The Rumpus Interview with Karl Briedrick of Speck Mountain
The core duo of bliss-drone-space-twang group Speck Mountain formed when Karl Briedrick went looking for a singer for his Brooklyn-based band during his days at New York University. That’s when he connected with Marie-Claire Balabanian via Facebook, a fact that he admits really freaks him out, considering they have become best friends and musical soul mates. Now three albums deep, they’re based in Chicago as a legit four-piece, welcoming Linda Malonis on keys/vocals and Chris Dye on drums.
Although Karl and I were initially slated to meet at a coffee shop in Williamsburg because we both found ourselves visiting the borough we once called home, the flu won out, and we connected via phone instead. We discussed topics ranging from rapidly gentrifying New York City’s unfriendliness toward artists to the way the band birthed a vital, wide-open sound for their third full-length release, Badwater.
The Rumpus: Sorry I missed you when we were both in Brooklyn. What were you doing there?
Karl Briedrick: My girlfriend lives in Brooklyn. It’s weird: she lives in the same neighborhood I did ten years ago now, off the Graham stop [in Williamsburg]. It’s so different now. Bedford certainly was hopping back when I lived there, but out where I lived, it was a couple pizza places, a deli, and one good breakfast place. Now it’s a bunch of boutiques, and she’s paying the same amount of rent I was paying, but I had a two-story megaspace, and she has a tiny Manhattan-style apartment.
Rumpus: That blows my mind, too. I moved to Greenpoint in 2004, and there was nothing out where I was, on the northern end of Greenpoint on Clay Street. Now there’s that metal bar St. Vitus on the block where I lived and boutiques where you can buy $200 handbags. That rapid gentrification is insane.
Briedrick: It’s one of the things that drove me nuts about living there. Gentrification is something that happens, but the rapid pace of it meant you couldn’t commit to a neighborhood because the next year, your rent would for sure go up, and you had to keep moving farther out. Having a practice space was really hard, too. We had a practice space at the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint. We were paying a lot of money for it and sharing with four other bands to practice twice a week. We’d come in, and people would use our amplifiers and keep them. Because they were old, they were melting. Everything was really hard.
Rumpus: That intersection where the Pencil Factory is has all those bars now.
Briedrick: Bedford Avenue at this point is almost like a circus. It’s a meathead hangout. Bedford is like what the East Village became around the time you moved there. The East Village is probably more pleasant now.
Rumpus: What initially brought you to New York City?
Briedrick: I went to NYU, so that’s what brought me there—school, initially. But really, I just wanted the experience of living in a city on that level. It was great, but once I became serious about music, I realized, being in a band in that city and trying to focus on music, that (a) I couldn’t afford it. and (b) it’s just really hard to be in a band there in terms of van and practice space. It’s really hard to have an open creative mind there, because there’s always so much stimulus. I really craved space to let my imagination be my imagination, not my imagination filtered through all the influence of everything that I was running up against all day long.
It’s almost like a tasteful Vegas, but as opposed to Vegas, you’re able to take in all this amazing culture. But you go there for a week, and you leave completely broke, and you’re thankful to get home. Yeah, that was awesome. Now I can chill out a bit.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the new album. What was the starting point of Badwater?
Briedrick: When the studio transfers were being made to our last album, Some Sweet Release, Marie-Claire and I were celebrating and starting to talk about the next album. We’d taken this kind of slow music based on ballads and repetitions as far as we wanted to and we knew that a real band, as opposed to constantly changing other members, would be essential to the recording process—that is, a band that was Speck Mountain as much as Marie-Claire and I were. We wanted to make something generous.
We felt like the first couple records, we were hinting at what we could do and what we wanted to do. We wanted to make something, instead of just hinting, that gave a full picture of who we are, so that was the genesis. We had a lot of disappointments right after Some Sweet Release came out. A European tour was cancelled because the dates were just too spotty, and we realized we couldn’t afford it. It took us a while to regroup from those disappointments, and then there was the process of finding band members, and that took a long time. That was 2009.
We didn’t really get going again until 2011, when we found our bandmates Linda [Malonis] and Chris [Dye]. We started rehearsing with Chris and Linda, and things were going well, but there were still some struggles.
