Most people would agree that we live in a complicated world. It was that way pre-pandemic, and it’s even more so now. For musicians, the dilemma is especially acute, given that recording brings its own set of difficulties. In addition, getting the music out in the world has been circumvented in a very real way.
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That’s what makes the story of the Boston-based band Darlingside so compelling. Their new album Fish Pond Fish was created during an ever-shifting set of circumstances that forced members to adapt constantly.
The process began naturally enough. The band convened in late last October to plan the project and start sketching out songs. With demos in hand, they headed down to Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut where they had booked a series of three two-week sessions with producer/engineer Peter Katis. Their intention was to use this time to overdub instrumentation, add harmonies and provide additional embellishments. They planned to alternate between Tarquin and their own home studios, all while sharing time with one another in a communal environment that would allow them to enrich their music with intimacy without taking too much time to do so.
Then in mid March, the pandemic hit, and their plans went awry.
“That was on a Friday, and we getting all our gear ready to head down to Bridgeport,” vocalist and cellist Harris Paseltiner recalls. “We had to cancel that plan immediately and head to our separate houses to quarantine. And then we had to figure out from there what we were going to do to finish this record because we couldn’t get down to Bridgeport, and also because we were quarantined from each other in our separate houses. We had to figure out how to finish the songs that were incomplete — some of them very much so — and complete the songwriting and arrangements at home, separate from each other. We might’ve had a song where someone had sung a lead vocal, but none of the harmonies had been arranged because we were planning on singing in a room together at the studio. So now we needed each person to get microphones and a home rig and figure out how to share the files with one another.”
In a sense, Paseltiner and his colleagues — Dave Senft (vocals, bass), Don Mitchell (vocals, guitar, banjo) and Auyon Mukharji (vocals, violin, mandolin) — were forced to improvise. “We had to pick up a new skillset rapidly to figure out how to get that feel of everyone being in the same room together, instead of being separate from each other at home,” Paseltiner insists. “So it was really a hybrid of those three processes — the home demoing, trying to capture the raw energy of performing together and making it sound like a full studio production, and then transforming that as a quarantined virtual experience.
Paseltiner says that the group had completed about 60 to 70 percent of the work and were pretty close to being able to finish the record when they were forced into quarantine. “There are several songs on the record that actually came together during quarantine — ‘Time Will Be,’ ‘See You Change’ and ‘Green + Evergreen,’ all of which had verses that had been written,” he notes. “But we were still trying to come up with choruses individually. And then there was the mixing of the record. We’re usually pretty hands-on with the production and mixing as a band, and we usually like to be at the studio together to talk about the arrangements from a mixing standpoint. This time we had to do the whole thing on Zoom with a separate audio stream relayed to each of us on our headphones in our different houses, with Peter as the engineer. It’s already a challenge to get four guys on the same page — we’re four opinionated men in four separate houses, waking up with different energies each day. We all thought it would be hard to finish this project, but we figured out a way to get to the endpoint.”
To date, Darlingside has released two full length albums, Birds Say (2015) and Extralife (2018), in addition to a pair of EPs. However, Paseltiner admits that the process of recording the new album was clearly more complicated than ever before. “We’re pretty committed to making any song that we do sound like a real performance,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to sound live, but I personally like to listen to music that actually sounds human.”
For Paseltiner and the rest of the band, that generally means a combination of recording in the studio and recording at home. “Being off the clock with our own ability to capture sound — the vocals in particular — feels like a really safe space to experiment, and to be able to mesh the writing and recording process together,” he suggests. “We can feel free to develop the harmonies by singing them as we construct the song, whereas the time pressures and worrying about the clock running down often gets in the way of that kind of free experimentation that we really enjoy. And that includes creating the textures and using the kind of the oddball sounds we like to put into our recordings. Each album has some kind of new element, and on this one, we had some binaural bits of found sound, like the sound of cars going by and trees rustling and those kind of natural sounds that can pop up when we’re off the clock and able to record ourselves. In the studio it’s a little bit harder to stretch out and experiment.”
As a result, Fish Pond Fish is a remarkable album in several ways. For one, its harmonies are well synchronized. For another, their use of ambient sound creates a celestial effect that allows for an unusually ethereal experience.
