On the heels of their November release of their second full-length album, Shutter Release (Mush Records), Michael and Jared Bell of Lymbyc Systym are going out on a West Coast tour that starts Thursday (Jan. 7) and includes a Jan. 13 stop at Sail Inn in Tempe.
I spoke with the brothers Bell, who got their start in Phoenix, via telephone during the holidays, a conference call for which Jared bypassed the usual publicity/management route and set up himself. They discussed being a musician in Phoenix, how they replicate their sound in a live setting and more.
SMS: Are you guys still in Austin and Brooklyn?
Michael: I lived in Austin up until two and half months ago.
SMS: Why did you move? Were the logistics too hard?
Michael: It was more about New York being the best city ever. Jared and I can rehearse now, which is amazing. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do that without someone having to fly somewhere else. So now we have all of our gear here. New York is a great city. I was craving more of the big-city environment. For myself, too, just as far as pursuing drum-type stuff … New York, L.A. or Chicago are the top places to be as far as working on your art.
Jared: Being two people makes it a lot easier. If we had a third band member, it would have been impossible to make an album. With just two of us, it wasn’t so bad. Really, I’d say the only challenge is that we couldn’t physically play music in the same room. But the way we write an album … we both have a hand in everything. I do a majority of the melodic stuff and Mike does a majority of the rhythm stuff. But we don’t really write by getting together and jamming. We write more by sharing ideas and going back and forth. Being in separate cities wasn’t too much of a complication for that. We’d just call each other, but it’s awesome now. It’s really easy to take it for granted, just to play in the same room. But on the whole, I would say there weren’t that many challenges as it might seem.
SMS: You guys grew up in Phoenix. Did you feel like you had to move to grow artistically?
Jared: We definitely had to tour. Most everything that has happened for us and allowed us to make an income from music as far as getting publicity to things you have to do to maintain a career in music were due to touring. In cities like Austin, Chicago, L.A. and New York, we really found a strong following. I don’t know if we had to move. That was other personal things, like school. Mike plays in some other bands as well, so those things dictated where we wanted to go. But definitely touring … I don’t think you can be a Phoenix band and be successful without touring on a national level.
Michael: In theory, we could do what we’re doing and be based in Phoenix. … It’s been so short that I’ve lived in New York and we haven’t played a new show since I’ve lived here, but I would say we noticed in Austin since I lived there, it’s one of the markets we played more over the last couple of years. It was cool. Every awesome show we’ve done has always been better than the last in terms of attendance.
My point is, for the type of music we do, for anything that’s more experimental or on the fringe … I immediately noticed how in Austin, we did have exponential growth in fan base, where in Phoenix – and that’s the town where we both grew up – the growth happened so much slower compared to Austin. I don’t mean to dog Phoenix, but for more experimental music, there’s certain cities where it’s going to click. Phoenix, unfortunately, isn’t one. There’s times where there’s a disconnect. Through touring, when we actually got to go to Austin and Chicago in the context of Lymbyc Systym, we got to see all these other cool cities and thinking, ‘Maybe I could see myself and my art existing in this place.’ It does really go back to that bug of wanting to tour and knowing that we were sort of limited in Phoenix.
Jared: We’re not trying to disrespect Phoenix because every city is what you make of it, and there are awesome music fans there. But in general, from a personal level, I basically feel like it took 2 1/2 years for people to slightly even know who we were. We hit a point where 100 people would come to our shows and it just kind of maintained and we were just happy to have that. And it took so long to even have that. Playing in Austin after our third or fourth show, we were already consistently getting a lot more people than a Phoenix show.
We knew the path we wanted to be on with music, but you question the life choices. ‘Should we try to pursue music as a career or a side thing?’ Comparing Phoenix to Austin or Chicago … it’s just hard to do music in general. You just have to work your ass off no matter where you are.
SMS: Shutter Release was put out in November. How’s the reception been to it?
Michael: Today was first time that I got uber-geeky and went on our label’s Web site, and they’ve cataloged pretty much all the reviews for the record so far. There were way more than I remembered, so I went through them, and basically, they’re all really good, which is cool. In a positive way, it’s a good self-esteem boost. We spent so much time on that album. To me, there’s an evolution in sound and instrumentation, and after you’ve worked on something for a long time, it’s hard to know what it sounds like really. You’re so far removed from it at that point. In the end, it’s awesome to have it be pretty well-received.
SMS: What are some of the challenges of replicating your songs in a live setting?
Jared: An average finished Lymbyc Systym song will have 50 or 60 tracks on it. So, basically, we just look through the whole song and kind of pinpoint the major ones because there might be 10 drum tracks or 30 percussion tracks, so we take all the essential melodies and drum parts. We’ll try to combine them all into something where if it was just us playing without any electronic element, it would sound like a band playing a song. We strip it down as much as possible so it’s musicians playing a song. Sometimes we have to be creative and combine two melodies into one or combine percussion into drum-set-sounding stuff. … We just try to take the most minimal amount of sequencing tracks to supplement the core live show. We really just get rid of a lot of stuff, just strip it down so it feels like a rock show and not someone playing along to a computer.
SMS: For anyone that hasn’t seen you live, what’s the basic setup?
