Lengthy and In-Depth, Just Like Their Songs: Minsk Interviewed

Peoria's atmo-sludge-tribal-psych-rock heroes and denizens of long-form song structures, Minsk returned to active duty this last April with their fourth full-length, The Crash and the Draw. I'd like to include more information in this intro, but guitarist/vocalist Christopher Bennett and vocalist/keyboardist/conga drummer (that's what it says...) Timothy Mead cover all bases thoroughly and definitively in the interview that follows. Aside from me instructing you to check them out because they rule (I don't know how many of us interview bands we wouldn't endorse to some degree), there's not a lot for me to say or add.  For that, you can thank Bennett and Mead personally by getting in touch with the band at the socia media links at the bottom of the page. 

Where did you guys disappear to, and why, after [2009 album] With Echoes in the Movement of Stone?

Christopher Bennett: We had some important personnel decisions to make upon returning home from a European tour at the end of 2009.  A palpable tension had begun to rear it’s head on a more frequent basis when it came time to dive into the creative process.  We arrived at our decisions to make the needed changes very carefully, which took time.  We decided to disappear, mostly outwardly, so we could see our path more clearly.  We declared that we were on hiatus, so we could essentially withdraw into our creative spaces and take as much time as we needed to create a new Minsk album.  Some of us had responsibilities outside of the band which required extra attention. This band has been a huge part of our lives for a good while now, and perhaps we needed time to take a few steps back, take a breath, and let our lives and experiences have the chance to influence the band in a new way, with a new perspective.  We were able to infuse new blood into the band during this period with the additions of [guitarist] Aaron [Austin], [drummer] Ryan [Thomas], [bassist] Zac [Livingston], and [drummer] Kevin [Rendleman].  We were fortunate to be able to pull from a wellspring of talented individuals, all of whom we had been involved with in other musical projects over the years. 

I see there are some new members in the band and that, most notably, Sanford Parker is out of the picture. What happened with the old members, and please be so kind as to introduce the new dudes?

Timothy Mead: Yeah, as Chris mentioned, we had some internal business to tend to after the touring we did for With Echoes…  a lot of that had to do with personal relationships, and things of that nature, mapping out what would be next for Minsk.  During that process is when we parted ways with [drummer] Anthony [Couri].  It was time to move on, time for something to change, and change happened.  While we were sorting all of that out, throughout that process and once the dust had settled, we had some long and heartfelt discussions with Sanford that ultimately led to a change in that relationship as well.  I think the last thing Sanford wanted was to feel as though he was holding us back in any way, and he was finding his time more and more limited.  The geographical distance between he and the rest of the band in Peoria was always something that presented challenges, but always something we had managed to work through, for better or worse.  But in the end, with his time being constrained by his producing career and other involvements, we all decided to proceed with replacing him in the lineup and still trying to keep him a member of the tribe from a distance.  Even then there was never any doubt in our minds that we would get to work together again on whatever recording was next for the group, which has always been his greatest contribution to Minsk, and I think he’s always been enlivened in some way when working or playing with us. But for the sake of the band itself, we knew that we would be starting again in some way with new collaborators, which included someone on bass who could be more of part of the day to day functioning of the band.  Sanford and us have always lived three hours apart from one another, which is a challenge under any circumstance.  Since he joined the band, we’d get together to rehearse for tours and work together when it was time to record, but we needed something else now.  Rebuilding an actual rhythm section in an intentional way, something that could be more integral to the writing process.  But being locked in a building last summer, with my friend, for all those days recording the album with him was a time that meant a great deal to me.  Having his energy and his spirit imbued into the production of this album and the synth contributions he made means a lot to me on a personal level.  As for the new members, Minsk has been gifted, once again, with more brothers whose talents are humbling to me.  I mentioned the rhythm section before, and that would be Zachary Livingston on bass and vocals, and Kevin Rendleman and Ryan Thomas on drums.  Ryan was with us through the writing of the album, but he moved to another state toward the end of that process which gave us the opportunity to work with Kevin as well.  Both drummers played on the record, which was fantastic.  Kevin will be sticking around as the permanent drummer, and  Ryan will be collaborating with us as often as possible.  Zac, Ryan, and I did a band together a few years back now called We the Prey, and it was awesome the way they just stepped into Minsk and immediately elevated us all.  And Aaron Austin is the other “new” member, but he’s actually been playing with Minsk since late 2010, on guitar and vocals.  Aaron adds a second guitar back into the lineup for the first time since the Out of a Center Which is Neither Dead Nor Alive album, and it’s just so right.  Aaron and Kevin had played together previously in Cloud Burial, and Chris had played bass on an EP with them.  It just feels so natural to me having Chris and Aaron feeding off of one another on guitar now, like something that always should have been there.  So, yes, a whole new group, but also a great deal of familiarity and trust.  I can’t say enough about how much the new members of the group have brought to Minsk, how much they help raise this up and take it to the next place it needs to be. 

