The lovely music of Manchester-based Daniel Land and the Modern Painters is the ultimate undiscovered country, flitting on the fringes just begging to be listened to. Fans of shoegaze and dream pop have long known about Land’s stately, soporific paens to lost loves, but it’s time for more people to stand up and take notice.
I first crossed paths with Daniel when I interviewed him for the ambient music site, Headphone Commute, about his riverrun project, and I can gladly confirm that he’s a genial and highly intelligent gent. When he joined forces with Ulrich Schnauss and the Engineers, I knew he’d help bring them to a higher plane of soaring beauty, and with his own Modern Painters, he combines sonic textures from all his projects and melds them into a unique whole. On his latest project, The Space Between Us, out on May 28th on Club AC30 records, he kicks his music up a notch, pushing back the dreaminess and bringing his vocals into the forefront. The songs are plaintive and more straightforward in some respects, but his great love for The Cocteau Twins is ever present. In the interview below, Daniel expounds on the many facets of the musical gems he brings to the table.
It sounds like the writing process for this album was thought provoking and painful. In a small way, the switch from gauzy vocals to more straightforward ones reminds me of the change Michael Stipe went through in REM. Is it hard to put yourself out there, with heart on the sleeve lyrics?
DANIEL LAND: It was hard. There’s always that part at the back of my mind that thinks people are just going to laugh at me, know what I mean? And sometimes I do find the situation a bit absurd – you know, I’m 31 years old and kind of a big hairy bloke, and I’m singing all these soppy songs about my feelings and the bad relationships I’ve been in, hahaha. But I dunno, that process of opening up and singing about all this stuff mirrors a similar change in my personal life really; these songs all came about about at a time when I was coming out of a very long relationship and engagement, and then very quickly got involved in another relationship which ended up going really badly.
I was just a bit of a mess at the time, I think. But I was also going to therapy sessions and beginning to open up about a lot of things, and discovering why I kept hitting brick walls in my personal relationships. It’s probably a bit solipsistic to think that anyone listening to the record is going to give much of a damn about these personal problems, so I’m cautious about overemphasizing the importance of this – but I thought the least I could do would be to open up the lyrics a bit more, sing more easily recognisable words, and sing things that people might relate to. At this point in my life, anything else just wouldn’t feel honest to me.
The new album paints sound on this cinematic canvas, with poignant lyrics dotting the landscape. It seems simple and complex, all at the same time. Was this planned, or did it come about more organically?
DANIEL LAND: I think it just occured organically really; I generally find that
“intention” doesn’t come into the music part of record-making all that much – you just kinda start, and then sooner or later a direction makes itself apparent, and the momentum of that carries you through to the end.
That said, I suppose I did have in the back of my mind the idea that I didn’t want to overload the record with guitars and completely obscure the essential song. I wanted a record that had greater depth, but that seemed a bit more sparse. That sounds like a kind of contradiction, but if you know of bands like The Blue Nile, that’s kind of what I mean – there are lots of textures, but it’s not cluttered – every part is well thought-out and does something, musically.
The biggest part of making the record was the editing process, just picking out the
best parts or sections and scrapping anything that was unnecessary. That was a very long process, perhaps four months, but it was a really fun part, just seeing how much I could leave out and being really judicious about what stayed in and what got scrapped.
You are on a new label, correct? How have they been to work with so far?
DANIEL LAND: Yeah, Club AC30 are putting it out. They’re nice guys. Proper music
fans, and they have a good organisation in place with things like press and PR, which is what we’ve needed all along really, some good promotion to give the band a boost. They first approached us a couple of years ago actually, so even while we were making this record we’ve known it had a nice home to go to, which has been very good to know.
Reading your background notes, it seems literature has moved strongly forward as an influence. Do you mind discussing these influences, and how they have colored your writing?
DANIEL LAND: It’s always been there, but yeah, I think it’s becoming more apparent now. I suppose in general what I like about literature is its universality, its ability to put into words a feeling that you’ve always kind-of had, but never been able to express succinctly. It enlarges the vocabulary of our feeling. I guess I’m just starting to come around to the idea that I could at least try to something like that with lyrics, rather than covering up what I’m singing and being vague about it. Not that I’d ever be anywhere near as good as my heroes, of course, but it’s nice to aim high!
