Back in Brooklyn during the quarantine, Widowspeak spoke with QRO. In the conversation, Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas talked about their upcoming new record Plum (out August 28th), finishing it just before everything shut down, moving back to Brooklyn as the coronavirus lockdown started, listeners getting a chance to sit with records right now, even introverts need to see people by this point, “tumultuous turmoil,” baking bread for a good reason, and more…
QRO: How are you holding up with everything that is going on?
Molly Hamilton: We’re good, considering.
Robert Earl Thomas: How we’re holding up is ultimately not that important, you know?
MH: We moved back to New York City in April. We’ve had that to kind of at least be focused on. It’s weird to move in the middle of a pandemic, but then again, I guess it’s better than having to move in a normal time, where you very busy, I guess? [laughs]
QRO: Are you in Brooklyn?
MH: Yeah, we’re in Bushwick, which is also kind of where we lived before, when we lived in New York before.
We were upstate for a while, and then back home, from where I’m from in Washington [Tacoma], for a while. We’ve moved around a lot, but we’re back in Brooklyn.
And it’s good to be back. Despite everything, New York is a great city. It’s a wonderful place to be. It’s good to be back. It’s a wild time, obviously.
It’s funny moving when the city is shut down. We were doing the exactly opposite of what everything else was doing. Not everybody else, but being up in Kingston, it was just funny hearing about people going upstate.
Obviously, you wanna be where you gonna be, regardless of if you’re just in your apartment.
Because we were moving, it was nice, at least, to have the ability to move, or do minor repairs, without having to go to work, I guess? [laughs] It’s been slowly unpacking, and figuring things out…
QRO: Do you get messages from family & friends outside of New York, who think things are dangerous in NYC, especially now with the protests?
MH: Definitely, when we were moving, my family thought we were insane.
RT: More for the health reasons.
MH: I definitely think that the news is overplaying the negative aspects of the coronavirus, or the protests. So, it’s funny seeing the positives dramatically outweighing – and I don’t mean because of the virus, but I just feel I’m observing, by and large, people being really responsible. All the protesters are wearing masks, and everybody’s by and large just being incredibly vigilant.
I’ll get a distant relative sending me some news article – I’m trying to do what I can, to dispel the misinformation.
It’s funny moving when the city is shut down. We were doing the exactly opposite of what everything else was doing.
QRO: When you moved back, had you just finished making Plum?
MH: We started recording it in December, and then were wrapping up tracking January, and then it was mixed in February, and basically was done by early March.
So, kind of right when everything was totally finished, it was also like, “Well…”
Our plans didn’t change; it’s still gonna be released at the same time we were always planning. Obviously, the touring part is off the table, or the table is far away – who knows where the table is?
I think part of the reason we had no interest in attempting to postpone, or any of that, was just that, all of this just shows you can never really predict. The future is always an unknown, so the idea of holding out for some sort of magical moment…
If anything, the things we’re writing out, I guess I was writing about lyrically – and I don’t mean that I was trying to play into its relevance, but it’s just like, ‘Well, you know, these are sort of the things I was thinking about the last couple of years, just in a slightly different moment.’
So, if it seems relevant or useful, or comforting to someone now, it’s as good as a time as any to release it.
RT: I also think, we’ve been a band for ten years, and without sounding obnoxious or angry, we like having a band, and we like the band, we’re kind of over the music industry. So, the idea of making any concession on releasing the record or rescheduling our plans–
MH: Which isn’t to say that–
RT: I’m not trying to be angry, but we’re already trying to structure our lives in a way that wasn’t dependent on the music industry. While I wish that we could tour and do stuff like that, it seemed like restructuring the release of the record was sort of antithetical to how we were trying to live.
MH: And obviously, our label didn’t do any suggestion of that, either. They were totally onboard.
I’ve just observed some other artists, kind of not knowing how to navigate. And I feel for them, too, because it’s like you’re holding onto this thing, for over a year sometimes, and just waiting for this special, basically a birthday for it. It can be really hard, especially if it’s something you put so much effort into.
