Quilt sounds like they came billowing out of the mid ’60s with their hazy psych-pop reveries. Their albums play like soundtracks to San Francisco be-ins with their kaleidoscopic musicality. Bursts of sonic colour bloom from their spaced-out instrumentation, seductive melodic spirals, and trance-inducing vocals. Moments of far-out tranquility unfold into effervescing energy that propels the soul into a dazed, cathartic frenzy. After being immersed in Quilt’s sound, one is left wonderstruck and tingling with a halcyon bliss.
Quilt was formed by three Boston art students, Shane Butler, Anna Fox Rochinski and Taylor McVay in late 2008. After McVay amicably left the band, New Jersey drummer John Andrews joined Butler and Rochinski. After signing to Mexican Summer their self-titled debut album was released in late 2011, followed by their 2014 sophomore record, Held In Splendor. New Hampshire-based bassist Keven Lareau joined the band after being recruited before the Held In Splendor tour. Their third full-length record, Plaza, is the first to feature the four members and is even more instrumentally captivating than their previous albums.
Quilt had just arrived in Toronto for the second-last show of their U.S. tour when they sat down to talk with Stories Behind The Songs. After a quick soundcheck, we headed up to the artist’s loft at The Drake Hotel and talked about their songwriting habits, how picky they are over their album art, and that signature Quilt sound.
Anna: Not too specific. It came together pretty organically from a bunch of different source material from a bunch of different times. It wasn’t really until right before we went into the studio that we made the string quartet thing happen. We weren’t writing the songs thinking that there would be a quartet playing on any of them. When “Hissing My Plea” came together I was thinking of a certain kind of string arrangement and I asked my friend Simon Hanes about it and he was happy to do it. He came in and listened to a bunch of our tracks that we had done and “Eliot St.” and “Passersby” ended up having strings on them as well. Like, arranged pieces.
Shane: I think one thing for this record is that it’s technically our second studio record, even though we’ve got three. Held In Splendor was the first album that we really made in the studio and while we were doing that record, we started to explore with different instruments, like with strings, and saw that we could do them all in a studio setting and not get messy. I think all of us have a pretty wide range of music we listen to and a wide range of different influences, sonically, texturally, so when we were going back into the studio and we knew that we had the option, we were like, Okay, let’s push that further with this but doing it in a way so that the songs are more concise so that the different instruments aren’t just there to make something really psychedelic and cool but more like, how do you flesh out an arrangement from a demo and add these things to make it next level.
A: Well, we use effects but I try not to use too many. I know what I like and I try to use dynamics in the way that I use them. There are songs when none of my pedals are on and there are songs where all of my pedals are on and everything in between. I think that’s what a lot of people think psychedelic music is – certain kinds of effects being used on guitars and on keys.
S: I think that’s partly it and I think there’s also certain scales that are used – a lot of Eastern-tinged scales in both the strings and the guitar playing. In “Passersby” Anna plays a solo that very much sounds like an Eastern scale and same thing with a lot of the string arrangements. They kinda sound like that. I think that in the ’60s, when people first coined the term psychedelic music, it was because people were exploring blues rock but then incorporating different world music elements and effects into it and that is where that term got birthed. So, us being a rock band that takes from a lot of different influences whether it be jazz, Indian music or contemporary experimental music, I think it gets into that mix and you get that sound.
Can you talk about incorporating some of those influences into your sound?
S: I definitely like to try to create textures like loops or volume swells that would sound kind of like a tambura. In Indian music, you have the lead instruments that are taking place but then you have these drones that go on underneath that kind of mend everything together so it’s kind of like glue in between the instruments that I’ve always been attracted to. And sometimes it’s just in the way you play. I feel like finger-style playing in general, like finger-picking guitar, you’re using a lot of open string and it lets the string ring out while all the other notes are played.
You mentioned that in creating this album, you were piecing together a variety of different song ideas to form these tracks which actually sounds like the process of creating a quilt. What was your band name inspired by?
A: Honestly, it was so random. It had no concept behind it. We were just naming random words with our old drummer like eight years ago and somehow it just stuck.
S: It’s funny though because a lot of focus on this album has been about how we’ve taken stuff from the past and blended it from stuff that we wrote recently but I feel like that same thing happened with Held In Splendor. There’s a few songs on that album that was based on stuff that had been laying around for a really long time but it came together for that album. I think that we’re always writing and there’s always stuff left over.
John: We still have like 5, 6 songs that we demoed for this record that we straight up didn’t use any of it. Those songs are all old for us but I’m sure fans would love to hear them.
S: Yeah, and maybe parts of them might get worked into new songs too.