When I was going through all this upheaval in my personal life I was reading a lot of Milan Kundera. What I really like about his novels is that you sort of step into a world in which the realities of relationships and the differences between people are seen very honestly and clearly. You feel what it’s really like to be in a relationship where you’re growing apart from each other. I initially liked the title The Space Between Us because it seemed to have a kind of Milan Kundera ring to it, and seemed to suggest drifting apart. It’s about accepting the inevitable space between two people in a relationship. And The Space Between Us is also the name of a novel by Thrity Umrigar about love and friendship across a class divide, which had echoes of the second of the two relationships I was writing lyrics about. Also, during this time I was listening to a lot of mid-period Joni Mitchell and enjoying the third person narrative, conversational quality of a lot of that period. So some of the songs, “Echo & Narcissus” and “The Hawk & The Nightingale” for example, are written as a dialogue, in quotation marks, a conversation that flits between two lovers.
I’ve always liked that kind of John Cale thing, where he names a track after a famous film or story, and it gives a twist to the meaning of the lyrics. I’ve done that few times in the past, where I’ve named a track like “Between The Acts” after a book by Virginia Woolf, or “Run Silent, Run Deep” after a film, and you have to do a bit of detective work to add up what lyrics say, and see how they relate to the
reference, in order to get a sense of the overall meaning. I’ve done that a few times on this record with track titles like “Eyes Wide Shut”, “Butterfly Lovers”, references to Romeo and Juliet (“Star-crossed”), even “Cherry Bark & Almonds” – the title comes from a pivotal scene in the series Frasier which is easily You Tube-able if people want to check it out. Also this time round, I’ve made a whole load of allusions with the words I’m singing as well, if you delve deep into the lyrics there’s loads of allusions and references, from things very highbrow like Shakespeare, or more middlebrow stuff like Edmund White and Pier Vittorio Tondelli and Joseph Olshan, and even really trashy stuff like Stephen King! Hahaha.
In fact, there’s a really funny reference to Elton John – no one seems to have picked up on this yet, but “Sleeping With The Past” is the name of one of his albums… it was his divorce album basically, and it was a title I always liked and wanted to use. The whole divorce thing seemed very appropriate for this record, but I ended up spinning it out a bit further, and taking “Sleeping With The Past” to mean, erm, spending a night with an old flame. The guy that that song is about, well, something a bit more literal. The person who that’s about, well, Elton John is one of their Guilty Pleasures, so it’s also a sort of private joke. Hahaha.
Are you primarily responsible for all the writing and arrangements, or were any of the other Painters involved?
DANIEL LAND: The general direction and a lot of the ideas tend to come from me, yes, but this time round it felt more collaborative. Even the stuff that I did on my own, I was always writing it with one eye on the way we play as a live band, and how we could exploit the material in a live context, especially with regards to our live drummer Jason Magee who comes from a more rock background, and perhaps found the slow tempos a bit constraining, perhaps; one aspect of the record was me wanting to write some stuff that could make use of his skills, and help us shake loose a bit.
It was nice as well that some of the guys who hadn’t written stuff with me before helped out with a couple of tracks, like on “Cherry Bark & Almonds”, where some of the vocal melody is actually cribbed from a bass improvisation Andy (Andrew Dominic Galpin) did over the top. He didn’t know I was recording him, and the bass part didn’t get used in the end, but I was stuck for part of the vocal melody and I ended up using that. And then there was this whole level of detailed sonic stuff I did with Oisin Scarlett; we got very experimental with programming and
manipulating sounds with samplers and synths and so on. So yeah, it feels like more of a band album.
Was this album self-produced, as you did with riverrun?
DANIEL LAND: Yeah, it was all recorded in the home studio I have here; it’s in a five hundred year old cottage which looks out onto a leafy lane, a church and a graveyard. It’s a lovely place to work. Going down the traditional studio route probably wouldn’t be so good for this kind of music, because it takes so long to put together – you’d be talking thousands and thousands of pounds in studio time. This way we can work at our own pace and let stuff grow naturally.
I know you use non-traditional recording methods. Can you list some of the equipment you favor?
DANIEL LAND: I think the non-traditional recording methods really come with the stuff I do as riverrrun – that’s much more of a kitchen sink approach in the sense that I tend to throw any old crap into the mix and just keep adding and slowing things down until it makes some kind of sense!