Was there any point since the last album where things weren’t happening or were moving too slow that you felt frustrated with the state of the band? Did the thought of throwing in the towel ever cross your minds?

CB: Sure, there were periods of frustration, but most of this frustration was purely ego based.  It quickly became apparent that the process would move at it’s own pace.  We knew that our commitment to writing and recording a new record would manifest itself slowly.  To rush these new songs would have done a tragic disservice to the songs themselves, and to our creative desires.  I knew that our Will to keeping creating and evolving would be rewarded.  Minsk exists as our voice to express our perspective on living in this universe.  We hope that we can provide a representation of all that is both beautiful and disgusting in this life.  We NEED this outlet in our lives.  It is more than a band to us.  Allowing Minsk to become deceased was not an option. 

How long had you been working on the material for The Crash and the Draw, and at what point were you comfortable enough with what you had to confidently start the recording process?

TM: I definitely remember feeling confident after the short tour we did in the summer of 2013, playing several new songs that would end up on the album, that we had the foundations laid and could begin to really start making plans for the record.  Ultimately, it would end up being nearly a year from then that we actually got into the studio, but I think we all knew at least by that point, that we would be able to be ready for the next phase.  Over that next year we really started making decisions about what was there and what else was needed.  But to take it back to the beginning of this batch of songs, some of the kernels for ideas were already flowing as early as 2011, I believe.  As compared with any previous Minsk recordings, the preparation that went into the work before the studio was just unprecedented.  There was a sense of diligence on everyone’s part that may not have ever been present previously.  There was definitely a great deal of creative space in the studio for improvisation and things of that nature, but the songs themselves were dialed in in a way that has never been there before.  We had demo’d all of the songs before hand, something that Aaron made possible, and having that level of preparation going in was a definite asset, something I think is tangible on the record.  It was another level of focus for us all.

Was there anything different about the writing or recording for the new album that you hadn’t done in the past, in terms of process, sound, methodology, etc.? What sorts of goals did you set up for yourselves that you wanted to achieve with this new record?

CB: Being able to dive into the writing of this record with Aaron added a myriad of opportunities to expand our sonic potential. The songs often start with a raw guitar idea, so now having two guitar players in the band allows those ideas to become distilled into a new exciting form. We spent countless hours recording demo versions of these songs. This was hands down the most extensive pre-production process the band has ever undertaken. We made intentional efforts to pay attention to specific dynamics, sometimes in response to a vocal or lyrical passage, sometimes in response to a drum part. I would say we proceeded through this writing process with more intentionality than ever before. A tightness began to emerge which was unprecedented in Minsk songs. We knew the band needed to push itself in this way, and by putting in the time and work, I feel that we emerged with an album which illustrates this. One of the overarching goals we discussed was to expand our vocal arrangements. With the addition of Aaron and Zac, we were able to layer the vocals in ways which pushed our boundaries, and as a result, propelled the songs into untouched sonic lands.  

When you were in the studio, how was what you were capturing comparing to what you had in your heads during the writing process?

