We’re excited to announce a Vinyl Me, Please exclusive reissue of A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s landmark 2009 album, Ashes Grammar, which came out originally with only 200 vinyl copies. You can buy the album here, and read this interview with Ben Daniels from the band about the making of the album.
A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s Ashes Grammar shouldn’t exist. Well, not as it currently does. Off the heels of the band’s debut, Scribble Mural Comic Journal, Ben Daniels had grand ambitions for his bedroom project turned multiple member sprawling ensemble. More multi-part harmonies for his sisters, Lauren and Robin, a bigger recording space for his band to experiment and tinker. The day recording was set to begin, bassist Brice Hickey broke his leg in multiple places loading gear into his truck. His girlfriend, Daniels’ sister Robin, left the band to take care of him during his arduous recovery. Lauren departed for Colorado shortly after. Graduate school was calling. The band had suddenly dissolved into Daniels and his collaborator Josh Meakim. With A Sunny Day In Glasgow suddenly decimated, Daniels found a sort of freedom in the wayward flux his project was sent into.
After Scribble Mirror went through a demoing process in which Daniels ultimately decided that the originals were better than the results built upon these early sketches, he nixed any sort of grand structure before heading into the studio to record Ashes. This lack of planning ultimately helped the record’s creation, as Daniels would have had to scrap his plans to begin with anyways. The results shine in Ashes’ almost whimsical nature, a free flowing song cycle tethered to nothing but the previously played idea.
Ashes Grammar almost plays like a mixtape—a collection of expertly sequenced songs that move from one to the next coherently and with a clear order. Daniels and Meakim achieved this by pumping the recording space with echoes upon echoes of reverb, channeling the practices of American experimental composer Alvin Lucier, who would loop voices and play them in a room to create a literal echo chamber. This effect turns Ashes Grammar from a lovely walk in the park to a psychedelic rabbit hole on a moment’s notice. And that’s where Ashes Grammar’s real strength lies: in its ability to expand upon simple strong structures to build swelling, almost operatic takes on chamber pop. It’s a remarkably assured record created in a wholly chaotic time period. “The times I listen to Ashes Grammar—it was the worst time in my life so I hear all of that,” Daniels tells us via Skype from his home in Australia. The process may have been defeating, but the result is anything but; Ashes Grammar is a sterling record, equally assured and unabashed.
Ashes is the band’s second release. Were there any things you took away from making the first record that you either wanted to apply or change to the Ashes recording process?
There were a bunch but Ashes was such a disaster to make that none of what I wanted to do ended up happening. After our first record, Scribble Mirror Comic Journal, I felt like I had a really good idea of my sisters’ voices. I planned a lot more involved vocal parts and harmony-style things going on. And then one of my sisters [Lauren] moved to Colorado right before we started recording.
My other sister, her boyfriend at the time played bass in the band [Brice Hickey]. Literally on the day he was supposed to come out to our space and start recording he was loading gear into his car and somehow fell and very seriously broke his legs in a couple places. He needed major surgery and it was this huge thing. He was basically on bedrest for months. My sister was taking care of him so she was really out of commission during the recording. So all of these plans I had were centered around that. The recording ended up being more of a reaction to those events than anything else. We did get to do some stuff with the space, though.
Do you know Alvin Lucier at all?
I do not.
He was an artist and musician. I don’t know exactly when he was recording—around the ‘60s and ‘70s. He did this really cool thing called “I Am Sitting in a Room.” He basically records himself reading this line, “I am sitting in a room, it’s similar to the one you’re in.” He records himself saying that and then he plays the recording back into the room and records the recording again. He did this ten or so times and eventually the resonant frequencies of the room come out. It’s really cool and a really neat thing to do. It’s really eerie, too. We wanted to play around with that and there’s a lot of that on Ashes Grammar. Eventually if you record yourself speaking your voice just becomes obliterated. It’s like the room basically reverberating. We tried that with speech and various instruments. So that still happened.
Did you have to restructure the songs once the lineup changed so drastically?
When I made the first record I made a bunch of demos and I really worked on them a lot. Then I re-recorded them for real. That didn’t really work out, so the first record was basically the demos I made because I hated everything I re-recorded. I didn’t want to finish demos for Ashes Grammar so I worked on things very loosely and then it basically wound up being Josh and I working them out in the space. There was a lot of working out. The album didn’t have to change that much because it wasn’t fixed to begin with.
I don’t mean to imply that someone’s grisly injury positively impacted Ashes Grammar, but do you think this flux allowed for a certain sense of play in the album’s creation?
I don’t know. It definitely didn’t feel that way at the time. I have really good memories of Josh and I—we had access to this huge dance studio every weekend. We couldn’t get in there during the week. I have really good memories of Josh and I being out there in the space during the weekends. That was really fun and enjoyable. But everything else was stressful, depressing, and really hard. It didn’t feel like those were good things [laughs].
To me, what was really shocking to hear was how much personal stuff I had put into the record. It was stuff I wasn’t even really aware of at the time.
The album seamlessly blends together such that it plays like an extended track or a mixtape. Was that an intentional decision? Is that part of where the Alvin Lucier philosophy plays into the album?
