Memoryhouse are Denise and Evan from Ontario. They have seen a fair amount of blog hype in the last few months, making Forkcast several times. Evan studied formal composition in school, and the name “Memoryhouse” comes from an album by minimalist composer Max Richter– here they talk with me about academic music versus pop music, influences, favorites and more.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Your classical composition background interests me. In my own process of growing from ‘canon’ indie-type stuff to lo-fi and noise, I’ve met some really close friends that have background in avant-garde, contemporary classical, art music—we sometimes end up talking about whether art music is a fundamentally more valid form of expression than pop music, where the two might converge and how they interact at this line. How does your academic background play out in the work you do with Memoryhouse? Would you share some of your thoughts on this (supposed) dichotomy between classical and popular music?
MEMORYHOUSE: I think that in one respect, having an academic background takes away the guess-work when dealing with how to piece music together. Having a fundamental understanding of composition, and how it works provides you with a solid basis to begin experimenting and tweaking your approach. Basically, it establishes the necessary groundwork to begin creating something more…idiosyncratic I guess? Or maybe that’s confusing, I think the point I’m trying to get across is that you really have to know something before you begin fucking with it (re: Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce). Having said that, I don’t really think that classical or avant-garde has more merit than pop music. One thing I’ve become aware of as I’m learning how to write pop music is that it needs to be lean. I think with classical and avant-garde there are a lot more leniencies granted to self indulgence, and ego. You can get away with a lot of things because I guess people don’t know how to objectively interpret it, or critique it. Lou Reed for example, has recently reissued a re-mastered version of Metal Machine Music, and the great debate regarding whether this was a groundbreaking piece of avant-garde music or the result of Lou Reed messing around with feedback has once again resurfaced. Avant-garde and modern classical invite many interpretations, assessments, and revisions, but pop music is very tangible; people don’t have to put up with your excesses, it’s easy enough to move on to something else. Even with the abundance of lo-fi, and fuzz-saturated music as of late, the song writing still remains quite transparent (as it must be). A good song is a good song, in spite of how and where it was recorded. People claim that it’s a cop-out to hide your music beneath these extraneous textures, but if the song is good enough, it will rise above the fuzz regardless.
SICK OF THE RADIO: You mentioned Max Richter’s album “Memoryhouse” as a turning point for you. What specifically stood out about it? Was it just a first exposure to minimalist composition?
MEMORYHOUSE: I had been aware of minimalism for a while; I enjoyed the works of Arvo Pärt (even wrote a minimalist suite in the same vein as Für Alina) but what stood out to me about Richter was the mood he was able to create. Memoryhouse is as much about mood and presence as it is about the compositions themselves. I found it intriguing in that it engaged with the listener in a way that creates a somewhat mutual experience– your mind fills the blanks in between the lingering notes and often cavernous atmospherics. I wanted to be able to create something like that, something at once tangible (i.e. pop music) embedded with these kinds of ephemeral thoughts and sensations (these types of revelations are most often relegated to burnt-out childhood misrememberings). Like bottling a memory, if you will. The thing about Memoryhouse is that Richter never spells this all out for you, he doesn’t employ borrowed nostalgia or 80`s references to get his point across, there is a nuance and sophistication to his work, and it allows the listener to ascribe whatever associations they want to it—it’s a memory in its most raw, pure form, eschewing solid, visceral detail for the fleeting moods surrounding it. This is what makes it timeless.
SICK OF THE RADIO: What other contemporary composers and/or compositions have had significant impact on your work?
MEMORYHOUSE: As mentioned before, I followed Arvo Pärt closely, as well as Glass, all of the time Johann Johannson… there are many more…I wish I had my mp3 player with me, I couldn’t even begin to attempt to spell their names from memory, let alone pronounce them.
SICK OF THE RADIO: You mentioned that Memoryhouse started as an attempt to recreate Denise’s photography as music—you have also expressed significant interest in narrative as part of the songwriting process. How does the music play into the narrative (or vice versa)?
MEMORYHOUSE: Narrative has always been important to us, Denise and I are always conscious about how the narrative of a song is framed, and how it works in relation to the songs it gets paired with. I’m not really into concept albums, but I’ve always tried to maintain a narrative flow in the music I’m making. With The Years, there are so many vague suggestions of insomnia and illness throughout the EP, Denise pointed out afterward, as we began writing for the LP that we tend to primarily focus on feeling really fucked up, like 95% of the time. I think (hope) that we do it in a way that allows the songs to breath and stand on their own. So, though there is not direct narrative thread between the songs, there are specifically placed narrative elements weaving throughout the pieces.
SICK OF THE RADIO: What influences your narrative style and content? Favorite books, authors, songs, bands?
MEMORYHOUSE: I guess I can’t answer this without saying Virginia Woolf since our EP and a couple of songs on it are named after her books. We both like Woolf, and Beckett—Sleep Patterns was framed around a quote by Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. The quote was included in the original download of our EP. I really enjoy David Foster Wallace, and James Joyce (circa Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist) as well.
SICK OF THE RADIO: What are you guys working on now? Anything else you’d like to mention?
MEMORYHOUSE: Right now we’re focusing on touring; we’re spending a month in Europe, and then a month in the US. It’s been fun learning how to translate our songs for a live setting, we’ve reinterpreted how they’re “supposed” to sound, so it comes across as more fresh and “dynamic”. We’ve also got a big single coming out near the end of the summer that we’re really looking forward to sharing. It’s a big step forward for us; I kind of see it as a snapshot of us in this liminal state between bedroom recordings and something more sophisticated, and refined.
By, Mariana Lynch