By and large, pop music is in the business of giving you answers, not asking you questions. With the exception of certain consent-alleviating man-children (here’s looking at you, Beiber’s “What Do U Mean”) having someone more well-known than us tell us what to wear, who to emulate and how to be successful is good business. Never mind if such shiny, bombastic answers are temporal, fleeting and usually geared toward control.
The first thing that hits me listening to Plaza, the sublime third album from Quilt, is that the songs ask questions but don’t seek answers. In the breezy, kaleidoscopic psych-pop of “Roller,” singer/guitarist Anna Fox Rochinski asks listeners to “give us the undiscovered” over new member Keven Lareau’s groovy yet precise walking bass line. “How can you believe that everyone you meet is just here to entertain you?” It’s a question echoed throughout Plaza, one that sets Quilt’s spacey, baroque psych onto the focused, tight trajectory of a shared journey.
‘I think when you’re in a band with these traditional instruments you find new ways to appreciate them, even though these are sounds you’re very familiar with. I love guitar, and don’t take it for granted.’
Even before the Observer spoke with de-facto front-people Ms. Rochinski and Shane Butler, it felt like I knew them. Turns out we did have some shared friends, from days spent in the small world of Boston’s psych community. It comes as no surprise that the two met in art school, but just as integral to Quilt’s collective creative energy is drummer John Andrews, whose solo albums on Woodsist Records, his playing Singing Saw on Kevin Morby’s upcoming album, and his stunning AM pop vocal number on the record (“Something There”) communicate a talent more multi-disciplined than merely sitting behind a kit. “And if you’re loving, she’s loving…and if you’re leaving, she’s leaving,” he plaintively reasons.
Quilt named this new one Plaza to invoke a mutual shared meeting space, a coming together, and you can hear it. They finish each other’s sentences, share book recommendations with the voracious appetite of cultural cosmonauts, and serendipity follows them because of it. How else do you explain the story they tell about meeting a superfan who works at The Price Is Right? Had they not removed themselves from their serious artist roles long enough to attend a taping, they would have never met.
There are headier fumes fermenting from our conversation, explorations of gender dynamics in American psychedelia, the beauty and ugliness born from the wisdom that comes with self-imposed exile, and the power to become the architects of our own serendipity. But all of this starts with asking questions, so that’s what I did. “How can we have autonomy if we can’t even leave?” Ms. Rochinski asks on “O’Connor’s Barn” before all join in, “Are you looking for an answer, are you looking for a cure? Maybe you should want more.” Our conversation was rich with a similar exploratory wanderlust, the adventures of artists who’ve come to learn that if you ask the right questions and open yourself up to receiving wisdom, the answers will find you eventually.
How was The Price is Right? You wrote that there was a story but you couldn’t tell it on Facebook.
Anna:[Laughs] Awesome. Well, we were just trying to make people feel aroused with excitement.
Shane: There’s totally a story, though! I think it was Anna and John’s idea to go on Price is Right.
Anna: Well, John was excited.
Shane: So we decided to go to Price is Right, showed up like an hour in advance and somehow ended up at the front of the line, which was cool. Then we wait for another hour and they let us into the zone. First holding area we wait for another hour or so, just sitting there. We fill out this information, get our picture taken in funny poses. I think that’s where they start to choose people. We’re there for another hour, then they take us to another line where we wait for another hour and they interview us a bunch.
So this is a very screened process for Price is Right. It seems like this is a spontaneous “anybody can win” American Dream moment for all these people, but they’ve been rigorously vetted and interviewed?
Anna: Yeah, totally!
Shane: We finally walk upstairs and everyone is in so much excitement, waiting. People have flown from across the country to come and everyone is freaking out. This man in a red suit comes up to us, he’s the usher. We had all decided to wear Quilt shirts, matching band shirts so that if we get on the camera it would be funny. When we get to the top of the stairs this guy in the red suit gives us this astonished gaze and goes, “Oh my god, are you guys Quilt? Quilt the band?!” So the usher at the top of the stairs knew who our band was and started freaking out. He comes up and says, “I’m totally bugging out right now, I had a spiritual experience to one of your songs!”
Hmm! Which one?
