Foyer Red is a Brooklyn-based rock band. Their latest album Yarn the Hours Away is out now via Carpark Records.
Marco Ocampo and Elana Riordan are the drummer and lead vocalist/clarinetist for the Brooklyn-based art rock band Foyer Red; Zach Phillips is a multi-instrumentalist, who’s one-half of the duo behind the experimental jazz group Fievel Is Glauque. Foyer Red’s debut record Yarn the Hours Away just came out last week (via Carpark), so to celebrate, the three friends sat down to chat about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
[Sound of rolling dice.]
Marco Ocampo: That’s 300.
Zach Phillips: 400, 450. You could just be sexy and reroll that one, and be like, “I’m lucky!” It has to do with writing for sure — or representation, if you’re overdubbing. You know, there’s a point at which you have to stop, where you feel like you’ve gotten enough luck.
Elana Riordan: Yeah.
Zach: And if you haven’t gotten enough luck, there’s points at which you have to push your luck.
Marco: That’s a really good point. I remember running into you at the wine store a few months ago, and you said that y’all were working on a new record and you did no overdubs.
Zach: The two records that we have out, there are no overdubs.
Zach: None, yeah. There’s some trickery…
Elana: What you’re saying about, “Have I had enough luck here? Do I stop myself or do I push forward?” — I think about that with any project that I do, even outside of music. When do you call something done, or when are you like, I wanna take one more swing at this thing?
Zach: Right. And you know, some would say superstition is neurotic and it’s just something you have to grow past.
Elana: When we were making Zigzag Wombat, I feel like we recorded and rerecorded things so many times, because we hadn’t released anything at that point. Most of what we were doing, we took so many passes at. But then there was our song “Plutterbee,” that I had laid down vocals like months and months [before]. We had pretty much rerecorded everything else besides my vocals.
Marco: We made it fully at home.
Elana: And you and Mitch [Myers] were like, “No, you can’t change them.”
Marco: There was just something special about it.
Elana: And I really wanted to, but—
Zach: Because of dice luck.
Elana: Exactly, [there was something special] tied to the original roll of it. Even honestly in retrospect, when the song came out, I was like, God, I really do wish that I redid those vocals. And now I’m like, They live as they live.
Marco: But when we were recording with Johnny [Schenke], there were certain times with multiple different takes we would just move forward after the first pass. But then you specifically really put your foot down on certain vocal parts, like days later you were like, “I need to go back and rerecord that.” And yeah, in hindsight, you were really happy about it.
Elana: Yeah. There’s some things that are like, “This didn’t go as I expected and that’s OK.” It’s a little different now and I like the shape of that. But there were, I think, two songs on the album that I was like, “No, this just wasn’t right at all,” and ended up redoing them with a totally different microphone, different room, different feel.
Zach: But the different iteration of it trumps all of that, right?
Elana: It’s not the microphone, yeah.
Zach: It’s more the iteration than it is — some would call it a “performance.” I wouldn’t. I’d call it the iteration.
Elana: [Laughs.] Exactly. But the comfort level to produce that iteration, I guess, is what [it comes from.]
Zach: Or discomfort.
Elana: Or discomfort! I love discomfort.
Marco: I like discomfort, yeah.
Zach: Well, the conventional wisdom — it’s like a jazz trope — is that the first take is the take a lot of the time.
Elana: Very much unlike a pancake. [Laughs.] The first pancake is never the one.
Zach: I really like the last take. When we’ve done studio days, we’ll always just have one day to record a whole album’s worth of shit — of doodoo — and you run out of time quick. And everybody’s tired, the setup is so much of the time. Then there’s issues, and then there’s eating, and then there’s the pressure of this new environment. I haven’t had the luxury to record in studios where I’m like a regular guy in the studio — “Oh, coming back, here we are, comfy! You still have that tea?” No, it’s pressurized; it’s the only chance to do this. You want to do a good job, which is really not extremely lucky. It’s not luck engineering to want to do a good job, I’ve noticed.
Elana: Yeah, absolutely.
Zach: It’s embarrassing, really. And it often runs counter to the spirit of what you’re representing. Usually the songs that survive, they aren’t really the ones where you came at it with some attitude like, Oh, this one will be really good…
Anyway, so we show up, set up, blah, blah, blah, and then run the songs. And I’ll be like, “Let’s do one more take of that one.” They’re like, “We already did six, I thought the last take was cool.” And I’m like, “Yeah, OK, let’s just do one more.” So we do one more, move on to the next song. Every song is like that. And now you’re up to 100-something takes total of all the songs you’ve done. Then at the end of the session, you say, “Let’s do it like a show now. Let’s do a run through or two of everything.” And I think two-thirds of Flaming Swords is from that.
