Interview: Rick Duncan of Portland bass-and-drum duo Towers talks weird sounds, perfectionism and practice room magic

Towers come from Portland, Oregon, and have this awesome sound that’s a strange brew concocted of low-end bass hum and psych-stoner doom, post-punk and krautrock. There is a lot more in there, too. Putatively, it’s metal all right, but with a center so dark and heavy it can pull in all manner of outré influences and absorb them into the whole. To use a countercultural superlative: Towers play trippy, heavy shit. Bassist, vocalist and synth player Rick Duncan even moots using a bossa nova beat in the near future, and that somehow doesn’t sound so radical after spending a weekend spinning their dizzying sophomore album, II, over and over again, picturing bleak sunsets in some Carpenter-esque ruined city (because that’s the sort of image II evokes), and hearing all about how paring down the lineup from a three-piece to a two-piece has only left Duncan and partner-in-crime Darryl Swan (drums) more room in the mix to create these desolate warped soundscapes that seem to come so naturally to them. More room to experiment. The trick, as Rick Duncan reveals, is all in the practice . . .

How has the transition from three-piece to two-piece affected the way you wrote for II? "We lost our guitar player because he just upped and quit. In the back of my mind it was kind of a relief. We were having a hard time writing new material because he didn’t like something in it and it was one of those things when writing songs that if one of us doesn’t like it we won’t do it any more. We just ditch the idea. So, finally, when he left, Darryl and I got our own practice place and just started again, and thought we gotta keep moving. We just started writing every day, writing stuff, and we were thinking that eventually we were going to have a guitar player come in and join us, and we tried maybe five or six guitar players, and it just wasn’t working. Then we got offered a show and just thought we gotta do it—we gotta do it as a two-piece. So we did it, and people loved it. We just thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s be a two-piece.’ Then I started to try and up my sound a little bit by splitting up my signal and trying to get a bigger bass sound. I’ve basically upped it to three amps right now, and now I’m started to do more loops and have some loops going on.”

What instrumentation is on the album? It sounds so textured. “I mean, it’s pretty much all bass. We did that record live in the studio, and then I took the tracks home and did all the vocals at home. But the thing that we noticed on the tracks that there was a lot of noise coming off my wah pedal, squeaking noises. It was kind of obnoxious. There was nothing we could do about it so I thought the best I could do was try to mask it, so there is some synth on there, and some weird—I just did some crazy noises taking the jack out of my guitar and putting my finger over it and creating this weird static sound. I just did some sort of sound design to mask that pedal noise, and then it actually turned out really cool so we’re really happy how that turned out. Other than that, there is no guitar; it is just bass guitar, drums, vocals, and a little bit of keyboards.”

It sounds incredible. I was going to ask about your influences outside of music. It’s like you’ve got this whole post-apocalyptic sci-fi vibe. Do you think of riffs or atmosphere first when writing? “Feel. It’s all feel. Basically Darryl and I will record everything that we do and if it makes us feel a certain way then we’re like, ‘That’s it! We’re going to do something like that; we are going to turn that into a song.’ That’s how we do it. We just try to base our tunes on how it makes us feel.”

And is this all the product of jamming? It sounds like you just get holed up in a room and work on a riff or an idea and jam until it makes sense. “That’s exactly what we do. And we’ve got tons of ideas for the next record. We could have a record in a couple of months because we just keep pushing ourselves. We are just trying to do better. And the singing is fairly new to me; I just started doing it, so I am still finding myself a little bit on that. Like what I can do and what I can’t do, and it’s kinda cool. I’m feeling a little more comfortable about doing it now because like when we first got together and we tried out singers and it wasn’t happening, and I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it.’ And I just had to get over the playing and singing at the same time, and once I got over that hump that just opened up a whole ‘nother world for me. I’m definitely getting way more comfortable with doing it when we play. I mean, we practise every day, just about.”

It was something I was going to save for last but you brought it up: what you would like to add to your sound? “That’s kind of a complicated question because it is going to be more of the same because we are not going to add any more instrumentation to it. We’re just going to try make it more intense, try to make it darker, heavier, y’know. That’s kinda where we are going. We want to see how far we can take that. How crazy we can make it! Haha! That’s kinda where we are at.”

You’ve obviously got a lot more space in the mix, but is it good just knowing that you have the two of you, and it is your ideas that count and that’s that; there is no casting vote, no other opinion to deal with? “Yeah I don’t feel limited at all. I feel in some ways that we can just expand on what we are doing, and instead of adding somebody we just have to push ourselves a little harder to get a certain sound. And I am constantly experimenting with my rig and how I can make it broader, if that makes sense.”

Yeah, where your bass rig is getting bigger all the time to accommodate these new ideas. “Yes, and also effects, too. I’m not just getting more cabs. Like I said, we’re doing a little more loops, which has been good for us because we’ve been learning how to just stay, or do a steady tempo, and lock into a groove and then travel outside of that groove, then come back into it on time on that. That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of months now, and that’s improved our musicianship quite a bit by doing that. It is making us tighter. We experiment with different time signatures, just trying to do shit that we normally don’t do. We are constantly doing stuff like that, even just as practice. Even doing western beats, sometimes we’ll do that or we’ll do a bossa nova beat for a while and just see what comes out of that.”

At times it feels almost like free jazz, like you are playing around the groove. Albeit tonally different. “Exactly. That’s how we roll. We don’t like verse/choruse/verse/chorus kinda structure. I have been in a ton of bands that have been like that and we just feel like that sounds cool, that’s what we are doing, and I think that we both kind of have a short attention span sometimes. We don’t like to do things too long before we just get like ‘argh!’ and change it and do something else. And our changes are crucial, too. Going in from one part to another has to be just right; it is something that we won’t just settle for. Our changes—whether changing tempos or changing parts—are really important when we write a song. That change has got to make you feel something, make your heart move or something.”

