My DC: A Conversation with Near Northeast
Photos by Dylan Singleton for D.C. Music Download
Near Northeast named themselves after the greater H Street Corridor neighborhood–a place, they say, that represents the rapidly changing dynamic of Washington. Between rooted community establishments and relatively newer ventures, it is the diverse bustle of the Corridor–and where the band first started playing together–that led Near Northeast to designate H Street as a second home. I met with the group at Capital Fringe, and in between eating burgers and preparing for their upcoming performances, we talked about American politics, Roy Lichtenstein, and the universality of beautiful music–all elements that inform their forthcoming studio album, True Mirror.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is Capital Fringe a notable spot for Near Northeast?
Avy Mallik: We first played here as a band two years, in June 2015, for our first album’s release show, Curios. We’re always excited to find a place where music might be a little unexpected. We’ve looked at theaters, warehouses, alleyways and we’ve played on the street in front of a custard shop once. We love the music venues in D.C., but this space seemed really interesting. There was a lot of theater and other forms of art that we were fans of, so we reached out to the folks who ran this place, including Capital Fringe’s CEO Julianne [Brienza]. We stayed in touch, and then we performed here again on Inauguration Day, which was a very emotional moment for a lot of folks.
This space is special to us, as is the neighborhood and Northeast D.C., which is where we started the band. H Street and NoMA are really part of our story.
Kelly Servick: Also, this is the neighborhood we’re named after. When we first started practicing, and started to think about naming ourselves as a band, Near Northeast popped into our heads as describing us.
While we’re on the subject, are there other spaces in the neighborhood besides Fringe that are important to you guys? We planned to meet at Sidamo first…
AM: Yeah, Sidamo is a coffeeshop. They don’t do music, but every Sunday at 2 p.m. they do a traditional Ethiopian coffee roast… there’s a lot of spaces in the neighborhood. Unfortunately places have closed as H Street’s transformed, but we still have Rock and Roll Hotel, [which] we’ve performed at before… a lot of place have opened up north of H Street, including Union Arts, which we loved going to shows at as well.
This entire neighborhood has been really good to us. I live in the neighborhood, and we’ve all spent a lot of time here. It’s a place where the old D.C. meets the new D.C. It’s very diverse, very multicultural, and there are a lot of stories in every block from all the people you meet here.
We talked earlier about your last album, Curios, which was released in 2015. Can you talk about the process of recording your new album, True Mirror, and what the time in between those albums has been like for you as a group?
Austin Blanton: So I mixed and produced this record, but this one was done all in my bedroom in Columbia Heights. I think in the first record you hear more of the bedroom in that, so I think I’ve improved! But I think this one, recording-wise, we’re a little more ambitious. Avy did a bunch of interesting stuff with a pitch shifter to make strange noises, and brought in a bunch of guest musicians.
AM: I really can’t overstate how important Austin was in really putting the sound together, because he spent so much time figuring out all these moving parts. And all our songs, I think, have gotten simultaneously more complex, but have had more of a thematic core more so than the first album. I think Austin spent a lot of time finding that sound for each song. It does feel, in my opinion, like a sort of cohesive piece of music, and that’s hard to do, surprisingly.
Antonio Skarica: Curios came out in June 2015, and the band has been playing extensively ever since. I joined in December of 2015, right after the album came out, and I already noticed when I started rehearsing that [the band] was already writing a bunch of new stuff, and the same thing is happening now. Essentially, two years later, True Mirror is out and we’re already working on new stuff. Just today we were rehearsing some of the songs we’ll be playing on Friday, but then Avy comes up with a new idea and we just get sidetracked and immediately start playing our new stuff. I think the same was true for True Mirror in the sense that there are so many ideas from everyone that we slowly start developing. I think we truly went into the studio…
AB: The bedroom, you mean.
AS: Yeah the bedroom [laughs]. So all the songs were written by December and we spent, what, two months recording it?
AM: It seems like it was a lot longer… there were so many breaks, and we went on a little tour.
Where did you all tour?
KS: We did a short tour in Northern California. Avy spent a lot of time and grew up partly in San Francisco, and we drove around and played some smaller towns and some really wonderful shows up there. Also, in preparing for these mini-tours, we were touring without drums for several of them and started ringing up these electronic beats that Austin programmed on this tiny little device called the Pocket Operator, the PO-12. That’s one of the obvious differences from Curios, there’s more of an electronic sound. I think we’ve tried to hang on to our wooden instruments and the sounds that they make, but also blend them.
You talk about this idea of there being a ‘thematic core’ to True Mirror that differentiates it from Curios, which inclines me to think that this is more of a concept album. Can you talk about some of the themes that inform this record?
AM: A lot of the songwriting happened in 2015 and 2016, and it was a really difficult time for everybody, with so much uncertainty in the air. For the band there was a lot of uncertainty too, about who we were and what we were trying to do, I think. Are we a folk band? Are we a rock band? Do we need to label ourselves? How do we keep making things that are interesting? And Kelly has always been the wordsmith, this amazing lyricist who was writing lyrics that you have to listen to a few times to realize, there may be a lot of darkness when you expect a lot of light.
KS: I don’t know how much I can speak to a thematic core, but the title True Mirror came out of this song, “Missed American,” that is sort of a mirror image of itself. We wrote that to play a show at the Luce gallery two years ago. We challenged ourselves to write a song inspired by a piece of art in that gallery, and we chose the piece “Mr. and Mrs. America” by this folk artist named Rex Clawson. It was this colorful, shining image that had a lot of darkness in it, while also having some American themes and being a little apocalyptic. I can’t say if that or very much of this album was overtly responding to the presidential election or the political climate, but I think there was a bit more America on this album than the previous one.