And I think just for us, it was a little different, being a later record in our discography. This is a record that’s a little bit more present, I guess, in terms of its subject matter.
It’s a weird to feel kind of ambivalent about this? Not the current events, but just the record timing part. For other people, it’s a lot more devastating.
For us, if anything, it’s just that we don’t have jobs now, so we have to figure that out… [laughs]
QRO: I suppose, also, almost by happenstance, you were able to finish it before lockdown. There’s other people who were 90% done with their record, but they can’t get that last 10% done…
MH: Oh, for sure, I know. I can’t imagine, if we hadn’t…
Because a lot of times, you leave vocals, or you do like a scratch vocal but leave that for the end. You can kind of record vocals at your house, but that can be kind of a nightmare.
Or if you have gear that you need to get into the studio. We were definitely lucky in that regard.
On the other hand, all the visuals on the record we were doing distance-wise. We were making our own music videos in the apartment. I kind of have done video stuff, I guess?
At least that part of it, if anything, we’re trying to have fun with it, and not worry about this being… You don’t have to hit these benchmarks, everything looking incredibly professional right now [laughs], because I think everybody’s understanding how not everybody has access to same things anymore.
I think part of the reason we had no interest in attempting to postpone, or any of that, was just that, all of this just shows you can never really predict.
And collaboration… I just miss people, really. That’s a month three, month four…
Rob’s giving me a look, because I’m sometimes a little bit of a shut-in [laughs]. But four months of being a shut-in, even the introverts are starting to…
QRO: I’m the same way. You get too far into it, and even I could use to go to a party I don’t want to go to…
Sometimes, I’d been the sort of person who’d leave early. Even going to shows and stuff, I’d stay for the bands, but not do the hanging out afterwards thing anymore. ‘I’m going home…’
But I miss hanging out with people, without it having to be something that is a risk factor for people’s lives. It’s crazy how quickly we’ve had to – obviously, this has been talked about ad nauseum – music is obviously one of the biggest risk factors, is groups of people in a club. So that’s gonna be off the table for a long time.
QRO: Yeah. I hear that New York’s ‘starting to open up,’ but there’s still no shows…
MH: Yeah, exactly. Maybe you’ll be able to have outdoor restaurants or something, but music is definitely on the short list of things that’s gonna be the last to come back.
We’ll all just see, I guess…
RT: Molly & I, we had been taking a break – usually, we make a record within two years, but it had been three years, so we had been off doing other things, sort of being occupied.
I can’t imagine people whose touring plans got cut short, people who were ready to be in a whole travel. At least we weren’t in a van with a bunch of merch that we had paid for.
MH: Hadn’t subletted an apartment yet, taken time off work…
Because yeah, we definitely had a lot of friends who were on tour.
RT: Or the wheels were already rolling…
MH: That had moved out of their apartment, were going to South-by-Southwest – and then like, ‘Oops, gotta come back…’
QRO: I was going to go to SXSW. That was basically the first thing that got cancelled.
MH: I’m sort of thinking that people are starting to adapt.
You’re seeing a lot of the concert websites focusing on livestreams now. It’s cool that the infrastructure, and the focus, instead of just lamenting the loss of what we knew, it’s people reimagining what can be.
Livestreams are cool. They’re not the same. We’ve done one, and it was cool, and we’re probably do more, eventually. But it’s hard to get as excited about that, as you would be, about a tour.
RT: I mean livestreams, yeah, sure, but I’m kind of hoping that, with the absence of live music and the social event nature of it, that maybe people re-center and listen to records deeper.
This is me being lightly cynical, but even I’m guilty of it: a record comes out, there’s a show, there’s a whole big social responsibility to check in and know that you’ve listened to it & seen it, and then you’re cycling through the events & things.
But if it’s just music being released, just music itself for a while, maybe that means have deep and really cool personal relationships with records, in a ways that maybe they couldn’t, when things were so hectic.
