Unlocked: Sun Airway’s Jon Barthmus on orchestral collages, visual art and finding your onstage stride

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Photo by Shawn Brackbill | ShawnBrackbill.com

Philadelphia’s Sun Airway can be a lot of things. Musical and visual stylists. Surrealist dreamers, lovelorn introverts, sonic trailblazers – often all within the same song. Their dazzling sophomore record Soft Fall was released on Dead Oceans on Tuesday, and the band is celebrating its release with a hometown show on Friday for the Making Time $2 Bill at Voyeur. We’re exploring the album this week on Unlocked, The Key’s regular spotlight on new and significant releases by Philadelphia-based artists, and today we have an interview with band leader Jon Barthmus. He and I sat down after Sun Airway played XPN’s Free at Noon concert a few weeks back and dug deep into the band’s creative palette, from collaging five full orchestras to finding the right photographs to accompany its sound.

The Key: So firstly – congrats on Soft Fall! It’s a really bold record, it has a confidence and groove to it that sets it apart from from Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier. Did you feel more confident making it?

Jon Barthmus: I definitely did. The first record was done with like no money whatsoever —really cheap microphones and very little gear, and I was learning those programs that I was using as I was going along. There was such fundamental things that I just didn’t know, like really simple things to do in programs that when I learned them I was like “Oh my God, how did I not know this? How did I make a whole record without knowing this?”

TK: “There’s this keyboard shortcut that could have just saved me hours…”

JB: Yeah, or even stuff like, “I guess you can’t do this, I guess I can’t crossfade anything.”But of course you can, and I just didn’t know! And I wasn’t really learning other than just doing stuff and trying to figure it out as I went along. So this time I got to buy better mics and got to take my time with it, actually got to do a couple days in legit studios, and had more people’s hands on it. They know what they’re doing better than I do, so that was definitely really helpful.

TK: When you’re making a Sun Airway record, is the writing / recording process all you, by yourself, and then it’s brought to the band?

JB: That’s basically the gist of it. The live band took a break, when I did the bulk of Soft Fall, and I developed it on my own. I mean for us, since a lot of it’s not really actual instruments on record, it’s a lot of samples that are chopped up and reconfigured, there’s a big process of figuring out how to divide them between five musicians—who should play what? Or if we should just have more ambient stuff in the background going on, on the computer, which we do…

TK: The collaging of samples jumped out at me, the string sections and horn parts. You know how you hear about William S. Burroughs’ cut-up style of writing, where words are excerpted and brought together in different ways? It felt like here, you had done that with classical records and even jazz records.

JB: Yeah. Nocturne was made almost completely like that with chopped up samples, but it was a lot of just weird old synth records…and just chopping a quarter-second, and making every note on the scale out of that quarter second and then putting together my own patch of that sound. A lot of it, I don’t think, even really comes off as sounding like samples; it sounds a lot of the time just like synth-patches but it’s stuff that I’ve kind of lifted from other things. But for this I wanted to stick mostly to this really high-quality classical music. And then that stuff, after kind of chopping it all up and putting it together, I wanted to break it back down into sheet music and then have an actual string section re-record it. So I found someone that kind of helped me transcribe that all—I would send him the parts and he would try to figure out what was going on or how to best approximate that with the string quartet. He did amazingly at that, and then what you hear in the end is kind of a balance of the original samples with the string quartet.

TK: Was it hard to find that balance?

JB: It was weird. I liked it because it surprised me with melodies that I wouldn’t have come up with just kind of falling into place because of how the samples might line up. There were interesting ideas between what the instruments do, some things where there’s one complete orchestra laid on top of another complete orchestra, and this one’s panned all the way to the left, this one’s panned all the way to the right. There’s this weird interplay. And at some points there’s like five complete classical orchestras on top of each other.

TK: That sounds intense.

JB: Yeah.

TK: So your old group, The A-Sides, was more of a five-piece rock band configuration. After that group dissolved, how did you decide to like make the transition to electronic music?

JB: It’s hard to say if The A-Sides would have just turned into that anyway, ‘cause that was definitely what I was most interested in doing. And I was starting kind of simultaneously starting to learn various software programs that did more of that kind of thing, but it also worked out that like everybody quit the band at the same time. So then, Patrick and decided it would be better to just start completely from scratch and make our own records, and not really rely on recording studios. I was just kind of ready for a change. I was tired of playing guitar, which is funny ‘cause now I’m bringing back the guitar, and it feels awesome.