We couldn’t quite get a sound that was vital and new enough that we were interested in moving forward with, and then one day, I got stoned and listed to Marquee Moon by Television, which isn’t an album I’d listened to since high school, and also the Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight, which I hadn’t really listened to since freshman year of college. That’s when something in me opened up. It was feeling the freedom of guitar and guitar leads from Television. And the Soft Boys have these really nasty lyrics that are kind of mean, like songs called “I Wanna Destroy You,” or a whole song about being jealous, and it opened me up.
They’re these phenomenal pop songs that make me feel complete bliss, and it made me realize you could be a little nasty, that not all lyrics need to be blissed out in order for the music to be blissed out. I needed that, because pretty soon after that, a relationship I was in for seven years ended, and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It was pretty intense, and I realized the only way to get through it all was to channel it through music and to just work on that and try not to think about what was going on. That’s when things really started to open up, because I had so much to write about.
Rumpus: I am obsessed with the closing track “Watch the Storm.” Tell me about it.
Briedrick: It was one of the first songs we wrote for Badwater. We wrote and recorded “Flares” as soon as the band came into fold, but we really didn’t start writing again for a year. “Watch the Storm” was the first song written in the set of new songs. It’s the longest song on the album, and there are so many ideas in it, and that’s probably why, because there was a year’s worth of ideas coming together in that song. It was also, when we recorded it, the total problem child of the record. The guy we were working with to record the album wasn’t into it at all. He was trying to change all these things. We eventually got really fed up and ended up not working with him anymore.
Lyrically, it’s about longing for something to change, longing for something to happen within the context of a relationship where it hasn’t felt like anything’s been happening for a long time. We’ve been shocked at how that song has been received, and it’s a lot of people’s favorite, actually. Since the person we were working with didn’t like it, we had a lot of doubts. Was it boring or too long? We ended up following our instincts with it, and I’m really glad we did, because a lot of people seem to really like it.
Rumpus: [Can you] elaborate on “Watch the Storm” as different?
Briedrick: It’s a little more epic. There’s a lot of parts. There’s a long instrumental section that changes a lot at the end. To my ears, the first half is a little more mellow than the rest of the record. I guess that’s why it seems different to me: the length, plus long instrumental, plus again, there’s something about the song that’s straightforward, though I don’t think the instrumental part is straightforward.
Rumpus: You have to find a beginning and end. How do you know when a song is finished?
Briedrick: Do you mean how do we know when a song is mixed? There’s three processes I could answer to: in the practice space writing the song, when we’re done tracking, or how do we know when the mix is done?
Rumpus: I like that. Process. Which do you want to talk about?
Briedrick: I guess I’ll talk about when the mix is done, because a song isn’t done for us until the mix is done. Adding reverb, adding flourishes and effects, making sure everything is balanced. You know it’s done when you think it sounds good. But also when there’s nothing, you want to keep going, and you want to keep changing things, but every little change you make doesn’t make it sound better. You realize you could tinker with it forever, but you realize that you’re getting further away. Further away from what? Further away from the final product. Once that happens, you’re struggling to find changes you make, and then you realize that you don’t need to make any changes because it’s done, and that’s that.
The first two records, we were very guilty of turning tinkering forever and not knowing where to start. I think on this record, we were more trusting of what we were doing. We knew it was okay to stop. We knew that striving for perfection actually in some ways diminishes…You know, I think striving for perfection is not necessarily what’s good about art or music, because perfection is something that…there’s something important about what you’re doing being vital and alive and not over-labored, and it was really important for us for things to feel vital and alive. That was worth more to us than editing and just making things…We just trusted ourselves more and trusted the people we were working with. For Marie-Claire and I, our instinct is to always make things better and keep going. We just trusted that when something felt done, it was good enough, and there was something vital about that about being able to say that’s good enough.
Rumpus: Now that Badwater is finished, have you started coming up with new work?
Briedrick: After we finished the album, it’s been a process of getting our live show to where we want to be. We’re also doing all the booking for our tour and a lot of the promotion ourselves. My instinct, everyone’s instinct, is to start writing new songs, but it was really important for me this time to take a step back and say, “We made this thing that we’re really proud of, and we need to give it the attention it deserves.” We’re really excited to write new stuff, and there’s a lot of things we want to explore. We’re trying to give attention to Badwater and to the live show, the way we present songs. We’re really excited to write new songs. I’m going to spend the summer in Maine, where my girlfriend has a place, and Marie-Claire will come up there at some point. I’m hoping a lot of songs come out of that trip.