Michael: As far as equipment, we have a drum kit and Jared’s keyboard rig, Clavinet – an electro-mechanical keyboard from the ‘70s. For a long time, we toured with an 88-key Rhodes electric piano but eventually switched to a Nord Electro. … We have a little core synthesizer as a way to re-create parts made by 10 or 12 synthesizers and a laptop that runs all the stuff, like all electronic percussion and a few sequences and few background-type melody things. Jared has a sampler to throw in stuff from the record that’s more textural and vocal-sample stuff. Over time, things fall exactly into position.
We basically try to keep it as simple as possible but still have a lot of sounds to work with to do it. In the end, it becomes a bit of a clusterfuck. One stated, or unstated, rule of Lymbyc Systym is how to keep shit simple. That said, our records tend to have 60 to 80 tracks per song, but hopefully it’s not redundant. In my ideal world, with 80 different tracks, it couldn’t have really happened with less. That relates to the idea of us being a duo, too. There’s people that do what we do that are one person, but when they play live they end up having to sequence so much stuff. There’s something nice about the foundation of a duo and building from there. In a recording sense, it’s not really like a duo. Jared and I are composing everything but then supplementing it with so much instrumentation that it surpassed the origin of the band, which is keyboards and drums.
Jared: Part of it is us being a duo … live, we’re willing to make the best show possible. If violin makes something way more awesome, then we’ll put violin in there. We want the show to be as awesome as possible. Lots of effects pedals or tons of live looping, that’s cool and has its place. But we’re not so much gearheads in the live sense. In the studio that has its place, but live, maybe it’s cool for five or six people in audience that are total gear people, but in general, we like to keep things simple, so we don’t get too self-indulgent. I want to think more about actual notes we’re playing and connecting with the crowd. Instrumental music already is its own weird thing, so we just really want to connect with people.
Michael: At a point we realize that even though one of our goals is to mesh electronic music with organic music played by people with instruments, I think in a certain way we learned how to keep those worlds separate live. Some people can get too caught up in technology and it takes away from the music. There could be a guy in the audience that’s not even thinking about music anymore because his head is too wrapped up in what program is running on the laptop or what kind of keyboard that is. … We want to be focused on the most raw and organic aspect of playing music. You start messing with a laptop and become locked into a computer’s way of dictating time, which is very rigid. Even though over time, as we’ve fucked more with playing to click tracks and having that inhuman rigidity, I’ve learned form just a drumming perspective it’s made me focus more on tiny subtleties of time. … It would be very easy for us to fuck with the electronic element live, but it’s cool how Jared and I have settled upon a thing, keeping the live show really raw and organic even though there’s that electronic rigid thing that’s omnipresent. There’s way to fuck with energy over the top of rigidity.
SMS: Is there much room for improvising?
Jared: There’s a little bit. We actually keep it very composed. It’s basically all composed, so the structures and forms don’t change. But we both don’t like to think of improvising as playing a different solo every night or jamming out. We think of it more as the subtlety. Night to night there’s a lot of room as far as energy of a song or where emphasis falls on things. If you think of it from that perspective, we’re highly into feeling out the night and playing on subtleties.
Michael: We tend to stick to a similar set list but modify it depending on the night with the microsubtleties of a song. It’s not so much off the cuff but exploring the tiny subtleties and learning the things you can fuck with every night.
SMS: You guys had a busy 2009 with the split EP and the Carved By Glaciers rerelease. What was the thinking in reissuing it? Were you looking for a wider distribution for it?
Jared: It was a very specific thing: It was out of print. We made 2,000 or 1,500 copies or something and it’s just been out the last couple of years, so couldn’t sell them on tour. The guy who runs Magic Bullet Records was really into Carved By Glaciers and offered to rerelease it, so we figured we might as well put new artwork and remixes on it as incentive for someone who already has it.
SMS: You guys are on the road quite a bit. Do you do a lot of your writing while on tour?
Michael: Definitely for me, I can say that fledgling ideas happen on the road. But 95 percent of what ends up on record is stuff that was created at home in a studio mind-set. … All of the writing happens at home.
Jared: We don’t write on the road. Being two people, there’s a lot of driving and not much downtime.
SMS: Have you guys ever considered adding vocals?
Michael: We get asked that question quite a bit. Who knows? There’s definitely no set rules about anything with our music. That being said, all our stuff so far, it just came to fruition fully without need for lyrics.
Jared: We never declared ourselves an instrumental band for any reason. We never really thought of it as an instrumental band. We just never sang. If a certain song calls for it, it’s definitely not out of the question.
Michael: Jared and I could both, in theory, sing … we just work within the context of what we’ve become comfortable with.
Jared: I just think of it as music. It’s just weird that someone would break music down into music with vocals and music without vocals. Ninety percent of jazz music or classical music in the history of music, most of it is instrumental. Voices are used more in a melodic, instrumental way. We just try to think of it more in that approach. In a superficial way, there’s some people that clearly need vocals. But I’d like to think that most people, when looking at a piece of art, can intuitively step one step beyond that and interpret things for themselves. It’s almost annoying: ‘Well, this is how the artist wants you to feel.’ You need to have gut reaction from art and have its own specific meaning for you.