Songs From the Woods: An Interview With Singer and Electronic Musician Marley Carroll
Marley Carroll photographed by Nicole McConville
By J.C. Tripp
This interview was conducted in the Spring of 2014 at High Five Coffee.
Amongst his peers, Asheville NC-based producer Marley Carroll is known as “the producer’s producer” — which can be both a blessing and a curse for someone respected in artistic circles but still striving for more. Carroll has quickly been changing the narrative, however. After recent national tours with Shigeto and Dabrye, and festival dates at Decibel, Coachella, and Moogfest, he’s completed his new LP Sings which sees him mastering a number of stylistic comfort zones. From UK-flavored instrumental productions, Caribou-inspired micro-house, to layered, vocal heavy indie tracks, Sings is the calling card of a producer coming into his own.
Sings explores the familiar melancholic sonic territory as his 2007 debut Melanaster, but has an immediacy that is distinctive. Carroll has traded the vast, droning expanse and gauzy guitars of Melanaster for the deep and dark forest world of Sings – an album full of wooden percussion, deep basses and lush shakers. If Melanaster was an ocean album (the album title itself refers to a jellyfish), then Sings is a forest album. Sonically, Sings is as diverse as its creator, exploring Caribou-inspired indie house (“The Hunter,” “Black Light”), gut-punching shoegaze (“Fold Your Wings”), and the darker UK-flavored instrumental work he has continued to explore. Structurally, the album has two sides, one light, one dark, and the brief but intriguing interlude “1985” provides the bridge between the two. As the title indicates, Carroll’s distinctive double-tracked vocals serve as the common thread, tying these disparate styles together in one unbroken narrative arc. It is a honest artifact, something meant for listeners who are weary of the refractive echo chamber of the current music scene at large. With Sings, Carroll shifts his focus ever so slightly from that of a fiercely independent loner to one with broader appeal, and he promises to pick up many followers along the way.
Metro Asheville caught up with Marley Carroll in Asheville as he prepared for the release party for “Sings” and a forthcoming tour. Sitting down for a coffee, Marley discussed his late ’90s influences, his song writing process, the Ashevillle music scene, his development as an artist and “Sings”, an album which could very well make his goal of being a full time Songwriter and Producer a reality.
M.A.: I love “Sings”, I hum it (laughs). Especially the the “The Hunter”, I think it’s a beautiful song. It’s really such a developed album and I discovered you with “Melanaster” and I’m just really excited for you.
Marley Carroll: Thanks.
MA: So, with that said how do you feel about it?
MC: Well, it’s still a bit early in the response but it’s been pretty outstanding so far. I think with the people that have reviewed it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how in-depth and careful the language has been. I can tell when people are listening to it and reviewing it and they’re really absorbing it and not just putting it on and immediately reviewing it. I’ve been pleased with the fact that people are willing to engage with the record as a whole and not just think about the one or two tracks. Because it’s a very varied record and for some people that has been marked as something laudible where for other people it can feel inconsistent. So, that was the one thing that made me nervous about putting it in the world. It’s touching on a lot of different styles and are people really going to think of it as one body of work? That seems to be the way that it’s going. I’ve been really happy, this is the first time I’ve had really solid attention for my work.
MA: You just mentioned that there is an eclecticism to it. So, in pulling “Sings” together, you had put out some E.P.’s that had some of its tracks and then you have other tracks that you recorded separately. How did it all transpire, what’s the chronology of “Sings”?
MC: Well, the last couple of releases I’d done were purely instrumental, ‘Woodwork’ and ‘R&S/Cedars’, then a short e.p. Before that called ‘Our Chimes/Our Piano’. And while I was working on that, that was my sort of way to explore different styles that I wanted to touch on but all the while was working on the more vocal driven stuff and sort of keeping it set aside for this album. So, the idea was, even as I was working on the shorter instrumental versions, the real song-based material I was keeping in the pocket for this release. So, that’s ‘The Hunter’ and ‘Blacklight’ and ‘Speed Reader’. So, it had been a long time coming to make it, about three years. The song ‘Lossless’ is probably the earliest, we did that in early 2011 and ‘Speed Reader’ has origins all the way back to 2010.
MA: You work primarily as a solo artist, tell me about how you do it.
MC: I really would like to have my solo-original stuff be my daily bread making sort of thing. As of yet, I do private DJ gigs and I play session stuff for bands and I mix people’s records and perform some engineering tasks and things like that. Just to fill in the gaps. But the solo stuff is really where I want to go with everything. And “Sings” was supposed to be a more definitive statement as far as that goes, because I wanted it to have sufficient attention because people have come to my music through different means. Some people have seen me DJ and some people have just heard the instrumental stuff, some people know Melanaster (the band that Marley fronted before going solo). But “Melanaster” and “Sings” are really where I want to be, a singer/producer rather than the DJ who also makes music.