Elana: That’s great. That makes sense because it’s like, you’ve already gotten the takes, so you’re like, If anything, we can fall back on those, this is kind of just a last hurrah, for fun.
Zach: Right. And everyone’s tired and they don’t want to do it! They don’t want to do a good job, they just want to leave.
Elana: Your brain’s not there, you’re just physically like, This is what I’m doing. I think one of my best takes in the studio are the vocals on “Pocket,” which I literally wrote while we were recording. I wrote the vocals and the lyrics while we were doing our sessions. Because of that, they were so new to me and so kind of unfinished, and I think the vocals ended up turning out better than some songs where I had sung it the same way for X amount of months [and] I knew what I wanted to produce. Having less of an expectation was really freeing in that sense.
On the other hand, post-recording we’ve been playing these songs live at shows so much more, and there’s things that I do differently now that I wish were immortalized in the recording. But that is kind of the fun thing about recordings and a band’s evolution. Like there’s this one ARTHUR song — I can’t remember which song it is, but on the recording it’s like, “Aaaaah!” But live ge goes, “Ha ha ha!” [Laughs.] And it’s a moment that for me is so integral to the song, and I love the recording still, but I’m like, Damn, that evolved.
Zach: My favorite on my first listen to your album is “Wetland Walk.” I like the way that you sing on “Wetland Walk.”
Elana: Thank you.
Zach: It’s very unusual. We were talking about the form of ticks and bedbugs and stuff — carcinisation, the tendency of all living beings to evolve into crab-like forms. 6/8 is kind of like that musically — it’s all going to be 6/8 one day.
Elana: We’ll all evolve into 6/8.
Zach: But that song is beautiful. What’s up with that one? Why do you laugh at the beginning? What was so funny?
Elana: That was kind of just a studio thing. I guess that I can be kind of silly in the vocal booth.
Marco: I feel like that’s when you produce your best work, when you were able to be silly with yourself.
Elana: Yeah, it’s a funny space because, at least when we were recording, you can’t see anyone when you’re in there, and between takes you kind of hear everyone’s chatter. You feel alone with the material that you’re working on, but also it’s kind of vulnerable because everyone’s listening and everyone is waiting to see what I’m going to produce to put on the record. So yeah, that was truly a natural laugh that just ended up being left in the take. And when I heard it back, I was like, “Oh, who is that?” I didn’t even recognize that it was myself.
Zach: That whole take kind of doesn’t sound like the other songs vocally.
Elana: Yeah, it’s a little bit of a different vocal direction. It was really natural for me to sing it that way, but I remember when I sent it, I was a little nervous because it’s definitely different than how I sing on the rest of the songs and kind of a new direction. Everyone was immediately super receptive to it — I remember you were like, “You have to do it just like that! Don’t change anything!” And that one was also a particularly easy one to kind of reproduce in the studio.
Zach: It’s tilted. There’s something tilted.
Elana: Tilted. [Laughs.] Yeah, I like that.
Zach: The things that I was reminded of were the band Hellier Ulysses — you know that band?
Marco: Love that band. Atlanta.
Zach: Yeah. And the band Essential Logic.
Elana: I love Essential Logic. I think that it’s so hard to nail down what has influenced you, because we listen to so much and so much is internalized. Like, I would never necessarily say I was influenced by those two bands, but those are definitely bands that I love and listen to.
Zach: Right. You wouldn’t hear my music and think that I’m influenced by Biggie or MF Doom or something.
Marco: That’s the first thing I think of.
Zach: There’s all these cadential rhythmic things that I’m very conscious when I’m writing, like, Oh, that’s actually from Biggie. Can I keep that? Yeah, it’s pretty abstracted, go for it… That’s my gold standard. If I’m lucky to even perceive it, then it’s fine. It’s not stealing.
Elana: How has the lineup of [Fievel Is Glauque] progressed?
Zach: Well, some things have sedimented, like our go-to drummer Gaspard Sicx — he’s been a part of nearly all of it, and he’s just a great friend and an amazing drummer. You know how it is, if you like the way somebody plays drums, that’s kind of rare.
Marco: It feels out of this world when you’re able to click with someone like that.
Zach: It’s extremely uncanny what drumming is, and I don’t really feel prepared to address it.
Marco: [Laughs.] We don’t need to.
Zach: But yeah, I don’t know. Certain people get called back. I mean, I love everybody who’s played in the band. But I can’t… I don’t have the strength to do what you guys do. I don’t understand how you do that.
Marco: That’s a whole other battle.
