By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Mountain Animation
The prog-rock duo called Mountain Animation describe themselves as a “one-man band and a one-man orchestra.” You may think that ambitious, but give them a listen and you’ll realize it’s far from exaggeration. In fact, it’s an understatement.
With one of the most refreshingly raw sounds coming out of the Brooklyn scene, Zack Orion (vocals, banjo, percussion, bass, piano) and Scott Murphy (violin, piano, vocals, synth) will indeed trick you into thinking they’re playing with a full-orchestra. And double drum kit. And on-stage synthesizers. And an 8-piece brass section.
And the strings–oh, the strings!
On their latest album, Tesseract Flapjack, Tesseract Flashback, rich violin riffs and a harmonizing fiddle alternately explore runs and power notes, circling back on themselves as the album title suggests, while a surprising lack of reverb makes the compositions raw and honest.
BTR caught up with the pair to chat about marathoning a rock record.
What are your backgrounds as musicians? What brought you guys together?
Zack Orion: I’ve played in several different kinds of bands, trying to find myself. Then I was playing in the subway in Manhattan and I ran into Scott…and then we had bigger ideas!
Scott Murphy: I grew up playing a lot of classical music and have listened to rock and roll forever. When I was seventeen, I made the decision I didn’t wanna play classical. So I started playing in a lot of weird, unlistenable bands…that no one should ever hear. Ever.
ZO: Like psychedelic noise rock.
SM: Yeah, psychedelic noise rock was one…I played the violin…that was unfortunate.
ZO: [laughs] I liked it.
SM: And then I played in a lot of bluegrass bands in Colorado. Which is really technically oriented, like a lot of chops. Then I met Zach and we thought that maybe we were a bluegrass…and then it turned out that we were definitely not that. And now we’re an electric rock and roll banjo fiddle band.
What are your biggest influences?
ZO: I mean there are whole decades where you don’t even understand what’s influencing you, you’re just listening. But for me I play banjo and I see a lot of Earl Scruggs style rolls put through the filter of ’60s and ’70s rock. Like all the inventive stuff from The Beatles, King Crimson, and The Cure – they would probably be my biggest influences.
SM: I’m gonna have to go with…to just short list it…Beethoven, The Beatles, and King Crimson. But mostly King Crimson…which is several different bands, so that’s a lot of influences just saying those two words.
Any particular vibe you’re going for with Tesseract Flapjack, Tesseract Flashback?
ZO: It’s meta-semantic. The theme is kind of about the name there, where the inside goes outside and the outside goes inside. There’s a lot of older tunes that I had started about ten years ago and some that we wrote right there in the studio, so fresh that when they were going into the microphones they were still being written essentially, so that was kind of the theme. Put everything together and still be able to experiment, but also lay some of the older tracks down very definitely and have them be presented in their final form.
When you first started out you said you thought maybe you were a bluegrass band. How do you think your music has evolved over time?
ZO: No, we definitely didn’t think of ourselves as necessarily bluegrass, but we were trying to express ourselves through the string set up. Marc Orleans was another player with us, amazing player, and the three of us just got to shredding and we just happened to have a great time just shredding…just ruining the frets on the instruments, playing lots of notes and exploring the note-y territory. And then we started going in the direction of trying to put all that through tube amps and some nice compression to make beautiful images with electricity. Like mathematical concepts.
What is the writing process like for your music?
ZO: It’s been different every time. For instance, on the last album I had written and even recorded some tracks several years ago, so I brought that to the table. Other times Scott or I would come up with a musical concept and it would grow pretty quickly. It happens so fast, almost on an exponential level, when you go from just one note to a concept to a chorus to a bridge. It’s really exciting, and I’d say organic is a good way to put it.
Do you feel like there’s much disparity between the recorded songs and how you play live?
SM: It’s always totally different. The song always has certain things that will happen the same way every single time…and that’s what makes it the song. And then within the song, there’s a lot of improvisation. I mean, I wouldn’t say anything ever gets jammy… but sometimes they will be very long.