TK: I noticed that with your Free at Noon set. It was my first time seeing you since XPoNential Fest in 2011, which I remember it was a really sunny afternoon and the three of you were in the front of the stage kind of like jamming away at samplers and keyboards…

JB: Yeah, it was really difficult to engage with a crowd or even just to kind of make it visually interesting standing behind the keyboard. We got someone else to join up and do that stuff, take that from me so I could do more kind of active things. Hopefully it’ll be a little better to watch. It’s hard to really get down behind the keyboard doing stuff.

TK: But you also, when you play like solo club gigs, you would have like a visual component—I saw a Johnny Brenda’s show where there was that awesome Klip Collective —is that something you’re going to continue doing?

JB: That was definitely helpful, and we definitely are continuing our relationship with Klip. They’ve developed a whole new show basically for us, for this record. It’s gonna be crazy, I’m really excited. I’ve seen about half of it, and it’s, it’s kind of the opposite of what it was; it’s more using the projector as a light show, so the projectors are on stage projecting out.

TK: Onto the crowd?

JB: Yeah. There’s haze so it kind of—uh, the light stuff picks up in the haze—it’s gonna be something. You can project on surprising things. That’s something that Klip definitely excels at. It would be really awesome to be able to put together like a huge scale show like that with Klip, ‘cause they would definitely totally kill it.

TK: Historically speaking, like you guys have always had an awesome visual sensibility. I love the cover photograph and sleeve images on Soft Fall

JB: We’re very fortunate to have those. Those took a lot of work.

TK: And Nocturne had kind of its own distinct psychedelic kind of look to it. How do you choose the people you work with visually?

JB: The Nocturne stuff I did mostly myself, at least the design of it; I am a graphic designer also. Soft Fall I knew I wanted to be photographic, just because of the nature of the music, and it felt like that would be a better fit. When we were on tour in Europe, I picked up these art magazines and I saw this big spread of a Japanese art collective called Nam. I just thought it was like the total perfect thing for this record, so I just contacted them out of the blue, and they ended up being like really excited and just worked with me every step of the way on it.

TK: What about their look connected with you so strongly?

JB: The image that’s on the cover of Soft Fall is kind of a, a continuation of a series that they were doing, which is what I saw and what I kind of wanted them to pick up. It was called “Fantasy and Reality,” this series, and that’s like basically the lyrical gist of this record, so all the pieces were just of someone kind of floating and hovering and all this stuff in the room kind of floating around. It was mysterious and surreal—the exact kind of way that the record felt. I mean, Soft Fall , the name of gives the impression of floating and weightlessness, and that’s what they were doing. I didn’t realize when I contacted them how labor intensive it all was It was like a thirty-hour shoot ‘cause they actually hang all those wires—and they tie a leaf to a wire and hang it up, and they do that hundreds of times. And there’s a dozen people all doing this at the same time. Then they set it up and bring in the model and take the picture and that’s it. There’s no crazy computer trickery, which is kind of what I assumed it all was. What you see in the photo actually happened. It’s totally crazy, and they made it a video of them kind of putting it all together that we’ll have available pretty soon. It’s kind of mind-blowing to watch.

TK: You mention the lyrical content being in between a dream and reality. I feel on Nocturne, there was a lot of emotion, a lot of longing, a lot of pain. But if you listen to the record it doesn’t necessarily come off that way, ‘cause it’s so dreamy, there’s this wash of like sound, samples, chiming ambience. This record feels more directly like bringing the emotions in the lyrics to the forefront. Would you say that’s the case?

JB: Probably The vocals are definitely out front a lot more, just in general. And that’s partially because, um, I have a better microphone and I feel a little more confident singing. And maybe the subject matter this time around. Both records are basically developed around a single theme—more or less, there’s like a stray song here or there that’s not—but for this one there’s kind of a very specific vision of this kind of palatial, surrealist, alternate universe where kind of all these things were happening that really didn’t make any sense, but it tied in with real life stuff. But none of it’s really personal , it’s kind of just writing from different perspectives, and trying to kind of push whatever thematic elements.

TK: Right. The “I” in the songs is not necessarily you, but because you use it, it makes the songs relatable in a way.

JB: People definitely do think that this is all autobiographical, which it’s not. I mean, that is weird because then it looks kind of like I’m a hopeless case. A lot of these characters are definitely having struggles. I guess I end up finding like pain and suffering more interesting to write about than just happy love songs all the time.

Soft Fall is the featured album in this edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted song “Close” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review; watch a music video for “Wild Palms” in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow for a further exploration of the Nam photo collective’s Fantasy and Reality series.

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