While the business of independent music has been swallowed up by technology and all our artistic choices are filtered through twitchy app developers, No Age still makes their way from the ground up. Dean Spunt and Randy Randall have made their music part of a larger artistic imperative, embracing tenets of the Last Amendment for their own homegrown, communal efforts. Until now their records were exuberant, forceful extensions of their momentum.
Their new album An Object unexpectedly stops that express. It’s hard to say exactly whether it’s an act of No Age questioning themselves or stripping down to make their case clearer, but it feels like an exploration of their own canvas: What’s possible with it? What’s it telling No Age to do? Should they do anything at all? Whatever artistic merits it has, just by its existence it prompts internal discussion.
In some ways that makes it a difficult album to discuss, but when I spoke with guitarist Randy Randall over the phone last month he was eager to talk. I got the sense that he’d rather act upon something than question himself, an impulse that widens itself from their recording to their planning, designing and manufacturing.
Treble: How did you and Dean meet?
Randall: Dean and I met through mutual friends. We moved from different parts of Los Angeles, the suburban valleys. We moved into Hollywood in ’99. I think we met in 2000. We started playing in a band called Wives in 2001. That was the first sort of performing band I’ve ever been in. I was making bedroom four-track tapes, playing with friends in garages, but hadn’t really gotten the idea to play in a band until I met Dean. We started performing as Wives, and recorded a couple of seven-inches and an album. We toured. The drummer left, and Dean and I were still playing those songs with a new drummer. But we thought the vibe and the format was just sort of different — that guy’s not even in the band anymore. We don’t really want to play these songs. So let’s write new songs and just go be a new band, just the two of us. That was about 2005.
That’s where No Age started from, just putting our heads together, realizing we’d been in a band for four or five years and never really played music with each other. It always got filtered through a third member. So that was the first time we sat down to write a song, just the two of us. That was what became the first five EPs. We wrote them around the same time, culled a selection of those songs from those five EPs and that’s what became the Fatcat release Weirdo Rippers. That was our first full-length album as No Age. From that we put out Nouns in 2008 on Sub Pop, then the EP Losing Feeling, then our second album on Sub Pop was Everything In Between, and this is our third LP for Sub Pop, An Object. It all goes by so fast when I say it like that, sorry! (laughs)
Treble: When you and Dean first became No Age did you have any operating principles, what sound you were going for, or did that just come out of the collaboration? Did you have a specific idea?
Randall: Not a specific idea. I think it was just the amusement of making songs up together. We were amused by the fact that we could even do it and it actually sounded kind of good, all of those found elements and what the other one was bringing in. Dean learned to play the drums. That was something he wanted to learn to do, so he just started playing. There was a fascination, like a baby discovering he has a hand. “Wow, we can do all these things! What else can we do?”
There was no real designed principle other than we were and still are kind of wise-asses. We’ll bust each other’s balls, we give each other a hard time. When we don’t think something’s good enough we’ll say it and kind of make fun of each other. Just enough to tamper down any kind of grandiose illusions. We keep each other grounded in that regard.
We were very amused that we could come up with songs, and also were smart-asses enough to keep it somewhat restrained, not just long 40-minute jams where we’re so proud of everything we made. That balance started with the first song and evolved over time from there. Our tastes have changed, our experiences in life have changed, and we’ve sort of looked to the songs as a form of expression, shrinking down a feeling or an idea to its simplest form, encapsulated in a song.
Treble: The part of your story that really blows me away is that Dean learned drums on the job.
Randall: I think that’s the best way to do it. Nothing’s more motivating than the pressure of playing a show. But he was also having fun with it too, he just wanted to figure it out. In a funny way, up until An Object, the evolution of Dean’s drumming has been on record, sort of a document of each period of his development in drumming.
