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Kindling Discuss "Hush," Western Mass, & FBI Raids While Recording | Feature Interview

by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)

The members of Kindling are perfectly comfortable in the anti-metropolitan hamlet of Easthampton, Massachusetts. And why shouldn’t they be? With the litany of progressive rock-types percolating from the Western Massachusetts’ corridors since the eighties, it’s no wonder that Kindling is able to tap into the same fountains of inspiration that has nurtured so many kick-ass bands before them. Not only that, but in a time where the bustling city life feels eerily synonymous with the type of “act now think later” mentality ferociously devouring social media, there is something undeniably refreshing about a band that not only prefers, but finds inspiration in the endlessly open skies of rural life. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Kindling’s second LP Hush feels like such a spacious and soothing listen, despite the omnipresent rush of growling feedback. Replete with gauzy powerhouse guitars, liberating guitar leads, and the drowsy-dreamy influence of lead singers Stephen Pierce and Gretchen Williams, the band’s second album - released last November - expands their sonic palette by tightening songwriting, dynamics, and hitting the pleasure-release setting on the guitars enough times to leave you riding the same beautiful and ethereal cloud the band refuses to get down from.

Talking to the band just before Christmas found them in between one-off gigs and the planning of what is looking to be a much more extensive, but at the time of publishing tentative, tour. Band members Gretchen and Stephen spoke of the making of their latest release, the bands songwriting, and an unnamed loss which hung over the writing and recording process of Hush


Dylan: First off, a lot gets written about your position as a Western Massachusetts band, so I don’t wanna hammer too hard on that, but rather get it out of the way right off the bat. Given that you guys just released your second full length album I’m curious as to whether or not you’re still in a position where you’re celebrating your geography or whether it’s been constraining at all for you. I know that for some bands it can be easy to be dismissed as being a “so-and-so” type band purely based on geography, but at the same time it’s also a point of entry for most people, so I’m curious how that’s sitting with you both at this point in your career.

Stephen: Yeah, I think it comes with its pluses and minuses. There are a lot of long shadows associated with Western Massachusetts, especially when it comes to guitar rock. As far as like... well, for me it feels like the only place where I, personally, have been able to focus and put in the time needed to write. When I lived in cities I guess I found myself easily distracted, always having something to do. And there’s not always something to do out here, so I find that they works really well for me as far as actually putting in the hours and practice days and putting in hours with the guitar. So, yeah, I think pluses and minuses. Gretchen, what do you think?

Gretchen: I dunno. I think what you said is pretty much right. There are some long shadows, but on the other hand sometimes you run into people who don’t know anything about Western Mass at all, music or otherwise and that can sometimes be for the best too because you don’t get pigeonholed. I think, for us, it’s definitely a good setting and there’s the space to do stuff. You don’t get distracted. On the other hand it might be nice sometimes to be in an area that has tons of different spaces to play. There are pluses and minuses, but I think we like it here.

Stephen: Yeah, I mean we don’t really have anyone specifically covering Western Mass. music, which is of course - well, Boston is so close, and New York is so close; they all have have their own local press. We have one alt weekly that one of our friends writes for and does a good job covering in his two-times-a-month column, but, ya know, that’s not a lot.

Dylan: Do you both still feel pretty resolute about staying where you are or do you harbor dreams of moving the band to bigger cities?

Stephen: Yeah, we like it here. I did a lot of moving around. I moved here in my late teens. [I] did a lot of moving around and just sorta ended up back here. It’s nice.

Gretchen: Yeah, I’d say that we’re people that have spent some time in big cities and for that reason like the contrast of a place that is a bit more rural.

Stephen: It’s also that everything is so cheap here.

Dylan: You’re telling me. Especially when your comparison points are Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, three places that are all insanely expensive. Let’s go ahead and talk about your new record a little bit. What were the inspirations on the album and did they differ from past recordings? What exactly did you want to accomplish with this album and do you think you were successful in that regard?

Stephen: I guess the goal is always kind of to move forward, to make something better than what you’ve done before and not just keep making the same thing. I’m kind of bound to whatever it is that I’m obsessed with at the time, for better or worse. I think for better, but I was obsessed with Sabbath and Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson’s solo records as I was writing the music for this record. I know [Hush] doesn’t really sound like either of those things, but it kind of pushed me in a way.

Dylan: Sure. I don’t always think that things that we find creatively inspiring are the things that directly informed the thing that we make. I know the few times in my life when I’ve been creative it’s been born out of someone else’s art, but it wasn’t inspiring me to make their art necessarily.

