Rubble Rousers: Mr. Dream on Sifting through Trash–and Playing 4Knots

July 13, 2011
Mr. Dream plays the 4Knots Music Festival at South Street Seaport on July 16.

The Village Voice ran the Siren Music Festival — an annual, free, sweaty day of music on Coney Island — for 10 years. This year, they’ve renamed it the 4Knots Music Festival and moved it from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. It’s still free and, chances are, still sweaty. Black Angles and Titus Andronicus headline the show, with five other acts. Mr. Dream is a Brooklyn trio that plays the kind of music that will get you through the heat. Their songs are short, fast, and prickly, calling to mind Steve Albini’s lean and noisy production work of the ’90s. The band’s drummer, Nick Sylvester, is also the founding writer of this column. He often used the space to discuss the details of recording with musicians and producers, so I thought it would be appropriate to turn some of those questions back on him, singer/bassist Matt Morello and singer/guitarist Adam Moerder (also a writer who’s written for Pitchfork and the New Yorker). We discussed their use of space, their decision-making process, deciding what stays and what goes. Trash Hit, the debut album they released in March, provoked a lot of these questions because, at times, you almost forget there are decisions being made — the record has a naturalistic and spontaneous feel, as though it simply popped out fully-formed, recorded in real-time. It has the uncanny ability to sound both unsteady and completely self-assured.

Riff City: The first thing I hear on Trash Hit is space, but more like holding your breath space. It’s very tense space. How much of writing and recording for Mr. Dream is taking away or throwing away stuff?

Nick Sylvester: That’s awesome to hear you’re hearing that, the space. Part of it is we’re a three-piece and don’t do much more than broad strokes. We like the sound of “broad strokes,” which means space is a huge consideration — too much, too little, the difference between a chorus that “breathes” and one that, I don’t know, just sounds kinda thin. So a riff either works for us or it doesn’t. We rarely take anything away in our songs, or make it work. We usually just trash the whole idea and move onto the next.

As for recording, I really love the sound of space in records — headroom, I mean, really just when a mix isn’t super cooked. Something like PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me gets so much of its creep and energy from the dynamic range. The microphones are picking up more of the room at first, and the instruments sound different when the volume jumps. The aesthetic is more inhale-exhale than quiet-loud. A lot of Rare Book Room records have that same quality: Talk Normal’s Sugarland, Sightings’ Arrived In Gold. Anyway, we like records that sound like that.

Adam Moerder: As a three-piece, we were initially concerned with filling out space, so we played barreling punk songs that involved all three of us playing fortissimo during pretty much every beat of every measure. That gets old fast, so fortunately by the time we started working on Trash Hit we were getting a better handle on how to use space, i.e., understanding how it can become a secret weapon instead of this thing that’d expose us as an inadequate band.

RC: As far as using ideas or trashing them — you’ve got such a clear idea of what Mr. Dream is and isn’t. Does that make is easier or harder to be spontaneous?

NS: There are no hard fast rules about what Mr. Dream is or isn’t, at least musically. Nothing is preordained, as far as I know. I tend to trust the moments when all three of us really love an idea, as to whether or not it’s a good one. There’s no vote or anything. To Trash Or Not To Trash happens in a very spontaneous way when we’re playing something for the first time. We never know what we’re gonna like until we like it, if that makes sense. That said, my hope is we’ll be a microhouse revival band by album four.

AM: Ironically, some early versions of my personal favorites from Trash Hit were almost scrapped because we worried they were outside our wheelhouse. Then they became part of our wheelhouse. So I may sometimes feel like I have this idea of what Mr. Dream is and what it sounds like, but that archetype is constantly challenged, usually for the better.

RC: I wonder if any part of the above could be part of how long you all have thought and written about music. Everyone’s their own worst critic, right?  It seems like that background would make it impossible to finish anything.

Matt Morello: It’s funny, despite being the non-former-critic in the band, I feel like I probably have the hardest time finishing stuff. Which to me makes sense, since Nick and Adam were only critics (as opposed to people with opinions about music, which is everyone) by virtue of having written, edited, finished, and published a lot of work, to say nothing of all the work they probably junked. So I think we actually benefit from their experience with craft and process, to say nothing of all the time spent listening to stuff and trying to tell other people how it made them feel and why.

I guess people get hung up on the idea that critics are always judging and ranking and, well, criticizing, in the negative sense of pointing out flaws. Leaving aside all the actual annoying bullshit many critics and critical publications engage in — and I mean, let’s not even get started — there’s also lots of insecurity about taste that leads to a “who the fuck does this guy think he is” attitude toward critics. They’re snobs, haters, whatever. And it’s the same question for any musician or artist, you know, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is? What is this weird ego adventure? Why does he think he has anything to say?” Though mostly you ask yourself that about yourself.

