Pop Music as Science Fiction: An Interview with A Sunny Day in Glasgow

Heads (Zoe Jet Ellis)

A Sunny Day in Glasgow have never been an easy band to pigeonhole. There’s a pop sensibility at work in their music; but they’re also willing to push things into a more sonically surreal direction, with elements of shoegaze and psychedelia figuring prominently in their work. Their new album, Sea When Absent, fractures their sound and reassembles it in a series of beguiling ways; change, on a physical and environmental level, is a concept that pervades the album. I corresponded with Ben Daniels and Jen Goma about the process of putting the album together, the album’s themes, and how science fiction figures into all of this.

Sea When Absent was recorded over a year and a half. How did the songs evolve over this period of time?

Ben Daniels: It was actually more like 2.5 years and it’s difficult to say exactly how a demo turns into a finished product.  It’s a bit like the scene in Rocky where he’s trying to catch the chicken.  Only it’s like dropping the chicken in a South Philly backyard one day and waking up 2.5 years later in a strange room in French Polynesia, holding the chicken, with no memory of how either of you got there but you are both utterly exhausted. The biggest evolutions that I can remember were with the songs “Never Nothing” and “Double Dutch.” Initially, the former was all acoustic guitars but it just sounded so rote and boring so eventually it somehow faded over to weirdly filtered synths and the original acoustics turned into these strange kind of background noises. And the latter was originally a little stub of a song, tacked on to another song that was dropped from the final record.  But we really came to like that little stub so we fleshed it out into its own song.

Jen Goma: Wow, yeah, I totally remember those acoustic guitars. It’s a distant memory but, it’s there. And I do remember Ben sending out the newest version of the song stub that would become “Double Dutch” on a train in New Jersey, and I haven’t been on a train in New Jersey in a while. But, I do remember those kinds of evolutions, like the thing that we thought would eventually be a throw away bit ended up being very necessary. Like the “Oh I’m a Wrecker…” chorus, in the demo every bit of music around the chorus, vocal parts and guitar parts, we’re being re-recorded for the final version and then when it came time to record the final version of that first chorus, the demo part was all we could hear and then we definitely didn’t want anything else there but, what was already there. So we just kept trying to re-create the demo version of that part of the song. I guess if you live with the demos long enough they can start to become part of the finished product.

There’s a lot of fragmentation on this album. When, for you, is a song “done”? Do you keep live performance in mind when writing, or do you view that and the album as relatively separate things?

Ben: There’s no objective definition of “done.”  This can be a source of great stress with some songs.  Ultimately it just has to feel right.  That sounds wishy-washy because it is.  And really, the factors that probably make you think a song is “done” are probably more related to what else is happening in your life at the time than anything in the song. When I hear an old ASDiG song now, i mostly hear lots of things I would do differently, but I know that at the time that was it, and I love that. It’s like a diary—if you read stuff you wrote when you were 15 you’d probably recoil at alot of it, but it’s real, it’s how it happened and that’s the best I think anyone can hope for in terms of completion. Ultimately you have to make a call and then go down with the ship (if it goes down).

Jen: And sometimes there’s a deadline where it has to be done but, we definitely didn’t have any imposed deadlines for this record so we had to impose them on ourselves. We’d say this song has to be done by this date, just to preserve sanity and also that timliness coinciding with done-ness that Ben is talking about. Things were starting to change in our lives, it really felt like it was time for the songs to be done.

Ben: I will maybe keep live performance somewhere in my mind, but I never let myself change something or to avoid trying something because it would be difficult to do live.  Studio and live are two completely different things to me.  Interpreting stuff for live performance is also a really exciting challenge, so I look forward to that as a separate process.

Jen: Yeah, and that’s never been how we’ve worked when putting a live song on its feet, being a slave to the recording or making sure it sounds just like the record. And a live version of a song is really its own version of the song, I think both versions of a song can and need to exist.

Given that the group’s members are based in multiple cities, what is the songwriting process like these days?

Ben: It was difficult. Lots of emails, lots of versions of demos, lots of stuff probably getting lost in the shuffle.  That being said, this is probably the most collaborative ASDiG has ever been.

Jen: Yeah, and even an email about a song, with the title of the song in the subject headline, could still have loads of messages in the thread that were just about weather or our jobs or something. I guess we could say the process was new, scattered for sure but, only because it was some uncharted territory to write music in this way.

A number of songs on Sea When Absent use parentheses in their titles; was that a conscious decision from the outset?

Ben: Not really but I think at this point I can say that this is an aspect of my personality. I view song titles as opportunities to convey information and I often find that I don’t get it all in the non-parenthetical title, OR, that there are two ideas to be conveyed and one is maybe more important than the other.  I also love how back in the day books used to have two titles.

