Interview: Quilt

Read an interview with Quilt’s Anna Fox Rochinski about the Boston rock band’s acrobatic second album, Held in Splendor.

January 30, 2014

Born out of the Boston DIY scene of the late '00s, psych-rock trio Quilt has evolved into the kind of band whose members throw around the word "nomadic" a lot. Even when they're not on tour, singer/guitarists Anna Fox Rochinski and Shane Butler have been straying from their "home zone" of Jamaica Plain more staying put, and drummer John Andrews has been disappearing into the rolling hills of Amish Country, Pennsylvania. Their music touches upon many of the references that New England outsider psych has been quoting for years—Woodstock-era rock & roll, Anglo-American folk à la Vashti Bunyan and Sibylle Baier—but rather than settle into the untethered group improv of Massachusetts countrymen like Sunburned Hand of the Man, they've just been getting tighter and more melodic as the years go by.

For Held in Splendor, their just-released second album, they holed up in the Mexican Summer studio last April with Woods drummer Jarvis Taverniere and tracked out some particularly acrobatic-sounding demos for 4 weeks straight, 6 days a week. The resulting album expands their palette to a baroque profusion of saxophone and violin, cello and steel guitar in places; elsewhere, as on the song "Talking Trains," it contracts it to the stark simplicity of unprocessed vocals and acoustic guitar. As Fox Rochinski explained the band's reasoning to us over the phone, it was about gifting the listener with the sort of experiential variety and much-ness encapsulated in the record's title: Held in Splendor.

What’s your affiliation with the DIY scene in Boston? I mean, I grew up here. I started going to DIY shows when I was 15 or 16, and I’ve seen that back and forth motion that happens with houses starting and then ending, being shut down, starting up again. The Whitehaus Family Record, I would say, is a big part of our story as a band. That house still exists. I’ve lived there twice. Shane lived for a long time at a house in Allston called the Butcher Shoppe. We met in school, but we got to know each other more through the Whitehaus, because they would have this Hootenanny every Friday night where people would show up in a living room and play songs; it was really beautiful and simple and amazing and enriching, especially for young, kind of inexperienced musicians who needed a space to try stuff out. That’s where our band formed; it’s where he was living when we met and where we had our first practices, if you could call them that. Sitting in his room, guitars.

The songs on Held in Splendor sound super ornate and composed compared to your earlier work. Why do you think you decided to go in that direction, as opposed to getting deeper into long, drawn-out psych jams? I think our songwriting just sort of naturally cleaned up a little bit. But at the same time, we got a lot more comfortable jamming with each other, like experimenting and improvising live on stage and just playing. So we sort have gone in both directions in a way. I feel that you keep growing and evolving, and for some people that might mean tightening up your musical abilities, showcasing them in a more mature way, and for some people that might mean letting go of your training and your structures and becoming like an extremely experimental, loose kind of band. And we’ve always appreciated both. I think the album is a very poppy album; it’s very structured, and you could even say in some ways that it’s traditional or something. That was a fun part of it—challenging ourselves to make an album that’s like a pop-rock-folk album.

What is it about ‘60s rock and Americana sounds that continues to intrigue you guys? It’s probably the fact that the three of us happen to be together—just our common point together musically. The music that people grow up with in their formative years and their childhood is really powerful for your whole life. Music from my parents’ generation—that was a big thing surrounding me and that I was actively seeking out as a child, on my own. I wonder about the future of pop music in this world where everything is referential, and that’s often a talking point for discussion of current bands. I don’t know if we always go in being like, “Hey, let’s do this song that has a similar fingerpicking pattern to this rare Bob Dylan b-side that we heard last week.” It’s not exactly like that—I think it’s just all absorbs into us.”

What’s it like making music in a world where everything feels so referential? It’s a really, really funny time to be making music in. It’s a wonderful time to be making music in, but it’s a very unique thing our generation has been going through the whole time we’ve been on the planet—like not growing up with the internet and then suddenly having it, almost being like guinea pigs for the technological advancements of the last 20 years. Something that we get asked about is what landscapes we conjure in our imaginations when we’re writing, and something that’s been on my mind is just the digital landscapes that we participate with everyday. I wonder sometimes about pop and folk and rock music at this point in history, like 40 years deep—how it participates with the infinite, weird landscapes that we’re in all the time. When people ask us, “Did you ever think about desert landscapes when you write ‘Cowboys in the Void?’” it’s like, Well, yeah, definitely, but there are so many more kinds of landscapes now to use and think about.

