Humans tend to label things to better understand them. It’s one of our limitations. Take music, for instance. We can better understand music if we can neatly place sounds into categories. Houston’s Drowner have always defied boundaries and eschewed labels. With an expansive foundation provided by multi-instrumentalist Darren Emanuel, and a deep lyricism provided by vocalist Anna Bouchard, the core of Drowner has only evolved since its inception in 2010. Rounded out by Mike Brewer on bass, Sean Evans on guitar and drummer Ron Rushing, Drowner built on impressive early singles and an EP to deliver the full-length album they always envisioned. You’re Beautiful, I Forgive You released last month on Saint Marie Records to much critical acclaim. We sat down with the founding members of Drowner to try and unravel the mystery of how their musical magic is created.
DKFM: First, the sound. What started as progressive dream pop evolved into a form of reverb-drenched post-rock uniquely your own. How would YOU describe your sound and its evolution?
AB: I love your superlatives, Greg. I would take that as a description of our sound any day.
DE: It has always been a fusion of dream pop, shoe gaze, noise and post rock, for me I reach for whatever is required by the song and the moment in the song. For instance on “Not There” it felt like a country-tinged feel was needed in the verses and Sean brought in his lap steel and we put it through the Space Echo. The final chorus sort of rears up as this massive post rock guitar monster and that was what felt right at that moment. It counterpoints Anna’s understated emotion really well I think.
DKFM: Early in your foundation as a band you’d described a process of sending music back and forth via FTP. Was the approach greatly different in creating this album?
DE: Definitely. This time we had three or four of us in the room at a time and even though there was already a sketch of a song laid out, we were able to tweak it much more and get everyone’s input. Ron came in later and played brilliantly to our demo. Next time maybe we’ll do it live in the studio.
AB: In some ways, I feel like the reverse happened in terms of the vocal recording. In the past, I would send Darren demos of what I wanted to sing, but all the finals were recorded in a booth in the studio, under Darren’s auspices. That really helped to define the way my vocal entered into the final song. This time around, while we worked in the room together more in rehearsal, I was much better kitted and had Darren’s trust that I could capture my own final vocals. That allowed me to experiment more on the dais, and to settle into a more relaxed and confident delivery on the final tracks. I look forward to combining both these two perspectives even more, through recording an album live in the studio, as Darren said.
SE: The work on this release was much more collaborative, with guitar and bass being worked on in more of a group setting. Some of the guitar tracks were put down in the same way as the EPs, but secondary guitar tracks and bass lines were done with either two or three of us with Darren working more an engineer and Mike and I laying down tracks.
DKFM: There is an elemental, almost spiritual quality to your music; ultimately it always seems to end up triumphant, or at least at peace after passing through turmoil. Certainly some of that is attributable to the post-rock structure, but it seems to be deeper than that with Drowner. Do you consider yourselves spiritual people, and do you find that it colors your music?
DE: Personally I’m not religious but I really believe in the power of music. It can be as personally transformative, transcendent and communal. I think there are elements of post rock music that encourages a kind of sense of scale that is spiritual because it overwhelms. It’s sublime. That kind of experience, of ego loss, of being dissolved in sound or in a crowd of listeners at a show is my favorite experience of music and I think a lot of others feel the same way. One of the reasons I think shoegaze has returned in the way that it has is partly due to this quality it has. It’s not just songs with tons of reverb and chorus. Post rock and shoe gaze music wants to do this to you, to make you feel this. I know if any Drowner songs ever had this effect on anyone, I’d be pretty overjoyed.
AB: I am pretty spiritual, as many people know. For this reason, Love, humility, forgiveness, persistence of hope, are important concepts to me. Still, much of what I sing about is relational in the most basic sense, and I want the way in which I sing to contact individual hearts. So, if our music has a positive impact on even one listener, I am truly humbled and gratified. What I really love is that one doesn’t have to share our outlook to get what we are doing in Drowner. Even the four of us in the band don’t need to come at it from the same perspective. We just all need that willingness to open up to the other and to really experience what is. That transcendent or communal aspect that Darren refers to, yeah, that is the particular gift of music. We can all feel the same thing, at the same time. We can float on the same ocean together. Share the same spirit. Both because of and spite of all that exists between us. That is really cool.