I’m kind of hoping that, with the absence of live music and the social event nature of it, that maybe people re-center and listen to records deeper.
QRO: Ever since mp3s, and then streaming, the records more became for the live show. As opposed to, in the nineties or the eighties, when you just had to listen to record, you had your CD or your record.
MH: I remember so much music that I got into was because other people burning me CDs or making me mixtapes.
When something is rare, and you have to either have someone give it to you, or somehow find if for yourself, you have to work for it, you value it more.
I do think that streaming, sometimes, or even the idea of shows – when there’s so much music available to you all the time, you value it less. Maybe having shows taken away, having music taken away for a while, is gonna make people appreciate music more.
I don’t know – I’m not saying that they weren’t appreciating it, but I think streaming has kind of affected how we think about it.
Even just us. Obviously, we make music, but we’re music fans, too. And I’ve even noticed how my attention has shifted from being a discoverer, when I feel like everything is already almost discovered. [laughs]
We got our record player set up, in the new apartment, and it’s been cool, just trying to slow down and listen to music again, without anything else to do. [laughs]
It’s almost like each record is a reimagining of everything, in a way.
QRO: This is your fifth album. How has making music changed, or not, over the years & records?
RT: It’s been kind of a constant tumult? Turmoil?
MH: Tumultuous turmoil? [laughs]
RT: It’s been a weird kind of constant reimagining. We’ve had a hard to time getting any kind of streak.
Because we started the band as a band, three people, and then Michael [Stasiak], the drummer, left, and Molly & I have sort of been cycling through drummers, bass players, other musicians. So, every record is sort of weird re…
I mean, I think they sound cohesive, and it sounds like there’s definitely a linear narrative to our sound, but for us, we’ve haven’t ever really hit our stride. It’s almost like each record is a reimagining of everything, in a way. Because we’re not like a ‘band gang’.
It’d be different if we were a weird duo, and we had started in a bedroom, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s how we’ve always been doing it.’ We started one way, and then sort of shifted.
I think it’s beneficial, but also sometimes it’s frustrating. It just seems like every record, it feels like we’re reinventing, but we’re just picking up where we left off at the same time, too.
I’m sure it’s really good, in a lot of ways, but I think that’s maybe the biggest thing, over the course of almost ten years now, it just kind feels like a weird, loopy line, where we do scribbles & circles & circles. We start going in one direction, but it never felt like gliding.
MH: I think, with this record particularly, some bands, maybe they’re on a trajectory, and whatever decisions they make creatively, there’s sort of an end goal in mind. Or maybe they’re continuing down a path towards whatever.
I think, for us, I think it always is like, ‘If we’re still doing this,’ obviously personal relationship aside, it’s more like music obviously being creatively fulfilling, but also, if you’re making a record, it’s a conscious effort to do something that is a little bit more cohesive than jamming, or writing a song, or whatever.
With our creative rapport, I think it’s just kind of like, ‘If we’re doing this again, how is this going to be different, or meaningful for us, instead of the same record again & again.’ I don’t think our records are really all that similar to each other, but it’s also just to make it new to us, what are you going to change about it, in your approach?
We’ve been doing it a long time, and sometimes, it’s five records in, if it feels like it’s dragging, then it can be a real energy suck.
I think for this one, the things that changed, were just trying to be a little bit more intentional about some of the sounds. And for me, also trying to approach lyrics a little differently this time.
I think that I had gotten a little bit – not to say that I won’t return to this kind of style of writing sometime in the future – but I had gotten kind of exhausted of personal reflection as the basis of songs. Not that these aren’t personal songs, and not that I’m trying to make them super-universal, either, but just the idea of directness I was missing, or wanted to bring to the forefront of these.
I think that, in terms of the song’s meaning, I wanted them to have something that was more easily understandable, instead of elusive, or based in a memory, or a personal feeling, ephemeral kind of quality. So, I think that, the way the record sounds, too, is maybe more present.
Sometimes we’re a little bit more, not ‘experimental,’ but I think this time we wanted to get back to some sort of ‘core.’