Whatever choice you make, one choice you make will determine the rest of your life. It’s a kind of classic existential problem and for me I really have a hard time with that, I really get hung up on it. It can be paralyzing if you obsess over all the things that you can do and never do, you know?
MA: One thing I wanted to compliment you on is that the material on “Sings” are really strong as songs, they have great hooks, they’re very deep, there’s a lot of layers, there’s a lot of what I would call texturing. How do you build your music, how do you construct it?
MC: Everything is solo, so I have to build things one thing at a time and usually the way a song comes together is there’s one element that is strong enough for me to build off of. It needs that one keystone thing. With “Speed Reader” (free download at Rolling Stone) it was the guitar riff, “The Hunter” it was that resampled guitar thing that starts in the beginning or with “Miranda”, that started mainly with drums. But usually there’s one nugget of an idea that comes first. And for me, lyrics and melody are last, which I was I had a stronger sense for. I usually get to where I want to but it takes more time and with other things. I really take a lot of time with lyrics and melody and try to get it right. But that’s usually how it goes, it’s the instruments first, the lyrics and melody last. Some I’m building a song, it starts with instrumental ground work first. What I’m trying to do now is actually write more on purely just piano and voice and guitar and voice, so that the song can lead the production rather than the other way around.
MA: Listening to the lyrics, they’re very introspective and what I took from them is they’re a lot about relationships, maybe exiting from relationships. Or being alone in the world. Are those themes that you work with?
MC: Yeah, that’s right. Solitude and introspection is a big one for me. I think a lot of it, like ‘Speed Reader’ is a lot of wrestling with the concept of choice and feeling like, with whatever choice you make, one choice you make will determine the rest of your life. It’s a kind of classic existential problem and for me I really have a hard time with that, I really get hung up on it. It can be paralyzing if you obsess over all the things that you can do and never do, you know? So, that’s what ‘Speed Reader’ is about. ‘The Hunter’ is more explicitely about a relationship and sort of being filtered through time and space, what is was and what you thought it was kind of thing. Those are pretty classic themes.
MA: In ‘the Hunter’ you sing “when I was a child, I met a hunter”…
MC: It’s the feeling of being attracted to something that’s actually quite dangerous for you. Or ultimately being assasinated by the thing you love or that you are obsessed with.
MA: You did a collaboration with vocalist Miranda Rae on the song ‘Lossless’, tell me about this one.
MC: She is this young, pixie like, amazing girl that I’ve only met in person once in Seattle. We collaborate through the internet. I found about her because she did this project called Sleep Over and friends of friends, Panther God, the guy that put out Sleep Over and I just got in touch with her and we did that whole project collaboratively through the internet, and we never met. The track came first, she did vocals and violin first and just completely overdubbed that song. It didn’t quite fit for the album but I was like ‘this has to go on it’, she’s just fantastic.
MA: The track ‘Woodwork’, there’s sort of an influence there that I noted, there’s almost a gamelan, it sounds Javanese.
MC: Yeah, I studied Javanese gamelan at CalArts, I was in a gamelan ensemble and at that time I was picking up all of the different styles and there’s Balinese, which is more frenetic, bell like and Javanese which has more singing as is slower. So, that is a sample of a Javanese gamelan at the beginning of the track. I really like it, it’s sort of a non-Western tonality, that was interesting to try and sample that and put my own instrumentation over it.
MA: Let’s talk about influences because you’ve referred to the late ’90s Warp stuff, and I definitiely hear that. Boards of Canada. But then there’s also some dubstep, Four Tet. If you could elaborate on what those influences are.
MC: I think the early ’90s Warp stuff was like a bomb going off. Right in the late ’90s and early 2000s there was so much good stuff coming from that label. Squarepusher was making “Go Plastic” “Do You Know Squarepusher?” and Autechre made “LP5”, which was probably my favorite Autechre record. Boards of Canada made “Music Has a Right to Children”, Radiohead made “OK Computer”, which was dovetailing into that and then they made “Kid A” in 2000. That whole world was incredibly important to me. And then before and after that was a lot of rock stuff, as a kid growing up in the South I was listening to Led Zeppelin and that kind of thing. There was a lot of reconciling those two things.
