Greycoats' new space-rock LP: wild horse or ostrich ride?


Space, the final frontier. It's also the subject of the latest album from indie-rockers Greycoats. After almost three years working on a new album, the Twin Cities band has returned with a third album, Adrift, in which they take their subjects into the unknown.

The quartet, comprised of Jon Reine, Titus Decker, Matt Patrick, and Mike Smith, created a whole new, dizzy world on their latest record, one they puncture straight through with hooks, sweet melodies, and lushness. On Adrift, everything appears to be moving at a different speed than life around it — beautiful but deep, dark yet light.

Lead singer Jon Reine recently shared his thoughts with City Pages on using intellectual subjects in his songs and why having a visual element is just as important as the audio elements in the music.  Greycoats will celebrate the release of Adrift with an album-release show Saturday at new St. Paul venue in Paikka.

City Pages: Your albums are so cerebral. When writing, are you ever concerned if people are going to "get it"?

Jon Reine: These days, I’m mostly concerned with whether or not I’m going to “get it.” Songwork is a delicate thing. And more and more I’m trying to be a better listener. There’s this strange feeling that what I’m writing somehow already exists somewhere and I’m simply pulling it through another realm into this one.

But it’s like trying to ride a wild horse — you can’t just get a running start and jump onto its back. You must approach the creature on its own terms, with quiet trust and perseverance till there’s a mutual understanding. The understanding is that this horse can’t run between worlds fully formed.

You’re going to have to coax it out of hiding and magically and methodically reconstitute the entire beast from thin air. And you have to listen to what it’s trying to tell you and not simply rely on your memories of what a horse is supposed to look like. Because sometimes, it’s an ostrich. Then, hey — free ostrich rides!

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about what people think. We all crave validation, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned after playing empty venues from coast to coast, it’s very possible that neither commercial nor critical validation will ever be ours. And yet, we still feel this drive to create. Which tells me that maybe the thing itself is really what matters, and that can be its own form of validation.

So, I’m just trying to get better at that — making better songs and art. If the art is just a confusing mess, then I suppose that’s on me, but if it’s simply that it’s challenging, that’s a good thing. Art that challenges invites repeat visits, but I’m not intentionally trying to make it hard for people. It’s just what speaks to me. If you try to write for everyone, you’ll end up writing for no one. At least, if I can write for myself, that’s someone, and maybe there’s another someone out there that can appreciate that.

CP: Adrift will be your third album. What do you think you were able to share on this album that you didn't on your previous.

JR: This album was a sort of “letting go” for us. It’s less hurried, and a little more effortless. It’s less self­-conscious, more self­-assured. That’s not to say that everything has not been entirely considered, because it has been. But, the beauty with this project is that part of that consideration was giving ourselves permission to wander.

We walked into the studio with songs half­-finished. We put ourselves in a position of not worrying about how we were going to pull it off live. Matt played more guitar. I played more keys. We added a fifth member to the live shows, which has freed me up to be more of a frontman. Mike and I started a label, just to keep things moving along faster.

With something new, you’re always staring into the silent abyss, wondering if you’ll be able to do it again. I think we just walked into it with the confidence that something would come our way. It doesn’t all need to be solved on a single album. It becomes less precious that way, and you can just focus on the work. We tracked fifteen songs and finished fourteen.

Ten made it on the album. We chose to edit ourselves. We made more room for each other in the music. And mostly, listening to what this album wanted to be, rather than what we could fit inside of it, knowing there’d be more to come in the future.

CP: You say this album traces the historical and mythological narrative. Where did the idea to take this album to space? What is it about space that fascinated you so much to dedicate a whole album to it?

JR: After the release of our last album, I picked up a graphic novel called Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? It drew a neat line from the 1939 World’s Fair to the Space Age. It felt like logical place to go, to pick up where the last one left off. So, we knew our third album would be our space album.

Every album we’ve made has a historical anchor point. The first was WWI, the last one was the ’39 World’s Fair and this one is the Space Age. That’s not to say every single song on that album is specifically about that historical event, but perhaps inspired by the mood of the era.

