Spin the Black Circle: an interview with Lemuria

We’ve spoken with Lemuria twice before. Here is a Lemuria interview. Here is another Lemuria interview. Given the limited conversational attributes of your correspondent, a third time was always going to be more difficult without starting to fall back on asking what their favourite day of the week is.

They recently pressed up a colourful vinyl version of their 2004 demo recordings and are currently putting the finishing touches to their third full-length album. The chance instead to talk at length about some of their formative influences - and the acts that continue to inspire them years down the line seemed opportune. We're still wildly enamoured with their particular take on melodic indie rock and are very much looking forward to the new material.

This, we imagine, is the band’s most in-depth interview to date and we’re grateful to them for continuing to give us their time.

So we’re going to talk about bands, or records that have been important to you. We talked in advance about some possibilities - some of which I was able to fulfill, others I had to kinda make a guess about. In no particular order, we’ll start with Mission of Burma. Tell me why they’re important to what you do now.

Alex Kerns (drums, vocals): When we did our album Pebble, Mission of Burma was the approach we wanted to take. Not so much songwriting-wise, but in terms of the recording they do everything very analogue, barebones - something that really represents what they sound like live, rather than going in and over-producing things. We actually tried to have Bob Weston master the album - he plays in MoB now - but he was booked up for six months. Also J. Robbins, who produced the album, that’s one of his favourite bands so it made sense to try and bring that together.

They’re one of those bands - they were around when they were around and then they had a big break but when they came back, they seemed to be able to pick up where they left off.

Alex: The Obliterati, which was one of their comeback albums, is one of the best things they’ve ever done. It sounds like MoB, without ever giving the sense that they were trying to simply ape the old stuff. It just sounds really natural.

Next out of the box is Superchunk.

Sheena Ozzella (guitar, vocals): I suppose when we started, Superchunk was the band we got compared to most. Alex and I have been fans for a long time - and they just get better with time. They have an ability to give pop-sounding songs a real energy that’s very inspiring. When I saw them live for the first time, it was so impressive how they all worked together - they didn’t do anything flashy, they’re just a down-to-earth team.

Max Gregor (bass): Also, their records have a poppy, punk rock base but they’re also really diverse. They’ve done a good job of putting out diverse albums - both in terms of production and songwriting-style - but never alienating the people who enjoy their music. They have lo-fi punk albums, but they also have country songs and they use synthesizers but it all sits happily under the Superchunk banner.

I think they maybe got a little bit lost over here. By the time we heard of them properly people were starting to get wearied of US bands and Britpop was just round the corner. There are a few coloured vinyls and what have you in here. How important is that physical object to what you do?

Alex: It’s still very important to me. The artwork represents what’s on the record.

Max: It’s like first impressions - when you meet someone for the first time you get a sense of their character. A record does that too.

Alex: An artist might make a decision about the medium, the canvas or the paper or whether to use crayons. How you present your art says a lot about what it is you have to say.

I made a guess with Sebadoh.

Sheena: Yeah!

So are you a Lou kinda guy or a Jason kinda guy?

Sheena: I’m a Lou guy! Or girl! I like Dinosaur Jr but I don’t listen to them consistently whereas Sebadoh have become one of my favourite bands. Weirdly enough I thought Lou wrote all the songs ‘cos their voices are similar don’t you think? And then I saw them play and I was like ‘Weird!’

Bakesale and Harmacy were the first two records that I got into. I love Lou’s solo albums - all the pretty, melodic stuff and his voice is something that’s motivated me to try and be a little better at singing. His vocals have a smoothness, a calming effect - I would marry that man!

Can you remember what the first record was that you bought with your own money?

S: Maybe No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom or I have a feeling I bought something by The Bangles from the value bin.

A: I used to buy cassette tapes - stuff like Digital Underground and MC Hammer. I was into all that old hip-hop stuff, basically whatever my brother had I would get into. The first vinyl I bought was by this band called Counter Clockwise but it was about a year before we had a working record player.

I remember buying a Stiff Little Fingers 7” in anticipation of getting a record player for a birthday or Christmas.

M: The very first I bought with my own money was either The Lion King soundtrack or TLC’s Sexy Crazy Cool. As for the first vinyl … I’d been listening to friends’ records and getting into stuff and I bought AFI’s Art of … before I had a player - just like you guys! They were also the first show I went to.

I imagine all three still get regular spins.

M: Yeah! I think TLC is the one that’s lasted the best!

S: I also remember having some kind of Fisher Price player with a Paula Abdul single that my Mom had given me. I would roller skate around the basement to that!

A: Just thinking about Stiff Little Fingers, when I was 16 or 17 I went with a car load of kids from Buffalo to see them in Philadelphia, which was a 6-7 hour drive. They put all the kids who couldn’t drink in the mezzanine area and you couldn’t go down into the pit. So we had to watch all the older punks NOT dancing and we got really frustrated ‘cos we were ready to rage!

You’ve mentioned J Robbins already, so Jawbox obviously impacted on what you do.

A: Yeah, he produced Pebble and we’re working with him again on this new record. Some of the way we write songs, the time signatures definitely come from Jawbox.

S: With Pebble, the music was maybe a little darker but the vocals were still poppy - and that’s what we wanted from J.

They had a brief flirtation with a major label but this single is on Dischord, a label that has a very particular way of doing things business-wise. Was there a record or series of records that changed the way you thought about things or saw the world differently?

A: Probably Operation Ivy was the first really politically charged album I’d ever heard. My brother wasn’t really into that much punk music but he would borrow CDs from friends and they introduced me Lookout! Records and the bands that were connected to Operation Ivy.

