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The international Language
A conversation with Language of Shapes
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
Being a music writer can be quite fulfilling. It can also at times be daunting. There's only so many great bands to discover, right? So what's a music writer to do? Well, you keep your ears to the speaker, that's what you do.
One sound that's crept out of my speakers as of late is from the South Korean band Language of Shapes. There's is a mix of world music, folk, pop, and in the bands' words "psychedelic folk for the endtimes". The band consists of Tristram Burden on vocals, mandolin, bouzouki and mandola, J.E. Seuk on vocals, mandolin, flute, and mandola, Kimberly Brigner on mandolin and flute, Courtland Miles on bass, and Bobby Goldberg on djembe.
Through mere happenstance and the miracle of the information super highway, I was able to talk to the band about their music and their process.
EAP: Although the band hails from South Korea, everyone in the band is from all over the globe, correct?
J.E. Seuk: Korea gets a wide range of folks who come here to teach English. So LoS is: Tristram Burden from England and Northern Ireland,
J.E. Seuk’s a Korean-American from Manhattan, Kimberly Brigner’s a Southern girl from Alabama, and now we have Californian Courtland Miles, and Jersey boy Bobby Goldberg. We’re all pretty radically different people, but we’ve since discovered we share a collective soul.
EAP: How did the sound of the band come together? You went to a record store to buy a guitar, but ended up leaving with a mandolin?(laughs)
Tristram Burden: Well, the guitar was bought as well. (laughs) Awesome guitar, too. An Epiphone Alley Kat. I think they've been discontinued now. It's sort of a hollow body Les Paul. Recently sold it though. Because, yeah the mandolins just took over. There was a slight intention to get a mandolin, just for fun. I thought if I could find a little, dusty unloved mandolin for cheap and take it home, the day would be complete. And we (J.E and I) found this little guy - a black 'a-style (teardrop), terribly out of tune. He was a 'popman', which just soldered the purchase even further. I can still find no evidence of this brand ever existing. He was pure, reified myth. Some white label manufacturers inception of an instrument line that never came to be. Once he was in-tune (with himself), the first strums really surprised me. Like opening a gate into a faerie realm. But one thing we often forget about faeries is they're not always the pleasant, jovial creatures we might expect. And this thing sounded eerie, morose even. It was perfect. I barely played the Alley Kat and set about learning how to play it. Kim, J.E. and I had been playing together for the local open mic, and they graciously agreed to put some flutes on my DogStar Tantra album - which never emerged- so they'd started to play my music, and we really enjoyed playing together. We all resonated with very similar things, musically. I'd say that, for all of us, we're musicians first who don't make money out of it. I had to teach to make money, even though my real focus is writing and music. To have the respite of coming together and making music after teaching really drove us along. And they fell in love with little popman, also. So they decided to buy mandolins. One trip later, we all had mandolins, and I bought another weird monster of an instrument, best described as an octave mandolin.
EAP: Was it a case of the instrument leading the musician, as opposed to the other way around?
TB: The instrument was leading the musician at first. The mandolin tuning had something about it, there's an ease to finding the right melodies that the guitar never offered. It was more intuitively tuned. We had a couple of songs with guitar when we started, but they gradually disappeared - partly for practical reasons. Carrying around three or four instruments (I also bought a chroma-harp) from show to show was not fun. I gradually stopped playing the guitar altogether. The mandolin gives me everything I need. And for me, that has been and continues to be far more than the guitar ever did. I still find that really strange.
EAP: I love the diversity of the instruments. Was it an intentional decision to go with these instruments as opposed to guitar, bass, and drums; or was it a natural progression?
TB:Very natural. We'd already discovered that one mandolin sounds great, that two sound incredible and three together, just mind-blowing - part of the reason that discarding the guitar was so easy. The djembe came into the mix partly through chance - J.E.'s former band, the Ofs, had a djembe. A seemingly simpler form of percussion than a full drum kit, with an amazing range of tones. They're pretty popular in Korea. And we started as a purely acoustic band - while we play more often plugged-in and mic-ed up now, playing mandolin with a drum kit creates some volume clashes. And even on the DogStar Tantra album, the beats I was looking for were something more tribal - more thump and chop, less smack and crash, tsh-tsh. Djembe was the best and easiest choice. Our first djembe player, Zach Holmes, had to go home, so we had a space. Eventually Bobby moved to Gangneung - we were told that he might wanna play for us, and he did. He'd never played a djembe before, but as frequently demonstrated, nowhere better than the album, you wouldn't think it. In a way, all of these instruments are journeys of discovery at the moment, for everyone. Except Courtland. He's been playing bass for years
EAP: Despite the description "post apocalyptic folk", I get a very uplifting vibe from a lot of the songs. Titles like 'Blood in the Rain' and 'Cage' would say differently, but I tell people you have to hear it to understand it.
