Since forming as a band while students at UNC in 1997, Roman Candle has seen their share of different types of record deals, tours and music projects. Yet for their fourth album, Debris, Skip, Timshel and Logan Matheny took an unfamiliar approach. The Nashville-based band set no deadline, engineered and produced the entire album themselves, recorded most of it late at night with their kids sleeping in an adjacent room, and kept creating and editing things until they had the “soundtrack of the last three years of our lives.”
We caught up with Skip to discuss Debris, a bright, affecting album that is assuredly less predictable in the current musical landscape, and one of our favorites of the year.
First, who or what has been inspiring you creatively?
Apart from our families and friends, I imagine other beautiful works of art are the most immediately inspirational things for us. These can be things you could experience in an evening – a Tom Stoppard play, a Krzysztof Kieslowski movie, an Emily Leonard painting, a meal by Josh Habiger – or things you return to over a span of years, like poems by William Blake or John Keats. At the risk of sounding very grand, once you have the chance to witness great art in any form, and realize that there is a long, historic, ongoing conversation between people making art, it’s an inspiration by itself, just to have the opportunity to become part of the conversation.
Talk a little bit about the direction of this project musically.
For this record, we were working toward writing the 11 or so songs, and then working with recordings of these songs to try and create musical environments where the tracks could get under the listener’s skin, and have both an immediate beauty and a depth that could be revealed over time. Since there’s no obvious recipe for this, we had to make a record that retained elements of mystery for us over time. So the things that you are hearing on the finished record – lyrical phrasings, bass notes, synthesizer tones – are all the things that still actually ‘work’ for us in this way. Once the songs themselves still retained enough mystery for us to find them engaging, we knew we were done.
What was your approach to the subject matter on this album?
One of the most useful quotes about writing I have heard is Flannery O’Connor saying something like “I never know what I think about something until I read what I have written about it.” Whatever the subject matter is in our songs, it takes shape in a similar way. It’s not premeditated, but forms slowly. “Not Strangers Anymore” on this record is a great example. I would never have thought, “This song needs to talk through different ideas of what beauty is, and what it can do to you.” I would have also never guessed I would have included one of our favorite painters, JMW Turner in the bridge, but that’s where we ended.
How is this project different than previous albums?
Talking about it now, it may sound like we had some grand vision for this slowly fermenting record, but the truth is the record was a product of our circumstance just as much as it was anything. We decided after years of being on labels, to form our own label, which left us without the two things that ultimately make albums happen: money and deadlines. So on the surface, things took longer, but in actuality we learned how to work quicker. This part of the process itself actually became integral to how the record turned out.
What have you been thinking about lately related to culture and music?
Historically, I feel like music in general is in a very exciting place. Great records are coming out, but I feel like in the world of whatever a ‘proper song’ is, the bar is very low. It’s funny because the good news is the bar is very low for songwriters. The bad news is the bar is very low for songwriters. Good lyrics are typically written these days as if they are some stylistic angle to making a record. This is equal parts amusing and troubling. Troubling because it seems like a bunch of chefs decided to stop using salt, but are still serving the same elaborate meals. Amusing because when thoughtful lyrics do happen to intersect with a song on the radio, it has great success. As if one of the chefs cooking decided to use salt again and everyone says, “Wow this tastes great!”