Zach: I’ve gone two years, and I think that’s the longest I’ve been in a stable formation of a six-piece band.
Marco: Having Foyer Red with the five of us, and treating this band where all five of us are 20% each, completely equal — it’s a whole other challenge in itself. That I also wouldn’t trade for the world. You know, you wake up every day and you constantly are reminded that you’re kind of in a relationship with four other people — emotionally, schedule-wise, musically, collaboratively.
Zach: But you two are bringing songs in, and other people are bringing songs in? Or do you improvise them?
Elana: I would say the genesis of the band was a lot of Mitch bringing in riffs and us kind of being like, “Cool, play it over and over again, let’s see what we can do with this.” There were definitely songs where he had fuller ideas more laid out, like “I think it could go into this thing after, and then this thing.” More of a skeleton.
Marco: He would show a minute and be like, “Here’s the chorus, here’s the verse, here’s a bridge.” And then people would jump on and piggyback and be like, “Actually, rather than the bridge here, let’s go into part B, or let’s go to part C.” And before we know it, there’s, like, part nine now of the song. I would say almost for all Foyer Red songs, they start from one person bringing in an idea. Not all, because there’s definitely some that have started completely just from jamming in our practice space. But a lot have started from one of the five of us bringing some sort of idea, and then someone really connects with it and runs off of it.
Elana: We have 12 songs on the record, and I feel like the record kind of represents the evolution of us as a five-piece. Really when we started writing the record, it was the first few songs that we were all writing together. And so it was in the beginning more of Mitch bringing a riff, Eric [Jaso] bringing a bassline. But then as we got deeper into writing — and this is probably over the span of a year — we got so much more comfortable playing with each other and we would just naturally be at practice and playing through our songs and then kind of wordlessly, someone would start something, and everyone jumps in. I feel like the last handful of songs that we wrote were all kind of just organic studio improvisations.
Marco: And I mean, when you have a fully collaborative band, that’s all you can wish for.
Marco: It’s a really fun process.
Elana: Yeah. It so easily could have not worked.
Marco: There’s a lot of feelings at play.
Zach: Do you hear those feelings in the record?
Elana: I don’t know. Sometimes you’re sitting with a song — everyone’s playing it, and you’re sitting there like, What am I going to do with this? You’re kind of fighting with yourself… I remember with “Wetland Walk” specifically, Kristina [Moore] — what did she call it?
Marco: Oh, she hated it.
Elana: It was like her “enemy song,” or something. And what she made was so incredible. But I feel like that frustration and that anger can be a really powerful thing, right? Like you were saying about discomfort earlier, I think that discomfort can actually be really satisfying in the end, because it’s a big boss that you have to defeat.
Zach: Wow. Well, that’s really cool. I can’t imagine writing like that. I think I did do that in my band Heat Wilson with Quentin Moore — emeritus of Fievel multiple times, who has a band called Big French.
Marco: I played a show with that band.
Zach: Oh, yeah. We covered one of Quentin’s songs, “Paging Agent Starling” on Flaming Swords. It kind of never achieved a fully recorded form, and it was kind of a joke to do it and be like, “Hey, Quentin, it’s on our record.”
But yeah, I would play drums and he’d play guitar and I’d be like, “Yeah, but do that rockabilly kind of thing, you know?” We were really young, 17. And that turned out to be a very slow system of producing music for me. I couldn’t handle the slowness of it. I’ve always been of the mind that in writing, it’s not so much a first-thought-best-thought thing, as outrunning the police or something.
Marco: That’s interesting.
Zach: You’re trying to do a bank robbery and you gotta get the jewel out before they get there. And they’re you, of course. But the problem is, you don’t know what the jewel is, and you don’t know where it is, and you don’t know what kind of building you’re burglarizing. And you don’t know how the burglarize anything. You’re not good with your hands. [Laughs.]
Marco: I feel like before Yarn the Hours Away, I kind of had — and this is either to my advantage or to my disadvantage — a lot of the times when a song wouldn’t immediately work, I’d step away from it. Even in a lot of songwriting, you go back to it and you’re like, Oh, that 45 seconds is really cool, but you can’t find anything else to go from. So it’s kind of just like, Well, then that 45 seconds doesn’t necessarily work. And I feel like that really happened with our song “Oh, David.”
Elana: Yeah, I was just going to say that.
Marco: I was not a fan of that song for so long, and I think it ended up becoming one of all of our favorite songs.
Marco: We were like, “OK, let’s make this more like a song that’s repetitive and builds on top of each other, and the vocals are kind of just changing.” But in terms of the actual different parts, it is a pretty repetitive song.
