Collections of Colonies of Bees Learn the Art of ‘Giving’: An Interview
Collections of Colonies of Bees, headed by Milwaukee’s Chris Rosenau, is making quite the–forgive the pun–buzz with their latest release, GIVING. This album, comprised of just four sprawling tracks, is post-rock at its soaring, spacious best. Rosenau talks here about GIVING, the band’s new lineup, and the band’s songwriting process.
ELM: How are you doing today?
CR: Good, how are you?
ELM: I am doing just fine. Have you guys been playing shows?
CR: No, we are actually in the middle of writing a new set. I sent you the press stuff for that, right?
CR: So since we recorded that, we did our last tour with the drummer and the Rhodes player that are on that record. And so now we are in the middle of writing a new set with a new drummer and a new Rhodes player.
ELM: What’s the state of that now?
CR: Everything is friendly, I’ve known those guys for a long time.Thomas Wincek just wanted to take more time to devote to his project, a project called All Tiny Creatures. And so he lives in Madison, I’m in Milwaukee, it’s kind of a hike, and he just wanted to take some more time and dedicate it to the projected he started. Jon Mueller moved out of Milwaukee to one of the suburbs and has taken a lot more responsibility on, work wise, and it was just getting to be a little bit too much for him. He decided that instead of shortchanging himself and short changing us that he would step out. It’s tough to see those guys go, because obviously I love playing with both of them, but it’s also really exciting to have new people and new fingers in the mix.
ELM: Where did you find your new drummer?
CR: Well Tom’s playing the Rhodes, a piano thing, and, in keeping with the totally incestuous name of Milwaukee music and Midwestern music, our new drummer is also the current drummer of All Tiny Creatures, and we share a bass player [laughs]. So we lost an All Tiny Creature and we gained an All Tiny Creature, all at once. Then our new rhodes player is a guy named Nick Sanborn., who is in a bunch of Milwaukee bands, probably most well known is a band called DECIBULLY. and he’s also in a band called Megafaun, they’re from Wisconsin but they’re based out of North Carolina now. At this point I have no desire to put fliers up at a music store or take some kind of weird ad out. I just kind of thought about who I wanted to play, I wanted to play with friends that are great musicians, so I called those guys up and they were excited to do it.
ELM: I wanted to talk a little bit about the new record. Where did the album title come from?
CR: That’s a good question. We went back and forth with a whole bunch of stuff for a long time. We couldn’t really settle on anything that we all agreed on for a while. We kept playing around with that word, Tom ended up naming it. It was just the process of everyone sending ideas through emails and people reacting to them and taking common themes that came up and people liked but then playing with other words and we thought it fit. It’s hard to title a record, especially an instrumental record because there’s no point of reference, you know what I mean, so it’s really wide open. For us, the title of the record and the song titles really have more to do with just things that resonate with us as a band at the time that we were doing all this stuff.
ELM: I was going to ask about the song titles. I haven’t been able to figure out what a Vorm is.
CR: Yes, it’s a made-up word, so in keeping with that tradition, I’ve been in bands for a long time and some of them have been instrumental, and this started with us a long time ago, because everything is kind of so wide open when you’re titling instrumental songs, that our default is just, look inward. We’re all such good friends that these weird situations and stories always come up as we’re writing music and recording the music, and so with this one, as well as other records from Collections of Colonies of Bees. Vorm is not a word, it’s this weird kind of Bees parlance that came up at SXSW a couple years ago. These songs are really personal for us and we spend a lot of time, obviously, writing and recording and deconstructing and reconstructing and everything, so the song titles just stem from inside personal stories that are happening as we’re doing all this stuff. They literally mean nothing to anyone else; it just makes us think back to specific times. It’s like a landmark. Seeing those words for anyone else, not only does it not mean the same thing that it does to us. It makes us remember these really specific situations and the good times that we had while we were doing the stuff, and it also means it’s super wide open for the listener to assign whatever meaning they want to find in those song titles. I’ve talked to a lot of people who think that naming them in kind of a pattern like that has to do with the patterns they find in the music, and people think all kinds of crazy stuff which is awesome.
ELM: Do you see a connection between “Lawn” and “Lawns” and then “Vorm” and “Vorms?”
CR: I don’t, they don’t have any correlation to the songs whatsoever. All the songs were written in a finite period of time, and those words kind of resonate with that period of time for us, but as far as which title goes with what song, it’s totally random. Which is just the way it is, I don’t know if it’s disappointing to people or what, but it’s just the way that we did it.
ELM: I really like the album cover, with the porcelain looking deer. Can you tell me more about that?
CR: So our record label, our friends from Portland, Hometapes, were talking about the art, and this is actually a big departure for us, we’re a really kind of a do-it-yourself band, you know, I pretty much record everything and mix everything and every other record cover from any other band that I’ve been in, people from the band have usually just done the artwork themselves, there’s a bunch of graphic designers and photographers in the band, but Adam and Sarah from Hometapes are really amazing at finding artists whose work mirrors the music a little bit, so for this record we trusted them explicitly and are great friends with them and they had a concept so we let them run with it. There’s a sculptor in Portland who those guys know and he ended up making this thing, and they took that and through all sorts of design iterations ended up settling on that super simple image for the front. It’s really effective, I get it kind of like the song titles and the music, people read in to all sorts of stuff with that thing, and we just liked it because it was really striking and beautiful and strange.
