Interview | <I>Scavenger</I> huntCalla settles into its very own gray area
At it's best, music reveals things that can't be expressed in everyday life. Which may be why the transplanted Texans who make up the Brooklyn-based trio Calla find it a chore to express anything about themselves in verbal terms. "We're a pretty vague band," drummer and sample programmer Wayne B. Magruder admits with a smile. "Really, it just comes out this way and it sounds good." That's about as concrete a description as you'll get.
But while conversation with the members of Calla can go in circles, the band's music is more eloquent. Calla's new album, Scavengers, is solemn and mesmerizing. The group creates languid, austere soundscapes using traditional rock tools: guitar, bass, drums and vocals. A kind of nocturnal life is breathed into the songs with tasteful samples and pockets of silence, which give rough texture to the songs and conjure a hazy emotional weightiness. The music is sad, but not depressing; still, but never stagnantÂ—Calla always seems to land in between identifiable stations, both musically and emotionally. When other bands combine disparate moods, or pop-song forms with experimental concepts, it often results in one sounding pasted onto the other. Calla merges ideas that complement one another thoroughly.
For those who remember the band's self-titled debut from 1999, Scavengers shows marked growth. The debut was stark and experimental, with the songs sometimes taking a backseat to the atmospheres created by the sampling of Magruder and Sean Donovan, who also plays bass and keyboards. Guitarist Aurelio Valle's playing and singing at times sounded hesitant.
"I had never sung before that," says Valle, "so a lot of the space in those songs was just me trying to figure out how I was going to sing and play at the same time. I was very self-conscious about my singing; I felt like I was reading my diary to people. It was terrifyingÂ—after a show, I'd want to collapse."
Scavengers finds Valle gaining in confidence and strength and the band developing its unique emotional expression. The record is saturated with a tone that's dark but far from oppressive.
"Early on [in the recording], Aurelio said the word swamp, as a theme for us to go on," recalls Magruder, perhaps marking the band's nadir of verbal murkiness. Swamp? Like a bayou?
"Yeah," says Valle.
"Well, we were listening to some voodoo drum records," he elaborates (sort of), "trying to get that swampy feel."
Donovan, whose deep background in compositional theory informs his sample programming, picks up the thread quickly: "You can listen to these songs 20 times and suddenly hear something you never noticed in there before," he says with satisfaction. "When we go in to record, we're not interested in doing the same thing over again. This time, we wanted to bring the vocals up front and emphasize the songs."
"The scavenging theme is a way of looking at modern music," Magruder explains. "When you look for samples or ideas, you're going over the corpses...corpses?" (He asks no one in particular about his choice of words.) "The dead corpse of rock & rollÂ—you know what I mean," he finishes, before breaking into a laugh. (Speaking of the dead corpse of rock & roll, the album closes with a half-speed cover of U2's "Promenade.")
If there aren't any actual corpses at Calla's live shows, it still feels like you've intruded upon some kind of sacred ritual. The band can stretch a moment of silence until you're unsure whether a song is actually still being played. Large audiences stand rapt and almost eerily quiet.
Those hypnotic and alluring shows are what attracted Young God records head Michael Gira to Calla. As the leader of the late, beloved Swans and the current Angels of Light, he knows a few things about dark, atmospheric music.
"I was immediately drawn to Calla when I saw them play," Gira explains. "They hardly moveÂ—they don't need to. Their intense concentration and the beauty of the songs themselves draw the audience in. It's how music should be: intense, challenging and utterly committed to emotion."
"People latch onto the emotion in [Aurelio's] singing," says Donovan. "There's a fragility to it, to his sexy vocals." The other two laugh as he adds, "I'm always trying to get him to sing more sexy."
"In the end," says Magruder, "even if you can't pinpoint exactly what Aurelio's trying to express in a song, you still get that certain mood or vibeÂ—or whatever you want to call it."
Scavengers is out now on Young God Records. Calla plays the Young God Records showcase Fri 19 at Mercury Lounge.