Because Scribble Mirror was demos thrown together, it didn’t hang together so great for Josh and I. So we really wanted to make a record all in one space such that it sounds like it belongs together. That effect you describe is maybe an outcome of the process, where we didn’t finish the songs until we were in the space. Some of them go long because it felt right at the time. That seamlessness is a little bit deliberate, but I wouldn’t say that’s the record we were trying to make when we started.
Were you happy with how the record turned out when you finished it?
Yeah. It’s funny. We worked so long on it—the songs were just around so much. You just listen to it so many times. I finished mixing it in May 2009 and that was it. The next time I listened to it again was right before we started recording our next album. It was over two years later. That was a really surreal experience because it was just so different from how I remembered and thought about it. I remember being more exhausted by it than anything else at the time. Aside from that time on weekends in the studio, everything else was just awful about making that record. I was glad it was done, I thought it was pretty cool and I was excited to get it out there, but it was hard.
What’s it like revisiting those memories now?
I had to listen to the masters again. I think it was the end of 2011 when I listened to it last. A couple months ago I had to listen to the masters again. It’s weird. I know I wouldn’t make that record now and I’d make a lot of different decisions, but I know I was doing my best at the time. It’s a strange thing to me.
Do you think the context of this record—or any record—changes with time or is it more timeless and separate from its surroundings?
Context is always there, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. There is no objective view of anything. To me, what was really shocking to hear was how much personal stuff I had put into the record. It was stuff I wasn’t even really aware of at the time. Listening to it now I just hear a lot of stuff I wasn’t admitting to myself at the time. It’s all there. It’s like I found a diary from that time. It’s very rooted in that time. It’s actually kind of difficult for me to listen to Ashes Grammar [laughs]. How it’s received, how you conceive it, though, will always change with the present.
Is it difficult for you to listen to all of your records after they’ve been released? Or is there something in particular about Ashes?
I don’t really listen to our music. Once they’re mixed I’ve listened to them so many times that it’s just like, ‘alright, it’s done.’ I don’t know the last time I’ve listened to any of our records. I guess there are times I’ll go back to Scribble Mirror, and that was just the first time I had written songs. It was all really exciting and neat to play around with Pro Tools. When I hear one of those songs I remember that time and find it pretty great. The times I listen to Ashes Grammar—it was the worst time in my life so I hear all of that.
Was the band already signed to Mis Ojos Discos before Ashes Grammar was made? Or did you have to shop it around?
We had a label. It was basically this girl Steph in an apartment in Brooklyn and she’s now our manager. It was a very tiny label.
Was Alvin Lucier’s recording concept something you had in mind going into the recording process or something you discovered simultaneously?
I had heard of it before and thought it was an extremely cool idea to try out. I was housesitting at that time in this big house in West Philly. I first tried it out there by going into different rooms of the house. One of the songs on Ashes is called “Evil, with evil, against evil,” and I just recorded a track of me saying that for five minutes. I did that in various rooms of the house because a room will resonate with certain notes.
The space we were recording in was in A, so when you play chords or something with A in it, it becomes so rich. It’s weird how much you notice that. I had never really thought about that before. But a lot of the songs on Ashes Grammar are in E or D, so they work really well with A. It’s hard to tell now, but you can really hear the room come alive. It’s so cool. I’m so glad I discovered that idea before we recorded. We did it with a ton of cello parts. We’d loop it in the room and it sounds really eerie.
How much communicating do you do with the other band members now that you live so far away?
Yeah, on e-mail. We’re making plans to make our next record, so we’ve been talking about that a lot lately.
When you talk with them about the next record, are you talking about songwriting—what does that planning consist of?
Lately it’s been logistics—where we’re going to do it and when. For the past year we’ve been sharing demos. We have a little Soundcloud thing where everybody puts stuff up and we all listen to it. Different people will express ideas for these tracks and we’ll work on them.
Where are you going to record the next album?
We’re going to a studio outside of El Paso, Texas. It’s called the Sonic Ranch. It looks amazing. It’s on a pecan orchard or something and they have fabulous gear, so we’re really excited.
AfterAshes Grammar the band began to record in more professional studios. What went into that decision?
We put out a few EPs after Ashes Grammar that were the leftover songs from Ashes Grammar. I like how each record has taken another step. The first record was just me in my bedroom recording everything, and then we rented a space for Ashes Grammar. A pro studio just seemed like the next choice. So we did that. The next step is, ‘Let’s go to an even bigger studio!’ Somewhere where we have to travel, too, to get out of our comfort zone. That’s how we ended up with Sonic Ranch.
2009 was a pretty seminal year for indie rock. Do you feel like Ashes Grammar was a part of that world at all?
We didn’t hit Animal Collective levels of adoration or fandom, but I remember it being an exciting time to have a record out and be touring. It was cool to be out there. We did a lot of touring at the end of 2009 and early 2010. We went to Europe for a couple months and another trip around North America, we played South by Southwest, too. It was fun.
What are your feelings towards Ashes Grammar getting a second life?
Our label at the time didn’t have a lot of money, neither did we. We scraped together the money to press it to vinyl—a double LP is just the worst idea. We’re never going to do it again. We lost so much money on that, we’ve never been able to reissue it. I’m so happy we’re able to reissue it. At our shows people will come up to us sometimes with a copy of the LP and they’ll ask us to sign it, and then they’ll tell us that they spent $300 on it on Discogs. That’s just heartbreaking to hear. I’m very, very happy that it will exist.
We had the band make a playlist for us