Did you write most of the lyrics or is it a group endeavor? It’s a group endeavor. I wrote a lot of them, Shane wrote a lot of them, and John wrote a bunch too actually. “Saturday Bride” is an example of a song that all three of us wrote pretty equally in terms of every aspect of it: like the structure of the chords, the riff, the melody and the words. I can look at it and know what lyrics each of us wrote in that song, which is really cool. Writing and lyricism and poetry and words are huge part of my life and always have been. I was doing journalism for a while; I was doing creative non-fiction writing for a long time. I’m so thankful to be in a band where my bandmates appreciate writing and beautiful words. The format of the physical record is like a gatefold, so you can just open it up like a book and all the words are right there. I don’t want to say it’s like a rock opera, but in a way it’s a similar concept—like a series of vignettes that are separate but all tied together.

Are there characters or recurring themes? It’s really up for interpretation. Like to me, after being with these songs so intimately for so long, I’ve created plenty of fictional situations that are happening throughout all of these words. And semi-linear narratives as well. I think that there are a lot of questions being posed on the album, whether it’s the person singing is asking it to themselves, or asking a different person, or just asking humanity in general. There are a lot of questions being asked, and I think that a lot of the answers are probably hidden within the lyrics too.

What sorts of questions are you asking? I think that we all have been going through similar experiences as young people, thinking about how much you give to someone when you’re in a relationship with them, being responsible for somebody else’s emotions in a romantic scenario, the questions that arise out of that. And also, I don’t want to say locational displacement, because it sounds sort of negative, but just keeping an open mind and trying out different ideas of where you want to situate yourself, especially when you’re ready to move out of your hometown and looking at other spots to go and feeling really open. Traveling as a band, touring together, definitely impacted our sense of how urgently we thought we needed a place to live—or not. I think it can go either way when you travel a lot. It’s either like, Well, I think I need to go and get a house now, or, You know, I might just keep rolling with this and continue being a gypsy. And I think we were all going through similar inner transformations as people, in terms of the work we do on an individual basis.

Would you say that there’s any connection between the musical styles that you reference and the particular lifestyles and political attitudes those styles historically connote? I mean, there have always been contemplative folk songs, even as far back as any folk singer from like the ’20s or ’30s. But there was also a lot of fresh new desire in the ’60s and ’70s to be expressing ideas in songs, like using pop music as a vehicle for a political stance, or suggesting an emotional state to people that was a very fresh thing. And now its 45 years later, and here we are. When you asked that question, the first song I thought of was The Youngbloods singing, C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another… That, to me, is that archetypal, ’60s, linking-arms-around-a-tree song. And that is a very real thing, and I’m sure that those ideas will be continued to be talked about. But the songs on our album are personal, basically. I think we are all in a transitional phase in terms of where we want to be living, what kind of living situation we want to have, what kind of financial situation we want to be in, and I would say we’re figuring that out in the midst of being in a touring professional band. I think that politically, we were relatively hands-off. On this album, it’s more personal meditations that can be applied to large groups of people, and hopefully to politics as well.

Where does the album title come from? The title was one of the last elements of the album to happen. We had been trying to come up with a title forever, and it was hard. "Splendor" is a word that came to Shane early on that he really liked. I find "splendor" to be a really unique way of expressing a state of being that happens once in a while in your life. You know, it’s not a particularly common emotion to have, and when it does happen, it’s something that you never forget— like those moments in your life where you think about them years and years later and easily get transported back to a special memory. Beauty, or a natural type of happiness that can arise from even the most insignificant of situations; sort of an abundant supply of something wonderful, whatever it is.

Is there a sense in which you want to create that experience of abundance with your own music? Yeah, definitely. The album is an offering—it really is—and I would love for people to enjoy it as a piece and treat it as an abundant collection of joyful experiences. Or sad experiences, too, which I supposed you could say is it’s own kind of splendor.

Interview: Quilt