By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Stephen Konrads
When Stephen Konrads set out to record his first solo project last fall, he told friend and producer Elio DeLuca he wanted it to feel “worn in and comfortable, like an old baseball glove.” That self-titled album (slated for release on May 20th) breaths life into that ideal with warm arrangements, soft swells, and bright touches that are at once familiar and intriguing.
Konrads inviting vocals are reminiscent of an earthier Jeff Tweedy, his lyrics exploring the depths of the human spirit without detracting from the complexity of his melodies. Recorded in an all analog studio this album is truly meant for a 7-inch–you can almost hear the pops and fizzes.
BTR caught up with Konrads to chat about the art of composition and how to break writer’s block.
How did Stephen Konrads and The Eternals come to be?
Since 2008, I’ve had my hands in a bunch of different Boston pots, but this is the first record where I’m stepping out on my own. The last band that I released with was called Sleepy Very Sleepy. In 2010, we put out a record called Unlimited Circulation, which was a writing project with me and my friend Katie, who actually lives in New York now. After she moved down I started another group with the same bass player and drummer I’m playing with now called Rumors of the Strange Universe. We played around Boston for about six to eight months but never recorded anything, just did some cover gigs. Then I moved down to Baltimore and took a break to get my song writing back together. That’s when I started working on this new record and finishing a lot of half written material. I moved back up to Boston in December of 2012 and started doing pre-production for this record.
Is this new record much different from your old collaborative work?
Definitely. Sleepy Very Sleepy was very ambient and slow. It was very melodic and intricately arranged but not necessarily pop. Though the songs were catchy in their own right they were a bit more obtuse and harder to latch on to. With this record I wanted to make something that was very immediate and got to you instantly, so I focused on making these songs as concise as possible and trimming a lot of the fat. They’re pretty straightforward, that’s the main difference between this record and projects past. I whittled them down with a get in get out way of looking at it.
What are some of your major influences?
For this project they’re kind of a little bit all over. The first songs on the record, “Looters Tunnel” and “Kristiania” both have a pretty contemporary folk vibe to them. Kurt Vile, Tim Buckley, and Scott Walker were all major touching points for the arrangements and sounds. There’s a pretty heavy synthesizer presence on it, all of that from ’70s psych crowd music like Can and NOY. The record almost comes across as if it’s out of time in a weird way. There’s a lot of different decades of influence there.
You mentioned “get in, get out,” is that the vibe you were going for?
The way I’ve been describing it, and the way we talked about it during pre-production, was I wanted everything to sound very worn in and comfortable—like an old baseball glove or pair of boots that you’ve worn in. The songs I think are harmonically interesting but not overly harmonically complex. It’s not difficult to latch onto.
Any songs especially close to your heart?
“Looters Tunnel” is really important. One of the main reasons for me moving to Baltimore was I was grasping at straws trying to figure out what kind of direction I wanted to move in as a writer. When you’re starting from the beginning on something you can really take it in any direction and that feels terrifying. I was having a hard time finishing songs, and a lot of the tunes I was writing before I moved down to Baltimore were pretty derivative or too easy or something like that. There was a point that I thought writing wasn’t going to be a thing I was capable of doing anymore, so when I finished “Looters” I felt like I had a starting block to finish the rest of the record.
Did anything trigger that turn around?
For “Looters”, I think the biggest breakthrough was when I was working on the piano. There’s a motor engine that starts the song where two or three chords bounce back and forth, then after the chorus there’s a gigantic piano note that rings through and opens up the rest of the song. That particular sound, the way that once octave of piano rings through like a point of light, that was the major breakthrough; because those kinds of points of light happen throughout the record, and there’s a lot of little lines that happen outside the melody and the chords that add different emotions, textures and implications.
What is the writing process like for your music? Does it just happen organically?
The lyrics on this record happened last. I definitely am more of a melody-first person and often times, I’ll write something and mumble words or make up fake versus while I’m figuring out the arrangements for the tunes and the words come afterwards. I think its important to grab people with a melody, especially because these songs are not story songs.
Album artwork for Stephen Konrads & The Eternals by Marissa Molinaro
What was the recording process like for your latest record? Who recorded/produced it?
We recorded at a analog recording studio called The Soul Shop in Medford, Mass. A very good friend of mine who plays piano in the live band Elio DeLuca owns the studio, he recorded the Sleepy record also. The way his studio operates there want a doubt in my mind that I wanted to go record it there because first of all he only runs analog tape, he doesn’t have any computers, and second he has a limited track count.
One of the things that has always been a problem for me in the past is in studios where there’s an unlimited track count I tend to just go and go and go. It’s hard to make distinct permanent decisions because you can always go back. The fact that there were only 16 tracks to record meant that we had to make permanent decisions. “Staging Actors” is a really good example. We recorded all the basic guitars drums and vocals and only had one track left and we had a lot of empty space left and we fooled around with a lot of noise stuff and feedback and everything sounded flat. So I programed the synthesizer pad and that just glued everything together. It’s those decisions, where you can’t have both the feedback guitar AND the synthesizer pad, you can only have one of them, that really make you think about which one serves the song better. And Elio is a great arranger in his own right, and we co-produced the record together.
“I’m Moving to Your Beat” has a nice blues sound, can you tell me about that?
That was actually a song I rediscovered with parts I had used in an old Sleepy tune. It was kicking around for a couple of years and when I originally wrote it it had more a Yo Lo Tengo, chuggy vibe. Then I started playing it like Timber Timbre. Their self-titled record was huge for me and the way that was arranged was a big touching point. The string part I wrote for that is very much indebted to “The Old Man’s Back Again” by Scott Walker. Kind of almost like a modern crooner sound.
I like those quiet vocals in “Troubles on Your Mind,” what do you feel that adds to the album and will you do more like it in the future?
That vocal sound in particular was a difficult choice to make because I have a wide range. I have a falsetto, but where I’m really most comfortable is in that lower range. I was always worried to start writing music there though because sometimes when you play live you can get lost amidst a bunch of louder higher instruments. So arranging that song and making it sound quiet and delicate and letting it slowly crescendo allows those very soft conversational vocals to come out of the speaker and sit right there in front of you. I was really pleased with the way that one turned out.
Anything you’d like to say to fans as an ending note?
The official release date is May 20th and we’re going to be doing a lot touring around regionally! We’re really excited about the live band and the reactions we’ve been getting, and I think we put on a good show. This is the first record, and I hope people like it! I’ll be going to record more in the fall and early winter, working on a second record. That’s the plan!
To hear more from Stephen and The Eternals, head to their Bandcamp, Facebook, and tune into Monday’s episode of In The Den.