MB: I’m a bassist so my idea of soul comes in the form of James Jamerson and Verdine White. I do enjoy Spiritualized as well.
DKFM: It’s a big jump from a few singles to an EP to a full album of all new material. Describe your process in putting it all together and making it happen.
DE: I wrote from melody to a much larger degree with this record. Previously I would put down some chords and a beat and send them to Anna and see what she would do. This time I did that with some of the tracks but with songs like “On Bright Days” I worked out the melody on the guitar first and built it up from there. A few of the songs were written on piano or Wurlitzer before being redone on guitar. Anna and I tend to keep everything “in play” for as long as we can when writing. Sometimes you’re just trying to get the right notes to happen at the same time and it helps to be able to move things around until that happens. Of course there are also things that only happen when you all play a song together and you try to listen for those moments and bring them out.
Once we had things sketched out then Mike and Sean would come in and I’d jam it out with them and make changes based on what they are doing. There were times when both Sean and I were playing lead lines and getting those to make harmonic sense at times was a lot of work. I think with this record in particular I was aware of the story that each melody tells and the role of each note in the story, the cadence.
AB: The older instrumental demos were always masterful studies in mood and texture, and they just naturally led me to some very organic conclusions, but some of these tracks really stretched my ability to visualize myself in the mix. But, what a gift a song like Metro was! I felt this yearning for almost Eastern harmonies, and yet there was this film noir or Nouvelle Vague impression, too. I just immersed myself in the particulars of it and lived it. And the guys were there, to help make that work, to keep it in bounds. They are the architects of the world I inhabit. Yeah, Sean’s work on the slide guitar gave everything I was doing in Not There even more meaning, as did Darren’s gifted arrangements.
DKFM: You just released a video for the second single from the album, “Stay With Me”. How hands-on were you in the concept, storyboard and editing? And what was the experience like?
AB: My only contribution, other than my performance, was to suggest that we film in a motel room. [Laughs.] A bit of a no-brainer, I know, as the lyrics take place in one, although we explored other more oblique ways of representing the song. We are both really cautious about being too expository. But, everything else you see, the lighting, the camera work, those great Lynchian vignettes, even the concept of the doppleganger and the use of what was otherwise an unremarkable plate glass window, overlooking an average scene, the parking lot below, is Darren’s doing. He is really an incredibly talented artist, and I pinch myself every time I get to work with him. He works very hard to make us all look so good and then shares all the credit with us.
DE: We didn’t storyboard this one. What we knew ahead of time was a loose vibe provided by the lyrics and we trusted the location to deliver a lot of that and it did. It was very process-oriented in a sense, almost improvised. Sometimes you have to not over-think it and respond to the location and see where it takes you. We knew it was going to be seedy and cramped but we didn’t know we were going to get that big window. Once we saw that we knew we could use it as an axis in the story and the story took on an even creepier tone. The window became a kind of threshold for the character’s identity. Later on doing post we were originally in color but decided the black and white fit the subject so much better and took it more in a horror direction.
DKFM: Anna, as a lyricist and vocalist, was Drowner your first full go at either aspect? The vocals are surely confident, the lyrics are full of depth and nuance (and frankly, amazing). This can’t be your first rodeo, can it?
AB: Thank you so much, Greg! Ah, but it is!
I’ve never sung professionally, and only briefly as part of a band, before Drowner. In a way, when we first conspired to work together, neither of us knew if I could sing like this at all. And it has taken some two years to build even some of the endurance and the range and subtlety that being the vocalist for a band like Drowner calls for. I am still not all the way there. I’m still reaching, refining. It’s a humbling process. I try to react to it all with confidence, though. I believe so strongly in the band and in what I am saying. I let that pave the way for me. I access the technical side of singing by way of ardent emotions. I love being able to sing and write music.
