Heavy Metals: An Interview with Feist
From the Parisian studio where she recorded her previous album The Reminder, and mixed her latest, Metals, Leslie Feist discusses Record Store Day, her relationship with physical releases, and the sound she calls Modern Ancient
La Frette is an opulent 19th century manor house, 15 minutes outside of Paris, near the banks of the river Seine. Surrounded by leafy gardens, the house sits grand and austere. Inside, however, the ornate furnishings have been replaced by mic stands and drum kits, and the mantelpieces are lined with old books and vintage guitar amplifiers. Amongst this ephemera, Leslie Feist recorded her Grammy nominated album The Reminder, and mixed much of her latest release, Metals, and it is from here that she joins The Skinny to talk records and her upcoming split single with American metal band Mastodon in support of Record Store Day.
“Yeah, it’s finished,” she says of her contribution. “There was an Australian/South East Asian tour, and right before I flew over the Pacific to get there, we were in Los Angeles. Myself and Mocky, who’s worked with me a lot on the last couple of records as well, Brian Lebarton, who’s in my live band, and Robbie Lackritz who engineered this last record and The Reminder; we basically picked what song and did the recordings there over two days.”
The aim of Record Store Day is to offer unique releases which will only be available from good ol’ bricks and mortar shops, and the variety of collaborations in its aid don’t get much more mismatched than Mastodon and Feist covering one another, or at laest so it would seem. “They did Commotion and I just heard it. It’s incredible,” she tells us. “I think the point of this whole exercise is like a cultural field trip, going into a layer of the cultural sediment that I normally don’t visit. And for them too, I’m sure we had really similar experiences, which is to crawl inside a song that is totally from another planet. And, for me, it was like I had a head lamp on and I was exploring a new cave, this completely new environment.”
Although the orchestration and lyrical witticisms of My Moon My Man or Graveyard may seem miles from the fretboard mashing of Mastodon, the two share some common ancestry in terms of influence. “This is like my early history of listening to music, really heavy music, and trying to play it. Of course, I never reached a point like Mastodon, but I was 15 years old, in a punk band, and so in a way my earliest musical memories are made by all of this violent, volume, energy – sort of – purity of metal, and it just really speaks to me on a memory level,” she explains. “But also [on] this new record Metals, as a guitar player, I was definitely drawn to dirtier, louder, more cut up, more distorted [sounds]; pushing the guitar tone into a more ancient place, and so it’s sort of speaking to me in the present time not only as a memory.”
Commotion is a steadily building, intense, and searing excavation from Feist’s latest album, and though it contains little in the way of guitar, the tension of the song lends itself to a heavier interpretation. “Well I really had a dream that they would do The Bad in Each Other,” Feist admits. “I really wanted to hear how they’d interpret the riff – you know the main ‘dun dodley dodley…’” The Skinny points out that this could be terrifying. “True,” she laughs. “I think they probably picked Commotion for the lyrics. I chose Black Tongue, and partially it was because I could really climb inside the lyrics. Whereas some of the other [songs] didn’t have a lot of things I understand or relate to, Black Tongue I could understand.”
• Rare footage of Feist's old rock band, Placebo
Though, ironically, Feist’s mainstream fame and success was delivered in part by the inclusion of her hit song 1234 in an iPod advert back in 2007, the singer has always seemed more of an advocate of the physical release, putting great consideration into the appearance of her records; an attribute that makes her a perfect ambassador for Record Store Day.“I love that there is this endeavour to make people remember what record stores used to mean to all of us,” she says. “The first records we – all of us – ever bought: you get really excited, and you save up your 12 bucks, and you have to maybe take a bus downtown, and you go to the record shop that has some kind of unfriendly salty dog working behind the counter who is sort of judging the purchase you’re making. But it’s such a specific experience. Now that whole ritual is kind of dying, so I’m glad that there’s a reason for people to go back.”
