By Brian Tucker
The Soil & the Sun self describe as “corn fed, Michigan made” and “new Mexican space music,” the latter put forth by a show attendee years ago. That description is playful if not spot on, but so is pointing to their Grand Rapids home base. Both atmospheric and blissful, songs vary in length and sonic presence.
The band performs at Bourgie Nights on Thursday in support of their new album Meridian.
“A person’s environment is always an important influence on their creative process and decisions they make,” singer-guitarist Alex McGrath said. “Michigan-made” is just a little bit of insight into how our environment affects us musically.”
Their third release, Meridian, a mysterious and orchestral sounding collection of spiritual folk, is widely focused – the mystery of life, love, and death and asking questions about the apocalypse. It’s a buffet of styles, ambiance and ideas that results in a musical experience (especially “Human/Machine”).
The band, growing from a duo in 2008 to a family affair of seven members (plus kids), recorded their first albums on their own and then a proper studio for Meridian. It’s a beautiful record, one with an escapist, wandering quality. Songs range with highs and lows, near gospel singing, and occasional electronic flourishes (both collide on “Push Push”). It showcases a band where creating atmosphere is a concerted effort.
“I guess if we are escaping, it’s only an attempt to catch a glimpse of something greater and bring it back down to real life,” McGrath said. “We try to be intentional about all aspects of our music, and that definitely includes atmosphere created through the sounds we make.”
Recorded last January in Chicago, the album bears an organic quality to making music. While some song ideas for Meridian are over five years old, some were written in the studio. The result is individualistic material, songs created to have their own worlds.
“The spectrum of experiences and influences that went into making this record is very broad. It’s organic in the sense that we were trying to be true to ourselves as much as possible throughout the whole process,” McGrath said. “Each song does exist in its own little world in a way, and maybe that’s a good representation of where we are at right now, in music and in life, a perpetual state of exploration and experimentation.”
If their “How Long” is a soaring, uplifting track then “Oiketerion” is their epic, spanning ten minutes and showing them unafraid to take an idea as far as possible. Plaintive and distant sounding, “Oiketerion” builds from ethereal vocals and echo-like guitar playing to a thunderous moment when the instruments crash. It encapsulates peacefulness turning to apocalypse. The song had the longest gestation period of any on “Merdian,” beginning six years ago as a chord progression and hummed melody in a stairwell in South Korea.
“It kept resurfacing over the years and since it wouldn’t leave me alone I finally decided to put lyrics to the music. Once the band got hold of it the song kind of came back to life and became exciting again. It made sense to put it on the album.”
McGrath is also surprised how well things came together in the studio recording Meridian.
“We’ve never done that before so I was a bit concerned about writing under that pressure. We did it, and now that we know a little more about what we are capable of we’re looking forward to getting back into the studio for the next round.”
Between your first album and Meridian what have you learned that made you better?
McGrath: We’ve grown closer together as people and friends, and that allows us to be more open and honest with each other when it comes to collaborating musically. Keeping all of the communication lines clear is a really important part of being in a band. Meridian was actually our first experience recording an album in a proper studio. We learned so much in such a short period of time that it’s kind of blurry. We are really excited to take all these new experiences and move forward into the next phase of the band.
Does living in certain geography influence lyrics you write and the music you create?
McGrath: Yes, definitely. You start to notice certain types of sounds coming from certain geographic areas. I think it’s cool when cities or cultures have a distinct sound to their music. There is a lot of that happening in Michigan. A person’s environment is always an important influence on their creative process and the decisions they make. “Michigan-made” is just a little bit of insight into how our environment affects us musically.
Was the material built around singular ideas or did songs build in layers over time.
McGrath: The latter. Some of the song ideas on Meridian are more than five years old, while others were mostly written in the studio recently. So the spectrum of experiences and influences that went into making this record is very broad.
Can you share the germination behind “Oiketerion”?
McGrath: “Oiketerion” has definitely had the longest gestation period out of all the songs on Meridian. It began as a chord progression and hummed melody in an echoe-y stairwell somewhere in South Korea about six years ago. It kept resurfacing over the years, and since it wouldn’t leave me alone I finally decided to put lyrics to the music. Once the band got hold of it, the song kind of came back to life and became exciting again, so it made sense to put it on the album.
What surprised you most about the new album?
McGrath: I was a little bit surprised at how well we were able to pull some of the songs together while in the studio. We’ve never done that before so I was a bit concerned about writing under that pressure. We did it, though, and now that we know a little bit more about what we are capable of we’re looking forward to getting back into the studio for the next round.