When we got together to start writing songs for this album, one of the things that he quickly realized is that he didn’t really like playing drums anymore. I said, “Well, you want me to bring in a drummer?” He said, “No, let me try a few other things.” So I knew I wasn’t going to start playing drums — I’ve tried, and I know I’m not particularly good and don’t particularly enjoy it. I’ll stick with the guitar if you don’t mind. We figured out a few of the other things he wanted to do. It was a nice next generation of songwriting, the next chapter, the evolution of the band.
Treble: Well, you just answered my next question about why there are a few songs on An Object with little or no percussion at all.
Randall: Yeah, Dean just wanted to challenge that idea. I think he felt a little burden – obviously I can’t speak for him – but some of the feeling I got was that he felt a little trapped by this idea of a traditional rock ‘n’ roll drummer. It has this sort of macho feel to it. He wanted to break out of that. Sometimes the instrument can lead the musician into a certain feeling. He wanted to change up his instrument a little bit to try to break out of that attitude. Some bands hit that route and they go tribal, or they get all the African percussion they could find, or they get a marching band to play, or they get a second drummer. We’re not the first band to change up the rhythm, I think we just did it in a way that makes sense to us.
Treble: Do you perceive An Object as big a departure for you as I do?
Randall: It’s hard to know. I’m probably the worst person to ask about it. I’ve seen the evolution more than anybody else has. I can’t see the forest for all the trees in the way. I can see how the last thing you heard was something from Everything In Between and then the next thing you hear is “No Ground,” the first song from An Object. You could hear something has shifted.
I do this thing on my iPod where I’ll play a band’s whole catalog. Sometimes you can hear the artist’s shift and sometimes you can’t. This would definitely be a mark of, like, “Oh, okay, this is a different album.” We like that. We didn’t want to force change and we weren’t trying to change who we are. At the same time, let’s be honest about where we’re and what some of things that interest us are now. I think that’s reflected in these songs, and they’re musically interesting, thematically kind of compelling. That’s not to say everyone else will like it but we felt like we had to be honest to ourselves, and we were digging it.
Treble: Dean kind of addresses the opposite of that in “No Ground” when he sings “No room for adjustment, no room for growth.” That sort of states your intentions right up front.
Randall: Yeah, it’s fairly literal when taken in that way (laughs). It almost felt too on the nose to put that song out front. But the more we were planning about placement, it felt okay. I don’t think the lyrics were necessarily written with that intention in mind. It definitely wasn’t written as “the first song.” It just had the feel of a broad, bold kind of lyrical statement. We thought it would be an interesting way to start this album.
Treble: Not only did you record An Object, but you were actively involved in the design, the packaging, the whole manufacturing process.
Randall: Yeah. We folded 10,000 pieces of paper. 5,000 were CD covers and the other 5,000 were LP covers. It was incredible. It was a process that was important to Dean. He felt like he wanted to take the idea of “making an album” to its furthest, literal meaning, to physically making an album. It was also a feeling of empowerment for him to feel that this album was manufactured by us, instead of ignoring the idea that there’s a mechanical, physical process to making an album. He wanted to engage that, and to see what that did and what that felt like.
It was kind of awesome. I sort of was dragged kicking and screaming through the process. I wasn’t necessarily as excited as he was to be in a room for what I thought would be a month. It ended up being only four days. At first it sounded like torture. But then once we were done and delivered the covers to the record processing plant, the CD plant, it felt like we’d accomplished something on top of creating, writing and recording this album. We really saw it through to the furthest reaches we could. Now when I see the record, I made that.
Treble: An Object is also kind of a technical throwback, since it was recorded to actual half-inch tape.
Randall: That’s how it started. We took a break for the Christmas holidays in 2012, and then I took those tapes and put them into the ProTools world. On some tracks we added guitar and vocals, did some arranging and editing in the digital format. But it all started out on tape. It wasn’t really that we thought analog’s better, or we wanted to go straight to vinyl and be all analog the whole way. It was just a sense of what sounded good. We felt like capturing all the sounds to tape with a certain hiss and pop kind of feel. Especially for the percussion stuff that Dean was doing there was an extra texture of warmth.
Treble: How does your songwriting partnership work with Dean?