And we’ve been working our way through the 20th century, it would seem. But, I’ll say “inspired by a true story”, because much poetic license is taken. I’m conflating history and mythology and literature and film and the Internet and my own experiences. It’s never a literal retelling, and it’s unapologetically romanticized.

I guess the cliche is that every band’s album is made in reaction to their previous one. Adrift is the dusk to World of Tomorrow’s dawn. It’s the moon after the sun. It’s where jealousy and madness and confusion step in. It’s for wanderers and hunters and the mutability of the sea. It’s an album for the stars and the spaces in between. It’s an invitation to the night. There’s something about the sci-­fi of the late ’60s to early ’70s that touches on this. It got very introspective.

The farther out in space one travels, the further in one goes. We watched 2001: A Space Odyssey together as a band before recording— sort of a Kubrick baptismal. Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a good one, too. If you’ve ever been on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and had the momentary thought, “What if I slipped into the sea? How long before anybody notices that I’m gone? And how would they ever find me?”

It’s that realization of the terrifying smallness of one’s own existence that we try to drown out with technology and idle busyness. It might sound a little morbid, but I really think it’s about perspective and humility: you are not the protagonist in this story.

In chasing down songs, I might have an idea of what it’s about and then do some research to try to fill my heart and mind with that subject and see what comes of it. This album had me reading The Right Stuff, which touches on the American side of the Space Race and Starman, which touches on the Russian side.

Also, as a tangent, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, whose story I’d been captivated by since first seeing the documentary Deep Water. It’s a cosmic adventure of a different sort at a time when a voyage at sea was still as treacherous as a voyage to the stars. Plus, space is cool.

CP: Tell me about the song "Cleopatra."

JR: When I was first writing it, the phrase “You remind me of Cleopatra” popped out at rehearsal and I kept trying to figure out what it was supposed to mean. I re­read George MacDonald’s Lilith, remembering a passage about the light of the moon offering the hero’s only protection though a treacherous valley.

I read a book called Moon about the moon in history and mythology. At a family reunion, one of my aunts noticing her sister’s bracelet said the exact phrase, “You remind me of Cleopatra.” I kind of freaked out inside. What does it mean?! There was a good deal of wrestling with the song itself, trying to take it in very certain directions, yet it kept resisting.

There was crowdsourcing going in the studio. This line or that line? In the end, I think it wanted to became a very subtle love song to the moon., and I decided to leave it at that. Ask me in a year, I’ll be sure to have uncovered its meaning and offer something smart to say on its behalf.

Sonically, this started out as a big, dreamy ‘90s indie anthem, by way of Beach House. When it came to tracking, we weren’t really feeling the dramatic big, loud vamps vs. small, verses and choruses. It just didn’t feel fresh for us. We tried another approach in­studio: What if this was a Sade song? That didn’t really work either. Matt wanted to take another stab at it production­wise and really pushed it into what eventually landed on the album — something much more subtle and interesting. You can hear tiny remnants of Sade vs. Beach House at the tail­end of the song.

CP: Who came up with the idea for the "Cleopatra" music video?

JR: Our drummer, Mike, has been obsessed with Ralph Rapson’s Glass Cube for a number of years. Ralph Rapson is Minnesota’s most famous modern architect. The Glass Cube was the cabin he built for his family in 1974 atop a hill overlooking the Apple River in western Wisconsin. When not hitting the tom­toms, among other things, Mike does home ­remodeling and construction. He wanted to build one Ralph’s unfinished homes a few years ago and wound up befriending Ralph’s son Toby through that process.

We were talking to Nate Matson about doing an episode of spaces together, and Mike really wanted to shoot a performance of us playing new material inside The Cube, if there was any way to make that happen. We went out there in the spring of 2014 and filmed three untested songs. I was writing lyrics in the van.

We recorded the album in the fall and decided it would be great to to come back to the Cube and shoot more of a “music video,” but with the idea of replacing ourselves us with four beautiful women. And they’re explorers. Or scientists. Or leave it open to interpretation. We’ll just create something that pays off the retro- future structure of the Cube.

We contacted architectural photographer Corey Gaffer to see if he’d be interested in shooting a music video. He brought in the idea of projection ­mapping onto the Cube. We recorded most of the video in a day last summer. Corey took one more trip up to get a little more b­roll of the Cube itself, but otherwise, we were running around grabbing shots.