I’d guess the answer for most artists and critics is that, when it’s good, it’s really, really exciting. So while we throw stuff out pretty quickly if it doesn’t work, maybe even too quickly sometimes, we also get really, really excited when something does work, and that excitement kind of drives the whole thing forward.

RC: You guys talk a lot about being out of touch with new bands and not listening to new music as much as you used to. How do you think that’ll work now that you’re on festival bills? Doesn’t that make backstage conversation awkward?

MM: Guess we’ll see. We all spent some time in literature seminars in college, so I think we can hold our own when it comes to talking about things we’re not prepared to discuss.

AM: When in doubt, talk about gear. I’ve been in 20-minute conversations backstage that started with a simple “How do you get that distortion?” and spiraled out from there.

RC: You weren’t hearing the kind of music you wanted to hear, so you decided to make it yourself. Does the same apply to Brooklyn?

NS: All three of us have obsessive stan-like tendencies when it comes to bands we love, so recording and putting together bills have taken this to a new level. I recorded a 7” for Sleepies that came out this past April, and my friend Matt LeMay and I just did one with Matty Fasano, who is like a grittier James Blake. Playing bills with White Suns and Yvette, let alone being in a situation where they actually reply to your personal emails, is a big-time thrill.

RC: Nick, this is an interview for a column you started, which I’m guessing feels a little strange. I noticed you asked Escort about their equipment philosophy, and there were those interviews with Chris Zane, Jared Ellison. Were those interview questions part of teaching yourself recording?

NS: Not strange at all! I interviewed people like Chris Zane and Tom Krell (How To Dress Well) about process because I wanted to tell another side of their records. I knew from recording and playing in Mr. Dream that there are a billion decisions that go into a song, and I wanted to show people how some of that stuff worked. Some of my favorite interviews are the ones with Paul McCartney about process, like when he talks about what kinds of lyrics he uses in tonic chords versus what kinds of lyrics he uses on top of dominant chords, or how he came up with the bVI-bVII-I tag for “P.S. I Love You,” and so on. This is what musicians are thinking about when they work on songs, not “does this record adequately convey a sense of the suburbs?”

Of course I wish these interviews could have taught me how to record, or how to write songs, or really anything like that, but you only learn to record by recording, making a shitload of mistakes, A/B-ing your mixes with songs you admire — very hands-on and time-intensive and usually frustrating.

RC: You’re playing a festival put on by your former employer.

NS: I know this sounds flip, but the Voice has only ever been really good to me. At worst they were fair, during all the unpleasantness. I had a bonehead idea, I executed it badly, and for whatever reason they still tried to figure out a way to keep me on staff — the management and many of the editors at the time. Since then, the publication has only ever been supportive of Mr. Dream. Maybe at 4Knots they’re gonna put me in a dunk tank that I don’t know about, or thunderdome me, Mike Lacey, and a plate of sliders, but no, I didn’t have a Mike Jones moment or anything. We’re just thrilled to be playing such a huge festival with so many great bands.

RC: Did you all go to the pre-4Knots Siren Festivals? Have those memories worked into conversations about how you’ll shape your set?

MM: The only Siren Fest I ever went to was in 2003. I was living in New Haven that summer and I’d recently “taken a break” with a girl I’d been dating for two years, so it was kind of this proof-of-agency solo mission to New York. I think it was my first time ever in Brooklyn. It was hot and there were a ton of people, and I waited in line at Nathan’s for a really long time because that seemed to be an important thing to do. I don’t think I knew about the boardwalk, though I had a sense there was some kind of beach on the other side of the stages. The only bands I remember seeing were Ted Leo and Modest Mouse, though I must have seen a couple others. I think Ted’s voice was busted but I remember him putting on a really good, energetic show. Modest Mouse played for what felt like an eternity after a day standing in the sun with a backpack by myself, especially since I only knew Lonesome Crowded West and they were hardly playing anything from it. It didn’t occur to me to leave early, because who leaves a concert early?…

The only other big outdoor music festival I’ve been to was Pitchfork Fest a couple years ago, and it confirmed some of those old Siren feelings, namely that my favorite thing in that situation is a really loud rock band that plays the hell out of a set that doesn’t go on too long. Fortunately, this is how we play every show.

RC: And there’s the most important festival bill question: Will you be the kind of band that takes off their shirts for outdoor shows?

MM: I think any of us is prepared to play without a shirt if that’s what the show calls for, definitely. But you can’t know that kind of thing in advance, it has to happen in the moment. You don’t really want that to be a thing. Look at what happened to D’Angelo — that guy is still waiting to have a normal, non-godlike torso so that doesn’t have to be a thing anymore and he can just be one of the greatest geniuses in music. I would hate to see that happen to Adam.

Mr. Dream’s “Trash Hit” video:

Get a roundup of broadcast and digital premieres, special offers, and events with our weekly newsletter.