“Quarantine forced us to figure out not only how to do that at home as a unit, but it also required each of us to do it all individually at home, apart from each other to the extent where we had to collaborate remotely,” Paseltiner remembers. “Auyon, who was never involved in the technical side of recording in a big way before this, managed to acquire a home recording set-up and he learned how to use recording software and capture sounds at home that opened up a whole new kind of experimentation for us that we had not had before. We had done things before with cello and violin, but here we had the effect of, like, 30 violins drop in like a full orchestral section. He played around with tape speed, playing something at half speed and then doubling the tape speed with mandolins chirping in the background. A lot of that double speed and half speed stuff can be heard on a song like ‘Keep Coming Home.’ Had we not gone into quarantine, we might not have captured those sounds on the record. So being forced to be home, to get up to speed with a microphone and a computer, and then start playing around with those sounds, opened up a lot of possibilities that we had not tried before.”
Although the band went deeper this time around, it’s a discipline that they developed early on. “We’ve always been pretty involved in the production and the world we’re building with each album,” Paseltiner explains. “Over time we’ve gained comfort with how to get the sounds that are in our heads down into the songs. It’s gradually become easier to imagine how something would sound and then have it become real.”
In a sense, each of Darlingside’s albums has reflected their perspective on the planet and where they are as a band and as individuals. “We get together and we have some pre-recording sessions, whether it’s out in the park or in somebody’s living room,” Paseltiner points out. “We talk freely about life and where we’re at individually, just kind of opening up about what we’re struggling with, what we see in the world, whatever book we may be reading, a piece of art that we like or maybe a movie we’ve liked. We’re always talking with each other and enjoying each other’s company, but these are more like an open discussion where we’re tapping into each other. We don’t choose some specific subject and just go into songwriting. Since the four of us write the lyrics together, the songs have an imprint of all four members.
In that sense, the songwriting becomes something of a mind meld.
“It’s not just one guy writes a song, and the other guys finish it together,” Paseltiner notes. “That has happened, but usually it’s the first stanza was written by one guy, the second stanza was written by two other guys and then the fourth guy finished it out. There’s a lot of shared work, a lot of collaboration. It’s a very slow process and it takes us a lot of time. We’ll write a bunch of songs and then choose those that are resonating with us. Oftentimes, the theme will make itself apparent. It will bubble to the surface. The group feeling will make itself known. We’ll write a big chunk of songs and then look at them and ask what they’re saying. When we did Birds Say, it was a lot of looking at where we came from, our childhoods and the past. With Extralife, things were shifting rapidly in the political climate and in the general feel of the world around us, what with climate change and that kind of thing. The group was looking towards the future. In this one, there’s a lot of looking at what’s directly in front of us. Kind of noticing the close small details of our day-to- day.”
The origins of the group can be traced to when they met as students at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “We played in a band at school together for a bit and then moved into a house together just across the river from North Hampton,” Paseltiner recalls. “We lived there for a few years, and that’s where we wrote together and figured out our sound, prior to moving to Boston. So now this is our family. I consider these guys brothers, and we have that sort of care and love for each other. We didn’t always blend the way we do now. It’s been a slow process of singing together for years and trying to listen back and tweaking things to get the effect we’re looking for. We’ve spent a lot of years making adjustments to our sound and taking time to learn each other’s voices and how to sync to each other. It was really slow, especially in the beginning. It wasn’t like gathering around a piano and saying, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we can sing like this!’ It was a very gradual process. But we feel really, really fortunate to be able to do this each day, and for me, it’s very special to be able to do something I love and in particular, to be able to work with this group of guys. One of the nice things about being in a group like this is that it’s a democracy with four different songwriter, each of whom feels different about the world and their different world views. That’s one of the difficult things, but ultimately rewarding things, about trying to capture where the four of us are at, particularly at this point in time. It’s a gift, and I really appreciate it.”
Paseltiner, who grew up learning to play classical music, was a philosophy major. His bandmates majored in math, English and biology respectively. “We run the gamut from the arts to the sciences,” he laughs. Given those areas of interest and their attention to detail and precision, it’s suggested that maybe, down deep, they’re really just a bunch of nerds who were seduced by music.
“I take that as a high compliment,” Paseltiner beams. “This is definitely a group of nerds with a lot of opinions and feelings and love for each other.”
As for the album itself, Paseltiner admits that he’s not entirely certain about its fate or its future. “I don’t know how this will go out in the world,” he allows. “I don’t know who will hear it, I don’t know how this will be perceived. I don’t know whether people will love it or hate it…I have no idea. But I’m at a point of sufficiency. I feel that we have captured the sound we set out to capture, and from there, let the chips fall where they may.”
Read the full review of the album, here.
Photo: Robb Stey