Philadelphia’s Grandchildren (Aleks Martray on guitar, Roman Salcic on percussion, Russell Brodie on bass, multi-instrumentalist Tristan Palazzolo, Adam Katz on guitar and John Vogel on piano/synthesizer) calls itself an orchestra pop band. The term “orchestral,” for the sextet, is “as much aesthetic as it is technical,” as Martray explains below. The group formed around Danger Danger house, and while the songs are written and composed by Martray, the other musicians add input and swap instruments on stage.
Grandchildren’s sophomore effort, Golden Age, was released last month. Paste magazine just debuted the band’s new video for “End Times” from that record. Watch it below. In support of that atmospheric/rhythmic/accessible/experimental tapestry of songs, the band is currently on a tour that bring them to Asheville. They’ll play Apothecary on Monday, June 17, 9 p.m. The Morbids and Dogtooth also perform.
Mountain Xpress: I love the name of your new album, Golden Age. What does that term represent for you — the golden age of music? Or art? Or society? What time period would you say is the Golden Age, and why?
Aleks Martray: The Golden Age is sort of the overarching concept that ties all the songs together. This wasn’t on purpose, but more of a retrospective realization that helped me make sense of the album as it was being finished. “Golden Age” was the last track written and recorded and it sort of summed up, musically and thematically, what the whole batch of songs was trying to express: this notion that everyone has these idealized moments or eras that they use as a marker for the way things once were or should be, but never really were or will be. I began to see the album as investigating this from all angles: doubt, hope, nostalgia, naivety, etc. Each song was written for, about or from the perspective of someone in my life who was somehow coming to terms with this reality that life isn’t always what you thought is was or would be and the struggle that ensues from this harsh realization. It can be liberating or disillusioning, but either way it’s a coming of age. I think there’s something very true that comes out of an illusion that is ultimately false and I’m always interested in the relationship between fact and fiction.
I understand you all came together around and lived at various point at the Danger Danger house. That’s an evocative name — what’s it like? Are you all still running it? And does it lend some sort of aura to musical projects?
Danger Danger house is a dilapidated old Victorian house in west Philly where Grandchildren formed. Between the six of us, we had known each other since middle school, high school or college, but Danger Danger was the first time we were all living under the same roof, hosting shows, writing and recording, surrounded by music and creativity. I guess you could say it was our Golden Age in a way. Definitely a perfect storm of talent and personalities connecting at the right time and place. I began writing and recording our first record, Everlasting as a solo project in my tiny third floor room at the house. As it evolved and expanded, it began to incorporate the sounds, styles and instrumentation of all the musicians living in the house as well as the wide spectrum of artists who performed there over the years, from emerging electronic artists to Philly’s jazz legends. I think this amazing time and place served as an incubator for Grandchildren to develop a uniquely eclectic yet original sound and it helped set the creative trajectory for us as a band.
Since you all play all of the instruments on stage, do you have to map out who will play what on the album? And then how does a song evolve into the instrument swap — like, does each person initially create parts on his primary instrument? Does the swapping keep you creatively challenged?
I write and arrange all the music through the recording process. I’ll spend a month just recording ideas, a month listening back, a month connecting the dots into songs, and then another month arranging and recording demos that lay out the roadmap or vision of the song. I take this demo to the band and we layer on the various parts through separate recording sessions. So it’s a long process that expands and contracts constantly. I think of it like replacing parts of a car until you have a brand new car, most of the initial pieces are gone but the architectural design is still present. So a guitar part might become a horn part, a synth part may become a vocal part or a beat may become syncopated or simplified. But it always goes back to the questions: What is the song asking for? and What’s essential and what’s excess? I’d say 80-percent of the process is really listening, not playing. With Golden Age in particular, I worked with Chris Powell and Bill Moriarty in the post-production phase to provide an objective and experienced set of ears to answer these questions, to find what was at the core of the songs, and to bring them to their final state. As a composer it’s easy to get trapped inside the arrangements and lose perspective on what other people hear. I really wanted the new music to hit you the way pop music hit me when I was a kid. I wanted beats, hooks, and phrases that could instantly connect and stick in your ear, while still retaining some of the textured nuances of orchestral music. I think this is what differentiates our first album, Everlasting, from Golden Age.
I read a great quote from you about Everlasting where you said, “music is a reflection of a young person processing their own coming of age through constant self-inflicted culture shock.” Was there an esoteric impetus similar to culture shock (or travel or coming of age) that informed Golden Age?
I think people go through a form of adolescence, or some kind of sea change, at several points in life and each is similar, familiar, but distinct. Golden Age is less about youthful self-discovery or coming of age and relates much more to the realizations that come from the things in life we have no control over. It comes from a few years of a lot of weddings, funerals and babies being born. These markers represent a sort of seismic shift that force you to relocate your place in the world. That process is can be cathartic and a bit disillusioning at the same time. I think I processed this through writing these songs without even realizing it at the time.
Grandchildren is often described as an orchestra. I feel like the term “orchestra” taps more into an aesthetic than a size; to something rooted in classicism. At the same time, I feel like this collection of songs (the intense rhythms of “No Way Out,” the frenetic brightness of “Rain Down”) seeks to deconstruct classicism. Am I on to something here? Can you talk about Grandchildren’s idea of an orchestra in a traditional and nontraditional sense?
I do think that for us the term orchestral is as much aesthetic as it is technical. An orchestra has many members, but each one of their jobs is to disappear into the music, so that what the audience experiences is greater than the sum of its parts and transports the listener beyond instruments into the narrative of the music. It’s like going to the movies: you don’t think about the screen or the projector, you’re drawn into the story. I think that’s how people used to experience going to the orchestra. It painted a picture and told a story with sound. I think we’re trying to do that with pop music — something cinematic in scope but instantaneously connectable.