TM: I think that’s always the challenge, both the frustration and learning, when trying to take what’s in your head and put it into a recording. It’s never exactly what you hear in your head, never. And there are a couple of possible reactions to that experience, either you can beat yourself up over and over trying to make it exactly that or you can try to dive further into what that actually means. I think we’re often being shown something about the songs when we record them that hadn’t been realized previous to that process. Being able to let the songs unfold and find a way to get in line with that unfolding is crucial, and it is not always easy. The additional preparation mentioned earlier with demoing the songs ahead of time in a more thorough way lessened the distance between what was in our heads and what ended up on the record, but several of the songs turned out very other than I was anticipating in my head.  Finding a way to go with that and see them out to whatever end comes about is a part of the stewardship, a part of the letting go of ego and a recognition that a previous perspective is only that, a perspective. If I were to think back to my expectations of what this album would become, prior to the studio, what is there has far exceeded what I was hoping it would be, something beyond what my singular perspective could imagine. For me, that is one of the true riches of this project, being constantly sharpened and illuminated by the contributions of the others.  

What does the title of the album refer to, or what is the story behind it? Is there a particular concept to the record and what’s the relevance of the album cover art?

CB: The title refers to the elemental rhythms which we see in our lives every day. There is a waxing and a waning. There are forces in nature which will continue to operate without concern as to whether or not us humans decide to live in accordance with them. The sea rises, the sea falls, and so do we. Tim came up with the title which I believe was influenced by an illuminating afternoon we shared on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The feeling of being inconsequential can be a liberating feeling.  Humans can play an integral role in the shaping of this planet, yet the potential remains for us to be wiped out rather quickly and easily. In some ways this record feels like it represents the return to life, after a long bitter winter. The archetype of the cyclical pattern of the seasons directly influenced many of the dynamics and arrangements. For instance, the song “Onward Procession” is a representation of a celestial year. The way we sequenced the songs both musically and lyrically can be the representation of a seeker of knowledge, an initiate if you will, beginning on the path to gaining an understanding of the essential cognizance of the self and of the environment which surrounds.  Orion Landau created the layout and the cover, which was based on an original piece by Corinne Reid. We gave Orion the idea for the color scheme based on the concept of the blue hour, with the loose concept of a wolf finding it’s way into the well of ideas. Upon hearing the songs, Orion felt a visceral reaction to the music; akin to the way we might feel upon sighting a wolf in the wild. The wolf archetype is powerful; it can remind us to trust our instincts, to have control over our lives, to use our Will to manifest our dreams and desires into reality.  

Do you feel that with the shortened attention spans of music fans these days – and people in general – that not only have album sales taken a hit, but also the appeal of a band like yourselves and others that have songs generally crossing the 10-minute mark? Or does this sort of thing separate the die-hards from the fair-weather fans?

TM: I do think that shortened attention spans are huge potential problem for society, that there are certain types of knowledge, understanding, appreciation that stand to be lost if no one can keep their mind trained of something for longer than a tweet.  However, I don’t know that it’s possible to say how that actually affects a band like Minsk.  Fortunately, we don’t really have to worry about that sort of thing.  We’ve never been under an sort of misgivings that what Minsk was doing would be something embraced by the masses.  Even back in 2002, with whatever attention spans people had back then, we didn’t ever expect that this music would speak to everyone.  It is a very strange type of music that requires something from the listener, something that not everyone is willing or able to give.  But throughout the years, we’ve been fortunate to continually connect with people who tell us that this music means something to them, people whose appreciation has always spurred us onward.  Despite the trajectory of technology and its impact on the way people listen to music, there will always be those who desire to really sit with a long form piece of music and absorb everything it has to share, whether that’s an hour long album cut up into five pieces or twenty.  

After being able to be away from the game for as many years as you have, are you planning on hitting the touring circuit harder and more extensively that you had in the past – because you either you miss it or because you want to take advantage of your ability to do it while you still are able?

CB: We definitely have missed touring.  Getting the opportunity to connect with brilliant people all over the world has been something we have felt so fortunate to experience.  We won’t necessarily hit the tour circuit harder than before, as we are more geographically separated now than we once were, but we will be more focused and deliberate about when we decide to tour.  We want to venture further to places we have yet to visit.  We hope to take our music to any and every corner of the world that takes interest in it. 

Email interviews are always convenient, but I generally feel I’m missing something. Is there anything that you feel people should or need to know about Minsk in 2015?

TM: I’d just like to thank all of the friends and fans out there who have waited so patiently through this process. The kind words have been instrumental in allowing us the freedom to carefully move the Minsk narrative forward in a meaningful way. 2015 is destined to be an exciting year for all of us, and we look very forward to sharing this album with the world. Onward!

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