Interview: Hardly Art? A conversation with Closer

Interview: Hardly Art? A conversation with Closer

“With this band, there’s three of us in the room who genuinely want the songs to be the best they can be.”

Some bands epitomise the commodification of music, offering a soulless, easily digestible package that exists in a cultural vacuum. Others offer little artistry beyond writing and playing, representing the ever-increasing commercialisation of styles or genres.

Pennsylvanian trio Closer aren’t just ‘some band’ though, and in a 45-minute chat with the group – a conversation that touches on the idea of digital-analogue degradation, the Spanish surrealist poet group Generation of ‘27, and the theory of automatic writing – it’s easy to see why.

If all this sounds intimidating, it shouldn’t. Instead, these influences mark out the creative process and beliefs behind one of screamo’s most exciting new bands, adding context to their stellar ‘All This Will Be’ debut full-length. For a genre that has changed little in 30 years, it makes for some devilishly creative embellishments of style and texture.

To understand Closer, you must first dive back into the history of the group Real Life Buildings. A world away from the throat-shredding emotional turmoil of Closer, all three members are in some way involved in the indie-rock project. Founded by Matthew Van Asselt – who finds himself on guitar in Closer – it’s a collective that pulls on friends and acquaintances to fill in when needed. One such friend is bassist Griffin Irvine. The two met at school and have played together since they were twelve. Another is Ryann Slauson, a friend of Matt’s from college and a former roommate of Griffin’s. Ryann is also a touring member of Real Life Buildings.

With some downtime – and a desire to do something new – Van Asselt approached Ryann with the idea of starting a screamo band.

“Screamo is a sort of specific genre that hasn’t evolved much over the years,” considers Van Asselt. “You can just say, ‘let’s start a screamo band,’ and start a band that is definitely a screamo band.

“But I do think we managed to start a band that doesn’t sound exactly like all screamo bands. It’s got our own voice in there too.”

And that’s important. There are moments of majestic beauty in Closer’s work that owes as much to the texture and pacing of indie-rock as it does the chaotic intensity of City of Caterpillar or the meandering sporadic bursts of aggression exemplified by Circle Takes The Square. This musicality tempers what is most definitely a screamo record, adding light and melody to the mix.

“We’re not trying to be a certain band, and we have influences that are strong and apparent, but I think the mixture of it; it’s more of a soup than something that’s got just two ingredients. It’s a little more varied,” says vocalist Ryann Slauson.

To prove the point, there’s a Lana Del Rey sample buried on ‘All This Will Be’ – a product of time spent on the road with Real Life Buildings. “Matt loves Lana Del Rey, and we listened to it loads on tour. I think it kind of worked its way into our consciousness to the point where we were like ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ Before, that never would’ve happened,” says Irvine.

It’s a bold artistic choice, combining the intensity and aggression of screamo yet throwing in a hooky pop gem – even if it remains buried in the mix. With two bona fide artists in their rank – and a couple of poets – such jarring aesthetics make sense.

When not throwing disparate genres together Slauson is a sculptor, visual artist, and poet, while Van Asselt runs a print shop and has a background in art (Irvine being the second poet). Having such creatives involved makes it easy for the group to create the art in which the music is carried, keeping artwork and video production in-house. The flipside is it can be challenging to get a clear consensus:

“The album art was funny because we all had different ideas of what we wanted to convey, and we could never agree on it,” laughs Irvine. “I don’t know who it was – it might have been me – said ‘OK, we need to sit in a room together until we come up with an album cover’.

“I didn’t go to art school, I don’t know how to use Photoshop, but Matt and Ryann do, so they were on the computers, and I was just pacing back and forth, looking over their shoulders. I’d be like ‘Ryann, look at this,’ or ‘Matt, look at this.’ That was a wholly collaborative process. They’d be emailing each other different files.”

However, Van Asselt is clear to acknowledge that such creative differences are made with the best interests of the band at heart, especially when it comes to the artwork and song writing: “There’s a whole lot of subtle collaboration that does go on [in Closer], as opposed to Real Life Buildings, where I’m bringing the song to the band and teaching them to play the parts. There, if there’s a weak point or something, no-one’s going to say anything.