You said you recorded it live, in analog, no less. I take it before you went in that the songs were in order as is and rehearsed that over and over? “Yeah, we probably practiced that set for six months before we went into the studio. And sometimes, there are things that I wish we’d done differently on that record but in the end it turned out pretty damn cool. The one thing that I would do differently on that record, if we had a little more time in the studio—because it is expensive, like $500 a day, we should maybe have spent two days in there tracking it, just to get the pressure off a little bit; trying to go in there and lay a record down in one day is kinda stressful but we pulled it off just ‘cos we practice so much. I think the next record we do, we’re going to track it ourselves and then have someone else mix it and spend, like, a good week just making sure that it’s what we want before we go in and mix it. I engineered for ten years or so; I did a lot of engineering, for a long time, so I’ve got a couple of analog reel-to-reel tape machines and a console, all that stuff.”

Doing that for 10 years you’ll have all these little things that will bug you and keep you awake at night? “Oh yeah, absolutely. I knew that doing the vocals at home had to be done that way because I am really a perfectionist about that. It takes me a while to track vocals.”

I can hear the perfectionism, but at the same time Towers sounds pretty loose. “That's what we want; to keep it loose. Basically being able to play it and not thik about what you’re doing and not getting too heady about it, and I think we are getting stronger that way, for sure. We’ve stopped just thinking about it so much and just do it.”

How did you decide on your vocal style? Was there anyone who had a big influence on it? “I like vocalists who are pretty dynamic, with a bit of range and don’t just sing one way, maybe they’ve got three or four different personalities. I love singers who can pull that stuff off—and I am still trying to find all those personalities, and I think I’ve got a couple more for the new record. So yeah, it’s just me experimenting, basically, trying to find my style. It is definitely coming together.”

It almost feels like your are accessing all these different characters, accessing a different part of yourself. “It’s exciting to play live. I’m getting more comfortable playing and singing. I’m getting a sense of what I am doing vocally, and when we play it live we don’t lock it down, sometimes it’ll be a lot faster or a lot slower; it just depends what the energy is on that day, which is exciting. We’re good at improving a little bit, too. We just kinda run with it and then bring it back in [to the song].

What was your musical education like? Who turned you onto extreme music? “I lived in Portland and then when I was, I dunno, maybe 14 years old I moved to Pennsylvania, and the first day at school this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Do you play an instrument?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you wanna play bass?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ I’ve always wanted to play an instrument and that’s how I got into it. I went and rented a bass and a cab and just sat in my room because I didn’t have any friends at that time. I’d come home from school and just lock myself in my room, practicing every night. I never had any training; I just played in bands and have been doing it ever since. Back then I was really into Iron Maiden, AC/DC, early Mötley Crüe, Metallica. That was what I was into back than. But I am not just into the heavy stuff; I like some of the pop stuff, all kinds of stuff, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, the list goes on and on. I listen to all types of music.”

But was there one who turned you onto the idea that music could really weird you out? “That would have to be Scorn. Early Scorn really blew my mind. It totally blew my mind, especially with Vae Solis. That was just insane. I mean it’s unworldly, heavy . . . It’s a scary record. And what I like about them was that every record that he [Mick Harris] put out was always different. He was always doing something different, and then it got more bass and drums, more techno-y . . . Yeah, that was definitely the band that really changed me, for sure. I got into sonics—I got into engineering after that record. That was one thing that he was good at, creating a sound. Like how in the hell did he do that? He was obviously a good engineer, a good craftsman of sound. So I ended up doing that; I got into sound design.”

Are you still working professionally as an engineer? “No. I kinda got out of because, y’know, I’m a bit heady sometimes; I drink too much. I was partying too hard all the time and really, to be an engineer, if you are recording somebody’s record you gotta be on top of it and I just felt like I wasn’t. It was like, ‘Y’know what—I’m just going to do this for my own stuff and not for anyone else’s.’ Don’t get me wrong, I made a lot of good records, but I was so stressed out with those records, to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore. I would lose sleep if I was not getting the sound that I wanted. That would really bug me. It really would bug me. I got out of it. I still have all of my gear and I still plan on setting it up but it’s going to be more for fun, more for just my own stuff and, of course, for friends too, just to take it and have some fun with it.”

Perfectionism is a blessing and a curse. “It really is. I did audio engineering for a few years and just got out of it—and now I just fix swimming pools! Haha! And I enjoy it.”

What’s next for Towers? “We’ll probably have a new record out in the fall. Because we’ve already started piecing this stuff together—I mean we are constantly going over the set—and we are going to go on a tour over here. Probably at the end of August. We are going to do a couple of short runs to California, maybe up to Seattle, we’ll try play D.C. if we can, and then what we’ll probably do is rent out a room and set up some of my gear. I’ve got a one-inch 16-track reel-to-reel. I’ll set it up and just start mic’ing stuff and running with it. I wanna spend a little more time trying to put together a more interesting record, a more sonically interesting record, and experiment a little bit with odd drum sounds.”

You talk about sets when talking about your albums; is that how you look at it? Do you look to write a continuous piece of music where the sequencing is predetermined for the album before you start? “Yeah, that album is one piece. We wrote it as one piece. I had to break it up so it was more tangible for people to listen to. I had to break it up into parts just so someone could download sections instead of downloading a 30-minute song. We always play them in that order.”

Is that why you had a bit of fun with it? The running time to “Hell”, the opening track is 11:34, which as Vanessa Salvia noted on Invisible Oranges, reads as Hell when you view it upside down? “By the way, just to let you know, we did not do that on purpose. Someone told me that and I was like, ‘Really!’ I didn’t even do that! On purpose, anyway—it turned out that way which is pretty wild.”

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