It’s impossible to hear Hey Marseilles and not immediately fall ridiculously in love with their breathtaking sound. Just ask the folks over at NPR who can’t seem to stop talking about them. Cello and mandolin strings swirl amidst rhythms that lap at the heels of astute lyrics on their latest album, Lines We Trace. Founder and front man for the band, Matt Bishop, graciously answered a handful of questions that we had about everything from songwriting to hurling Frisbees at Jim James.
Donkey Jaw: Movement and memory seem to be cornerstones of Lines We Trace. Were these songs written looking back on a singular event or more so intended to simply tell a story?
Matt Bishop: I didn’t have any particular intention or vision when I set out writing the lyrics to this record, so I think the songs are just a reflection of where my head was at. Our first album hit on themes of moving forward, or just moving somewhere else, the allure of being in a different place than where you’re at now. Writing these songs, I was more interested in coming to terms with who and where you are and finding a sense of place or self in the circumstances that have been given to you.
Were there any non-musical influences on this record: travel, books, art, etc? If so, what and how did it shape songs/album?
We all have a pretty integral role in the songwriting process, so there are probably innumerable things that influenced us collectively in at least some way. I know the last track, Demian, is the name of a Herman Hess novel that Sam was reading when he wrote that piece. Listening to the record now, I realize how much of the same imagery I use in a lot of the lyrics, references to gray and the ocean and mountains, all things that must be a product of the Seattleite in me. And a couple of the tracks were inspired by a roommate. I lived with who was certain the world as we knew it was on the edge of collapse; Elegy and Hold Your Head reflect a bit of my experience living in the intensity of that environment.
Several songwriters I’ve interviewed aren’t thrilled with the confessional descriptor associated with their lyrics. What are your thoughts?
I land on the side that says a song isn’t necessarily about the person singing it. I majored in English literature in college and can appreciate Derrida’s Death of the Author, which essentially makes the case that a piece of writing should be taken as an entity independent of its writer. And, more simply, I appreciate songwriters like Johnny Cash, who didn’t likely “kill a man in Reno just to watch him die.” But I’d also be lying if I tried to argue that my experiences don’t influence or shape the songs that I write. So in each song, there may be a little personal confession, or there may be none, and most of my songs are probably somewhere in between.
The band has many players and even more instruments. What are the travel logistics for tour?
Not too different from most other bands. We have a van and a reasonably sized trailer that takes care of most of instruments and luggage. If we fly, things can get a touchy. Checking a cello is always cause for anxiety, but we’ve been spending most of our time on the road these days. We try to be pretty intentional about staying with friends or finding accommodations that are at least moderately comfortable. Meaning every person has a bed to sleep on most nights. Even if it’s shared with another band member.
How do you approach capturing the gorgeous soundscapes of the record on stage?
It’s a matter of making a commitment to represent our songs as best we can and making sure our particular instrumentation sounds good on stage. A lot of bands may have strings and accordion and clarinet on recordings and don’t integrate those into their live presentation, but we don’t have the luxury of not doing that. Our songs rely on those elements. And it’s taken us years to learn how to do that appropriately. Finding a good way to amplify viola, cello, accordion, or nylon guitar without them feeding back and staying true to a decent tone is a challenge, but we feel good about most things now.
What has been your greatest adventure on the road in 2013?
We are pretty boring. Most days we don’t have time for much adventure, unless it’s driving overnight so we can make an in-studio or load-in the next day. Jacob & Aham did get into a physical altercation with a bouncer at SXSW and were briefly arrested. That might’ve been the most exciting moment in our violist’s life, based purely on the excitement in his recounting it at a Denny’s later that night.
You guys seem to be a healthy bunch posting about lots of rest, fruits and veggies online. Is there a late night, hard liquor and junk food side to balance things out?
There is probably an excess of late night activities, hard liquor and junk food. That’s kind of the nature of being in a touring band. Oftentimes the only thing you’re guaranteed at a show is free booze. That in combination with the fact that fresh fruits and veggies are difficult to get for any traveler, and sleep can also be hard to schedule, doesn’t create much of a foundation for a healthy lifestyle. So, we reference those things mostly because we’re lacking them. I did recently find a travel smoothie blender that I’m looking at buying. I just have to figure out how I’d be able to get travel size portions of fruits & veggies. Or keep them frozen in the van.
What was hour first reaction when you heard you were confirmed for Newport?
We were super excited. My first association with Newport is Bob Dylan going electric, so it was a feeling of great accomplishment learning that we’ll be a part of that kind of history, even if it’s a very small part.
Jim James is on the bill too. Plan to throw any more Frisbees under his bus?
We throw Frisbees anywhere there is space, so if he parks next to an open patch of grass again, it’s probably likely.
What’s a band we should be listening to that we might not know about yet?
Cumulus is a band out of Seattle that’s going to release a record in the fall on Chris Walla’s (of Death Cab for Cutie) label. I got a sneak peek and it’s pretty great. We just finished some touring with Phox out of Madison, Wisconsin. Within a year a lot of people will know their name. They are fantastic.
Hey Marseilles plays Newport Folk Fest at 2:25 over on the Harbor stage.