Unlocked: Q&A with Grandchildren mastermind Aleks Martray

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“The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.” - Willem de Kooning, 1968

Everybody deals with getting older in different ways.  Some people get motorcycles, others opt for meditation retreats, but everyone faces it regardless. It is the constant struggle to age gracefully, and Aleks Martray and the members of Grandchildren are all dealing with very essential times of their lives. One of the results of the past few years is their new album Golden Age, out May 7th, which The Key is exploring for Unlocked series this week. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the daily routine we caught up with Aleks Martray to chat about the recording process, growing older, and defining the Golden Age.

The Key: What is the Golden Age? 

Aleks Martray: It has sort of become a catchall.  I tend to write a bunch of music and not really know thematically what I’m working with, or what the message is, it’s all music first.  I work a lot more like a composer or an arranger. I have all of this material that I compile, and then I sit back and listen to it and create songs out of it. The lyrics, the words, the concepts, they all come at that last phase once the music has come together. I never really know what I am writing about until the end, and “Golden Age” happens to be the last song I wrote for the album. I think of it like how an author writes an entire book, and then they write an epilogue, and somehow, the epilogue becomes the arc of the story.

For me, that specific song (“Golden Age”) was about the feeling of getting older, and those moments where you feel a narrowing of the openness and possibility of anything happening in your life, and the excitement of it all. And it was about having an experience that was renewed, where you no longer have to see things that way, and things are still open and possible.

It was also about having gone through a lot of things the past few years with family and friends. The past couple years have been weddings and funeral and babies being born, so it is just that time in my life and my band members lives where there is this generational shift, and you are just in the middle trying to place yourself in it. As an adult, and as an artist, and when you are around your parents and grandparents shifting to old age and you have your friends shifting to other phases of life, what happens is everything comes to the surface. It is a sea change moment. “Golden Age” was really revolving around this idea, that everybody, no matter what age or generation, has this magical, golden reference point of the way things used to be, or aught to be, but that is always just a figment of ones imagination.

TK: There seems to be a relationship between the song “Everlasting” from your last album and the new album.  Was the thought process that went into “Everlasting” a jumping off point for the new record?

AM: The song “Everlasting” was written, not only at the end of the first record, but a few months after the whole thing was finished. I was actually writing “Everlasting” to start a new record. I think it was the beginning of the process of starting a new record.  Two things happened, stylistically I was going in a really different direction. I was a lot more interested in singing and putting the vocals up front, because I have never been a natural singer before, I have always been a songwriter and the singing just came as something I had to figure out. And then beats, being very beat oriented.  Those are two things that came together just from writing that song “Everlasting,” and I think that definitely was the beginning of the new album.  I see that song “Everlasting”, as a link or bridge between the two albums, and I think you can sort of hear that.

TK: How did things change after recording your first album?

AM: I think the biggest thing that happened with the second record was being really aware of my process, because the first record was really the first full record that I put together on my own and it was very experimental. I had no real broader concept of what I was doing, I was just trying to make interesting music that I liked, and the band wasn’t really even fully formed, so I didn’t even have that to go off of. That said, once you finish a record, whether you like it or not, you have established some kind of process, some sort of routine, so for the new record, I was hyper aware of my process. But once you are aware of your process you want to start challenging it right away, you don’t want to become formulaic or tied down, you still want to feel in control. The new record was the push and pull of that, becoming aware of the process, but also trying to challenge it.

TK: The album blooms into some really lush material. How did you approach the recording of such an expansive project?

AM: It is all written as a record, and the way that I work is that I am alone in my studio and I just record bits and pieces of little ideas. So, I’ll have about hundreds of little files that I will listen through on a playlist.  Then, I put the pieces together like a puzzle in my brain and do a preliminary recording. So what may be a bunch of little guitar parts and a drumbeat that I’m playing will end up being horn parts and keyboard parts, so it gets translated. Once I can hear the music interacting with itself, then we go and orchestrate it with the band and do additional recordings. The analogy I make is like having a car where you keep replacing all these different pieces until you have a completely new car, but you used the framework to start off with. So the final recording there are probably little vocal or drum pieces, initial draft recordings that stuck around, and everything layered on top is from other sessions. There might be some songs with no trace of the original pieces, but it is the same file and was the same recording project. I think, to me, that speaks to what we are going for in terms of being able to attain a real sense of intimacy for certain moments, and then a real sense of grandiose, orchestral hugeness, and make it work so it sounds like the same world essentially. I think a lot of that comes from the process, so I think if we were to totally change the process, we would be a totally different band.

TK: How did you go about sequencing the album?

AM: For us, we put what we considered pop songs, up front to create the energy and set the tone of the record, and then used the middle section of the record to go into other realms of orchestra music to slow things down and break things up.  Once you have gotten through the original rush of the beginning you can go in a million directions, but I feel if you go in too many directions right off the bat, you haven’t given people orientation to what the record is. Especially if you aren’t this super famous band where everyone knows who you are. You are trying to establish your sound and your style up front and then you can be a little more experimental as the record goes on.  The whole album is a batch of songs, but within that record, there are sub-batches of songs, so I can definitely see relationships between certain songs, and part of it was seeing where those songs fit together and also where they needed to be broken up because the sounded repetitive. Yeah, it was interesting sequencing, it was definitely a huge part of finalizing the record.

TK: There seem to be some darker moments in the album, like, “End Times,” “No Way Out,” and “Where The Knife” in particular. Where did those themes come from?

AM: A lot of it goes back to the fact that these are all connected to one concept but they are all rotating around a few different perspectives. Some of the songs I am singing from my perspective, but most of the songs are from fictional characters perspectives. I had never really thought of it as certain parts being darker then others, but I think that makes a concept three-dimensional when you are looking at it from all different levels. Those songs in particular, definitely come out of darker times where I was either dealing with death, or the death of a friendship, or the potential death of a friendship; intense things where you are really dealing with doubt but ultimately trying to hang on to hope. So I think the range of emotions is just how life is. I don’t think of us as a positive or dark band, I think you just write music, and it is coming from an authentic place, so it’s automatically the things you are dealing with in your life. That’s the thing, I am not only comfortable with having a record full of conflicting messages, but I prefer that.  We don’t have one particular message, we don’t have one particular take on things, and the record is as all over the place as life is.

Grandchildren celebrate their record release this Friday, May 3rd at Johnny Brenda’s with support from The Lawsuits, Laser Background, DJ POW POW (Man Man’s Chris Powell) and May 15th at Glasslands in NYC. 

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