The Ashtray Hearts go the distance

After eight years, the alt-country group get back together in Minneapolis for The Strangest Light

A gap of years and hundreds of miles couldn't keep the Ashtray Hearts from creating a beautiful alt-country statement together. With email as a catalyst for collaboration, this 12-year-old band assembled their third album — and first since 2005 — The Strangest Light.

Well-traveled lead singer/songwriter Dan Richmond, who now resides in Salt Lake City after stints in Oregon and the Balkans, has occasionally returned to Minneapolis to rehearse with the band. This past spring, Richmond, guitarist Steve Yernberg, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Schmidt, bassist Ryan Scheife, and percussionist John Jerry completed the record at Terrarium. They spoke to City Pages about the process of coming together after being so far apart.

City Pages: So, this album is more of a collaboration than the previous ones?

Dan Richmond: It's a record of circumstances, because I moved away in 2008. The guys in the band are my closest friends. So we already stayed in touch. This is more collaborative by design because of the way that we had to do it. It was a lot of emailing files back and forth. When I was back in town for a week or two during summers, we'd practice, get together for a show, and work on stuff. That also gave us more time to think about which songs spoke to us the loudest. It also gave Steve and Aaron opportunity to explore their songwriting. Their songs — "The Strangest Light" and "White Church Hill" — are on the album, which is something new for us.

CP: What was it like creating the songs over email?

Steve Yernberg: When it started, it was more like, "Here's something I wrote. Let me know what you think." Dan would write a song, I'd write a song and send it to Dan, and Aaron had a big part in writing "White Church Hill." We started having a lot of them. In winter 2011, Dan said, "Hey, let's make a record." We recorded at the end of March. It was a three-four month period of a lot of that exchange.

Aaron Schmidt: It was starting with the bones of songs. We'd record a demo, see what everyone thought, and try different ideas. Several songs went through several iterations.

SY: One thing that was daunting and interesting about this record is we really didn't know how the songs were going to sound. With previous records, we'd played the songs live, so we knew how the songs sounded going into the studio. Whereas this album was never a focus on being a live band. We laid down basic arrangements and spent half a day or so on each song, adding and subtracting parts.

CP: At the end of "Last Request" there are some unusual guitar layers.

SY: There's a guitar part at the end — we thought sounded kind of like Iron Maiden [laughs]. We had trouble keeping a straight face in the studio doing that, but we also all secretly love it, so we kept it.

CP: What was it like recording at Terrarium?

SY: It was our first experience recording a record in a very short period of time. Perfect Halves was over the course of nine months, where this was nine days or so. It was an intense experience getting to immerse myself in the music more.

CP: The album features themes of hope, heartbreak, travel. Were they put in consciously?

DR: I think the recurring themes are more subconscious. I like to use vignettes. It's trying to capture the moments that stick out in life. The songs reflect what has happened to me and the other guys over the past eight years. Things that are important to you in your 20s are a lot less so when you're older, you're married, have different career goals, a couple now have kids. Your priorities shift. Music has always been important to all of us. But sometimes the life that surrounds the music changes. I think this is a good reflection of who we are now.

CP: Where does the imagery come from?

DR: A song can start with the spark of a lyric, or an image I see on a walk or a drive. For me, to be able to create a song there has to be some central image that evokes emotion, a memory or a place in time. It's a vignette, and an image that helps you remember it, so it becomes more vivid rather than just a collection of words or platitudes. To try to get the visual image is one of the greater challenges of putting together a song.

 
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