Friends of LITA | Q&A With Saul Conrad

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All of us here at the Light In The Attic clubhouse are excited to be distributing the latest album from Boston’s Saul Conrad. A Tyrant And Lamb, out now on Cavity Search Records, is his third studio album and is on heavy rotation here in the office. We recently caught up with Saul for a short Q&A. You can read our interview with him below and stream his new album A Tyrant And Lamb from popmatters.com!

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1. What was your process like while recording this new album? Can you tell us a little about the approach you take when you’re in the studio?

We (Jason Bitner, who produced this album, and I) started working with an idea in mind that had very little to do with where we arrived. I’m normally too anxious after finishing one record to sit around waiting for the release to pan out. So often a flood of new bits and pieces of songs starts a couple months after finishing something and I get pretty involved in it. In this case I started with a whole idea about a drum feel that was on the line between straight four rock and country shuffle. And some honky tonk progressions and melodies.

We had much of the album we imagined we were going to make close to completion, with 6 or 7 tracks recorded — and then it was time to go on tour for the previous album. So we dropped everything and worried about shows, traveling with a parrot (my parrot at that stage wasn’t well and was refusing to eat on his own–he’d only accept food from me via a syringe, so we had to bring him and feed him 4x/day in the van), and motel rooms that often smelled of fresh crack. We were terrified the fumes would do Chico in–many nights we had his little travel perch (his “bird motel”) set right above the TV in order to keep a close eye on him. We’d watch with a silhouette of a parrot missing from the center of the screen. There were some great shows at alternative venues–for example in a house on a block where 5-10 abandoned houses were being squatted by a whole community of friends. There were awful nights in about equal measure—one particularly, in Dallas, where we played for a few businessmen in black suits with black ties and shiny black shoes (looking like demented preachers doused in oil) who were casually whispering over mixed drinks and fake candle light to their dates.

When we got back to Boston we trashed much of what we already had recorded. It sounded put on–forced into this style I was obsessed with at the time, but not emotionally true, or that relevant to how I was feeling anymore. If its relevance had faded that quickly and it wasn’t holding together I knew we had to get rid of it and chalk it up to a first stage that would hopefully lead us somewhere more meaningful. I actually ended up taking pieces of those original songs and building new songs around them. Seeing that one could trash large amounts of work, and that in some cases it freed me to find more rewarding solutions to finishing the songs was kind of a revelation for me.

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2. Do you have a favorite track from the album?

I think I might like Galga the best–I’m usually excited to perform it. It returns me to a place, or a kind of terror I felt a lot in the past, but allows me to sort of share it, aggressively, on my own terms, and escape, or reverse the feelings of real life, for a couple of minutes.

3. Your new album is titled A Tyrant And Lamb. Can you explain the meaning behind the title?

It comes from the characters that can crawl into your head if you get into one of William Blake’s prophecies. I guess the lambs and the tyrannical forces are even in play in some of his earliest works too. This album intends to take a very careful look at the voice of the protagonist (myself, I guess), without making any approximations or averages. To see some truth I have to be able to watch and chart myself turning from a lamb into a tyrant (in a long-term sort of way, chronologically through my life), and back and forth all the time. It also studies a couple of the relationships that are and have been extremely important to me, and how those relationships often seem rooted in the opposing force between the tyrant and the lamb. But the roles can switch–which is why, though the cover may implicate one person at first look, both people have a bit of satanic blush on their cheeks, and the eye is slightly discouraged from associating anyone permanently with either role.

4. You mentioned that while you worked on this album you read a lot by Søren Kierkegaard and William Blake. Do you feel that the themes of what you were reading manifested themselves in your lyrics?

The lyrics were meant to reflect things I found within myself, but the method of search and excavation is largely indebted to what I learned from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death and Blake’s The Four Zoas. The whole ebb and flow of the album–the slow revelation of various horrors, broken and lost parts of human potential, weakened relationships, with turn-arounds, potential ways to find the good path & strength mixed in, and leading up to the final accusation at the end of “Bulls”–is deeply informed by the Zoas, which is a massive and torturous journey to the threshold of hope.

Particularly in the song “Hollow”, the idea of a personally disastrous paradox, of the need to destroy your origin to become someone real, the climax of that song if you love someone kill their family in their mind / and set them free / climb into a balloon is something I learned from The Sickness.