AB: I noticed on the second album that everyone was maturing as a musician but also getting used to playing with other people, which is really a demanding and complex process. Between the first and the second album, the band really switched from writing songs to writing music with fellow musicians… we kind of got to this natural point where we noticed the songs were not as folky and happy as we thought they would be.
So this dark element of True Mirror is somewhat of a product of the political climate it was produced in. Is there anything else that affected that shift in tone?
AS: I wouldn’t say this is a dark album per se, it’s just relatively darker than when you listen to Curios and some of the really folky songs. When you compare it with the ending of “Missed America,” it seems like it’s two different bands. So I would say it was a slow shift, in my opinion. We never made a decision, it was very natural. We were just exploring these ideas, and everyone was a lot more comfortable sharing their input and pushing the songs in a different way.
KS: A lot of this was about just the sound being dark, I don’t think the lyrics have gotten darker, although other people can interpret them. But I think part of it comes from there being more uncertainty in the structure of the song, I think that can make something feel darker when you compare it to something like “Under the Pines,” one of the first songs we wrote together, which was this really bright feeling because it’s within a predictable structure. When we started bending that, things started feeling more unstable and darker in that way.
AM: We intentionally took things out to make [this album] uncomfortable. There’s a song, “Col,” that started as a folky acoustic song, at least in the demo, and we were ready to put it out with Curios. We pulled it back, because we thought it didn’t really capture the essence of the song. So then we took out the guitar. There is almost no guitar in “Col,” and when you take out a primary instrument like that, there’s a lot of uncertainty, which allowed for the wooden instruments to come to the fore. We mixed in an analog synth that makes an interesting sound, and the lyrics adapted to the instability of the song.
KS: They were completely rewritten.
It seems a big component of Near Northeast’s identity comes from everyone’s individual musical backgrounds. You’re cited as having Indian, Bosnian, Appalachian, and Latin American musical influences. Is there a sense of global identity that influences True Mirror?
KS: I think, in some sense, it’s trying to not be within any particular global identity, but rather follow what is enticing to us and what we hear.
AM: There’s one song called “Just Do Your Thing” with a rhythm to it, mostly because of Austin playing the upright bass and Antonio playing the drums with a beat that has a bossa feel. It’s sort of an illusion to it, you can’t put your finger on it and then you have the guitar coming in with a bunch of noisy notes and the violin sort of floating above it. It’s one of the songs that shows all the different influences that we have. For the Indian influence, there’s obviously “Indali” that has this interesting fretless instrument, and with the tubla… that song kind of shows there’s a lot of beauty in melodic harmony, but at the same time, with some dissonance and some strange chords.
So, alongside True Mirror, you’ve released a companion album called Variations 1-8, which is a 24-minute ambient, string-heavy arrangement. What motivated its concurrent release and how does it fit into True Mirror as a companion piece?
AM: There’s a lot of places where the song comes from. One part of the story was this piece that I saw by Roy Lichtenstein, which was a deconstruction of a Picasso painting of a bull. It was a companion piece of four iterations where the image got more and more abstract and geometric in shape, and the last one doesn’t look like a bull at all. But if you see them in totality, you realize it’s the same painting, or the same variations of the same subject matter. That was in the back of my head as a contribution to Variations. It came out organically where we thought we should have an intro that’s ambient going into this song [“Indali”], and it went further where we had several rounds of Kelly adding violin, both acoustic and electronic, and that was manipulated as she was playing by Austin. The funny thing about that song is that Austin was producing it in Logic, and sometimes Logic crashes, but when it comes back, it does so in this really glitchy form. So Austin sent us various versions where it had screwed up, and we liked it, so Austin put in these clips of glitches that became part of the story of Variations.
AB: We also reversed some sections; we played it backwards, and had instruments play over that, which was also inspired by the idea of True Mirror.
Your show is coming up at St. Stephen’s on May 5. What do you think that performance will be like, reproducing this maximalist sound in a live setting? And what can we expect in the near future for Near Northeast?
AM: I think it’ll be an interesting concert because we’ll have performers that don’t normally perform together. We’re going to perform the whole album for the first time, probably the only time performing everything. We’re going to use the space, which is a church–they’ve got an organ which we’re going to use, hopefully.
KS: Somehow they’re letting us do that.
AM: It’ll be an opportunity to bring our music into a space that you normally wouldn’t find it.
KS: In terms of the sound, I think it’ll be a quieter show because we’re in this really expansive space, and we’re just trying to fill a little part of it with music.
AM: Very briefly, we’re going to take a break after that performance. Then we’ll have a show in San Francisco this June at a gallery, and then hopefully–if we’re all on the same page–we’ll do some touring around here, maybe play some interesting shows. This has really been a labor of love, but at the same time we really want to play for people that might not normally expect the music we make and continue to be inspired. We wanna be true to our own spirit but also forge ahead.
AB: Don’t forget the Bosnian tour.
AS: Yeah we’re also planning an Eastern Europe tour. Hopefully in September we’ll do five or six shows in Croatia.
Near Northeast will release True Mirror on May 5 via Exte Records, but you can get an early listen to the record via Spotify. The band will also celebrate their album release on May 5 at St. Stephen’s Church. Doors 7 p.m./Tickets $10 DOS only.