Shane: This song “Penobska Oakwalk” off our first record. He’s freaking out about it, and we’re freaking out because we’re in the Price is Right and one of the people who works here knows who we are. We’re not a band everybody knows, and that’s insane! So we get inside and shit’s totally wacky man, I don’t know. Whatever bizarre dreams you have, the lights and colors of the room are so far beyond.
You guys gave some book recommendations in an interview and Anna, I think it was you saying that the stories you enjoy find magic and wonder in the mundane. Isn’t this story kind of the perfect example of that? Here you are in this really tacky, wacky place and you meet a guy who had a spiritual experience to your music.
Anna: Yeah, you can’t make that shit up! It was pretty awesome.
Shane: It gets even wackier though. We’re sitting in the room and the show starts to happen. It’s so fast paced, they were yelling and screaming [when] this cheer conductor would come up to the front of the stage and do this shamanic dance. They’re filming the regular show and in between Drew Carey does standup. He points at the audience and ask us questions, starts his jokes that way. One of the segments he looks at John [from the band] and says, “Why are you guys all wearing the same shirt?” and John tells him we play in a band. [We tell him] we’re on tour out there. He asks us if the audience were to get home and listen to one of our songs, what song would we recommend? And Anna says, “The usher loves ‘Penobska Oakwalk,’ you should play that!” Then all of a sudden the song comes on a loudspeaker. Our little silly folk ditty is playing in the room and we wonder what the fuck is happening. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yrfOWr8RA8]
I have this theory that serendipitous stuff often happens to the same people over and over. Does shit like this happen to you guys all the time, or is this unprecedented?
Anna: Yeah, kind of, in different weird ways. Drew Carey not only asks us about our band and plays us over the loudspeaker, but mimes smoking a giant bong onstage while our song is playing. Then the announcer guy pretends to smoke weed and says we should change our name to “tab of acid”!
We all lived in Boston for a while, and I feel like coincidences happen more often there. But you moved to New York City recently, and I’m wondering how those coincidences and surreal situations work in your life. I feel like they happened a lot more back in Boston because it’s so small and you go with the flow more over there. How is the switch to New York affecting that for you so far, what’s changed? Are you still finding these moments of serendipity following you?
Shane: I feel like what you said before is kind of a perfect thing—you follow the flow everywhere. In my life, if I just stay open to things and spend time constantly looking for new input—I’m a huge John Cage fan, and one of the things John Cage talks about is that you should always ingest everything.
“Not the negative space, but the positive void.” Devendra Banhart told me that’s his favorite John Cage saying.
Shane: If you stay open to that kind of idea, to the possibility of that stuff happening all the time, then it’s gonna happen wherever you are. But you kind of have to look for it, it’s work. Then you have to appreciate it when it happens.
You put yourself in a position to be receptive. I mean that’s kind of what you did with this record, isn’t it? I saw you open for Fresh & Onlys at Music Hall of Williamsburg a few years ago and it was great, but this new music is in a different league. There’s a very seamless amalgamation of moods, and it asks a lot of questions. I was thinking how much pop music doesn’t ask questions, it’s more concerned with giving you answers. But you guys seem content asking questions.
Anna:[Laughs] Yeah, that’s cool. I like that you heard it that way. I moved up to the country, two hours north of the city.
Anna: Germantown, near Hudson. I’ve lived here over a year or so. I’ve got my birdfeeders outside and I live next to a horse farm. I love it, and certain songs are a reflection of the space and the people up here.
Is that where “O’Connor’s Barn” comes from?
Anna: That song is more what you were asking about earlier, my literary influences. That song is inspired by my love of short stories. People like Raymond Carver. Sort of a semi-fictional event, not as personal. But “Roller” was definitely inspired by my decision to live alone and take space for myself, to be here having limited interactions with other humans. I think serendipitous things happen all the time, like Shane says, when you open yourself to it. That’s just exacerbated by me being up here in this quiet place. I love it, and feel very much in tune with my own centredness.
You guys have talked about Richard Brautigan, too, and I think he’s a very interesting literary figure to bring up for precisely that reason. When you think about the self-imposed exile, and removing yourself from noise to seek that clarity, there’s a negative thing you have to watch out for. You have to kind of channel that energy and make sure something good comes of it, work to appreciate it in a way.