S: I have been. I always write when I’m on the road, it actually helps a lot for me. I feel like when you’re dislocated all the time, it helps me ground myself to just be working with the space around me so I write a lot when I’m on the road.
J: When we’re travelling I’m always listening to people talking and different phrases and try to remember them. And different music that I normally wouldn’t be listening to when I’m home alone and getting ideas. I take voice memos a lot of like, songs on the radio for inspiration. Travelling, you get different ideas than you would when you’re writing at home.
A: I’m actually inspired less on tour. I really can’t write songs while we’re touring. I like being pretty present. I go through my voice memos a lot with my headphones and think about my songs a lot and conceptualize them and decide which are stronger but I always feel so rushed on tour. I like to just be home on my couch and in my zone when I have the space and the time.
I want to talk about the album covers. With half of the band going to art school and half the band being film students, you’re obviously very visual creatives. Can you talk about the process of deciding upon those specific images for your album covers?
A: Well, we’re really picky for one thing. We’re really opinionated so it’s hard to agree on something and when we finally do, it’s like a miracle. For the Plaza cover [featuring a drawing by contemporary Los Angeles artist Ken Price] we had a really hard time agreeing on something and it was getting really frustrating and finally, that image appeared and we were all like, “Yep! Conversation is over. Let’s find a way to get the rights to this image.”
S: It’s so cool to find that meeting ground though, after you deal with all of the insanity, to be like “Oh, wait, this is just the thing that we all love.” [laughs]
A: It was like, “THANK GOD!” [laughs]
J: Held In Splendor was such a lucky one too. We were so clueless and we were on such a deadline. Shane had a photo that he took on his iPhone of this little island in the Jamaica Pond [in Massachusetts] and I had always had the idea that I wanted to film a music video on the Jamaica Pond with the boats.
A: You can rent a rowboat for like $10 an hour, which I grew up doing.
J: So yeah, we decided to go out on a boat and shoot our album cover and we no idea what it was going to come out looking like. We brought those blankets and at the very last second I was like, “Wait – let’s go underneath them!”
A: The whole roll of the shoot for that cover is so funny because it’s us not covered and we’re just trying to pose and look cool. [laughs] My friend Allison [Pharmakis] took the pictures and as soon as she took it, she yelled, “Got the picture!” and we were like, “Are you sure?” She took like, a million of them, but she sent over just the one picture. She just knew that was the one.
J: That was just super lucky. I would have actually been kind of bummed out if it was just us in a boat. I’m glad that it’s not. And people wouldn’t be attracted to it as much if it was just a picture of us in a boat, I think. It’s definitely more mysterious.
S: We were thinking about doing a photoshoot at one point at least.
J: We were having some troubles securing that image [for Plaza] so we were like, “Well, we could take these promo photos and if all else fails, we could just use them.” Like Let It Be or something.
S: We really like working with the packaging. It’s really fun. I’m happy that vinyl is making a comeback [laughs]. I’m happy that there are physical objects along with music. It makes it a whole different experience. We really like having consistency with the layout where you open it up like a book and you have lyrics and there are photos of us inside the record.
A: There are no photos of us in the first record though, at all, which is kind of interesting. It was too hard because we recorded 70% of it with our first drummer and then she left and then we recorded three more songs with John. It felt like it wasn’t going to be just one group of people in a photo so we decided to just not even go there.
And for your first record, you used images from the travelling art exhibit “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” that art historian Matt Arnett had contributed to, and then, after meeting him, he invited you to his house in Atlanta to work out the material for Plaza in his living room/live music venue Grocery On Home. Tell me about that experience.
A: We were there for about 3 weeks.
S: It was cold. It was getting into November and I was having allergies every day. I would wake up in the morning and go walk around Grant Park which is right outside the building and take these long walks every morning. We kind of had a schedule where we would get into it around 11:00 and work as long as we did every day, for a while. We were really putting in a lot of effort. “Hissing My Plea” and “O’Connor’s Barn” came together in that space.
J: We were working on structures and coming up with stuff. We basically demoed almost the whole album there.
S: It was cozy and there’s beautiful folk art all over the house. Matt’s such an amazing collector and he’s really helped out a lot of artists.
J: His bathroom downstairs is all Jesus Christ, Elvis, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s so cool. But the coincidence with Matt and the quilts – I feel like we’ve stumbled into so many weird coincidences like that in this band. I think we’re weirdly attracted to things like that.
Quilt has been featured in the Stories Behind The Songs Playlist Series. Listen to Quilt in the SBTS Standouts: The February Collection, SBTS Standouts: The January Collection, and Feel Good Fall Tunes.
Twitter: @QUILTMUSIC Instagram: @quiltmusic