Jen: Yeah, it’s something that Ben always remembers to think about, the parenthetical title. Which I really like. Never forget to think about what the song could also be called.

It’s been seven years since your debut. How would you describe the evolution of your music since then?

Ben: Wow,  I suppose I know that to be true, but it’s kind of amazing to see it written down.  In a lot of ways it feels like it’s been seven years of hustling. I think an outside listener could probably tell me how the music has evolved better than I could say, but I have always strived to keep pushing ASDiG a little past where it has been before.  And this would be more in terms of the situation around writing and recording than anything else.  So Scribble Mural was just me recording in my apartment with one microphone, mostly just recording whatever came out. For Ashes Grammar we rented a huge space and bought some more microphones and Josh was on board. There were some larger conceptual ideas in terms of sound experiments we wanted to try and some themes for the songs. For Sea When Absent we went into a “real” studio with a proper engineer and again we had some rough creative guidelines in terms of sound and song structures.  I would really love to make a completely bonkers record though.  Hopefully that’s next.

Jen: Right, the next one!  I think that’s how evolution happens though, you will it and also allow it. And I think that’s how i’d describe the evolution I’ve seen, it actually has happened. Definite growth, definite change.

There’s a sense of change in some of the titles: “Boys Turn Into Girls,” “So Long, Big Ocean.” Was that a conscious theme as you worked on writing the album?

Ben: I probably would not have said that myself but on reading your question I have to say yes. Gosh, in a way change might be the biggest theme of the record. I don’t think I ever meditated on that too much, but it’s really hitting me now.

Jen: Yeah, I think it’s good when you can notice an unconscious theme in finished products. We weren’t aiming at representing change with this album but, we changed a lot during the making of it so I’m not surprised if that’s a tangible theme in the album.

Did you strive to make a more science fictionally-charged album this time out?

Ben: No. It was not a goal to make a sci fi record or anything like that. The sci fi narrative was just a framework for me to approach writing the record. It was also an opportunity for me to work out some ideas for a book i’ll hopefully write before I die. But I also do believe that sci fi from the 1950s-70s and maybe a bit of the 80s (despite what alot of people would probably think, I don’t think we’ve arrived at Gibson’s Sprawl yet. But it can’t be far) is a good guide for what the world looks like now. Shit is crazy.

Jen: Right, I think I’d just have to echo “no. It was not a goal to make a sci fi record or anything like that.”

Were there any works of science fiction that served as an inspiration for this, either literally or aesthetically?

Ben: It’s funny, I hadn’t read it, but when I described my ideas to Ryan he told me I was describing a lot of Akira, which, having now read that, I can say I was. But I don’t know that there were any specific novels but the Hyperion Cantos, most of PKD (especially the short stories and UBIK), and maybe even A Canticle for Leibowitz (without the Catholicism) were pretty big for me? I also took a course on Greek mythology while we were writing this album and I think there’s alot of that in here. I really loved the Homeric Hymns. And reading greek myths lead me to read Celtic and Norse mythology and those stories were also pretty big for me.

Aesthetically though, I believe the photographs of Masahisa Fukase, specifically The Solitude of Ravens, and Daido Moriyama were my biggest sources of inspiration.

Jen: Yeah, I loved it when Ben would send along the things that were inspiring to him. It’s nice, especially over long distances, when you can point at something and say “this,” this is what I’ve been thinking about. So, those conversations about specific inspirations, trying to share an understanding is how the mythology and the Fukase, Moriyama photographs made it into my inspiration wheel house, definitely through Ben but, once he introduced those elements they definitely played a role in how I was looking at the album. But, I guess to speak more specifically to me, I had just moved from a room with no windows into a room with a huge window that looked out onto the tops of a bunch of trees and I could see two old, very architecturally different church towers in the view. I remember thinking it felt odd to have 1 view with 2 church towers, it was like a planet with 2 moons. But yeah, I feel like light was a big inspiration for me on this one.

What was the last good book and good album you took in?

Ben: I just finished a book from the 90s called Vurt that was so good. I wish I could include it as inspiration for the album because he so beautifully wrote about a lot of the ideas I’d wanted to. Endings of books almost always let me down but the last 50 pages of this book just made me so sad in the best possible way. Such a good book.

And lately I’ve been listening alot to Loretta Lynn’s The Definitive Collection. Good stuff.

Jen: I’ve been listening to a lot of Sparks lately and actually had the insane pleasure of seeing them live twice last year! They are so good and have so many good albums.


Image: Zoe Jet Ellis

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