5. What other artists or musicians have influenced your music and songwriting?

Blaze Foley Wanted More Dead Than Alive (I especially tried to sing in a way akin to Blaze in the middle section of the 7th track “Bumbling Fool”), Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt (High, Low and in Between, Flyin’ Shoes, Delta Momma Blues) Syd Barrett (The Madcap Laughs), Harry Nilsson (the vocals, specifically on his album of standards A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, Nilsson Sings Newman, and Son of Schmilsson), Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill (his vocal sound, and the way he mixed distorted dissonant, aggressive electric guitars with sweeter, picked acoustic)

I guess it’s hard to know for sure because a lot of stuff (especially from when I was younger playing classical music) may be floating around in my head somewhere that perhaps I’m not even aware of, but that is leading me places and informing what I’m trying to do with songs and melodies.

6. You hail from a long lineage of musicians. I read that your great uncle escaped Nazi Germany during WWII and went on to become an acclaimed pianist. Have you ever collaborated with him or asked his advice when writing music?

I actually have performed with him–Mozart’s double piano concerto. When I went to NYC to practice with him, for hours on multiple days I couldn’t get through the first few measures without a meltdown from him. My approach, my attitude, speed, technique, musicality, rhythm…everything was a disaster. But we got through that stage (and I got through the headaches and nerves that accompanied these rehearsals) and he came to show me a level of rigor, technically, but also in terms of interpreting a piece of music, and having a detailed, studied, thoroughly conceived plan for musicality and dynamics. It was an honor and once in a lifetime experience to play with him.

I’ve never talked to him about writing music, and he’s quite old now (and wasn’t really as present in my life for the period when I started writing). He never composed (as far as I know), but at birthday parties he would play Happy Birthday in the styles of 10 or more different composers. He was so intimately aware of their work and their voices–it was like they’d walked into the room in a casual mood and started making up variations to the melody themselves. His creative energy was completely tied up with his interpretations and understanding of others’ compositions. For most of his life he could play any Beethoven sonata by heart.

7. What are you listening to these days?

Josh from Light In The Attic gave me Bob Frank’s first record, which is stunning. Each song is a story. And some of them are riddles, or something like that–there’s room to draw a lot from the sparse outlines, and try to interpret. Maybe it’s sort of Biblical: The ellipsis, and the beauty. I’ve been listening Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. No one seems to share my opinion on this, but I really don’t much care for Big Star’s first two records. This one though has blown me away. The sounds–the strings mixed with all kinds of electric sounds–Jim Dickinson’s production, the writing, the singing…It’s got maniacally upbeat ecstasy in some songs, true tender veins elsewhere, and the sad calm when all those feelings burn out too.

I got a new record that collects a lot of Luke McDaniel’s songs…I am particularly moved by “Drive On”, “Homeward Mule”, and “You’re Still on my Mind”.

I’ve been returning over and over to Mozart: Don Giovanni (Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Josef Krips with Cesare Siepi) and the Requiem Mass (the Harnoncourt version). And then, to try to undo the hypnotizing beauty, the terror, the turning feelings, to relax, or move to a completely different, simpler mood, I’ve been counter-balancing that listening with the Dead: Workingman’s Dead, Europe ’72 (mainly for the set of “China Cat Sunflower” “I Know You Rider” and “Brown-eyed Woman”) and Live at The Fillmore East (for “Bertha”!).

Denny at Cavity Search Records sent me Jerry Joseph’s self-titled, which I think is a subtle record with stunning guitar work, and lyrics that are bold in scope and tackle –it seems to me– mangled, complex and deep-mind emotions. (My favorite tracks are “Pony” and “Bouncing Very Well”–the romantic songs)

I played with Joey Molinaro in Pittsburgh this winter and got his record The Inalienable Dreamless. He performs virtuosic, high energy sets on violin with a foot-pad to add percussion and a bit of vocal additions too from time to time. It’s like war music to me in a sense–fascinating, aggressive, demanding and different.

8. What’s on the horizon for you? Any plans for an upcoming tour?

I’m going to be on tour for a lot of the summer…in June a loop from Boston up through upstate New York and west to Chicago, down to Baton Rouge, and then back up the east coast. In August a trip that starts in Montana, heads west and then down the coast from Seattle to southern CA. (all the dates are HERE)

I’m also getting pretty far into work on a new album–musically a completely different sort of thing–a kind of Mass. Anyway, A Tyrant and Lamb is out this Tuesday. The guys at Musicol pressing remastered the whole record for vinyl, and it really sound its best like that. (And it’s not coming out on CD right now). It’s a limited edition of 300 copies.

Check out the music video for Saul Conrad’s “Carousel” below.