RT: Straightforward record. I think you’re lyrics are straightforward. It’s not that they’re not deep, but they’re just straightforward.
We made it really straightforward. We did it over a couple of weekends. In a way that I’m happy with, because I don’t think we labored over it intensively, which we have done with things in the past. Especially because it’s usually just the two of us, on the music end, sometimes I’ll just spend weeks, doing overdubs. ‘Cause you can just keep layering at stuff. We tried to avoid that thing, just kind of knock it out.
Because, that’s the other thing, we’ve been doing it a long time, and sometimes, it’s five records in, if it feels like it’s dragging, then it can be a real energy suck. We’ve done this a bunch of times; we kind of know the ropes. At least the structure – we’re not new to making a record. So, planning it, recording it, we’ve got it down.
So, try to do it casually, and with purpose, but just not overlabor it.
MH: Keep the magic. Even the little, tiny mistakes.
We recorded a lot of it live, in the room, at Sam [Evian, producer]’s house, where his studio is. There are obviously overdubs and stuff, but still keeping it not labored over. And feeling like we didn’t take every minute aspect of it, and overthink it. Not that to say that we’ve done that a ton in the past…
RT: Having it feel casual and organic was the only way that it was gonna have the resonance for us.
We’ve been doing this for so long, and we were lucky enough that our first record got some pretty great press.
We’ve kind of ‘plateaued’, in a way…
It’s not like we started the band, and it’s been a constant uphill struggle to get on MTV or something. We had some early success, and that’s been our strata.
It’s been cool, but also, we need to find a way to give meaning to the music, more than just it being a ‘us against the world,’ ‘trying conquer the world’ mentality.
MH: Artistically, every record we make, luckily, has been because we wanted to do it, for ourselves.
It’s not like we haven’t had momentum, but especially the last three years, we kind of stepped away from touring, kind of just were working full time, slowly assessing, ‘Next time, what are the things we want to do different?’ Or just explore…
So that’s why I think this record came out a little more organic.
RT: Also, why we didn’t want to sit on it, then.
MH: And we’re already thinking about the next record! [laughs] I’m sure there’s going to be so many quarantine records, because everybody’s stewing in their ideas…
Widowspeak’s video for “Breadwinner”:
QRO: How did you make the video for “Breadwinner” (QRO review)?
MH: So, I made playdough out of flour, salt, and water, just found a recipe on the internet. And then I was doing time-lapse Claymation, just moving around.
The dough rising was also a time-lapse of a super-commercial bread dough, that I just added a ton of yeast to. And then I put it in different flowerpots and things.
RT: It’s all stuff around the house.
It’s all dong animation-style. They’re all individual photographs. It wasn’t filmed traditionally. It’s also time-lapse photography.
MH: The dough was rising, in each of the little things it was in, was probably like an hour? But hundreds of photos. My computer was not happy about the amount of space they were all taking up, but we figured it out…
That was the hardest part, was honestly getting all the footage into small enough file sizes, so that it was easily workable. Because I don’t have one of those fancy computers [laughs] – it’s a 2011 iMac, so not made for anything high-tech.
Widowspeak’s new video for “Money”:
QRO: And how was making the new video for “Money”?
MH: I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we tell ourselves in order to ‘forget’ the toll of our collective actions: whatever makes it easier to forgive what we’re complicit in. Some of that is related to the environment and how people have trained themselves to tune out ‘environmentalist propaganda’. We made part of the video at a park in Kingston, NY and the archival footage is mostly pulled from films aimed at employees or shareholders of various industries. The narration for many of them (forestry, agriculture, mining, energy) was surprisingly concerned with the dangers of an environment out of balance… Shows you that we haven’t learned much in the last 70 years. On the other hand, the lyrics are also about capitalism and how it trains us to see everything in terms of value, even our experiences, and we get so caught up in seeking some sort of return on investment that we ignore the damage we inflict (on people, on ourselves, on the planet).