M: When I got into punk it was initially The Descendents and in a way that record narrowed my way into being entirely absorbed by punk rock for all of that period in middle school and high school. But the game changer was Billy Bragg and I realised that punk could be much more than how I’d classified it in my brain before. Billy Bragg is raw and punk and he’ll have a song that’s very targeted and pissed off and will have the most beautiful love song next to it. I thought that was amazing that he could do that and that really opened my mind to different kinds of music and different messages.

Talking about narrow minds, my punk rock radar flashes when Fleetwood Mac are mentioned. Why are we talking about them today?

M: Well, Tusk especially. A lot of people know Rumours as one of the greatest selling records of all time with pop hit after pop hit, but when Fleetwood Mac were gearing up to write Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham was listening to Talking Heads and The Ramones and the stuff that was going on in the late 70s. And with these other blues influences and general pop, combined with New Wave and punk … It’s weird talking about Fleetwood Mac and those influences because no-one really connects them with the weird, aggressive songs on that record.

A: If you listen to that song ‘The Ledge’, the bass just sounds so fuzzed out, like a stoner metal band today would just strive for that today.

M: And with Tusk, the rest of the band, coming off this huge record, just wanted to repeat that formula whereas Lindsey was just ‘Nah, I wanna do what I wanna do.’ It still has catchy songs but it also has really bizarre songs too. I can heartily recommend it!

I’m so old. There’s a whole bunch of acts like Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Queen who just seemed to typify all that was wrong with the music industry at a certain period in the 1980s and you just couldn't listen to them. Younger folks can just listen to them without all that baggage but there’s a little guy on my shoulder who says ‘No!’

M: (laughs) There’s also something about the way those records were made. Even bigger bands today don’t get to spend six months or a year in a studio to just pore over 12 songs. Having the means to do that creates a certain sound.

I had to cheat a little with The Ergs! ‘cos I only had the split single you did with them.

A: You have the very limited cover though - only 99 copies!

That took me forever to find. Tell me about them, 'cos they never really registered over here.

A: Well, they’re just a band we randomly met from Columbus, Ohio. They were on a tour opening for this bigger act and they had a day off and we played a house show with them and we hit it off. Mikey Erg was up front, singing our songs and we only had a demo out at that point! We kept in touch, playing more songs in Jersey together - they’re good people!

S: They’re really dedicated musicians!

A: They can hear a song on the radio on the way to a show and cover it that night.

I was on the train when I realised I had meant to bring a Pixies record because you covered a Pixies song. I’m not aware of you doing any other cover songs.

S: We covered Magnetic Fields.

A: Yeah, we played 'Grand Canyon' by Magnetic Fields but not in the studio. We changed it up. I would like to do that again because we had our own take on it. We also covered a Jawbreaker song when we first started ‘cos we only had five songs and we needed something else to play live.

Leatherface was another request you had. Maybe feted more in foreign lands than at home.

S: I remember hearing about the tour they did in the US with Avail and Dillinger 4 maybe about 2000 and I wanted to go to that concert because I liked Dillinger 4 but I couldn’t go and I was bummed. And then this guy I used to play with in an acoustic band showed me lots of Leatherface stuff. After that, all I could think about was how bummed I was that I didn’t go to that show.

I just got into all their albums after that. Even the ones I wasn’t sure of at first I like now. I guess that kind of guitar work interests me and the whole sound is something that's imitated - very poorly - by a lot of people.

Because I am a professional and I do my research I noticed most of their stuff is out of print. You’d think a label would pick it up.

A: I think Mush is out of print because the record label went under and they maybe can’t get the rights back. That’s maybe the case with the other albums too. It’s really sad, though.

I actually went to that Avail and Dillinger 4 show! I saw Leatherface but I was too young to get into it. I was like ‘I can’t get into his vocals, it’s too gruff!’ but three or four years later it made sense.

S: I was really happy that we eventually got to play with them ‘cos they weren’t doing anything for a long time.

I also have Guided By Voices and Nirvana in the box, but I’m conscious of the time.

S: Guided By Voices are actually a band we always talk about covering. Robert Pollard’s solo stuff and his art …

A: His art is crazy!

S: … and we’ve been to the places they’re from in Ohio and we’re into the weirdness of them.

A: They’re kinda like the underdogs - they write these incredible songs but they always have these things that are going to hold them back: they’re these older rock dudes; they’re from Dayton, Ohio and they have these recordings of 45 second long songs, some of which are amazing pop songs but it has someone snoring over the top. It’ll never be a radio hit!

S: That’s maybe why we thought we might record with different people in the future, to capture some of that.

A: Actually, underdogs is wrong because they make those decisions themselves!

S: We made a Nirvana tribute t-shirt for The Fest in Florida one year. They were one of the first bands I really got into and I do keep going back to them. When we were on tour once, one of the radio stations were doing this series of documentaries about the Seattle scene and it was a reminder of how cool it was.

Next time we’ll do Lemuria: The Grunge Years.

S: Yeah! (pause) I can’t believe you don’t listen to Queen. (pause) Is there anything you want us to play tonight?

Well, I’ve been asking for 'Home For The Holidays' for about three tours.

S: Oh, no!

You keep breaking my heart. I’ll settle for some covers: Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Phil Collins …

S: (Laughs) Maybe we could mix the set up a little.

You could do an EP when you get home.

S: Yeah … we could totally do that!

You can buy Lemuria stuff via their online store. Follow them on Twitter.

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