Zach: This issue of alliance arises a lot, in relation to a body of work, or people. “Do we have the alliance?”
Marco: Like, “X people like this and X people don’t”?
Zach: No, more like, “Are we really close, me and this person? Do we have an alliance?”
Marco: We love Survivor.
Zach: I’ve never seen it. It’s the same with songs — I’m like, “Oh, that one, I know I can count on that one. We’re good with that one.” But then it ends up being one of the bad ones that becomes your eventual favorite. It’s like the friend who you have strife with, but you work through it.
Marco: Those are the best friends.
Zach: Me and Ma [Clément] write according to a procedure that would probably — I mean, it would be a lie to say that we just do this one exact procedure, but it’s basically like a cumulative method of songwriting. You know, I’ll ask her to sing a few notes, and she’ll be like [imitates Ma singing]. Then I check that out on the piano and I think about different ways to harmonize that with a chord, basically. I find one I like and I’m like, “Do you like that?” And she’s like, “No.” And I’m like, “OK.” Then I find another one and she’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that.” And I’m like, “Really? That?” And she’s like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “OK. Alright. Keep singing.” And then we just do that until the song is done.
Elana: That’s a really interesting process.
Zach: It takes about one hour.
Elana: I think that’s such a beautiful thing about collaboration and writing with someone else — it’s so much more fun and interactive when you have almost like a prompt.
Elana: Because you’re like, OK, now what can I do within this box? And that’s a more interesting place to be in than, What can I do in general, [with] no limitations? I think in terms of writing lyrics, Mitch and Kristina and I have that kind of interplay where sometimes I’ll start the lyrics to a song and Mitch and Kristina have to be like, “OK, what are you writing about, and then how am I going to place myself or my narrative inside of that realm?” And vice versa. Like Mitch will start a song and then I’m like, “Cool, what’s my story in all of this?” And that’s a really exciting place to be in, I think.
Zach: Do you argue, though? Do you ever fight?
Marco: You know, what’s weird is that we don’t.
Elana: We really don’t. We definitely make constructive comments — “Instead of staying on this line, what if you do something else at this part?” I mean, we all kind of accept what everyone does, but there are definitely times where we fight back.
Marco: Sometimes we fight back with our instruments.
Elana: Exactly. Being that we all have our own equal stake in it, we all have our voice, our instrument, we can kind of push things in a different direction and see if anyone follows suit.
Marco: There’s a lot of times where if something’s going on in a jam session and [I’m] like, Oh, I’m not the biggest fan of that, I’ll immediately go to half-time or double-time, or just completely change up the beat.
Zach: I don’t know why sometimes it’s such a smash hit wonder and you’re so happy when you’re writing and everything is just falling into your hands, and there’s even more on the sides — you’re like, “I can’t even collect all the coins from the slot machine!” — and then other times it’s just like, “Why are we punishing ourselves? We’re failures. What do we even think we’re going to get out of this?”
Elana: That is the mystery of the process.
Zach: It’s brutal. Sometimes we leave a writing session feeling terrible. Does that happen to your band?
Elana: Absolutely. I think it more so happens on an individual level than on a group level.
Marco: It would be a disaster if all five of us were leaving feeling horrible.
Elana: [Laughs.] Yeah, that would be a fail. But there’s definitely things that we start writing and — I mean, sometimes with the time signatures we write in, I’m like, Where do I start? And it’s so frustrating. Mitch and Marco will be playing it over and over again so everyone can kind of find their place in it.
Marco: Get the rhythm on their hands.
Elana: Sometimes it’s just easier than other times.
Marco: In “Time Slips,” in Mitch’s guitar line, there’s this weird pause in the third bar of each verse, and we all have to look at each other to hit that every time. Maybe not anymore.
Zach: Just the other day, somebody was like, “How do you play in those time signatures?” And I was like, “What do you mean? All of our stuff is 4/4, or 3/4.” And they were like, “No, it’s not.”
Marco: [Laughs.] “But that’s how I count it.”
Zach: I was like, “Really?” And then I’m like, Oh yeah — going back to when I charted it out for people, I had to be like, “Oh, that’s actually a bar of 5, or that’s like a bar of 5/8,” or something. I do not have any awareness that you’re playing with weird time signatures at all.
Elana: It is really cool to get to a point where we felt this out enough times [that] we all know how long this pause is going to be, and it’s just something that is kind of internal.
Marco: I’d be lying if when we were writing I wasn’t walking around in my everyday life counting these songs out and going like, one, two — three, four, five. But then once the numbers get set in stone, they’re in your blood. They’re in the dice.