With the Painters stuff, I think it tends to be constructed in more of a traditional sense, mainly because – and I think I might get some flak for saying this – there’s really only so far you can push innovation in the context of a band record. By which I mean that there’s only so far you can push sonic experiments before you put the thing entirely out of reach of anything that could ever be played by a live band. That’s not a problem necessarily – most of my favourite music is stuff that can’t really be easly replicated by a live band – but I think it would be a mistake for the Painters to do something like that at this stage of our career; we’ve already found that to make this new material work live requires additional rhythm tracks or sequencers and samplers and things on stage, and all of these things add to the complexity of the setup and the tendency of things to crap out and ruin your set – especially at this stage of our career, when we’re playing small venues, and don’t have much time to soundcheck and set up, and so on. So in the back of my mind, while this record was coming together there was always a very clear sense in the back of my mind that this would have to be played by the band at some point.
That said, I think we’re pretty non-traditional in terms of the way we work in the studio; even the way the songs come together is totally backwards – normally the entire backing music is finished before I even start to work out what the melody might be. And then the words are the very last thing to happen. So it’s almost like the tracks are finished as instrumentals before I start to think about what I’m going
to sing on top of them. That used to be quite uncommon but I think a lot of people are starting to work that way these days, especially if they’re working in their own places rather than in big studios where the clock is ticking.
I know you’ve worked with The Steals, and Jayn Hanna contributes vocals to “The Silver Medal”. Any chance you might return the favor on one of her releases?
DANIEL LAND: There’s a lot of overlap. I’ve been playing in Jayn’s band The Steals
for about three years now; I joined the live band shortly after their debut album “Static Kingdom” came out, and have just recently begun contributing guitar parts and various bits and pieces to the second album, which is about half done I think. We’ve done a couple of acoustic gigs where we sang together doing a mix of our material, and Jayn’s hopefully going to be singing harmonies on some of the upcoming Painters gigs. I think our voices work really well together, so yeah, I’d like to think that we might do something together in the future which involves us singing together in a kind of duet fashion, or something, See what happens I guess. The bottom line is that we’re really good friends, so I’m sure something nice will come up sooner or later.
How hard is it to balance so many creative pursuits?
DANIEL LAND: Funnily enough, it’s not that hard. For me it’s quite as easy thing to manage, because I’ve always operated in a way that says the Painters stuff is my priority, my main artistic focus, and the other things tend to slot in around the edges.
I suppose the important thing to mention is that the other things I’m involved in, like Engineers and The Steals, they aren’t “my” projects in any real sense, and because of that, they’re hardly time consuming at all. I get the luxury of being involved without any of the heavy lifting that goes into running them. The Steals, for example, is Jayn Hanna’s project, so I just drop in whenever I’m needed, to do some recording or play a gig. And with Engineers, everyone in that band has their own musical things going on, so it tends to be one of those situations where we regroup every year (or whatever) and do short, focused things, before going quiet again. So I have a lot more free time than it probably looks like.
Even with my ambient project riverrun, that’s basically what I do to chill out – it’s nice to work on ambient stuff because it doesn’t involve any of the labour intensive, time-consuming things that come with making a “band” record, like programming or recording drums or dealing with multiple vocal takes. Compared to that, making my kind of ambient stuff is remarkably easy.
So I dunno – I can see how from the outside it might look like I’m spreading myself thin, but it never really feels like I’m that busy; the Painters stuff takes a while to gestate, and while it’s brewing it’s good to have all these other things going on, things which keep me fresh and exposed to other influences, and other ways of playing. It’s a similar situation for some of the other guys in the band too – like Oisin for example, who also plays in the band Air Cav. It’s good to be involved in these other things, it’s good crop rotation!
As a final note, is it possible The Painters will find their way to the US? You have many fans here, and we’d love to see the band.
DANIEL LAND: This is one of those questions to which I have no good answer. I
suppose it just depends upon how things go with the album; until recently we’ve always been unsigned, and so that means that for most of the history of the band we’ve not had a label or any of the general support that comes with that, we’ve just been doing our own thing and arranging our own tours. Plenty of bands on labels, even really big labels, lose money playing the States, so before we can even consider that we’d really need some interest from some US promoters, or perhaps an American label wanting to license the record. Shame, really; we do have a lot of fans in the States, but in order for it to happen it needs someone who’s based over there with the financial or organisational know-how to put it together; until then it’s just a dream rather than reality. See what happens, I guess? Never say never…