Udbhav Gupta (pictured above wearing glasses) is a multi-instrumentalist from Long Island- and Brooklyn-based buzz band Twin Sister. Their full-length LP In Heaven came out last fall, an understated successor to their critically acclaimed EPs Color Your Life and Vampires With Dreaming Kids, and their most mature outing yet. Along with Andrea Estella, Brian Ujueta, Gabe D’Amico and Eric Cardona, he just finished a countrywide tour promoting the album, following right on the heels of a European tour. I caught up with Udbhav (Dev) at a mutual friend’s loft over some beers, where we discussed the band, story telling, literature and a whole lot else besides.
So what are Twin Sister up to right now?
We’re recuperating from an album cycle. We’re finished touring behind this record called “In Heaven” and we are receding into our shells.
And how did you feel about it?
Making the record was really fun, it felt like the fulfillment of years of fantasizing about getting to rent a house and go into a studio.
And then afterwards when you finally had to say, “This is our record, we are putting it out” what was that process like? Deciding the record was done, sending it out and then watching it rebound off the world?
We decided it was done, and then we had to wait for four months. So that was actually really weird. Because we were done with the record around April and then it came out September 27th.
The next thing that we put out will probably be a year or two from now. I think we’re going to go into hibernation and make a lot of stuff. For a really long time before we had any kind of public recognition as a band, we all produced music that we shared within a very small circle of people. And over time we accumulated a lot of material. From all of that stuff we put out two EPs. We’d gone through dozens and dozens of things and came out with ten songs. And it was fine and it came out well. But then we had to make this record and we really only wrote like twelve songs and then we put out ten of them or eleven of them. We didn’t really have that chance to take it slow.
The album is good! I’d like to talk to you about a couple of songs. So for example, “Kimmi in a Rice Field”, it’s like a whole story. I wouldn’t say it has a narrative arc, but it has characters and events. You have to imagine a lot of the backstory, but it’s pretty much a full story.
“Kimmi” starts like a pretty upbeat 80’s song, and then the tone goes unexpectedly dark. So, do you guys approach music in that way, where you’re trying to take people on a ride where there’s a beginning middle and end?
Yeah, we like to have the point where the song ends usually be somewhere different from where it started. Music as an art form is pretty interesting because your experience with time is fixed. Whereas with a book or visual art forms, you have control over how you spend time with that piece of art, with music, for those three minutes these specific things are going to happen. You have control. So then the narrative becomes a very weird different thing. You have to make sure it’s well conceived because time is moving. We try to do that musically and lyrically.
It’s weird how you’ll hear a song that’s really catchy, but then if you’re in a situation where you hear the wrong lyrics, suddenly it’s not catchy, even if the melody and delivery are the same. I find the song “All Around and Away We Go” really interesting, because it seems like the lyrics are more percussive and musical in and of themselves. They’re important, even though they’re not iterative.
Yeah, well in that instance, language is a huge part of the hook; it’s what gives shape to the melody. When I listened to music as a young kid I never would remember lyrics at all. I remember when that changed and lyrics became a big part of my musical experience.
It’s weird that you can be really good at lyrics or really bad at lyrics and it can be a serious problem.
Yeah, and totally unrelated to your overall musical ability.
So do the band’s reading habits impact what goes on in the songwriting process?
We all have very different reading habits. Gabe and I probably read the most. Andrea hates reading. She likes comic books because there are less words. That’s a direct quote. Andrea hates books, she really does. Gabe was a comp lit major in college, so he had to read a lot. I read a lot. Eric once spent maybe a year and a half finishing one book. Black Crow Speaks. [I think the book referenced here is Black Elk Speaks -ed. ]It’s about a Native American leader talking about his experiences. He loved it.
What about yourself? What are you reading right now?
I just finished that Jennifer Egan novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. I really didn’t like it. (Joking) It’s not that punk. It won the Pulitzer, but I thought it was kind of condescending toward young people in a weird way, and modern times.
What’s wrong with that?
Well, I’m a young person and I live in modern times.
Does she have a particular perspective that she’s using to make this judgment?
Well, she’s an older person, so she has that perspective. She just prefers – I really didn’t like the ending. I just had some beef with it. Anyway, before that, I was re-reading Borges, Ficciones. It’s my favorite book of all time.
