To hear principal band members Arlie Carstens and Eric Fisher tell it, it’s a wonder and nothing else, the new album from Atoms and Void, got made at all. The record has been in process for almost a decade. After the duo had collected rough mixes for 33 tracks, a stolen laptop and fried hard drive put a stop to their progress for almost three years. But, gradually, perseverance won out, and the duo resumed their efforts with renewed energy. The result is a beautiful, haunting record that nods at post-rock and art rock while also containing songs that could be lost outtakes from a lost record by The National. Bolstered by guest appearances from a who’s who of indie rock players, including members of Sunny Day Real Estate, Fleet Foxes, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Built to Spill and too many others to mention, and nothing else is a work that is vast in both scope and sound.
The video for “Lay Down Your Weapons,” directed by Greg Hunt, captures the record’s spirit perfectly: a series of slow-motion, mostly unmoving shots of urban and rural landscapes, it hints at the ties that bind us all together, and suggests all we need to do to realize them is be still enough to listen. We spoke with Carstens and Fisher about the video, and about how and nothing else went from nearly-lost to beautifully found.
One of the things that struck me about watching the video is this overarching sense of stillness. Not much happens, and yet it feels really moving and really profound. How did you arrive at that concept for the video?
Carstens: For me personally, as the person who wrote the lyrics, that song is very much about stillness. Lyrically, speaking, that song is an attempt for a person to lay down their struggle and lay down what they’ve been fighting against, it’s an attempt to look at a defeating situation for what it is and to step away and become still. The song is about trying to have calm in the middle of apocalyptic circumstances. I asked the director, Greg Hunt, about two and a half years ago if he’d like to make a film for the record, and I’d given him a bunch of rough mixes from the record, and he chose this song. My instruction for how to conceptualize it was simply, ‘I want you to make whatever you want to make.’ The thing that I found so interesting about the film is that, visually, it evokes that feeling of stillness. It’s so in keeping with the song lyrically and structurally. He made the video that he wanted to make, but interestingly, what he wanted to make is really reflective of the song.
Fisher: We didn’t see it until he was done with the final edit. It is very still, and at first, I had questions about that, whether it was too still. You go through these conflicting feelings—is it going to be too still to keep people’s attention? Do I even care about that? I think after we discussed it, we both felt like this is Greg’s art and this is the way he saw it, and we’re happy with what he did.
What are some of the obstacles that prevent us from accepting stillness?
Carstens: I think that when very bad things happen to you, or if you’re a part of tragic events, you can be scarred by them and they can shake much of your life thereafter. If you don’t have a pivotal conversation or two soon after those events, if you don’t have people around you who can help create context for what happened, those things can shape you. But if you’re able to have conversation with people that you love and you trust, you can re-contextualize what has happened and you have a better chance of accepting the circumstance. If you have the good fortune to stumble across people who share some wisdom with you about how to contend with tragic events, you can continue to move forward.
A real turning point for me was, I was raised by my dad and my sister, and when I was 10 and my sister was 12, she suddenly died. And it was no one’s fault. It happened. But that was a very important turning point for me in that, at the age of 10, you look around and your father is devastated, understandably, and there’s nobody else to take care of you or guide you, and I remember being in the hospital waiting room and having the epiphany, ‘There’s nobody here to take care of you. You’re on your own, and you have a choice to make. You either devolve into negativity, you devolve into violence, or you evolve into the kind of person who believes that life is what you make of it.’ If you look at life of optimism and creativity and art and connectivity, if you see yourself as a person who believes in togetherness—and I probably believe in togetherness to the extent that I do because I miss my sister. In her absence, I’ve spent my life trying to forge community with people, because I believe that’s what makes life worth living.
It’s funny that you mention community and togetherness, because this record was really kind of communal—you have a long roster of guest musicians on this album. How difficult was it to work with that many different players?