What were those first records? “Probably The Afghan Whigs' Gentlemen. Or maybe Dinosaur Jr. – Bug or Where You Been” she says. “Probably that kind of stuff... Sinéad O'Connor maybe,” she chuckles, “although maybe I just taped that off of a friend’s tape, I’m not sure.
“My Mom had The White Album, and I remember spending a lot of hours sitting in front of the stereo reading the lyrics,” she says. The experience of picking over a few glossy photographs and absorbing the liner notes is something that an iTunes LP or the other various digital iterations have yet to par. Feist clearly agrees: “The liner notes for albums were so much more fun to read, because you could just lay on the ground on your belly and read the whole thing, it’s like a big book in front of you.”
In the weeks leading up to the release of Metals, the singer’s website featured a series of ‘vignettes’, short expository video clips of Feist and chums recording, accompanied by solitary audio samples from the album. The Skinny asks if these short films were an attempt to port or reflect the liner notes experience for the digital age. “Oh, that’s interesting” she says. “We asked my friend Keith Magna to come and film just because he’s done some really cool stuff with the Beck Record Club. He has the ability to be a fly on the wall, you don’t really feel his presence though he’s catching stuff from these weird vantage points.”
“While you’re doing a mix of a record you’re always pulling up different elements of the songs – like just listening to the drums for two hours while you work on it, or just listening to the distortion of underneath the piano performance; all these little tiny blankets. I really loved listening to the little fragments, and I thought, even as someone who wrote it and recorded it, there was still so much to find when you’re just listening to a layer. I thought it would be an interesting way to sneak people into understanding all of these layers and these sound decisions that were on the record.”
The footage not only extends a brief invitation inside the creative process, in some ways the arcane soundscapes and visuals combined with the concept of exposing these individual layers acutely complements Metals’ excavatory themes. “I mean it’s not a glossy 8 ½ by 11, it’s more like a little impressionistic photo; a bunch of Polaroids or something,” she adds.
These exposed esoteric sounds lie deep within the mixes of certain songs and capture the environment while reflecting the core sedimentary lyrics. “That was ultimately the hope. Actually none of those are samples, just layers of mashing things. Just mashing these tiny sounds of 50 forks being dropped on a marble table, and simultaneously you’ve got someone smashing a timpani.” That’s not to say that things are all serious and conceptual in the French mansion. “I mean there’s a sound in Undiscovered First that we had to name ‘The Galaxy Axe’ ‘cause there wasn’t any other way in the mix to talk about it. We turned up all those smashing metals and we named it ‘The Galaxy Axe’ because it was sort of the size and the shape of an axe, or like, the shape of an axe but the size of a galaxy,” she laughs.
“In general, on Metals I was trying to find a balance between modern and ancient and we started to call it ‘Modern Ancient’. I mean it’s modern because it’s a recording being made by someone in 2011, but it’s my attempt to sort of imbibe it with these ancient sounds that are little bit more like wind in the grass or like Krakatoa eruptions or just these extremes of the nature sounds that are – I don’t know, they feel a little bit timeless and when you talk about timelessness you usually put it in terms of the past so then in that case it’s kind of ancient.”
This dynamic fits so well and she is clearly still so enamoured that it remains to be seen whether the ‘Modern Ancient’ concept is one Feist continues to explore. “I think that I’m probably not done, I feel like I might have just approached the boundaries of that whole idea. I’m just so curious about what else I could possibly find. In a way Brian Lebarton is always stirring sounds out of these keyboards that I’ve never heard before, he’s kind of the keeper of this Modern Ancient idea and in a way he personifies it. He produced the Mastodon track with me, which was a step in with him, to work a little closer. Part of me wonders what we could come up with together in this next phase, I guess we’ll find out.”
'The Future of Modern Ancient'? The Skinny offers.
“Yeah,” she laughs, “that is an ultimate... that is a pun right there. You just have to work the word past in there.”