Having your record remixed seems almost like an indie rock rite of passage now, a sort of validation tantamount to an important blog posting an mp3 or Pitchfork scribing a tour date in an mp3 section. If someone's willing to remix your track, you've made it, as someone must care about what you've done. It's a ruble of validation, a pat on the shoulder. That said, an awfully mediocre lot of remix tracks crowd music blogs and added-value bonus discs lately, the floodgates opened by open-source or pirated software and the affordable abundance of decent sound cards for personal computers. As you might have guessed, though, such quantity often runs inverse to quality.
The Rosebuds remix album Sweet Beats, Troubled Sleep—10 remixes from the nine tracks of last year's Night of the Furies, all available from Merge Records as a free download—is thankfully different. It's thoughtful, sometimes subversive, sometimes analytically allegiant to the Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp originals. Dance track "Get Up Get Out" becomes a mid-tempo crooning gem at the hands of Justin "Bon Iver" Vernon, and "Silence by the Lakeside" becomes a paradoxically tense tropicalia pleaser thanks to Mac "Portastatic" McCaughan.
The original "Silence" haunted Ivan Howard's downtrodden voice with a gentle, apathetic drift and spectral backing vocals, as if the winds and ghosts quietly teased the protagonist's losses behind his back. McCaughan's take almost pokes fun, though, his nylon-string guitar lilting beneath Howard's insurmountable sadness. But a smartly arranged bed of strings cuts to the song's core, charging the original droop with slashes of tension and near-menace. Empathy isn't the right word. Maybe it's interest, a swift reminder that not all is well in the world of which Howard sings.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did this remix project start? Who originally proposed it?
IVAN HOWARD (THE ROSEBUDS): I am pretty sure the remix project was originally Kelly's [Crisp, the other half of The Rosebuds] idea. Our friend J. Yu wanted to do a remix of the song "When the Lights Went Dim" for the hell of it, so we said go at it. When he gave it back to us and we listened to it, it was amazing. We talked about getting the other songs remixed as well, since that one turned out so good.
Did Mac tell you he was remixing this song in particular? If so, what were your expectations of what he may do given recent Portastatic material?
I think we gave Mac the tracks to two songs. And he was going to decide on which one to remix after he sat and thought about it. I knew he was doing "Silence by the Lakeside" when he asked me about a note in the song he was wondering about. Honestly, I did not know what to expect, but, in retrospect, it makes sense after listening to a couple of his film scores and certain Portastatic songs.
The thing I've always found interesting about "Silence by the Lakeside" is that you're dealing with pretty heavy emotional material, especially with lines like, "They broke the sticks we drew our home with." But you seem resigned to that fate, almost too done with it to panic. But it seems like the strings Mac adds lend a little more panic, or an anxiety at least. Was that resignation part of the goal with the original take, and how do you feel about the new emotion in this new context? And did those strings surprise you when you listened the first time?
Well, the strings shocked me the first time I heard them. Kelly and I looked at each other and just said "Wow, is that Mac?" The string break down just kept going. It was wonderful! I love the tension and feeling the strings bring to the song. I do think the original version of "Silence by the Lakeside" came out exactly how we intended. I've always been a fan of singing really dark lyrics really beautiful and leave some of the emotion for the music to birth. Mac's version actually came out a little lighter and sunnier than the original, to my ears.
Even though it's arranged quite well and the strings are a little shocking, this version really reminds me of how intense those lyrics are. How did you feel to hear yourself singing those words in such a different setting?
At first I thought I needed more reverb, like the original recording. But the more I listened to it, the more it all sounded great and made sense. It is really awesome to hear your original vocal ideas in different settings.
What have you enjoyed or even disliked about watching the whole remix process? Is it something you want to do with future records?
The great thing about all the remixes is basically the songs are your children. They go to foreign lands and come back home to you molded by that society, and you get to see the changes and love them again for different reasons.
We loved the whole process, and we are lucky to have friends as talented as they are take an interest in our songs and want to sculpt their ideas into them. I think the great thing about this record is that all of the songs are really reinterpretations of the originals. Most remixers played all the instruments themselves on the remixes and only used the vocal tracks. Most remix records today are just four-on-the-floor beats with the same keyboard sound you hear on every other Hot Chip remix, and I think Sweet Beats, Troubled Sleep is different than that.
We would love to do the remix project again, but maybe this time, we will do it before the record comes out! Just give the tracks to remixes with no references and see what they here in the songs before they here our finished versions.
Mac McCaughan is a co-founder of Merge Records, which released the first three Rosebuds LPS, and a member of Superchunk and Portastatic. Below, the third question also includes part of an answer from a supplementary second e-mail he sent after the original interview.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What drew you to this song as remix material? Were there any other candidates?
MAC MCCAUGHAN: I guess when I got involved they were pretty much all candidates, though maybe a couple were claimed already. I'm not a big Pro-Tools / remix software guy, so I needed something I could kind of just play along with and turn into a different song in a way. I mean, the same song but a whole different feel than the original.
What was the concept for this remix for you from the start? It certainly reminds me of recent Portastatic recordings, but it doesn't feel like a Portastatic song, of course. Was that juxtaposition—giving someone else's song a treatment you're used to—something you had in mind?
I wanted to strip something down to make room for some string arrangements, give it a bit of a tropicalia feel. Ivan's songs are so strong that I think you can put them in different contexts and still have them be as great as the original, as is evidenced by their live shows as well.
Can you tell me a little about the process of this remix: What did you keep from the original tracks besides the vocals, if anything? Who played the other instruments on this take?
Let me see if I can remember what we did: I think I probably played along [to] the nylon string guitar part to the original, then took the whole original except for the vocals out of the mix. My brother played drums & percussion. I played guitars and synths and stuff, and Laura Thomas (who plays on Be Still Please) played violin. We brought Ivan's electric guitars back in at some point and some other elements of the original, but mainly it's overdubs.
Also, I just re-listened to the remix and I was wrong about something. We never do bring Ivan's guitars back into the mix, nor the backing vocals. The backing vocals melody is represented in the remix by the synth line.
I also remembered that when I wrote the string charts, I delayed their entry until you kind of think you have an idea about what the remix is going to be like, and then there's a pause for the strings to come in, and then they're in the rest of the way. I think remixes are always better when the approach is surprising to someone familiar with the original.
Do you know if Matt's playing drums on this track, or was this Lee Waters (on the original Rosebuds cut)? If it was Matt, was it an interesting idea to be remixing or re-conceptualizing your brother's drums on a song?
I'm pretty sure we had Matt come in and play the bossa nova type drums and do some percussion, too. I'm not sure who's on the original!
There's this interesting squeak in the speakers on this track during the first minute (quite loud at :20). What's that?
I'm not sure what that is—either some drum hardware squeaking, or possibly string noise from the acoustic...
The Rosebuds performs at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Planet Earth Celebration Saturday, April 19, at 4:45 p.m. The Beemones, Viswas Chitnis, Mommie, The Rail Readers and Kickin' Grass are also on the bill.