As for the lyrics, I think both of us knew ahead of time that I would have at least some ability in that regard. Prior to working together in Drowner, we had become good friends, and carried on an email correspondence about art and philosophy, where I at least once resorted to verse to get my point across. It sounds so far out, I know, but it was in response to a poem (not his own) that Darren shared with me. So we were already conversing lyrically, in a sense, before Drowner came about. Man, I feel like such a nerd now. [Laughs.]
DKFM: Darren, I know it’s an inside baseball question, but one of my favorite songs by anyone in the last few years is Drowner’s contribution to the firstStatic Waves compilation from Saint Marie Records, “Breathe”. I have to know, did it all start with that opening guitar riff? It just seems like a foundation that you could take anywhere, do anything with, and the whole band brought it home. How far off am I?
DE: Thanks so much, Greg, I’m so happy you like it. Wow, that part that comes in at :15 or so, really chimey? Possibly the last thing I added! Lol! That is one of the oldest tracks that we already had as an instrumental. The part you hear at :46 is how it sounded for years. I have a directory of songs on my drive that are at varying stages of completion and one of our rituals is to go through all these when we start writing to see if there’s something we’re feeling. That one dates back to 2007. Once Anna wrote the lyrics and melody I felt like it needed one more element, something like an ostinato to give the song some backbone.
DKFM: At this point, do you consider yourselves primarily a studio band, or do you expect touring at some point in the future?
DE: We are always hoping that the opportunity to play a string of live dates will present itself. We were really lucky to get Ron to come in as a guest drummer but we’re now looking for someone permanent. And once we sort that out we will look again at some live shows. In the meantime we’ll be working on more videos.
DKFM: Drowner in its infancy was truly a DIY effort, but you are now part of a prominent independent label and their promotional team. Surely that’s helped greatly with press and distribution; has that changed your approach to songwriting, and how you see yourselves as a band?
DE: It does enter into it at times in terms of expectations. My feeling is that you don’t want to build a following and then take a jarring left turn and everyone’s like “Wtf?” We intend to grow and bring everyone with us on this journey. The press and positive reception we’ve gotten so far is a really great and helps not just with sales but with morale.
AB: SMR is an ideal label for an independent band to be a part of. First, the other bands on the roster are so inspiring. It’s amazing company to be in. And then, there is the absolute freedom that Wyatt (Parkins) makes you feel as an artist. There is no question that you will do whatever it is that you feel you should do as an artist, and SMR is going to back you in that. After that, they are going to go to the mat for you, knocking on doors, getting as many people as they can to listen to you. I feel so grateful to work with them and their offshoot, Gas Pedal PR — and yeah, on some level want to make them proud to have us.
DKFM: The release of You’re Beautiful, I Forgive You was a milestone you’d looked forward to achieving months ago, and it’s been critically well-received. So now that this big hurdle is in your rear view, what’s next?
DE: Um, a shoegaze opera I’ve been working on…just kidding. I can see us back writing early in the coming year. I’d like to write more at rehearsals and try new songs in front of crowds. We’re definitely going to make a few more videos.
AB: Yes, write, write, write more songs. I can’t wait to move Drowner into new territory, the four of us.
DKFM: Thanks for taking the time to share a little bit of your process with us, and with your fans. Finally, what’s in heavy rotation on your iPods right now?
AB: Ah, I am writing a lot of music right now, and so have to kind of stay away from too much great songwriting. 😉 But, I will say that I heard about 20 seconds of the Presents for Sally track on Static Waves II last night, and they just killed it.
DE: Highspire, the new Exit Calm, Crocodiles, the new Mazzy Star…
MB: I don’t have an iPod but just this morning in the bronco in an hour and a half traffic jam (Houston) I listened to: Bob Mould, Built to Spill, Ra RA Riot, Ted Leo, Elvis Costello, Tame Impala, Washed Out, Twin Sister, Can, Polvo, They Might Be Giants, Billy Preston, Bill Withers and a few more. I’m sure there was an inexplicable segue there in my musical ADD.