Red Sparowes give history lessons through instrumental music
Post-rock is challenging music. It’s not exactly jazz, and it doesn’t take the same kind of abstract understanding to wrap one’s head around; but still, instrumental music can often initially be outside of the comfort zone of many rock faithful who eventually gravitate from the softer croons of Death Cab towards the drifting soundscapes and sludgy guitars of acts like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky.
Moreover, there’s the confusing issue of how music without lyrics is used to express specific thematic elements that a vocalist might directly address. If Explosions’ “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” is about a sunken Russian Submarine, do specific movements in the song correlate to specific happenings on board? Or is it a more general inspiration?
While drummer and founding member Dave Clifford might not be able to speak for the rest of the genre, luckily he can provide some insight into the work of his own hard-rocking instrumental band, Red Sparowes. The 7-year-old five-piece from Los Angeles will play rare back-to-back nights at the Crepe Place this Wednesday and Thursday, May 5 and May 6, bringing plenty of crunchy distortion, pedal steel guitar, and slow-burning arrangements.
“The music itself is not necessarily written to fit exactly to the concept,” explains Clifford, thus blowing up many people’s preconceived notions of post-rock. “We’ve never picked a theme and then written songs to be kind of like the specific soundtrack to that phrase that the song title is.”
Learning that the sounds on a record don’t exactly fit with the stories they purport to express is something of a revelation. However, for a band which has taken on some really heady song and album titles—their newest is last month’s LP, The Fear is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer—there must be some sort of self-expression going on, right?
“It’s kind of more like this ethereal suggestion,” says Clifford of bridging the gap between music and story. “It’s pretty abstract, I think. It’s not extremely tied per song, of how [music and themes] relate.”
The best way to think about the storytelling elements within Red Sparowes’ music is in terms of poetry. While their overall concepts are in the back of the band’s collective mind throughout recording—as in the theme of China’s Mao Zedong era on their second album, Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun—there’s no direct analog between song and narrative. However, there is very much a story told within song titles, which read like poetry. For instance, The Fear is Excruciating contains an insert which serves as an accompaniment to those titles, explicating the album’s themes of “wrong ideas” in human history.
“It’s tied to the entire concept,” explains Clifford. “You could kind of—if you wanted to—you could listen to any of [our] albums and read the song titles and kind of imagine in your mind the cinematic experience of what is happening. Or you could listen to it and not know what the song titles are at all, and imagine something else. There are basically two separate things that we have tied together as suggestion to people to see what they can get out of it.”
But beyond trying to understand the relationship between muse and music, the overall aesthetic that a band like Red Sparowes creates is not necessarily the most accessible; abrasive guitar work and songs can top the 10-minute mark. Bands like Russian Circles, Isis, and Pelican may share undeniable bloodlines with Red Sparowes in terms of similarity of sound, but many speculate the genre as a whole may have hit its popularity peak earlier this decade. Or maybe it’s just transforming into something else.
“As with every genre, it kind of usually starts out with a couple bands that you can describe as something, and it seems fitting,” explains Clifford. “But over time it really evolves into some bigger murk of all kinds of really different bands. It’s hard to really fit anywhere.”
Red Sparowes perform at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5 and Thursday, May 6, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12/adv, $15/door. For more information, call 429-6994.