have ideas of a riff, chord, note, or something that each of us will bring to our sessions & we’ll experiment with building upon those.  That has given us some running themes that have turned into what we consider to be “songs.”  We can break into some of those at any moment, but we’ve never played any of them the same way twice.

QRD – As an improvisational band I know you say location is very important for inspiration.  Do you take an inspiration from a performance in a particular space & try to recreate it in the studio or is it just whatever happened there at the moment is the end of that musical idea?

Bob – Most of the time, when something happens live at a specific location, it feels like it was supposed to stay there.  Sometimes we’ll really like something that we’ve done & want to try to recreate it & carry it on to other spaces.  We did that with a few of our songs from Leopard’s Mouth, which was improvised & recorded live.  We haven’t really taken any of them into the studio yet, but some of those have become favorite themes to play upon when we’re live.

QRD – How do you feel the collaborative aspect of Northern Valentine is reflective of your ideas about both art & life?

Bob – To me, art is all about sharing the experience.  Life is very much like that as well.  I think Northern Valentine is as much about sharing what each of us has to offer to music, as it is about receiving what the others have to give, & finding other people who understand that & want to be a part of it in some way.  When you have the chance to create something with other people, & people appreciate it, it’s one of the most beautiful things you can do.

QRD – How did your tour in Iceland come about?

Bob – I was reading a blog on the Sigur Ros website about this Icelandic band, For a Minor Reflection, that was poised to blow the doors off of the music world.  I went to their page & loved what I heard.  I wrote to them & pitched some ideas & we struck up a conversation that resulted in them coming over here for some shows on the east coast & us going over there for some shows.  They recently came off of a European tour with Sigur Ros & are getting the attention they deserve.  It was an incredible time with them & they are a wonderful bunch of guys.  We look forward to hanging out & playing with them again.

QRD – What’s your favorite city to play in & why?

Bob – We have always enjoyed playing in Charlottesville, Virginia for a number of reasons.  The crowds are always attentive & appreciative & we’ve met so many nice people down that way.  Playing at the Tea Bazaar in Charlottesville helped shape that opinion as well.  They treated us like royalty & we love that place.  Reykjavik, Iceland was also a favorite city to play.  Again, everyone was so friendly & into the music.  We went to Reykjavik with 50 tour CDs & came back with none.

QRD – From the outside it seems like Philadelphia has a pretty active experimental music scene.  Is it fairly active & do you feel like a part of it?

Bob – It feels like Philadelphia is hyperactive when it comes to music.  At times, it seems like everyone we’ve met in the city is in a band!  There has always been an undercurrent of experimentalism going on here & it feels like things are shaping again in the sense of a scene based around a bunch of the local bands that we’ve played with over the past few years.  There is a strong competition for attention in the city, with so much going on, & sometimes it feels difficult to say it feels like a full-fledged “scene” or that we feel a total part of it.  You really have to keep at it & make your voice heard, as with other things in life. 

QRD – You did a lot of self-released stuff prior to working with Silber & Gears of Sand.  Do you feel the self-released material is early demos you’ll let fall into obscurity or would you like them more widely available?

Bob – We actually have plans to re-master a lot of the early recordings & make them available on a larger scale with better artwork & packaging design.  We love the idea of the music medium as a form of art itself.  I love opening a gatefold vinyl record with some amazing artwork... that kind of feeling.  We spent a lot of time on the older music that we released, & it would be a shame to let a lot of it fall to the side.

QRD – Given the option, would you rather run a label or a radio station?

Bob – I do miss working in radio, but I’d have to say run a label at this point.  I think it ties in with the idea of sharing music with people & helping to find a voice for their music.  In addition to our music, I love helping other bands book shows & be heard.  We also love doing splits & collaborations with other bands & performers & hope to do more of those in the coming years.  I think a label would be a logical extension of all of that.

QRD – Anything else?

Bob – We’re just happy to be making music & sharing this experience with people.  This is a lifelong thing for us, so we’ll be around a while!

Official Northern Valentine Website
Northern Valentine on MySpace

Other QRD interviews with Lycia:
Northern Valentine Valentine's Interview (February 2008)
Father's Day Interview with Robert Brown of Northern Valentine (June 2009)