I saac Arms certainly gets around the CU music scene. If you follow Arms’ Twitter account, you know that at any given moment, he may be booking shows with the CU Collective or writing for the music section of Smile Politely. Or he might be working on material with one of his several bands, including Evil Tents, Thundertruck, and Withershins. As the front man of Withershins, Arms and bandmates Bryce Robert Hays, Colin Larson and Neal Yeager create heavy shoegaze influenced equally by Champaign’s current and past music scenes. We at buzz talked to Arms in anticipation of Withershins’ April 20 performance at Mike ‘N’ Molly’s. The show doubles as a release party for their second album, Silver Cities.
» buzz: When did you guys start recording sessions for Silver Cities?
Isaac Arms: Well, if you’re referring to sessions that ultimately ended up on the record, probably 2010. We started writing and recording the thing in 2009. It’s been a long haul. Our first trip out to Great Western—that’s how long it’s been, Earth Analog used to be called Great Western Record Recorders—was in February in 2010. It’s been a blur because we’ve done it piece by piece, when we had the time and when we had the money. A lot of it was recorded live to tape, which is fairly unforgiving if you’re not tight.
» buzz:When was the first Withershins LP, Aeriel, released?
IA: The first record was released August 2009. That was infinitely quicker. We’d been a band maybe a year or two, writing songs and playing them out live, but we recorded it that summer in our engineer/producer/tour bassist Aaron McAllister’s (also of Tractor Kings) basement. We all lived in town, so it happened pretty quickly, we mixed it pretty quickly, and then we went on tour right after.
» buzz: So how does Silver Cities compare sonically to Aeriel?
IA: It’s still got big guitars, that’s for sure. It’s spacier, but more direct. It’s heavier, but less thrash. The easiest thing to say is that it’s a darker record. The trick of Aeriel is that it’s like the song “Today” by the Smashing Pumpkins; it’s the poppiest, most melodic, happy, major chord track on that record, but it was about Billy Corgan wanting to kill himself. I wrote Aeriel when I was at a low point in my life. It was my way of coming up with a story so I wouldn’t have to directly face the pain I was in. On Silver Cities, there’s still a story, there’s still metaphor. But when you play live long enough, you start to think less about your syllables and meter. You start to think about what can physically and emotionally affect somebody in a room. Honestly, we’re mostly a live band. So it’s more about being honest, and sometimes that honesty is really difficult and sharp. This one seems way darker. It’s about me questioning how to be a good person given the position we’ve been given in America. I don’t have to walk outside and worry about gettin’ blown up.
» buzz: So would you say it’s a political record?
IA: It’s hyper-political. The last record was about a love interest but I painted it as like a family situation. This one is painted as a picture about a lover, but it’s really about this place. Withershins doesn’t really play Chicago, and we don’t really go on tour. We play to these people, these places, and we feel these ways about it. It’s about our continuous romantic and sexual relationship with this community, and how much we appreciate and disparage our situation at the same time. It’s a hotbed of beautiful people who make brilliant music, but at the same time it’s a “college town.” And in that definition there’s the implication that “we’re not a real city.” I come from Kentucky and this is totally a city. There’s so much to do here but it’s just small enough that if you screw enough people, and screw over enough people, everyone knows about it and you can’t escape your past.
» buzz: So Silver Cities, that’s basically a reference to Champaign?
IA: The idea is that there’s a binary. This was written when I was playing in a band in Chicago, so I was travelling back and forth between Champaign and Chicago, and I’m not from either of these places. I don’t have these biases, I just see them for what they are and appreciate what they offer. So partially, it’s Champaign and Chicago. But also, in my tenure in this community, I’ve basically moved back and forth between Champaign and Urbana about every year. So there’s the lax, hippie, dark Urbana, and then there’s bustling, pompous, brilliant Champaign… I only feel comfortable taking a look at and examining what’s messed up about this music scene and what’s ridiculous about these people because I’ve been here for so long. I didn’t come here for school. I graduated from the U of I, but I didn’t come here for the U of I.
» buzz: What was your favorite song to write and record on this album?
IA: Absolutely, hands down, “Glittered Out.” “City Lights” was another favorite. “City Lights” happened in about a day. That’s the only one that happened in the studio. “Glittered Out” happened over a longer period of time, but it was all of us. It was one of the most collaborative efforts we’ve ever done, let alone on the record. Basically anything I could say to describe the band in general is present in that song.
That song is about this city and what we do in it, which is make loud music, get drunk, laugh and have a good time.
» buzz: So would you say you’re the main songwriter for Withershins?
IA: I am “the dude.” It’s a sad truth that every band has to have “a dude” behind it but I guess I am. But I’m a useless guitarist without Colin, and I’m a shitty guitarist compared to Bryce, and we’re all really lazy, detached, stoic fools compared to Neil. He brings total heart, and if we’re stressed about not being tight he’s like “Dude, it’s just rock ’n’ roll, we are here to have fun, remember?” So, I’m “the dude,” but we all shape each other. I wrote almost all the songs on this record. The music for the song “Ender” is Colin’s.
» buzz: How many tracks are on the LP?
IA: It’s a ten-song record. It was almost a 12-song record, but there’s one song, “Fireflies,” that’s actually three songs put together. It’s actually, to quote one of my band members, “a ballsy move.” I think I agree; it’s a nine minute song and it’s the first one on the album.
» buzz Hell yeah!
IA: It kind of demands a lot. We’re really only interested in playing music for people who want us to play music. My teachers, be they formal or informal, have taught me that you put your single first. I know how to do that in songwriting, and I know how to do it in promotion and what-not, but I just wanted people to realize that we made this record for it to be a record. This isn’t pop radio gold we’re working with. Just sit back, enjoy the ride, and hopefully it’s something that you want to listen to fully.
» buzz: So in what formats are you releasing Silver Cities at the Mike ‘N’ Molly’s release show?
IA: It’s being released on CD, like normal. I don’t have the time to hand-make and dub records like I used to. Right now, it’s just CD but eventually I want to have vinyl.
» buzz: So did you guys produce the album as well?
IA: It was a joint production from the band and our engineer, Aaron McAllister. It worked well because Aaron was an unofficial member of the band. He was our touring bassist, but he just knows our gear, he knows us personally and he knows the songs, so he helped us figure out what we were doing.
» buzz: Was the 4/20 release an intentional reference to the semi-official stoner holiday?
IA: [Laughs] I’m glad you asked that so it wasn’t assumed. That is coincidental. We had no deadline for the record because we’re unsigned. I’ve been trying to book a show with Gospel Gossip since they came here last. They’re sort of part of that shoegaze community, and they definitely make amazing albums. They’re really nice people, and so are Take Care. It’s a good day for a show, but it’s just coincidence; we’re not total potheads. I mean, it’s funny, but there’s no special way to get a free blunt when you show up to the Withershins show.
Who: Withershins, Gospel Gossip, Take Care
When: April 20 @ 10
Where: Mike ‘N’ Molly’s