When do you feel most creatively inspired?
ZO: I think we seem to get a lot of ideas from touring and traveling. We’ll pick a theme beforehand and just explore that. I think our last tour we got really into listening to records and not going out much wherever we were. We’d hole up and pound records and listen to different things in different places, and it was all tone-based. You know, diggin’ on hi-fi setups and diggin’ on those sort of concepts. It was a winter tour so–
SM: So there were no parties or rivers or trees or deserts. It was a very inward time. And I want to add, I think that we draw inspiration from touring and performance. We’ll play a show and then there’s a whole lot of deconstruction that happens afterwards, figuring out what to take away from the performance and add to the next one.
ZO: Yeah what we offered people and what they accepted. People’s ears influence us in that respect, and how we want to feel on stage influences in a different respect.
Album art for Tesseract Flapjack, Tesseract Flashback
What was the recording process like for Tesseract?
SM: It was recorded at The Headroom in Philadelphia which is run by Joe Reinhart and Kyle Pulley. They had recorded some of my favorite albums in the last ten years. Really expressive, East Coast, super genius punk and I found out they ran this studio and I had been listening, unknowingly, to their records for years. When I discovered that I figured they would be the best possible people to work with an electric-banjo-electric-violin band. They just allowed us to do so much and they work so hard. I can’t thank Kyle and Joe enough. We holed up in this studio for two weeks to track everything. It was non-stop. We would work from morning to night, fall asleep for a bit, wake up, do it again. Then we took a couple weeks off to evaluate, then went in for another week to do all the mixing and final mastering.
How is that marathoning, is it hard?
SM: It’s our favorite thing.
ZO: Yeah! It’s hard not to do that. As soon as we left, we booked more time.
SM: Yeah we’ll be recording the next album really, really soon. It’s really hard not to tour relentlessly and record all the time.
[Laughs] I feel like that’s a really positive way for musicians to feel, and they don’t always.
ZO: What?! It’s the coolest thing!
Do you have another LP in the works then?
SM: The goal for Tesseract was to create a rock album in three weeks. Which is the Steve Albini school of just record and put it down and make something really visceral and raw. We really worked on not putting a lot of reverbs and layering. We wanted to keep it straight forward rock and roll as possible, and real quick. But that’s not to say that’s like a hardline philosophy that has to happen all the time, so the next project we want to record over the course of six months and really make something lush and big, but using the same engineering team and process just over a much longer period of time. And we might drop some things in different states or countries.
On an ending note, can you share your favorite band moment?
ZO: There’s so many of them! Because there’s so many bad ones! It’s hard to tell the difference between going through Death Valley in the middle of summer and having all your stuff melt. And, you know, your first giant theater show. It’s all such a good process. Let’s see..today we got this Vox guitar amp that’s so small and so loud that it defeated everyone in guitar center at about half way up and so that’s like… the moment of the week!
But every time we make a new development with a sound and play it at a show and have people really understand it. And it’s a brand new idea for us, and then people are like oh great! Yes! That’s a good idea for us to listen to! Every time we do that it makes everything so worthwhile. And that everything, of course, is all the hard work and all the driving… and flying… and crying and what not.
So any upcoming shows?
Yeah, for Make Music New York we’re doing a show at Houston and Bowery on June 21st at 4:30 in front of the mural there, then later on at the Local New York Hostel in Long Island City at 8:30. We played there a few weeks ago and had an awesome time. People from all over the world came out of their rooms and listened to great music.
We’re also going to get ready to go overseas for some fun shows, so far just in the United Kingdom but hopefully some other countries too, so if anyone is out there reading this we’re looking for some shows in late August!
Or check them out live:
June 21 2014- Houston and Bowery – New York, NY
June 21 2014 – Local New York Hostel – Long Island City, NY
June 27 2014 – Connolly’s Pub and Restaurant – New York, NY