Stephen: Right. I think that Sonic Youth has probably inspired a thousand bands, but you’d be wrongly inspired if you sounded exactly like them. The spirit of it is more a jumping off point and for me what I really like about Sabbath is how simple the song structures were and how skilled the execution was. It’s all sorta three-chord punk until it gets up to the solo where it’s a straight up ripper. I connect with it in a way that I don’t find... you know, I love Led Zeppelin, but I don’t find them to be a very relatable band because there isn’t that point of entry. It’s just very advanced music, it doesn’t really unselfconsciously rock. Everywhere else Johnny Ramone’s playing was a big point of inspiration there and Sabbath kind of bridges those two things, I guess.

Gretchen: I think for a lot of us in the band, I think “sure” there is a continuation of the sound we’ve been cultivating between the two full length records, but I think Hush qualitatively sounds different to us and represents an exploration of new things in terms of our sound: new instrumentation, different song construction. I think that as we were working on these songs and putting them together and demoing them it felt very different. It’s something we’re really excited about and it’s exciting to hear them come to fruition in a way that we’re all really proud of. I think there’s also a connective thread lyrically and emotionally between the album. Fundamentally we’re introspective people that are using the album to ask questions about things and to really explore certain things - as people often do through lyrics - however, the questions have changed a little bit. On Everywhere Else it was about trying to find our place in things and in Hush, this album really, well a lot of it, was Stephen and I trying to get through a grieving process and trying to figure out the spot when you find yourself between two things.  I think it’s quite a different album in many ways.

Dylan: Well, there’s definitely a lot of spaciousness and bleary-eyedness, not only in the music, but also in the lyrics. There are several references to space, spaciousness, warmth, the sky; was there anything about those topics that inspired you to keep bringing them up? In addition, what was your philosophy on lyric writing throughout this particular record?

Gretchen: Stephen and I work on lyrics together and I think there’s this tension and contrast, especially as it relates to grieving, that we were both trying to get at in a lot of different ways. It was that tension between being so tightly wound up within yourself and also this sort of exhilarating openness that something like the sky would represent. I think, at least in my experience, in experiencing loss you can find yourself between those two extremes really really quickly. Within the blink of an eye feeling really really closed in and tight and then feeling really open and connected, whether you like it or not. I think that’s where some of that language came from, lyrically.

Stephen: For me, the references to sunsets or whatever, dealing with loss, one of the first things I noticed on the hardest day of it was how nice the sunset was. You find yourself somehow keyed in to bigger things around you and try to find your place in them and try to find some meaning within them, I guess. I guess that’s kind of a retread of what Gretchen was saying but…

Dylan: Yeah, absolutely. Significant life events have a tendency to make you appreciate things you typically wouldn’t. In a way it’s asking you or forcing you to hit the pause button in your life and reevaluate to a certain extent. When it came time to record Hush then, did you all seem to know exactly what your role was? Do you have a means of writing lyrics together and is it the same as far as writing the music together is concerned? Does everyone know what they’re bringing to the table? Does everyone know what they’re responsible for and that’s simply how it goes or do you guys constantly change things up?

Stephen: Well, we demo very very extensively and leading up to practice we try to get as airtight as possible so that we can get the initial tracking out of the way, get Andy and Erin’s and even Jeff’s parts done in the first couple of days and that sorta opens it up for me to do a lot of the guitar work and Gretchen and I to do the vocal stuff. We do demo a lot and this was the first time that songs did change a little bit in between the demo process and the recording process. That was kinda cool and a step in a direction we hadn’t been in yet. Gretchen, what do you think?

Gretchen: Yeah, I think what you said is right, that a lot of the songs we kinda have figured out going into things.  [laughter] I’m trying to think of the recording process and at this point it kind of feels like a jumble in my mind, but I think you covered it.

Stephen: Andy was able to track the drums all in one day and pretty much all of day two was Jeff and Erin’s overdubs - we track live - so I think that all told it was eight or nine days of recording. They were long days. I start to feel like I'm going crazy about halfway through it. Actually, the last day of tracking at Sonelab there was the FBI and the bomb squad in the building. It’s kind of crazy. This was such a ridiculous thing I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this to anyone who has asked about the record yet. We were just in [the studio] and Sonlab is in a warehouse that has been partitioned off into a couple of different businesses.  

There’s a brewery, practice spaces, some fishing gear supplier, and, anyways, a couple of months before that there were a couple of loud explosions nearby in the middle of the winter. It [eventually] came out that someone was setting off explosives near our practice space. So, I guess the police contacted the FBI or however that works out, and they figured out from the pipe used on [the bomb], this PVC piping, that [the piping] was made by this company in China. They called that company and asked “Who have you shipped to in Massachusetts in the past twelve months?” There were only two people and one of them lived in Easthampton. They found out that [the Easthampton resident] ran the fishing supply company in the warehouse, so they raided his [business]. They chose the last day of recording with Justin to raid his business.  There were people in hazmat suits. It was a hell of a scene.