The dubstep thing for me, I really like the more traditional cavernous, empty dubstep where’s it’s not sort of chainsaw, mid range base thing happening. That’s where my head’s at with that stuff. Fourtet too, as of late he’s probably my favorite producer. Him and this guy Floating Points I think they both have such a touch to their stuff, it’s inimitable. I think Four Tet in particular. There’s a bit of a tangent here, but right now there’s just this wave of great producers, so many people. Like a kid nowadays, instead of getting a Strat and and amp, is gonna get a laptop and a controller. So you have this wash of so much music from so many people. And I think what’s noteable about Fourtet and about Floating Points is that every element of their song has some touch of them in it. They sample everything themselves, they play everything themselves, it’s intensely personal, even though it’s made mostly in computers, you know? That’s something that I want to do with my music as well, every thing that’s in my music, whether it’s sampled or played it’s got to have some touch of me.
MA: I would say you’ve succeeded with that, because as you’re saying even though it’s generated by computer, there’s an organic qualiity to it. I wonder if you’re environment had anything to do with that, if it was an influence. You’ve got a lot of references to wood and it kind of has a woodsyness to it.
MC: Yeah, absolutely. I think that was sort of emergent. I think it didn’t really become explicit for me until I was like towards the end of the album and I was like ‘Oh, that’s what this is all about’. Like the imagery, particularly with ‘Cedars/R&S’ and ‘Woodwork’ before that, it just made so much sense for the whole thing. And ‘The Hunter’ and the whole deal, so that came a little bit by accident but it was one of those things that hit me later on and this is because I live in Asheville, in a natural setting.
MA: You grew up in Charlotte but you were in L.A. For a while and then you came here from L.A. And that was for what reason to come to Asheville?
MC: Asheville was like my extended decompression from L.A., really. I went to L.A. For school and school was great, I had a fantastic time. But afterwards, when I was done, I couldn’t really find my footing. I wasn’t ready for life in the great city. And then here in Asheville I’ve been here longer than expected, it has a way of doing that. But I’ve been very happy living here.
MA: This is arguable. Do you think there is an actual scene here for your music?
MC: I don’t really know. I think that in some ways, when Mountain Oasis or MoogFest comes to town, or when there’s a workshop, you find the people that come out of the woodwork in town, or around town. I know that there’s a base for that kind of taste but I think it’s hard to get those folks to come out to a local show. There’s a really strong burner hip hop, dub step kind of scene, Colorado/Pacific Northwest kind of mellow, mid-tempo, glow lights and hula hoops kind of stuff. That’s what people think they’re going to get when they go to shows in Asheville, and a lot of times they’re right. I’ve been trying to find those people that want something else, the ones you might see at Mountain Oasis or MoogFest. Right now people don’t think of Asheville as a place to look for new talent. They go to shows here, but for the local acts there’s still a lot of work to be done, getting local fans to know there’s really good stuff going on.
MA: I agree with you on that. There are venues here but no one central place where you can consistenly tap into that.
MC: I think the rock scene, places like the Mothlight, Grey Eagle, Harvest Records scene is very well established and those guys have been slow to adopt more ‘non-experimental’ electronic stuff. They’re happy to have, say, Villages for example but it’s been tougher finding their ear. I would like to be aligned more with the rock scene.
MA: A lof of your tracks are very rhythmic, but they’re not like bangin’ house tracks but there’s definitely a danceability to them, especially like ‘Blacklight’. Are you going for the dance floor with these?
MC: I think that was informed by being on tour and playing bigger rooms. I think the Melenaster stuff was a lot of open space, it was very patient music and “Sings” is more immediate. I think that changed when I got on the road with Emancipator and was playing rooms for 1,000 to 1,500 people and being an opening act and just trying to move things forward a little bit more. That was one. Then also, going back to Fourtet. When I saw Fourtet play at MoogFest in 2010 he did both. it was very visceral body music but it had an emotive quality that was consistent throughout. So, people were both really feeling the music like you would for a rock act, sort of standing and swaying and they were also dancing. It was both. And when I saw that, I was like ‘that’s what I want to do.’ Music that’s for the head and the emotions but then when I play live it would be more visceral.
MA: Yeah, I saw Fourtet in Miami and he was like a wizard, working all of the various keyboards and equipment. How do you sync it all when you play live?
MC: My live set right now is Serrato for playing back my tracks, which is like virtual vinyl software. So, I do a lot of flash scratching and live remixing. And I’ve got that working in tandem with Ableton, you can have those two synced up. And then I have my Moog Little Phatty. So all of those are working in concert, I can play some loops from Ableton, the meat of all my tracks are playing from Serrato and I’ve got the Moog and it’s all controlled by the central mixer. And I sing as well.
MA: Do you improvise with that or is it more a sequence that you follow?