Shane: I would argue that the darkness can be a really good thing to channel sometimes, too, and I think in Brautigan’s writing that’s so interesting. He has this really goofy way of writing at times, and then sometimes it’s very dark. And it’s funny that you brought up the removal thing—we actually went to Bolinas [California] and saw where he lived, and where he committed suicide. We went on a trip out to the place, it’s a similar felt exile. That place is really kind of out there from San Francisco, it’s just a trip. I think he handled it well for a while and it eventually consumed him.
This is what’s interesting to me about the legacy of American psychedelic music and culture. Brautigan is the anti-beat or post-beat in a way. After the beats met the pranksters, he’s what we get, a very isolated yet American voice. Psychedelic and pop music often has this dark underbelly. Sometimes it’s visible in certain dynamics of gendered relationships. Not just couples, but Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, even in Phil Spector’s music to some degree. When I listen to music and there’s a girl and a guy singer it often feels like they’re commenting in a way on how those relationships or dynamics work with each other, as voices, as instruments. Do you guys have any tips for our readers at home about how you challenge those dynamics?
Anna: Yeah, we don’t get asked these questions a lot. I’m glad that you see it as something going beyond one-dimensional, typical roles in a band. That was a big part of how we formed to begin with. We didn’t have any agenda or idea of what it was gonna turn into. Over time you see what each others strengths and weaknesses are and you work around them, you play with those. Eventually things naturally happen a little more. It’s really important for us to not limit each other.
Shane: There’s a rich history of it in indie rock, too. One of my favorite bands when I was a teenager was the Pixies, and I always loved Kim Deal’s songs on the record. Frank was the one who would often be the leader, but Kim had just as much love from the fans. What I saw is that men and women have very different kinds of energy, they just do. And it’s really exciting to see both of those energies be represented, in different ways, in one chunk of something. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2Wu0fbWMCE]
Anna: Now that you mention it, it’s true. Shane and I do sometimes sing typical of our gender and sometimes sing atypical of our gender, so we trade off. I have a feeling that a lot of people out there don’t even realize that I play guitar sometimes, especially now that the “Roller” video is out and it seems like this very traditional looking set-up. Shane will [often] be singing these very emotional, heartfelt lyrics onstage, which tends to be a more feminine trait sometimes, and when we switch if I’m playing lead guitar or singing, sometimes I take the receptive feminine role.
At least one of you guys went to art school, huh?
Shane: We both did.
Anna: That’s where we met! [Laughs]
Oh cool! At Massart?
Anna: Next door at SMFA [School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston].
There’s one more writer I wanted to talk about. Anna, you’ve said you’re super into Murakami and Shane, you said you were just popping your Murakami cherry. He’s also all about that idea of looking at the mundane and it turning into something absurd and surreal. I’m connecting that visually to the style of this cover art for Plaza. Is this an aesthetic that echoes what you read?
Anna: Let’s talk about Murakami. When I read Wind up Bird Chronicle it really made me appreciate the calm that comes from doing tasks in your house and how magical he made that sound. This guy with this really mundane life just cleaning up and doing his dishes or thinking about his girlfriend, that really made me feel emotional. I think when you’re in a band with these traditional instruments you find new ways to appreciate them, even though these are sounds you’re very familiar with. I love guitar, and don’t take it for granted. Murakami’s narrative spirals to this crazy place from an origin that’s very normal. I wouldn’t be into it as much if it started someplace trippy.
I get it now. The album cover looks very normal at first glance, but you look at it longer and there’s all these colors that trip you out and odd angles…
Anna: I know. It’s very idiosyncratic, which is a word that was going through my head a lot with certain things when it came to the production. That album cover rules. We got permission from Ken Price’s estate to use it, which was really crazy. We all immediately just knew it was the one.
Shane: Anna had been going through something and she found the image. We were in the middle of this heated conversation about album art, we didn’t know what we were gonna do. But as soon as we saw the image, we all said that was it. When I saw that image I could no longer associate the album with any other. Holy shit, someone had already made it. Someone had already made that feeling. And yeah, Murakami hit me deep, especially Wind Up Bird. There’s this thing that happens when you juxtapose the magic with the mundane, like a Mobius strip, where you don’t know what’s trippy and what’s not anymore.
Quilt played the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on Plaza’s release day, Friday the 26th. They come to New York for a show at Baby’s All Right on March 2nd.