Gretchen: It was really insane.

Dylan: Did you guys ever think for a moment “Oh shit, did we somehow bring bombs to the studio and THAT’s why they’re here?” I have a supremely guilty conscience, so I would automatically think that.

Stephen: [laughter] There’s a shared bathroom. Everyone on [the floor we recorded on] uses the same bathroom. So we’d be on a bathroom break and there would be some guy with a hazmat suit on at the urinal and it felt like, with that many guys around in suits and sunglasses around on a dark snowy day, there was just kind of a weird feeling. We just felt like “Oh, are we gonna get kicked outta here or what?”

Dylan: Yeah, you feel like being close to something that is so precarious, it makes you feel like somehow you’re going to be collateral damage in it. Like something is bound to happen.

Stephen: Actually we had this joke for a while, “the curse of Kindling,” where, [Gretchen], do you remember a couple of years ago someone came back from... Gretchen, was it Liberia or Sierra Leone?

Gretchen: I’m not sure which, but someone came back, a physician who had been volunteering in West Africa during the ebola epidemic came back to New York and ended up coming down with ebola. Long story short, our first show didn’t happen because it was supposed to be at The Gutter in Brooklyn and the doctor had gone bowling there the night before. So they had to close it down out of an abundance of caution and from that…

Stephen: That was supposed to be our first-ever show. [laughter]. We’ve had hazmats involved on two separate occasions as far as Kindling is concerned.

Dylan: It sounds like you guys are really close to some potentially explosive - pun unintended - situations.  

Stephen: The tradeoff that occurs is that we always seem to get a really good parking spot at shows.

Dylan: [laughter] Well you gotta take it where you can get it, I suppose. Stephen, how do you get your guitar sound? That particular sound has always felt so enigmatic and crazy to me. Anytime someone is able to conjure it - that really deep rumble; it almost sounds like a swath of paint being violently rubbed into a canvas or something - I have to ask, how the hell did you do it? Was it a really arduous journey or did it just come organically?

Stephen: I guess sorta organically. You kind of have in your head the idea of what you want your sound to be and then, for me, I guess I just landed on various Big Muffs and various Fender amps to get it. I guess the defining combo on that is [that] I have this ‘68 twin reverb, which has the Celestion Creamback speaker, so really defined loud speakers. I run through that one of the green Russian Big Muffs, one of the small font ones. A lot of people use that on bass, but somehow using that combination ends up being so heavy and deep and then I split my signal when we play live. I do it through less aggressive-sounding fender amp and a less bassy fuzz pedal, but the one that I used on this was a ‘78 op amp volume 3 Big Muff, which has a little more treble to it. And ya know, I doubled everything. I think Justin panned certain things hard left and certain things hard right, so you have the same part but through a different effect chain coming together. But yeah, just layers and just having the right stuff, which in my case seems to be the green Big Muff.

Dylan: Well, just as a guy who enjoys the record, it sounds fucking great, man. Good on you guys.

Stephen: [laughter] Thank you. That’s one of those things that I feel really stoked on, just playing one big chord and I’m standing in front of my amp and I can feel the air moving around me. Thank you for validating that.

Dylan: It sounds so goddamn powerful. I can’t imagine standing in front of an amp while you’re playing it.

Stephen: Ya know, I used to play through three amps live. I got really self-conscious about it, so I stopped.

Dylan: I’m sorry.

Stephen and Gretchen: [laughter]

Dylan: What about recording this album was most exciting and did you learn anything throughout the process? I know you all worked with Justin [Pizzoferrato] and Josh [Bonati] and I’m curious how you all felt about that experience.

Stephen: Well, Justin is one of our best friends, so working with him is super easy and really like you can feel comfortable and like you can try something out and if something doesn’t end up working it’s no big deal or whatever.  He’s not going to judge you. Beyond that he fully knows, without me having to say it, sort of what we’re going for and that’s always nice.

Gretchen: The nice thing about him is that he of course has his expertise and is the best resource when you’re recording, but it’s not always the case that people recording will always listen to everything that you want to do or [consider] what you want to do even when it’s you or your band’s vision, and he’s a really good listener and we appreciate that.

Stephen: I was thrilled we got to do a couple of days at J. Mascis’ home studio and use his mellotron, which is really awesome that he allowed us to use it. That’s always been something that I’ve wanted to own myself but it’s a pretty impractical instrument.

