Here We Go Magic's sophomore album, Pigeons, had only been out a few weeks when the seeds for A Different Ship were planted in late June 2010 at the Glastonbury Festival. The New York band had been on the road since spring, wowing audiences at Bonnaroo, Coachella and elsewhere with their uncanny live chemistry, turning album tracks into intricately groovy sonic explorations where the band seemed almost synchronously possessed. That had been their sweet spot since their earliest rehearsals together, when singer/songwriter Luke Temple, bassist Jennifer Turner, guitarist Michael Bloch, drummer Peter Hale and then-keyboardist Kristina Lieberson bonded over a shared belief in musical spontaneity and a kind of improvisation that feels too divinely ordered to be called "jamming."
But you can never count on festival conditions, and Glastonbury started off rough for Here We Go Magic. Onstage before noon in the scorching sun, operating on a few hours of uncomfortable sleep ("we didn't know we were supposed to bring tents"), they struggled at the start of their set to feel connected to the crowd. "We were playing horribly hungover and groggy in front of hungover and groggy people," says Bloch.
"The crowd wasn't giving us much to work with, except for these two guys standing in front," Temple continues. "One of them was dancing around like a maniac and I was like, 'I'm just gonna play for those two guys. Then I realized, 'That's fucking Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich!'" The band met Yorke and Godrich briefly after their set, and over the next few weeks, Godrich popped up at their shows in London and Paris, eventually proposing to Here We Go Magic that he might lend a hand with their next recording. In particular, the producer said he thought he could help them better communicate their hypnotic and hypnagogic live vibe on tape.
And he did. A Different Ship is Here We Go Magic's most remarkable and captivating album yet, with an emotional and musical arc that is alternately calming and anxiety-inducing, and often both at once. "I Believe In Action" and "Make Up Your Mind" sound like they're being beamed in from outer space, while more earthbound tracks such as "Miracle of Mary," "Over The Ocean" and "Alone But Moving" amble in a somnolent haze, with Temple's cool timbre cutting through the fog.
They began tracking in Los Angeles last spring, getting to know Godrich and adapting to a style of recording that asked something new of them. Previously, their approach had been similar to how Temple used to record the earliest Here We Go Magic songs on his own four-track. His inspiration was to build part upon part, never looking back, layering intuitive reactions one on top of the other until they would all snap into an energetic cohesion, the ghosts of previous ideas still swimming beneath the shimmering veneer of a song.
The band's approach to playing and recording together has always had this as its backdrop, and they have often described even their live set as an opportunity to re-create such a process, each night sculpting the songs anew. For A Different Ship, they hoped to still capture this kind of reactivity, while also refining their ability to let a song's most basic elements speak. "We wanted things to be articulate and intentional,"says Hale. "We wanted to keep things simple, but at first we didn't all have a clear idea of what we were going for."
After the LA sessions, the band retreated to a house in upstate New York where they could swim in a lake and jam without the pressure of a studio clock. By the time they rejoined Godrich in his London studio last Fall they were bursting with new ideas, and the songs just started flowing. "I think the best stuff on the record is the stuff that was thought about the least," says Temple. "Tracks like 'Over The Ocean,' 'I Believe In Action,' 'Made To Be Old' -- written in the morning and recorded the same afternoon."
In London, with an array of huge sounds at their disposal, they found it easier to stick to their "keep it simple(r)" rule. "When Jen produced 'Pigeons,' the sounds were a lot more condensed and we got really into finding the infinite space inside something that's super on top of itself," explains Bloch. "Then suddenly when you're working in a studio like Nigel's, it's all these enormous sounds. Just one of Jen's bass notes fills up the room. If you start stacking things on top of that, it takes away from just the beauty of that one note. That's something Nigel is amazing at -- knowing where to stop us, knowing the limits of the sound palette and how to let the space breathe."
Despite an incubation period of nearly a year, and a writing process that spanned two continents, the ten songs of A Different Ship carry a consistent thematic concern -- what the band describes as an "unresolved tension between valuing being alone and valuing being connected." Says Temple: "The music is beautiful, but feels like it's brittle and about to crack. It's always suspended in between major and minor, happy and sad, trying to find that middle ambiguous place. A lot of the endings of these songs just kind of stop, like things are left suspended, floating in space. That's a real characteristic of us as a band -- moving forward, even when we're sort of unsure, and knowing we'll find happy accidents along the way."
(SC230 released: 05/08/12)