TB: Post-apocalyptic-folk is very appropriate. That word apocalypse is loaded – but taken back to its roots, as something 'revelatory', a revealing, a rending of the veil between what 'is' and what 'appears to be' I'd be resonate with it. After the revelation. Which is why it's so uplifting! Ontological revelations should above all be joyous occasions.
EAP: Lyrically you keep things really interesting. What or who influences your words?
TB: The lyrics themselves are on occasion a little dystopian. There are strong Ballardian and William S. Burroughs influences in there. With a lot of Western Mysteries and Jungian imagery woven in. But ultimately, the music is designed to be uplifting and expansive - as dark as the words may at times seem, there's a central theme of the shared mystery and puzzle of being. "Queen of Space" is possibly the only song offering an answer to those questions, verbally a little, but ultimately in the abstract, with 'zouks on 'verb and flutes twining like twin snakes about the central pillar of an endless melody.
When I ask about musical influences, it's a list long and impressive. Tristram, J.E., Courtland, and Bobby pull from everywhere and are influenced by many. Here's a few that have helped LoS shape their sound: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, Bob Dylan, Lee Hazlewood, Bauhaus, The Cure, Joy Division, and early Sisters of Mercy. MGMT, The Breeders, Dino Jr, and Afghan Whigs have also helped inform the sound.
The band had other ideas on the sound and influence that make LoS so unique.
Bobby Goldberg: I am much less an influence on the songs on the first album, than a reaction to all the instrumentation that you can hear without Courtland and me. Something you have to know: Tristram has been pregnant for over a decade, spawning all of these lyrically charged instrumentations and nursing them on and off over the years. They were developed, maturing creatures by the time that they came into my life.
Courtland Miles: I'm with Bobby on this one, I entered Language of Shapes after Tristram, Kim and J.E. had already been writing and composing for a little while, but I think I was there for a transition in Tristram's writing style, so to speak. This truly is Tristram's music with accompaniment, but I think we all share the same kind of musical influences to create the stuff we do.
J.E.: Our music is all Tristram.
EAP: Where was the album recorded?
TB: In various apartments - mostly in Gangneung, at J.E.'s old place, where we could play as much and as loud as we liked with no complaints. That's changed in our new address. But we finished it here before anyone really noticed there was half a band living next door. It's very sweet that you asked. Isn't it obvious that it was recorded in an apartment?
EAP:(laughs) Hey, some of the best music I've heard in the last couple years was recorded in apartments. Tiny bedrooms, even. No shame in that. Are LoS hitting the road to support the album? Maybe US dates?
TB: We're doing a run of dates in South Korea. Outside the country...We need to rally support for that, get word out that we exist, that we have an album, and that yes, we will play a string of shows in the US. We're aiming for the end of the summer, August, but we really need to know that there are people who will come to the shows otherwise it won't warrant the cost. We'll probably do it via Kickstarter. Seems a great way to rally support. Fortunately, when people hear us play, they really like us. We're optimistic that it could work.
EAP: What's the five year plan for LoS?
TB: In five years time, we'll have three albums out, a road-manager, another couple of mandolins (including a good octave and a mandocello for studio work) and a strong band of loyal fans in various parts of the globe. And maybe a loop-pedal... Bobby will have a djembe fashioned from the bones and skin of inter-dimensional reptiles...
BG: We would love to build on our presence as live musicians. There really is something special when we play our music live. I am aware of how biased that opinion seems, but, if you knew anything about me, you would know how critical I am of my own work. We want to share. In the next five years, we want to share.
CM: I would love to see this band continue to expand upon the cohesive unit it has become, and play for anyone, anytime, anywhere.
J.E.: Princes or paupers, I say we never ever stop.
Check out Language of Shapes strange and beautiful sound at languageofshapes.bandcamp.com.