Gretchen: We also had sitar on the album and I think that was also something that we were a little unsure what that would sound like in the end product and I know for me personally, hearing that on some of the songs and particularly for all of the first song on the album, like I said to Stephen, “this is the first time I’ve heard it and I didn’t know the song was missing something until i heard it.” That was really exciting.

Stephen: That’s the crazy thing about THAT was we sent my friend Anthony, who plays sitar, I sent him the rough for the record and “For Olive” wasn’t even one of the songs that I had said “sitar might work really well on this,” but he sent it back and said “This was perfect.’” I just felt like “For Olive” worked really well with sitar and, like Gretchen said, it was like “Shit!  So this was what was missing.”

Dylan: As a young band, do you feel any young-band-specific pressures that you feel like don’t get aired very often?

Stephen: I dunno. It seems like... you know I grew up playing in hardcore bands and the entire landscape is different doing what we are doing than it seemed to be at any point in hardcore. I dunno. I don’t feel any extra pressure by grace of being a band that hasn’t been around that long. I guess you do get the occasional reference point that you might think “well, this doesn’t totally make sense” or whatever.

Dylan: Are you talking about people comparing you to other acts? I’m sure that’s frustrating early on and certainly limiting.

Stephen: Yeah. It is what it is. I just appreciate that people are listening. People can hear whatever they hear. I think that once it’s out there it’s not mine to say what it is.

Gretchen: I would say in our day to day we don’t conceptualize or frame ourselves to ourselves as a young band or anything otherwise. We don’t think - or at least I don’t think - much about that. That being said I feel like [laughter] some of us put pressure on ourselves in every aspect of our life, but not necessarily about being a young band.

Stephen: But yeah, there are definitely moments where I’m like “why couldn’t we have done this in the nineties or sometime when the landscape entirely was different?” But that’s because we were, you know, children.

Dylan: Sure. What about being labeled shoegaze?  Is that a label that you welcome as a band?

Stephen: Yeah. That’s a tough one. I feel like people have their conceptions of what a shoegaze band is going to sound like and I know it’s also pretty cliche for a so-called “shoegaze” band to reject the idea of being a “shoegaze” band, but I dunno, it’s such a wide umbrella. If that’s how people can contextualize and relate to our music, that’s cool. I don’t necessarily see it as 100% that way. But like I said, once it’s recorded it’s not really mine to say what it is. So I dunno. There are a lot of shoegaze bands that I like and a lot of shoegaze bands that I don’t like. There’s such a huge gulf between one shoegaze band and another. We’re grateful that that community has been supportive of us.

Gretchen: Yeah, agreed. I couldn’t have said it better.

Stephen: No, I’m sure you could have said it a million times better. [laughter]

Gretchen: [laughter] Probably not. I agree that it’s a tough one and it’s not necessarily the way we see ourselves, but [we] can certainly understand why others would see our music that way.

Stephen: It’s kind of the trapping of being a loud loud band with soft vocals. I definitely see it a lot more everywhere else than I do with Hush.

Dylan: It’s not an aesthetic that’s really prevalent. I just think that some of the reference points there are bigger and people are familiar with them. When people think of loud guitars and hushed vocals people think of My Bloody Valentine and maybe just because that act was so significant [fans] might feel more strongly opinionated or feel like other bands with that dynamic are just copying them. Something silly and reductionist like that.

Stephen: We get a lot of “they just sound like My Bloody Valentine,” which I think is way off mark. I love [My Bloody] Valentine. They’re one of my favorite bands, so if we are going to be compared to them, I am going to be thrilled for that. I just don’t necessarily think it’s the most accurate point of comparison.

Dylan: What’s next for you guys? Are there any particular aspects of your sound that you want to work on? Do you have goals in mind for the band in the next one or two years? What are you up to?

Stephen: We’re kinda in the booking tours and trying to get our next couple of months sorted thing right now. I kind of... when we recorded Everywhere Else I just kept writing songs right after that and that was kind of what was Hush. Of course, by the time Everywhere Else was out we didn’t want to play those songs anymore. So we took a little pause on writing songs so that when Hush came out those songs would still be relevant and not unexciting anymore. I’ve been writing a little more…

Gretchen: We have lots of ideas, but I think we’re trying to focus on this thing that we put so much into and still feels very real for us and something that we are still wanting to play.

Dylan: Have you played a lot of dates in support of it yet?

Stephen: Yeah, we did a burst of eight or nine shows when it first came out and then a weekend beyond that. And then a couple of weekends planned for the new year. But, you know, the bigger stuff we are still putting together.