Between Satire and Prophecy: Red Sparowes Fly

Posted May 29, 2007 in
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Any day you get the opportunity to interview a band you admire is a good day. But when you have already made plans to travel out of state to see a band because they blow your mind – and they are gracious enough to grant an interview on the fly – that’s a thing of true beauty.

Rebecca Vernon and I caught Red Sparowes in Portland and talked with them before the show. This group of musicians came together, all of them bearing ample experience, and gave birth to a sound that is whole unto itself. You can taste inside it the hints of previous and concurrent projects flowing in from each member, but when it all swirls together, there is no question that this body stands as an entity apart. When they began, they didn’t intend any particular destiny for the project, but as the music came out, they knew it would be full-time band.

Red Sparowes are Joshua Graham (guitar, videography), Bryant Clifford Meyer (guitar), Andy Arahood (bass/guitar), Greg Burns (bass, pedal steel) and David Clifford (drums). Cliff Meyer was on tour with Isis, so we weren’t able to speak with him. However Josh, Andy, Greg and David were ready and willing to answer our questions despite long hours on the road and a cold or two among them. During the sound check, we had the chance to observe Josh setting up the projection equipment. If you have ever seen a Red Sparowes show, you will know that it is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Josh is a lauded video director and has worked with Isis and Neurosis, among others. For Red Sparowes performances, he sews together a succession of found images that is not so much pastiche as it is stream-of-consciousness. The consciousness of the music and the album, that is. I asked if they had intended all along to create that kind of sensual microcosm, and they said that the music is what came first, and the images, as well as the song and album titles, grow around it.

“We have a democratic way of putting the music together. One person might come in with an idea or riff, and we all build on it to create the musical whole. The titles and concept come after, they come from that process,” says Greg.

The newest album, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun, tells the story of The Great Leap Forward. It was a campaign in the late 1950s by the Chinese government instructing people to kill as many sparrows as possible by keeping them in flight until they died from heart failure. The idea was to increase the farmers’ agricultural output by eliminating the threat that sparrows posed to the crops, but the sparrow is the natural predator of the locust, and when the sparrows were gone, the locust population exploded and overran the crops, causing widespread starvation among the Chinese people.

Josh says, “I intend for the images to relate to the story of the album, but not just as the story applies to the Great Leap Forward that happened in China, but as the story applies to any similar situation in past or present.”

We were curious as to how they would describe the culture or the lifestyle that they surround themselves with, and they seemed pleasantly taken aback at the question.

Greg answered: “What brought us together as a band, really was growing up knowing one another and being into the same movement and the same music. A lot of it was about punk and hardcore and those ethics, and the sincerity that goes along with it.”

When I asked how they make each show into an event, and how they avoid tour burnout, they laughed. “Do we?” they wondered out loud.

Dave had come down with a cold two days before, and was able to put the answer beautifully.

“When you’re on the road you can get sick and feel like shit and the drive can be terrible, but once you get on stage and begin to play, nothing else matters. Everything else falls away. Your physical body doesn’t matter.”

Then it made sense why he had mentioned Artaud as one of his favorite philosophers.

“The worst shows are the ones where we don’t feel audience connection. That connection becomes the tone of the show. What’s really at the heart of avoiding burnout and making every show is audience energy, we feed off of the audience, and that’s how it becomes great, is through that exchange,” Says Greg.

“At some shows, the audience is totally silent through the entire thing, which is a little odd but awesome, and then sometimes one person will decide to clap after the first song, and that sets the mood for the show, which is also awesome. It varies so much, it’s completely unpredictable as far as city, region, or even country is concerned,” says Josh. “You could be anywhere, and if there’s that first stutter and the energy doesn’t happen at the beginning, chances are it won’t happen.”

I mentioned that the flavor of Red Sparowes came across as paradoxical to me, and Josh said that was fairly accurate as far as the artwork and the song titles were concerned.

“One of our hopes is that irony and paradox may motivate people to think, without us having to be obvious. We like to leave the specifics to the listener. People get entirely different things out of it, and it’s interesting to see what they say.”

I mentioned my impression that there is urgency and an insistent pleading that I sense in every song.

Greg responded: “It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but things have evolved as such that the images, along with the instrumental music are like a challenge to get people to think for themselves. Nothing we do is overt.”

Rebecca said she felt that the work had a prophetic weight to it.

With a nod of ascension, Dave said, “I think that makes a lot of sense, because the music itself is constructed to have an ominous tone, it’s kind of monolithic, although it doesn’t beat people over the head.”

What followed the interview was an amazing and intimate show. Everything--the crowd, the musicians, and the images–-seemed to move as a single rocking wave. The fluidity of the music can be astonishing live. The many melody lines blend without competition to carry you as far into or out of yourself as you choose.

When the first song ended, we made a ruckus, and it did seem to set a tone.