Carstens: In about 1991 or 92, when I was still quite young, I was introduced through Greg Dulli to a kid from Ohio named Jared Ollman. At the time, in the early ‘90s, I was a straight-edge hardcore kid. And in my youthful arrogance, I thought I was a pretty well-rounded music listener. But Jared came over to my house one day with two CDs and he put these things in my hand and said, ‘I know you think you know a lot about music, but after you hear these two records, you’re going to realize you don’t know anything.’ The CDs were Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock by Talk Talk. So I listened to them and they absolutely blew my mind. I spent the next 20 years listening to those records, trying to read about those records, and the thing that became fascinating for me wasn’t just the music itself, but the process by which they arrived at the records. When you listen to them, it sounds like they’re all in a room together, playing together. I came to find out Spirit of Eden was recorded with maybe over 100 musicians, most of whom were never in the same room with each other, and never even met each other. When you know that, and then you listen to those records, it just breaks your brain. They were the exact opposite of a proper “band” model. Something about that really appealed to me. So I’ve always had in the back of my mind, ‘I would really like to make a band that isn’t a proper band, but instead I’d like to write songs with one other songwriter, we’re helming the project, but we work with this massive revolving cast of other musicians, and give people the room and the space to improvise within our guidelines. So we’re sort of songwriters and conductors.
Folks like Morgan Henderson from Fleet Foxes or our friend Lena from Pollens, we reached out to all of those people on a song by song basis. Eric and I would be recording and making mixes and talking about the vibe we needed, and then we’d determine which of the musicians who would be able to get that vibe. When we landed on a name, that’s when we’d make the phone call.
Fisher: I think part of the beauty of all of the people we worked with, they have extreme talent and we love working with them, but none of them have ego involved, where it’s ‘My part has to sound a certain way.’ If a part didn’t work, I’d cut it out and I wouldn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this person is going to be hurt.’ All of those people had a similar philosophy of, ‘I want to serve that song, and if my work doesn’t, just take it out.’
There were some issues in getting this record out, is that right? It took almost 10 years to make, if I’m not mistaken.
Carstens: After we had recorded about 33 songs, we had rough mixes, Eric while on tour in Toronto, their van got broken into and his laptop got stolen and all of our ProTools files got stolen with that laptop. Eric had backed up those ProTools sessions to a hard drive, but when he got back home he bought a new laptop, and as soon as he plugged in the hard drive, it crashed the drive. So I called my friend Nate from Foo Fighters and said, ‘I’d assume your band has a data recovery center that you work with,’ so Nate gave us a referral. We gave them the drive, they called us and said ‘There are 50,000 audio files that we recovered, but all the links are missing. So you have 50,000 audio files who don’t know how to talk to each other.’ Eric and I went into a pretty deep funk over that for about two and a half years. We each spoke with numerous audio engineers, computer scientists, all kinds of people who might know how to help us get back on track. Finally one of them said ‘You guys have rough mixes in iTunes, right? You can fly those back into ProTools and keep tracking. The fidelity might suffer a little bit, but you can’t just give up. If you guys do this, it’s no different from the way a lot of hip-hop records are produced. Each producer will do their work and then lock the track before sending it to the next producer, so that producer can’t mess with his mix. And it turns out, that is the way some records are made. So we booked time at a studio in Seattle, and basically got it done.
Fisher: It was really devastating for me, when we lost everything. And Arlie and I lived far away from each other, and there was certainly tension between us because of it. We had some hard discussions, and that was a challenge for us not only as musicians but as friends. It was pretty difficult to pick it back up and move on. I was in a few bands at the time, so it was easier for me to just work on what was in front of me instead of focus on something that was difficult. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know how on earth we even finished it. I’m a pretty pessimistic person sometimes. Arlie was the one who carried the torch and made things happen and would be like, ‘I’m coming to you, I rented a studio, we’re going to work on this.’ I think after some of those songs came back to life and I saw that there was possibility there, that’s when I started to feel hope again.
How does all of your personal philosophy and all of these experiences translate into the record?
Fisher: The album is a little weird—it was recorded over a lot of years, it jumps all over the place. There’s so much ‘accident’ that happened along the way, so many spur-of-the-moment things. Performances that are really trying to express something, rather than create this song that’s just a ‘hit’ or is based on a formula. We made choices based on what we felt, not based on what we thought ‘should’ happen.
Carstens: And it’s not necessarily the most cheerful record. We write a lot of music that’s an attempt to grapple with our hearts and our heads and the things that have happened in our lives that are hard to reconcile. Philosophically, the fact that we had so many technical difficulties in making this record, but that we continued to reach out to a community of musicians and artists and help us and we ultimately persevered—that’s the philosophy. That’s the message. You can have a lifetime of hardship, but if you can channel those experiences as a way to make something positive and to connect with people, that’s why I make music.
—J. Edward Keyes