There’s a pretty impressive single­-take tracking shot inside the Cube. There was a small crew of us following directly behind the cameramen outside the Cube so we wouldn’t wind up in the shots through the glass walls. Of the projection­ mapping that happened, only a small portion of it made the final cut. I was wishing more people could experience the lights dancing off the contours of the Cube as the song played on and on into the night. It rained during both shoots.

CP: How much of a hand do you have in the creation portion of the visual aspects in what you do as a band? What is it about pairing visuals with music that draws you to it so much?

JR: I remember when I was a kid and when we first got cable seeing the “Once in a Lifetime” video with David Byrne jittering around on MTV, thinking to myself “Whoa. This is kind of weird and interesting.” and absolutely loving the use of stop- motion in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video, and the hybrid animation in A-HA’s “Take On Me.”

I’m a visual learner, I guess. When I was still trying to figure out music I liked, I remember selecting albums to buy based on the cover alone. It’s interesting how a visual can change how you perceive a sound. And vice-versa. The relationship between sight and sound can be pretty magical or detrimental. We try to understand the constraints of what we’re dealing with and balance our vision with realistic expectations.

Even with the cover of this latest album, it seems like there are a lot of space-themed works floating around at the moment. And that a literal space cover might not be as powerful as using Rapson’s Glass Cube. A building that represents the retro­-future aesthetic of the era but can also represent this vulnerable feeling of being completely exposed and how one interacts with that level of transparency. Well, at least, that’s what I tell myself now. Mike was pushing pretty hard for the Cube. I was worried it might look like the cover of Dwell magazine. But, I think it came out for the best — with a nod to vintage sci-­fi paperback bestsellers.

So, I’d say I’ve a pretty heavy hand. But hands can flex when something needs to be built. You always have elaborate ideas for the music and art. Do you ever feel you have to compromise in execution? There are definitely concessions that must be made when you’re pulling favors from friends or completely underpaying someone for the opportunity to make some “art” together.

We’ve been very fortunate. And part of the great thing about collaboration is bringing another perspective alongside your own to see what might come about. We somehow always manage to do things in the hardest way possible. So, you choose your battles and you decide which hard thing you wanna do the most. We’re slowly getting better at asking the right people for help.

We built a spaceship for Northern Spark 2014, and I think we all had something in our head at the start that wound up in a different place by the end. The initial task was for us to create something for the observation deck of the Foshay Tower, but the location changed at the last minute, so our idea did as well. Even with that, we had certain idea of what the spaceship should be at the start, compared to what it was in the end, and it turned out much better working with constraints.

We keep trying things we’ve never done before. We’ve just started talking about a possible theater/music collaboration. I’ve got a rough outline for the next four albums. Where I think the next one’s heading scares me a bit, subject­wise. But I’m starting to see fear as an opportunity.

CP: Tell me about the album release show. What do you have planned? It’s going to be a circus in the best way possible. 

JR: We’re bringing back the spaceship we used for Northern Spark 2014. The audience is the crew on an interstellar flight that’s just awoken from hypersleep and now they have to fly the ship. Or maybe it’s on auto­pilot because the last one blew up. Nice work, everybody. A social hour starts at 7 p.m. with complimentary snacks from Mojo Monkey Donuts and drinks from Spruce Soda and possibly others while vintage synth guru Low­Gain plays a set. You can also take our turn at flying the ship during this time. Charlie Van Stee will then play a solo set at 8pm and we’ll take the stage after that.

There will be all sorts of ridiculous surprises during the show, with make­up and lights and projections and lasers and stuff. It’s at Paikka, a brand new event space in St. Paul’s Vandalia Tower. We really just wanted to throw a party for everyone, rather than just make it a club gig. It’s proving to be a lot of work, which, I now understand, is why people have club gigs. But we’re really excited for it. If people miss it I think it will be a decision they regret for the rest of their lives.

Greycoats Album album-release show for Adrift

With: Charlie Van Stee and LowGain

Where: Paikka.

When: 7 p.m. Sat., November 21.

Tickets: $15; more info here.