An afternoon with Adam Arcuragi

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We had the pleasure to strike up a dialogue with Adam Arcuragi about everything from perspectives on vocal effects to an inquisitive survey into his self described ‘death gospel’ music. His new album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It is out now on Thirty Tigers.

I have heard you talk before about making death gospel as a kind of genre. How has that been going?

People are calling it by name and it is fun to see different interpretations of it as people start to see it as a real thing.

If you could, describe this 'death gospel' phenomenon in succinct terms for your listeners.

I always tell people it is a simple way to have church without going to church. If we are all going to die, then surely that binds us together as one and the same. So instead of finding way to delineate and divide, why not just accept the difference as read and celebrate. Enjoy the things that make us the same. Dying, ecstatic dancing and singing. The fact that I'll never experience life as you, nor you as me; yet we can still sing in harmony from across a space and unify ourselves and our understandings in such a pleasurable way is perhaps the finest thing that sentient consciousness has to offer. The hope is, from that, we won't let fear steer the ship but rather let delight move us forward.

I'm really vibing on this death gospel thing. If it could have its own revival tent, how would you describe it?

It would be big, white and linen. So that during the day the sunlight makes the inside glow for everyone inside, and at night the lamps and candles make it glow so that everyone outside would see it from a distance, like a beacon.

Do you see yourself as a self-appointed preacher in a pulpit of your own design?

Here I must defer to William Blake: “I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man's.”

I don't want to “preach”. I feel like this is nothing new. This is a song that's been sung since before I was here. I'm only entreating people to listen for it. It seems incumbent upon each generation to take up the mantle and carry on; not so much to 'do what's never been done before' but instead to do what everyone's been doing in a way that is wholly your perception. We are all merely conduits through which the thing flows. The job, the work, is to make sure there is enough of 'you' intact that the flow has a direction and focus but you remove enough of 'you' to allow the flow to continue as uninhibited as possible.

Certainly not a pulpit either. Goodness no. If anything I am more like John the Baptist yelling from waist-deep in the water.

Tell me which of the following artists is more death gospel in which era of their career and why:

Leonard Cohen circa Songs of… or Leonard Cohen circa The Future?

For sure. L. Cohen sings to and honors the moon in all her forms. If anyone understands it is he.

Robert Smith circa the Cure's Pornography or Robert Smith now?

Any and all Cure are Death Gospel. Without a doubt, Mr. Smith knows the song, the howl and the call. From the disenchanted delight of The Imaginary Boys to the sublime pull of a song like “Mint Car” that man in the makeup sings the song of the human heart.

The Jesus and Mary Chain circa Upside Down or Honey's Dead?

The whole time. When your first record has songs like “The Hardest Walk” and “You Trip Me Up” and one of your band dates Hope Sandoval, then surely they must be devotees of the silvery lady. The sound of those guitars, those melodies; they are definitely plugged into the good word.

Nick Cave circa The Birthday Party or Grinderman?

I feel bad saying that I am not familiar with Nick's work enough to comment. I do like what I've heard.

Belle & Sebastian circa Tigermilk/If You're Feeling Sinister or their recent Write About Love?

Stuart Murdock is basically a Harvest King of Death Gospel. “I Know Where the Summer Goes” and “There's Too Much Love” are most definitely two excellent examples of the spirit of Death Gospel in that they feel like joy and unity and taste like the blue moonlight being refracted through a brilliant human mind and spirit.

Port Song is a sparse work that is arguably as powerful as “…riverrun” even without the layers of sound. Do the poetics inform how many or how little instruments will be featured in your songs?

Not at all. The lyrics of a song have never informed the arrangement that I am aware of. Maybe on a subconscious level. “Port Song” was once as rollicking as “Last Long Rain” or “Bottom of the River” but just turned into something simpler as time passed. To tell the truth, “Port Song” was originally a duet in the spirit and style of “After the Fire is Gone”. A boy and girl were going to sing the lines alternately and harmonize on the chorus.

A lot of the decision making comes in to focus as a matter of course in playing the songs over and over again. No matter how they show up at first, they tend to change and grow as they get played. That's the fun though right? Grabbing on with one hand waving free and seeing where the horse takes you is part of the joy that makes up for all the less than fun parts.

You also sing without any sort of vocal effect usage. Why don't you when everyone else is doing it?

I like a dry vocal in general. I like to hear the person singing. The human voice is so cool. Don't get me wrong, we use reverbs in the mixing process because that is a necessity of the mechanics of recording. But for this record I wanted to err on the side of a dry vocal rather than wet because it just felt that way. We always try to live by the dictum “serve the song”. If it works and serves the song then we leave it in. I'm not opposed to effects though. I love effects. In fact the next record we will be playing with all sorts of fun stuff.

Whenever we're recording I always want my guitar to sound like Darlene Love's voice and I want my voice to sound like Rachmaninoff's piano.

Do you feel that muffling, garbling, fuzzing or autoning tampers with a song's narrrative?

Not at all. Pitch correction was originally part of an algorithmic tool used for deep ocean sounding. They used to use it to find oil; black gold. Like any other cool thing it was incorporated into recording technology as a simple background tool that people figured out how to make it a whole thing unto itself.

Fuzz and whatever else people use are great tools. Effects don't kill songs, people kill songs. If anything effects can be powerful tools to help the narrative along.Take something like “The Train from Kansas City” (the Shangri-La's version); the tape delay they use (or is it an echo chamber?) to make the 'chugga-chugga' sound of a train is so awesome. It really serves the song without distracting the listener. Plus is adds a texture that makes that track stand out and sing out loud.

Pitch correct a guitar. It is so much fun and sounds nuts.

Do you feel that unnatural vocal effects have become an epidemic, and if so how long do you reckon it will last?

Styles come and go. So as to any one particular style sticking around? I'm not sure. I'm bad at figuring out fashion.

I always want to start with a good song and then make sure all the recording decisions serve the song. You could probably record one song thousands of different ways and potentially have each direction and decision serve the song. The main thing is to not stop the train. Practice the song as much as possible and play it live a whole bunch. Let that fire burn off the chafe. Usually that will help you figure out what the song wants to do.

You seem to like birds with tracks tracks like “Parliament of the Birds” and “The Birds Will Follow.” How are they part of the narrative within Like a fire that consumes all before it…?

I do like birds. I am jealous of their natural abilities of flight, song and their hollow bones. I also like that we always watch the birds. I always loved that the latin words for 'birds' and 'watching' combined to form auspice. I love the idea of 'watching the birds' with the expressed purpose of making decisions.

In terms of their being a motif, eh, I'm just into birds. They are fantastic. Wouldn't it be interesting to sit in on a parliament of the birds? What is their “new business”?

Speaking of the album title, what else is beyond the elipses? Is it anything like Fiona Apple's When the Pawn…?

I know that people look to titles. I'm bad at coming up with titles. So I tend to like titles that allow people to come up with their own interpretation and impression rather than me telling you what to think or expect from the record. Ellipses do a god job of letting people participate. Kind of like an outstretched hand waiting to be shaken. Why; what do you think is at the end of the ellipses?

What do you have in store for us this year? Collaborations? Plans? Projects up your sleaves? Apocalypse survival tips?

Tours in 2012. Lots of tours to promote the album, both here and abroad. We'll also get started at the beginning of the summer making the next record. I'm sure there will be more things that crop up as the machine gets churning. ….Also, I will take any excuse to travel to Santa Fe.

As for the apocalypse, let's just hope it is not the Norse version.