“With this band, there’s three of us in the room who genuinely want the songs to be the best they can be. So there is a lot of small shifting and evolving that we do together once we’re all in the room together playing the songs. They definitely changed drastically from their inception to the final song.”

At present, much of the lyrical output comes from Slauson – but this too is changing as the group gets more confident working together. Here, the emphasis is on stories that come from a personal space, but which possesses universal themes. It means the group can draw on their creative experience as poets to create evocative and undoubtedly private moments and make them resonate. Understandably, it’s a complicated, painful, process:

“It’s really hard,” says Slauson. “Over the last couple of years I’ve gotten into poetry, and I’m trying to make that part of my life, and being in this band is cool as I can write with that mindset.

“I liked – well, I hated – telling Matt and Griffin about ‘Oh, well, this part is about this boy who broke my heart.’ They were like ‘ah… OK…’ But, definitely, the lyrics are personal and cryptic and very individual, but I hope they come across in a way that people can bring their own thoughts to it. Some parts are a little bit more straight-forward, but for the most part, it’s pretty personal.

“When we play, it is difficult to sing those lines because what they mean to me. But I think that’s important.”

“As an artist, you’re taught to believe in your voice and the importance of what you want to say, and you want to make.”

The next step is for the group to collaborate more closely – although, they acknowledge much collaboration has taken place to date. The outstanding ‘Dust’, for example, was co-written by Slauson and Irvine, thrashed out over a kitchen table in an exercise that bordered on an “avant-garde experiment into automatic writing,” says Irvine (if you want to dive deeper, you should probably ask your friendly neighbourhood spiritualist).

“As an artist, you’re taught to believe in your voice and the importance of what you want to say, and you want to make,” considers Slauson. “When you go to art school, there are some collaborative projects that you’re forced to do, but usually they’re kind of terrible. It is hard to give up some of your agency and blend with someone else’s ideas.

“I think it [more collaboration] would allow me to sing things that aren’t so personal, but still meaningful and impactful. I think that might expand what the band is about – by combining what we all care about – rather than it all coming from me because I’m the ‘singer’.”

One possible avenue for future lyrical exploration is politics. There’s a small line in the liner notes of ‘All This Will Be’ that says ‘Destroy All Nazi Scum’. And, although ‘All This Will Be’ is not a political album, Closer are anything but apolitical:

“With Brexit and Donald Trump, it’s apparent that the time is now to stand up to the resurgence of the far right,” says Irvine. “This is a time… I don’t know about England, but there’s a lot of Nazis showing up in places where you never thought you’d see them again – like in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world.

“It’s important to keep in mind that anger, despair, and depression doesn’t come from an aesthetic vacuum, and that shouldn’t be worshipped as an inspiration for art; it comes down to larger cultural problems that we’re all facing.”

“There was a moment last year when I was like ‘I want every song to be political as fuck and say something important,’ says Slauson. “But then I was thinking about it more, and whether it is truly the best way to use this band to speak about things? Or if there’s a better way to do that without being specifically political? I think Griffin touched on it, in that it can be part of what we’re all about, and we can represent those things without being very pointed about it.”

“People are quick to criticise work that’s not explicitly political for being apolitical, whereas I think, historically, that’s not true. There’s politics in subtext,” concludes Irvine.

For a band that’s as creative as Closer, it’s an insightful remark that brings things full circle. Subtext – and the stuff that happens between the lines – is crucial to the success of ‘All This Will Be’. It’s a screamo album, but only in aesthetic. Scratch the surface, and there’s endless layers buried beneath – layers of visual artistry, literary theory, and surrealism and expressionism. It’s personal and universal – and one of 2018’s outstanding moments of music to date.

‘All This Will Be’ by Closer is out now on Lauren Records, Middleman Records and Conditions Records.

Closer links: Facebook|Twitter|Bandcamp

Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)