by Gary Johnson
Tokyo Morose’s second album, the intriguing “Sequence of Steps”, was selected as one of the Noteworthy Michigan Albums earlier this month on MRRL’s highly opinionated annual account of the finest recordings of the year: Best CDs Of 2012 And More: Two Views.
MRRL sat down recently with Trevor Edmonds, one of the founding members of the Grand Rapids quartet to find out more about the band and to discuss their exciting new independent release.
The seeds of what would become Tokyo Morose were sown when multi-instrumentalists Tim Warren and Trevor Edmonds met at an electronic music show almost six years ago. According to Edmonds, “Tim and I played together for almost a year. We had been experimenting on music regularly on Friday afternoons. Tim knew Erin Lenau through mutual friends in Grand Rapids. Tim was playing in another band at the time, and Erin was going to sit in on one of their rehearsals. When it was cancelled, she joined Tim and me at one of our Friday sessions”.
Edmonds continued, “ We were basically using acoustic instruments at the time and trying out ideas, but things started to gel once Erin joined. The three of us recorded a first album (“Specific Ocean”) that was mostly instrumental. There were only two tracks with vocals, and they were not really traditional songs, only containing a few lyrics”.
Tokyo Morose has embraced a new direction on the band’s latest CD, “Sequence of Steps”. Over the course of working on the first album, and then writing new music for the second, the band realized that Erin possessed a real talent for singing and writing.
(L. to R.) Trevor Edmonds, Tim Warren, and Erin Lenau.
Edmonds explained: “It was a circumstance, that when people start a project with a certain idea in mind, and then you try to do that; but over time it goes by the wayside and you start doing what you would naturally. I think what we’re doing now is what we were meant to do, as opposed to let’s start a band that sounds like this. We recognized that Erin had a natural talent and wanted to sing, and she was writing a lot of lyrics. She wrote lyrics for eight of the songs on “Sequence of Steps”, and I wrote other two. The music is more of a communal process, a more democratic thing. With the lyrics, we trust what Erin does and she has a good way of metering the words out so that they fit the songs”.
Tim Warren came up with the name Tokyo Morose before the group even existed. Edmonds said of Warren; “Tim is interesting in the sense that he will sometimes come up with concepts of things before there is actually any physical element or reality to it at all. That definitely applies to the band name. It’s kind of a funny story. Tim picked up a copy of Men’s Health magazine that had a story about population centers around the world where people have the best or worst outlooks on life. Tokyo was near the bottom, and it was accompanied by a graphic of a man’s head with the caption ‘Tokyo morose’ underneath it. It stuck with him, and he had an idea to form a band with that name with someone who could play cello. When he met me and found out I played the cello, he kind of latched onto it and that’s how it started”.
Tokyo Morose has recently added a fourth member in the person of drummer Pat Wieland. He drummed on two cuts on the new album, but he is now a full-time member of the group. Edmonds appreciates having Wieland on board; “We used to do a lot of shows with myself, Tim, and Erin with just a drum machine; but I really like playing with a live drummer a lot, and Pat is intuitive and has a really good feel”.
Tokyo Morose drummer Pat Wieland
It took several years to record the songs for “Sequence of Steps” with producer Matt Ten Clay in Grand Rapids, but Edmonds claimed that Tokyo Morose actually spent just 14 to 20 days in the Amber Lit studio during that time. Clay is the indie producer of note in Grand Rapids, and he has recorded a lot of bands from the vibrant independent music scene in Grand Rapids at his warehouse studio located near the Grand River. Clay was recommended by Pat Wieland who had recorded at Amber Lit with his other band, Lazy Genius
Edmonds said of Clay, “He was excellent to work with; he has a good sense of when to sit back and let us work something out, and when to interject and offer up an idea that might help facilitate a song or particular part. His rates are also really reasonable. He’s very professional, but the studio environment is very laid-back”.
He also felt that the time between recording sessions benefitted the band. “I think in the end it really helped. All the while we were recording, we were playing shows, so parts would change and we would tighten things up a little more as we were trying songs out in front of an audience”.
Edmonds went on to explain how the recording of “Sequence of Steps” was financed. “All the recording costs we covered ourselves using money we got from playing shows, but when it came to the mastering process and the production of the CDs themselves, we used Kickstarter to achieve our goal of $1,250 during a 60-day fund-raising period”.
Kickstarter is a private for-profit company, founded in 2009, that provides through its website tools a means to raise funds for creative projects from the general public. “The organization is a subsidiary of Amazon.com, it allows people to invest in something they think is a good idea and it’s helped a lot of interesting things come out”, Edmonds said. “It was designed primarily to finance independently produced creative projects for artists, filmmakers, or musicians. Contributors to our album project could earn CDs, a screen print poster, or even a private show by the band. At the highest level, we would write a song for a person if they would provide a set of lyrics or at least a concept for the song. The only donor in that category was Tim’s cousin who requested an ambient song dealing with shipwrecks on Lake Superior. It was cool to do and we were happy with it”. Edmonds went on to say that their Kickstarter experience was very successful; “People we had never met before came out of the woodwork to donate, and we achieved our goal and more, raising $1,400".
Edmonds revealed that the unusual cover photo by Sean Patrick was not shot specifically for the album. “It was done years ago on a camping trip to the Nordhouse Dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan between Ludington and Manistee. One night we had been taking photos around the campfire and Sean took a shot of me with a scarf pulled over my head. The photo had been lying around ever since, and Tim and Erin liked it when we were looking for ideas for the CD cover. It’s kind of odd and striking”.