That’s interesting. Borges likes to combine genres in a very self-referential, tongue in cheek way. Would you say that Twin Sister takes a similar approach?
Yes. I think it’s the whole thing of inventing worlds to occupy yourself in. It’s a really cool way of to make art. Andrea does that all the time. That’s why she invents her characters and her worlds and is in a lot of ways a completely ridiculous person, because she inhabits these spaces that are different from the rest of the world. In the same way, Borges does things like write reviews of books that don’t exist.
Did you ever read Nazi Literature In the Americas by Bolaño?
I haven’t read him.
It’s a very similar idea. The book consists of biographies of famous far right wing authors from Latin America who never existed. It’s as though this book is an important scholarly work in an alternate universe.
Yeah, that reminds me of the craziest one by Borges, called “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. It’s that story about a page in the encyclopedia that doesn’t match up with another page of the encyclopedia. And it’s writing about the literature of a universe that doesn’t exist, and this whole team of people is working to create a tome of knowledge about this world. And their language is completely different. There are no nouns in that universe; there are only verbs and adjectives. So to describe the moon you can only describe its movement and its color and you can’t use objects, so it affects their philosophy and ethics. Borges is so insane. I remember I was too young when I first tried to read him. Nobody makes you feel dumber than Borges.
I think he prided himself on that.
Yeah, it’s a kind of machismo.
Gabe and I also bond over John Steinbeck a lot. East of Eden in particular. I love how he retold the Bible as his family story. It’s hugely mythological but it’s also his personal family story in California, it’s this larger than life thing but is also very personal.
That follows the theme of creating a separate version of reality that the author controls. Speaking of control, there’s a Twin Sister song “Meet the Frownies”, which always catches me off guard because it starts off sounding very nice, but suddenly drops into a minor key. It subverts where you think the song is going to go, a bit like “Kimmi”. Maybe it’s not consciously conceptual. Those changes are a little disorienting.
That’s to make sure you’re paying attention. (Laughs) That’s how life is, man. You know, everything’s going swell, and then boom.
Do you guys try to subvert genres?
That’s all we do all day. We find genres we like and then we rip them off, and end up making something totally different at the end. I would feel bad saying that and feel like a plagiarist, but it’s really just how you start a creative process. Even if it’s just something that’s non-artistic, it’s just about wanting to recreate that thing that you just felt or experienced.
Does Twin Sister have set characters? Does Andrea have different characters within Twin Sister that speak from a consistent perspective?
No, because sometimes Andrea’s singing words that Eric wrote for himself. We’re not that conceptually rigorous. It’s not that strictly formulated. It changes from song to song. We feel that there isn’t a set of rules. We create a set of rules per song or per record or release. Otherwise everything is up for grabs.
So you said that you’re going into hibernation, what is that going to entail? What are you going to do with your time?
Well, we’ve set up a shared Dropbox folder and we’ve all just been putting demos into it. And hopefully we’ll just keep adding more and those will turn into songs.
Is there any author’s career that you’re following, or that you think matters?
Jon Negron. But I don’t know, I honestly have no idea. I don’t really keep up. I usually get into stuff about five or six years later.
Do you think that musicians obsess about each other’s careers the same way that writers do?
Sure, I mean it’s how you measure yourself. That’s how you assess how you’re doing. It’s more public than with other careers. Also, you’re not competing over the quality of your art, you’re competing about success. And those don’t have a lot to do with each other in a lot of cases, and that’s weird.
All I know is if I was a professional writer, I would be terrified because, like, there’s no money in it. Just in the way that I don’t really think about music as the way I will survive, because if I did that would be really frightening. I’ve been trying to make music for probably ten years now and you know it never makes you any money. I’ve spent so much money, making music. I would think it’s exactly the same for writing. There aren’t that many people who will pay you to write reliably or regularly.
Which might be the reason why concepts of success are so strange in both worlds, because getting something published or getting a record deal and being well reviewed are almost totally social goods as opposed to a quantifiable success.
Well it’s definitely not money! A good record review is definitely not money.
Maybe each extra decimal point on your rating equals five more T-shirts sold?
Depends who’s doing the reviewing.
Yeah, but I said decimal points, so . . .
Right. Yeah, probably.