By Tom Lynch
Ambient electronic-pop duo Arms and Sleepers—Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Max Lewis and Mirza Ramic—met in high school and kick-started their musical partnership in college with a band called The List Exists, which eventually disbanded in mid-2006. Tired of the aimlessness of their original band, Ramic and Lewis decided to work together, just the two of them, and Arms and Sleepers was born.
Similar to the atmospheric yet blippy tones of The Album Leaf—and packing an emotional wollop not unlike the extravagant M83—Arms and Sleepers’ new full-length record, “Black Paris 86,” is divided in three parts: “Unspoken,” “Spoken” and “Hidden,” each containing four songs. For an album that shifts between jazz- and trip-hop-influenced electro-pop, IDM-pop punctuated by effective and never-distracting vocals and more airy, breeze electronics, you can guess which fits into what section. Impressively, if your not eyeing the booklet, you would never know, as the songs seamlessly fit not so much back-to-back against each other, but rather face-to-face. “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance,” a song positioned directly in the center of the album, may be the centerpiece of “Black Paris 86.” A perfect song from start to finish, it summarizes what Arms and Sleepers is capable of achieving, and, in all, how moving and devastating pieces of this kind can be (the multiple, layered vocals slay in such warm and soothing ways). The live show contains an advanced amount of visual stimulation, which should only complement the blanketing soothe. I checked in with Ramic—bassist and keyboardist—to talk about the record’s creation and the band’s tour.
Were there certain themes or tones you wanted to specifically explore with this record?
We just really wanted to embrace different styles of music and see how we can make them work together on a single release. We did divide the record into three parts, since it did sound like they were three separate entities—but overall I think it can still be looked at as a single unit. We’ve been really into horns, and trumpet more specifically, so that definitely stands out—as well as a lot of low-end frequencies. I think overall we were very influenced by movies we were watching at the time, like “Kontrol,” “Cache,” “Brick”—so those images kind of directed the musical ideas and themes, or just the general mood.
What makes you decide whether or not to include vocals on a song?
Usually this is decided upon availability of our guest singers—we have two that were used on “Black Paris 86.” Sometimes we’ll send a song to one of them and they just won’t feel right with it, which is a good sign that we should just leave the song as is. Other times they’ll send us their vocal ideas back, and it’ll just click on the first listen. I guess it also depends on the style of the song—our more “pop”-influenced songs, if you will, are easier to work with when it comes to vocals, while the jazzy/ambient stuff does not lend itself to vocal experimentation. But we’re always open to it—we do like vocals!
I think this style of music harbors an element that’s thought-provoking (it shouldn’t be written off simply as “dreamy”) or maybe, more sentimentally, leads to more self-examination than, say, a Matchbox 20 love ballad ever could.
I definitely agree, especially since I hate Matchbox 20. Well, I think bands/music that we really like have always done this, making you think and putting you in a certain mood. I like when you can listen to bands like Sigur Ros or Do Make Say Think and just have so much go through your mind—it’s like a personal journey to whatever your imagination can harbor every time you listen. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do to someone—and I can only hope we are able to achieve the same. I always liked the whole “everything we hear on the radio is like one big buzzing sound” by Thom Yorke. It’s really true—so much of the mainstream music is so rehashed and fake that it strips itself of any emotional impact or meaning. You feel like you’ve become a stupider person as a result of listening.
How difficult is it to translate this material live? How much is actually played live and how much is pre-recorded?
We’d definitely need a lot of people in the band (which hasn’t worked out in the past) to be able to play everything live—so we do have a good amount of stuff pre-recorded. As of late though, we have tried to incorporate more live instrumentation, little things that are not a big hassle for us but can be meaningful when played live—such as a glockenspiel and melodicas. This is also one of the reasons we spend a lot of time with visuals—so that you do get something special when seeing us live.
Some audiences might have an adverse reaction to seeing that amount of pre-recording…why do you think that might be, and how are you able to keep the show moving without audiences getting impatient?
I think a good amount of people want to drink and dance and be happy. And that’s OK, but at some point the music gets lost and that’s no good. Our preference is certainly for venues where people can sit down and really watch the show, because it’s both music and video and you need to pay attention to absorb it all. I don’t mean this in a pretentious way—I love shows where the artist is throwing all kinds of stuff at you and you kind of feel overwhelmed. I like that feeling. I mean, you pay to see a show, so you might as well get as much as possible from it. I think because we have visuals that are completely synced to every song, it keeps audiences waiting to see what’s gonna happen next, so that there is another element to the whole experience.
Arms and Sleepers plays February 20 at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, at 9pm. $7.