The album’s title came from a line in “Rome”, the first song on the CD. Edmonds explained: “We had been kicking around ideas for some time. We finally said let’s listen to the songs and pick out some interesting words or phrases we could use from the body of lyrics, and eventually selected ‘sequence of steps’. We may not have realized it at the time, but I think it might have been a subconscious choice that represents the band’s evolution”.
“Rome” shows a Joy Division/early New Order influence with its airy synths and angular guitar. It was written by Edmonds and Lenau, who duet on the song. Edmonds revealed that the verses are ambiguous but “Rome” does address some past relationships. When asked about Lenau’s lyrics, 'Nobody wants to be someone’s better half, you’re almost human when you laugh', Edmonds replied; “I think what she was trying to get across with that was that some people might be in relationships and there’s not a sense of independence among the two people and that you don’t want to be in a relationship where all you are is this other person’s thing and not your own entity”.
MRRL’s favorite track on the album is “Every Night”. It features a compelling lead vocal by Lenau, distinctive guitar, and computerized percussion that Edmonds put together into loop or grid programs on the computer using percussion software, and employing found or field recorded sounds that were cut up and reassembled as the drum tract.
“Mirror To Mirror” is Edmonds’ composition. The keyboards remind one of early Depeche Mode or Yaz. Edmonds sings lead, with Lenau joining him on the chorus. “The idea came up while listening to an English group called The Horrors. It’s more of a mood piece, trying to create a picture that you could put yourself in”, he said.
“The first song we recorded using Pat Wieland on drums was “Thin Air”, continued Edmonds. “It was written by Erin during a time when she was going through some family issues”. Edmonds indicated that those issues were reflected in the lyrics of several other songs on the album as well.
“Valley Rain, Mountain Snow” is one of the older songs”, he said of the fifth cut on “Sequence of Steps”. It has lots of random words – Erin said she listened to an interview with Joe Strummer (The Clash) and he said something about ‘if you ever think of a phrase, just write it down and maybe like riff off of it. Even if it sounds stupid at the time, who cares, just put it down’. And she really ran with that for a while. She would start with a line and then think of something else that would fit with it, not even necessarily thematically and just put it together”.
“Pat also drummed on “Spoke Too Soon”, Edmonds said. “Erin wrote and played rhythm guitar, Tim did lead, and I played bass. It was written when we did the first album but was not recorded at the time".
“Suit, Lining, Pockets” is also an older song. Erin came up with the title from watching a program on the Discovery Channel, Edmonds recalled. “Best Catch” is a darker song that Erin wrote that addressed particular family event as expressed in the lyrics 'Please don’t take this the wrong way…trying to make a big change in my life, picking through the things I don’t like".
Edmonds stated that “Zephyr” ties into “Best Catch” thematically. “The way those songs sequence, “Best Catch” seems like she’s put all the thoughts about that issue together and the line ‘If it came down to you and me, I’d choose myself’ in “Zephyr” is almost like a resolution, like I’m not going to go through that; I’m going to choose myself”.
“Our songwriting often starts when she comes up with some chords, and I’ll come up with a song idea and send it to Erin and Tim to see what they want to do with it”, Edmonds explained. “The first thing that came out of “Zephyr” was the synthesizer sequence; then I put my guitar part on. Erin was listening to it, then writing lyrics and assembling them. It’s a pretty standard way that a lot of them come together.”
For “Archaeologist”, the album’s final track, he recalled; “Erin had the title and lyrics for the chorus several years ago.” I remember she showed me the lyrics but we didn’t do anything with them until a year and a half later. We started working on this piece of music - we had this idea to try to make a programmed drum track out of the sound you get when pull a straw through the plastic top on a McDonalds’ cup. It makes like a talking drum sound. We recorded that and then I cut it up, reversed, and shifted the pitch, and then added some of the more traditional electronic drum sounds like a snare and high-hat".
“I played a synthesizer part on top of it and she had those old lyrics that she used for the chorus. Then in a span of ten or fifteen minutes she just really poured out the stuff for the verses. The parts where she writes ‘you and I were never meant to be’ addresses someone’s realization that it’s not going to work out, and the chorus talks about how only an archaeologist, or somebody who is that astute, could manage to sift through all the details to find out where things might have went wrong”.
The band has already written three new songs and Edmonds said that they were planning to do some recording at the Amber Lit studio in the near future. “We generally can record a song in a day and a half. The new songs might have a more upbeat feel, probably because of the live drums”, he said. “We haven’t done any covers yet, but we’ve talked about trying to pick a Motown song to cover because Erin and I are obsessed with Motown and we’d like to see how we’d interpret it. But in the time we have to work together, we tend to work on our own stuff”.
Some might be surprised that Grand Rapids, a stronghold of the Republican Party and home to the ultra-conservative Christian Reformed Church, would be one of Michigan’s prime areas for independent music. “There is a lot of original music being made in Grand Rapids, across the board, Edmonds said. “There are over a dozen places for new bands to play, a lot of different types of bars, some of the art galleries will host shows”.
He also went on to tell MRRL about an interesting collaboration of four media artists whose interests lie in furthering the city’s music community through audio/visual projects. “Scopitone Vid Box is a group that does video sessions with different Grand Rapids and West Michigan bands and usually films them playing at an atypical location. We did ours in a kind of warehouse building in Grand Rapids about a year ago. The audio and video quality is very good, and it’s really representative of what we sound like now because Pat was playing with us in the performance videos”. This is a link to “Every Night”, one of the videos of Tokyo Morose that was shot by Scopitone Vid Box. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeABMCJh6zg