The Chambermaids stand firm on keeping it vague
The Twin Cities band gets caught in transition before Thursday's show at Sugar Maple
The Chambermaids began as a collaboration between Twin Cities brother-and-sister duo Neil and Martha Weir, inspired, however unconsciously, by their shared love of 1980s-era bands like Wire and Joy Division. "It wasn’t like we were trying to start a band that sounds like this," says bassist/vocalist Martha, but "everyone’s reaction is the same: 'This reminds me of Joy Division, of Wire, of Pixies, of My Bloody Valentine.' So, obviously, it’s in there." Guitarist Neil agrees, adding, "We just had this understood idea that this is what the band’s about." Perhaps surprisingly, given how tightly constructed their driving, catchy post-punk sounds are, the Weirs' intuitive, instinctive collaborative approach is a hallmark of their creative process. Their new EP Down In The Berries catches the band in transition, with original drummer Colin Johnson recording part of it before leaving to concentrate on his psychedelic band Vampire Hands, replaced by a new iteration of the band with in STNNNG/Private Dancer guitarist Nate Nelson and drummer Mickey Kahleck. Before Thursday's show at Sugar Maple, the group talked with The A.V. Club about its evolving sound, easygoing partnership, and the death of the CD.
The A.V. Club: Martha, you were gone recently for a year in Austria teaching Swedish. Did the time away from music change how you felt about it?
Martha Weir: No, I don’t think so. More than anything, it renewed my interest. I was kind of overwhelmed here and felt like I was kind of in a rut. I went somewhere where everything that I do here didn’t exist. There was one record store in town, and they had like 12 LPs for sale. There were no shows. Nobody played in bands. The only people that did were 15-year-old kids. If you went to those shows, you were the old lady. It was weird, living this other life for a short time. It made me really appreciate my life here. It was a good move. It made me want to write more and really get going on stuff.
AVC: How much did Martha's absence slow the band down?
Neil Weir: We’ve got a lot of stuff we can turn into finished songs fairly quickly. When Martha was gone, the three of us would work on stuff and, but we never really totally finished anything because we knew things would change when Martha came back.
MW: What’s different now too since I was gone—before, Neil and I always did the core writing. I think these new songs will be a lot different than if I had been here—it’s like a totally different process since I’m not involved in the first step.
NW: But there was also a lot of thought where we’d be standing in a room together and be like “What is Martha [going to do] here?”
AVC: You opted not to release Down In The Berries on CD at all, but just on vinyl and as a download. Why?
NW: We like the idea of having a larger palette for the artwork, and, as people do more and more downloading, also having something that is physical, that people are buying for something besides just the music. Having the big artwork is pretty appealing.
MW: CDs have become more and more disposable with CD-Rs; I remember the first CD I ever got, and I just pored over it, and now I just walk on them. I still hold vinyl at some sort of higher level, I guess.
NW: It’s easier to sell vinyl, too at shows.
Nate Nelson: I think it’s just impossible to sell CDs right now. No one wants them.
AVC: The artwork for the Down In The Berries cover was created Wes Winship of local design collective Burlesque Of North America. How did you direct him?
MW: We had a lot of conversations [with him] about what we were going for, as a band. What we’ve always tried to convey musically is a vagueness and a haziness. We conveyed that to Wes, and gave him free rein. I personally love it.
AVC: Does it capture a particular moment in the album?
NW: No, I think it represents the whole thing. Kind of like what Martha was saying: It has the feel of something visually interesting but isn’t clearly defined, and I think that that goes along with our approach to music.
MW: A lot of people ask us, “Why don’t you put lyrics on things? What are you saying?” or “What does this mean?” And, even when Neil and I first started, we had this idea of keeping the vocal kind of low [in the audio mix], not ever printing the lyrics anywhere, and letting people come up with their own interpretation of what our songs mean.
NW: Also, we were trying to do something that has this almost deadpan, anonymous quality to it vocally, instead of being like, “Here I am: Personality!” You can hear it in some of the Yo La Tengo or My Bloody Valentine stuff, where the lyrics and melodies are good, and they’re very important, but they’re not presented in a way where they’re the focal point and everything else is framing that; [in our music,] everything is more on equal footing.
MW: Which is hard to pull off live. [Laughs.] Really, really hard.
AVC: Especially when your singing is double-tracked, like on “The East Place,” where you’re singing back-up at the same time as you’re singing lead.
MW: [Sighs.] Yeah. [Laughs.] This is a constant debate that we have. I want to be able to do all the parts! How do we do that?
NW: You have to approach the song differently. It’s kind of a shorthand version of it live.
Mickey Kahleck: That’s the way I look at it. Just do the best you can live. Decide which part you want to do. I’ve been in bands where you get too caught up in trying to do all your overdubs live, and it just sucks the wind right out of the song.
MW: When we were trying to do the first record, I was really obsessed with trying to figure out a way to do as many of the vocals as possible live. We went and saw Blonde Redhead, and they had all the pre-recorded background vocals, and they were all just slightly off. I was like, “Okay, never mind!” [Laughs.] “Maybe less is more.”