Early in 2010, Balmorhea released Constellations with local imprint Western Vinyl, their fourth album in as many years. The quintet’s sold out release show at the Central Presbyterian Church was a testament to how popular the instrumental outfit has become in Austin, inspiring a fervid but reverential fanbase enthralled by Balmorhea’s intricate, classically-based expositions. With Constellations, principle songwriters Rob Lowe and Michael Muller turned to a much more subdued, if no less impressive, stylistic compositions, peeling back the dramatic build that had increasingly crescendoed on their previous works. Yet what still emerges most from Balmorhea’s tunes are vivid imagistic and emotional episodes, fleeting narratives that arise through their subtle constructions spearheaded by guitar and piano. We spoke with Lowe and Muller via email about their recent work, the philosophy behind the band, and their place in the Austin music scene. Balmorhea will be making their Austin City Limits Festival debut on the Austin Ventures Stage on Saturday, October 9 at 11:20am.
Austin Sound: Y’all have been incredibly prolific, releasing fourth excellent LPs over the past four years, as well as keeping up an impressive touring schedule. While there are some obvious changes that have occurred from 2007’s eponymous debut to this year’s Constellations, such as addition of strings and drums, what do y’all feel has evolved the most for you musically over the past four years?
ROB: There has always been a soul to what we do. A kind of driving force, but it is extremely intangible and has taken more than one form. I think that over the past 4 years we have consistently been able to push out of a comfortable creative space and into new territory while at the same time staying true to that original soul. That is to say that we have challenged ourselves to be both innovative and true. There is also the very practical side of getting to know one another better and maturing together technically as a group of musicians.
MICHAEL: Early on, we kind of threw ideas together and tried to make sense of it. More recently, we have a more thought-out approach and cohesive plan behind the direction we want to steer as far as instrumentation and overall emotiveness of each record. We don’t want to make the same record over and over again. So we are always searching for ways to broaden the pallet and keep challenging ourselves.
AS: Likewise, what have been some the central tenets of Balmorhea’s sound or philosophy that y’all have consciously attempted to maintain?
ROB: I think that without knowing it, or setting out to do so, we have always created personal music. Something that deals primarily with internal things and their physical outworking. Without lyrics it is much more difficult to transmit ideas, so we are often left to transmit emotions or feelings, spaces, mental things. And on a more practical side, we have always valued live acoustic performance, being reticent of electronics not because we dislike them, but because we feel like acoustic sounds are one of the most direct ways to communicate. That, and a commitment to never make the same record twice.
AS: Y’all have also had the opportunity to work on a variety of additional projects, scoring films and video games. How is working on these projects different for y’all from composing for your albums, in process and approach, as well as aesthetically and creatively?
ROB: Working on a record is a much more personal process and usually takes a lot longer. One of the difficult and also rewarding things about collaborating with film makers is that you are attempting to help someone else express something. It is a totally different thing to try to come up with music that fits a scene or mood; or expresses drama, intensity, or any other emotion. When we write for Balmorhea those feelings and ideas come naturally and shape a song, in a commercial setting you begin with those things and the music is a reflection of that.
MICHAEL: Recording our own material is always more freeing and creative but in different ways. The scoring and composing for film, TV, etc is fun because of the challenge of accommodating someone else’s vision. Attempting to sync the visual aspects with the auditory aspects of a project. Straddling these two tributaries has strengthened our creativity and production knowledge on both sides.
AS: Balmorhea has played a variety of venues and differing types of clubs, but how do you plan on adjusting the band or set to best accommodate playing something as large and open as the Austin City Limits Festival?
ROB: Well, we have been playing for a few years and we have enough material (old and new) to pretty well accommodate any kind of performance space. We are excited to start playing some bigger venues with some new material.
MICHAEL: We’ve never really played an open-air festival, save a few SXSW gigs under tents. We are looking forward to the ACL experience. It will be a first for us in many ways and will be interesting to see how it goes.
AS: Along those same lines, what have been some of the most memorable shows that you’ve played over the past few years?
ROB: A concert in Mondaino, Italy was perfect. It was at a small stone theater space up in the hills near the Mediterranean. People walked to the show from the surrounding villages and some rode bikes. Friends brought local wine and cheese. It was just a really warm and special performance.
AS Constellations seems to strike a much more mellow and subdued tone than the last two albums, somewhat more in tune with your debut. What were some of the primary inspirations for the new album, especially in relation to the others?
ROB: I think in the past we have talked about seasons being an inspiration to us. Not necessarily the physical ones, but the seasons that people go through. I guess without giving too much away, we were just going through a darker colder season.
MICHAEL: Our previous record (All Is Wild, All Is Silent) was much more upbeat and bright. We didn’t want to keep layering and adding to that, so we decided to take a side-step in the tone and emotion of the following record.
AS: What does your composition process usually entail, especially as far as collaborating between the two of you?
ROB: Each song is different. Each record has been different. Sometimes a song will be a one man show, sometimes Mike and I will work things out together before we bring it to the band. Some times we will come to the group with a very small kernel of an idea and ask everyone to dress it up appropriately. Some times there is some push and pull as to where things should go, but we always are able to resolve differences and come to agreement.
AS: Your relationship with your label, Western Vinyl, has been very productive, with you and the label growing a great deal over the past few years. What advantages has working with Western Vinyl provided for y’all, and how do you think your ambitions for the future align?
MICHAEL: Western Vinyl has become a dear friend in many levels and it’s been such a joy to grow alongside one another. Having them here in Austin makes talking out ideas and the production of a record go so much smoother and faster. Both sides I think would be open if a larger opportunity reared it’s head. For now, we are in good stride with each other.
ROB: Not only do we think that Western Vinyl is an amazing label putting out creative, risky, and important records, but we have developed a strong personal affection for the people behind it. It is difficult to think of another relationship that could have helped develop what we are trying to do in the same way. Sometime in the fall we will be releasing a 7″ record on Western Vinyl called “CANDOR/CLAMOR.”
AS: The last time I spoke with y’all at the time of Constellations’ release in February, you mentioned that after touring this album, you may take some time apart from each other and Austin. Is that still the plan, and what do y’all wish to pursue individually if so?
ROB: I recently moved with a few friends to Alpine, TX, and Michael spent the summer in New York. I think that I was at a point in my life that made sense to move away from Austin, however much I love it there, and experience something different. I will still be making my way back to Austin quite often to work on music and tour. I think everyone in the group is beginning to explore other projects and develop a voice outside Balmorhea, which we think will only add to our creative process.
MICHAEL: Yes, we took a break from playing live this past summer. We only met for a week or so in early July to work on a commercial scoring project and tracked some new stuff in the studio. It was nice, albeit strange, to not be playing live. We will be on the road in September, and we are all anxious and excited about that fact.
AS: Finally, how do y’all feel Balmorhea fits within the local Austin scene, both in the sense of your being an “Austin band” and in relation to other local acts and what’s happening in town?
ROB: I guess if I am completely honest, I feel pretty disconnected from any Austin scene. Not that I don’t love what Austin has going on, I just don’t know if we are a part of something bigger that is going on there, or if it is more of something that is going on all over the world, or if it is even cohesive in any way. That being said, Austin will always be our home. In all the traveling we have done in the past few years, I always find myself comparing the places I find myself to Austin, and I must say, I rarely find another city that I think I could hold such an affection for.