Randall: All kinds of different ways. There’s no real one way that evolved, each song just sort of follows its own path to a degree. This record specifically, like I was saying, Dean wanted to be away from drums. In the past I would come up with a guitar riff, he’d come up with a drum part and we just followed those instincts of how a song should sound.
This process was different because he’d sometimes play with contact mics, or play a different beat or start a lot of songs on bass. Then I had to adjust my idea of what I would play to that, not really knowing if there were going to be drums to it, or not really knowing how the final product would be. So I just kind of kept it real simple. That was a big theme to this record, at least to my part on guitar. I just kept everything simple and sort of let the songs lead us there, versus me trying to corral or push it into any kind of format.
Treble: There’s a lot of different sounds on this record than we’ve heard before. There’s a credit for field recordings. You can hear a wayward keyboard or a detuned guitar, some subtle elements that show up in all the songs. They sound like intentional accidents.
Randall: Yeah, there’s a lot of things like that. It was just the thing that sounds good. A lot of the songs went through a few rounds of writing. We’d add stuff on, take stuff off, then start from scratch again. So some of those remnants are ghosts of ideas that we’d tape and leave in there, or survived the different ProTools mixes. We’d check back in and take the temperature of some of the songs. We took about six months from the time it was started to the time it was mastered. In those six months I think we had about 26 songs, and then the final 13 that it came down to.
There are all kinds of processes. The songs were still being written as we were mixing them. That’s what accounts for all that subtlety of the sounds. There may have been a whole keyboard part for the entirety of a song, but what ended up staying in the mix was just that one note right before the chorus. Erase everything off but that one thing. So there was some method to the madness.
I could see how hearing it – well, that’s a privilege I don’t have. I can’t ever hear these songs without know what they were like, unless I got amnesia suddenly. But I could see how on the first listen it’d be, “What the fuck? Where’d these things all come from? Did they really think to put that one keyboard in that one part in that piece?” It all comes out in a strange way.
Treble: I was checking into “C’mon, Stimmung.” Actually I looked up the German word stimmung to find out what it means, which is “mood,” roughly. I also found that “Stimmung” was the name of a work by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Randall: Yes. The idea came from Dean. He was reading a book by an artist, and he talks about it. “Stimmung.” Almost a spirit or an essence. I didn’t know anything about it. One of those things where Dean was really running on a different kind of inspiration than I was. He brought that idea in, and I said, “Sure. How do you see it?”
I just did an interview with a guy from Germany and he asked me about it. He was saying the phrase “C’mon Stimmung” reminded him of being at a bad German disco. It was something that the DJ would say over the P.A. to get the audience excited. Which was very much not our intention (laughs). That’s the risk you run when you insert a German word into a title. It’s a little bit open to interpretation.
Treble: So Dean writes the lyrics exclusively?
Randall: Yeah, he does all the lyrics. He’s gonna sing ‘em, he’s gotta write ‘em. First he’ll throw out a lot of ideas and we’ll go over what the ideas are, what kind of themes he’s touching on, but he’s really the sole author of lyrics.
Treble: I was wondering if you two ever talk about the subjects of the songs or whether they’re more or less contained with him.
Randall: It really depends. There’d be a lot of times where ideas were discussed and things were recycled around, he’ll try lyrics. It’s sort of his call of where they went.
Treble: You have an invocation from B. Forst in the liner notes, and there’s a quote that leapt out at me: “An institution (label) has no function anymore. A sound still needs a home.”
Randall: Yeah. This album was kind of a challenge for us. There were those moments where we kind of felt like giving up, or were questioning what an album could be, what a song could be. What did it mean to us, and why did we have to make this now? We didn’t want to feel like we were forcing ourselves to make something. We needed to challenge ourselves and investigate what the motivation was to write this record, and I think that piece addresses that in some way.
Treble: Any idea where you go from here?
Randall: No! That’s the nice thing. We are solely focused on playing these songs live for the tour. We kind of just let things happen as they come.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.