ELM: How did you decide to only put four tracks on this album?
CR: We were kind of interested in the idea of really documenting the live show at the place we were at when we decided to record the record. Which is another thing that goes along for us, making music and writing records is a really personal thing, it’s nice to have these clear recollections and memories of the time that this was all done, that’s what this record ended up being for us, it’s this really clear snapshot of these songs that we worked for years and years to write, and then we wanted to really capture it. It’s four songs because that’s what our set was at the time that we recorded it. We didn’t have enough material to do a double LP, we always approached things from a vinyl type aspect, so we didn’t want to get too much longer, the 35-40 minutes kind of end up compromising the LP quality, so we wanted to stay around the half an hour, and that’s where the songs were at and it ended up working out. Plus it’s a nice mirror image to have of the two songs per side. Unless of course you’re listening to a CD, in which case it doesn’t make any difference. [laughs]
ELM: Did you compose any other songs for this record that didn’t make the cut?
CR: No, that’s a good question. These songs, the way we had been working was really kind of starting with ideas and playing them and practicing them and rehearsing them and building things up and using live improvisation in rehearsal and during performances to inform new things that would happen. While there weren’t technically other quote-unquote songs that didn’t make the cut, there were all sorts of parts of these songs that didn’t make the cut. Kind of yes and no, you know what I mean.
ELM: What was your songwriting process like this time around?
CR: This process was not super dissimilar than the way we had been working for the past couple of years. It’s really people bringing in ideas to rehearsal and then just trusting everyone to react to those ideas however they are going to. It’s a fantastic thing at this point with Jon and Tom and everyone else in Bees, as well as with the new people we’re playing with. We’ve set it up where we’ve played with each other a lot, we really love what each other brings to Bees, as well as other projects that they’re involved in. It’s really fun, for example, this happens almost more often than it doesn’t happen, I’ll bring in some part or riff or idea with a total plan for how I think drums should sound and what the rhode should be doing, and all kinds of preconceived ideas, and instantly everyone will play something that I never even anticipated. Which is really exciting because it’s not just one person driving the bulk. Everyone puts their input in and that’s a starting place, and we get it to a point where we feel like we’re comfortable performing it live, and then we perform it and if something ends up going wrong or something ends up going right, we keep on changing it on based on what everyone’s hearing and the moments of the song that end up becoming something really interesting when we’re performing them. It’s this really long process of small deconstructions with reconstructions within what used to be a similar framework but all based on these improvisations that end up happening while we’re performing the songs.
ELM: What’s the Milwaukee music scene been like for you? How did it influence you?
CR: That’s a good question. I think that’s a few different questions. It’s been really good for us. We don’t play that often in Milwaukee but when we do everyone’s pretty receptive. I think Milwaukee’s great, it’s big enough where there’s tons of stuff going on, but still small enough so you don’t have the logistics of Chicago or New York or wherever. As far as how it influences us, I think we were talking about before, just the fact that everyone plays with everyone else. Literally. There are people playing with all sorts of friends’ bands at all points, and I think that’s great. I’ve played in a lot of places and I don’t think it’s always like that, I think sometimes it can be kind of intimidating like, ‘I’m in this band, so you can’t approach me’ but in Milwaukee it’s like, ‘Hey, I know this guy, he’s great doing this,’ and everyone will kind of bring a person in and if it doesn’t work out with one thing they’ll know where the person might fit. It’s a really comfortable environment to do all sorts of music, whether it’s stuff we’re doing or more topic stuff or super out there stuff, there’s tons of people doing all of it at one time, and it’s really nice, a pretty close knit network. So we’re lucky, I think.
ELM: I know you did Volcano Choir in the past, do you have any future collaborations planned?
CR: Yeah, Justin’s obviously slightly busy right now with Bon Iver tour, we have a second Volcano Choir record in the works, it’s just like the first one, there’s no deadline or plan for it, we, just started nailing parts of ideas and songs to each other. So that will be coming down the road at some point, which we’re all really excited about because the first time was so much fun. There’s nothing really specific, I just did a solo show at Cactus Club and had Tom and Andy from All Tiny Creatures do some improv duet stuff. There’s events coming on, there’ll probably be a time with all sorts of collaborations going on. I know there’s a Noise Fest coming up where a bunch of people in Bees will be playing with a bunch of people from Chicago. There’s always things going on. It’s hard to get anything solid right now, the Volcano Choir thing is happening, but obviously there’s no time limit on it or anything like that.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers?
CR: I usually end up falling back to Richard Morgan, I’m a super Richard Morgan fan. Who else have I been reading. I really have just been reading Richard Brautigan, that’s why his name jumps out at the top of my mind. I have just been working my way back through that stuff lately. Let’s just say Morgan for now.