Corey McCafferty just moved out of the complex where he lived with his bandmates for seven years. In 2007, Venus Laurel and Konstantin Jace, who were then a couple and are now engaged, picked out a living space with enough room for a jam spot in the northwest corner of Chicago. They wanted a third, and they’d both played music with Corey, and Corey was looking to move. It all fit.
The band that formed during their cohabitation, Moritat, represents something of a mixing point between its members’ previous projects. Before Moritat came about in 2009, Corey and Konstantin played instrumental post-rock together in a band called I/O that took heavy cues from fellow locals Tortoise. Venus wrote piano and vocal songs under her own name that she describes as “Kate Bush-inspired.” When she needed percussion on the recordings she was putting together, Konstantin introduced her to Corey, who played drums and helped mix the record she put out in 2006. A year later, the three were jamming together in the home they shared. “We were all working on something of our own at the time and I think we just really admired and respected what the other person was doing,” says Venus. “We realized, man, we can really create something good together.”
Venus sings in Moritat—they all sing—and everyone braids their tangled instrumental lines together. Their new EP, High Plus Tight, can sound breezy one second and knotted the next. It’s their first record in almost three years, and while they had originally planned to record it quickly and launch it out into the world, it ended up taking a whole year and a half to cook—”too long,” as Corey puts it.
As longtime musicians, Moritat found new freedom when they all moved in together. “Any random night when anybody’s home, we’d just go down there and get wacky,” says Corey. “We’d record any old thing. A lot of times it would just be little 20 second nuggets that actually sounded good. That would be the springboard.”
“It helped that we really liked each other,” says Venus. Konstantin adds: “It’s really easy. It still is, too.”
I’m sitting with the three of them in a Logan Square coffeeshop about halfway between where they live and where I do. It’s a chilly, grey weekend in December, and the cafe’s full of people getting away from the weather. At the beginning of our interview, Grouper’s The Man Who Died in His Boat plays over the speakers. When I pack up my recorder an hour later, it’s something by Kraftwerk.
More than most bands, Moritat sound like they’ve hit upon a friendly democracy. They usually write songs together, taping their improvisation sessions and then combing through the recordings together for the moments they like. A few of their songs would arrive more or less fully formed on the spot, but most of them are cobbled together from lots of time spent freely playing. “Often it’d be long periods of, who’s doing what? What’s happening?” says Konstantin. “Half a minute makes sense, and then…it’s usually me going out of key.”
Konstantin plays bass and sings, Venus plays keys and sings, Corey plays drums and sings. They know it’s cliche, but they love the Beach Boys. They still listen to Pet Sounds. “I know everyone says that,” says Venus. “Every songwriter. But wow, when you hear those voices together, it’s heavenly.” Even in conversation, each member of the band speaks about the same amount. No one dominates the conversation, and hardly anyone interrupts each other.
It’s having that kind of nurtured relationship where you’re free to be goofy, free to experiment and not feel inhibited. If you inhibit any part of you, then you’re not going to be able to express what needs to come out.
“We have known each other for about a decade. That’s a big part of what makes us write the way we do,” Venus says. “We’ve known each other for a long time, we value what we’ve built over the years. You have to feel comfortable enough to make mistakes and to do whatever you want during practice, and then somehow hone it in and create something really good from that. A lot of those jam sessions we did were complete tomfoolery. But it would come out. It’s having that kind of nurtured relationship where you’re free to be goofy, free to experiment and not feel inhibited. If you inhibit any part of you, then you’re not going to be able to express what needs to come out. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes it takes five minutes.”
Moritat’s last album, Clill Blanzin, was a full-length that was written mostly collectively. High Plus Tight had a different origin; Venus had been writing electronic songs on her own using software instruments in Reason. For a while, she thought she lost all of them. “We were burglarized,” she explains. “All of our equipment, computers, laptops were stolen.” Thinking that her work was gone and she’d have to start from scratch, she was thrilled when one CD-R of her demos turned out to have survived the break-in. “There was a copy of a CD that I’d made of these songs that we thought were gone with the computers, but we ended up finding that CD again. We were like, oh my God, we have to bring them out, we have to make this happen.”
Those songs ended up on High Plus Tight, which ended up being one of the most challenging projects the band has ever completed. Venus had programmed the beats on her original compositions, but Corey wanted to play live drums on the final EP and at their shows. So he figured out how to transpose her intricate computer patterns onto a real, acoustic kit. “A lot of the beats that Venus wrote were not how a drummer would play,” says Konstantin. “That was a whole other process,” says Corey. “We were like, okay, let’s not worry about how we’re going to execute this as we perform. Let’s make some stuff that sounds cool, and we’ll figure out how to perform it later, which now we’re doing. We definitely have our work cut out.”
“The major thing was the drums, to be able to hash out that beat,” adds Venus. “We weren’t very strict on it being the exact beat on the recording. We wanted it to be very human. Organic, I guess. You want it to be breathing. ”
They’ve been playing the new stuff live; when I talk to them, they’ve just played their first show since April, and they pulled it off. While the songs on the new record incorporate electronics, Moritat have a pact with themselves never to just play along to a pre-programmed track. “We don’t ever just want to have an electronic sequence that plays all the way through. We have to make it as live as possible,” says Corey.
“You want to be able to feel and be present while you’re playing, as opposed to trying to keep time to this sequenced loop, when you’re not really feeling as free,” agrees Venus. Konstantin adds: “You gotta be careful with loops. You just lock in. You get stuck.”
To Moritat, perfect music seems to be just as dangerous as badly executed music. They relish finding problems to work around; when a few keys on one of Venus’s keyboards broke, they ended up shifting a whole song into a different key. They love what they discover in the chaos. “That’s where you find the gems,” says Venus. “The best things happen by mistake.”