MC: It really depends on the show. I played in Raleigh a couple of nights ago and I was taking a lot more chances with it. I was doing a lot more live looping, giving people long spaces which are more ambient. I was live loop building and playing alternate chord changes under the stuff. It depends on how big the room is and how attentive the room is. I feel that out, but the live setup I have gives me that kind of flexibility. I do tends toward more straight forward playback than live creation. I think about doing songs and not just long textures, you can’t make the whole song live.
MA: How did you develop your voice, have you always sung?
MC: Yeah, I was in bands growing up, I was playing drums forever. I had a band before I decided to do go solo, called the Melanaster Band, I was front man for that. And I took a handful of vocal lessons, the rest is just being intuitive with it and just going for it.
MA: I almost hear things like the Beach Boys in there, the way you layer your voice.
MC: One of my favorite things is that I like double-tracked, very breathy Beatles, Beach Boys, Elliot Smith kind of vibe. I like it really dry and more ethereal, that’s been my style. Also, double tracking has a way of evening out the flaws in my voice.
MA: I love ambient music and there’s a lot of ambience going on with “Sings”.
MC: Oh man, I love Stars of the Lid, Tim Heckert, Villages is incredible. Ross of Villages is an Asheville guy, he has outstanding stuff. I like Ambient music a lot, a lot. When I was in L.A., Stars of the Lid was something I listened to every single day.
MA: Then that brings in the association with they melancholy kind of sound. I get uplifted by listening to “Sings”. There’s a lot of really positive energy there.
MC: Thank you. Yeah, “Sings” is a melancholy album, it’s an introspective album but I don’t think it wallows in that feeling. It’s sort of like acknowledging it has feelings and figuring out what to do next. Melanaster was a little more like solipsistic, drawing away from the world and very closed. “Sings is more outward, being like ‘alright you’ve gone through this, you know what this feels like, now what?’
MA: And in terms of, again, you have these textures. You’ve got a lot of layering going on, or inter-locking parts but I can delineate them, it’s pretty clean, there’s a lot of space there. Whereas Melanaster is a little more…
MC: Crowded yeah. “Melanaster” had a lot more guitar, a lot more instruments in the midrange. A lot of that is just my taste for composition has changed a little bit. I want to make things more immediate. When you do ambient or when you do music with a lot of delay, long droney guitar passages I think in some ways it can substitute for a song. If you can fill up that whole space with effects and reverb and all that, then that takes care of the sonic space, you know? What I wanted to do with “Sings” is to have more clarity, more immediacy, and more punchiness to it. I think that’s harder to do, which is why I’m attracted to that.
MA: You run your own label, are you good with that? Would you like to be hooked up with another label.
MC: I’m fine with it really. I had a couple of nibbles before “Sings” came out from labels that are respected. None of them really panned out, it was like we exchanged a couple of e-mails and things dissolved. I have a feeling I might continue to self release, and there’s a couple reasons for that the first is for the freedom to do whatever I want. Let’s say I did wind up on Warp, which of course would be a dream, they might want a whole album which sounds like ‘The Hunter’. Where I’m at now, I still want to try all of these different things. Self-releasing allows me that flexibility. And also too it’s like the role of a label nowadays isn’t quite what it was. I can basically push a button for worldwide distribution of my music with all of these tools, with bandcamp and soundcloud and all of that stuff. Of course, I would love a label home if it was right. I’ve thought about that a lot and I’m pretty comfortable just doing it on my own. Also, you just put more space between you and the music. With a label they have to put it in their release cycles and they might want a particular kind of art and all that. Maybe one day but right now I’m cool with this.
MA: Do you have a fanbase out there when you travel, are you feeling that?
MC: Yeah, it’s been kind of a slow burn. I think that I haven’t had any kind of huge hit, I haven’t had a song on a car commercial or whatever but I think that the people that get it really get it and love it. I think I have a smaller fanbase but it’s a really dedicated and passionate one. As opposed to, let’s say I did have a worldwide hit, you might get a million fair weather fans and then they’re gone. I’d rather have really passionate fans. Small stakes, everything is small stakes right now.
MA: Will you be having any of your tracks remixed?
MC: I’ve been kind of selective about that. Right now there’s really one guy in particular that has offered that I’m really stoked on but I’m a little careful. I think that it’s possible to suffer remix overload. A lot of guys will get their stuff out there to as many remix artists as possible and put it out as a 20-track e.p., and it’s get to be too much.
MA: Are there certain sounds you’re going for, like ‘I want to make this crunching sound’ or I want to make this tonal. How does that come out?
MC: Yeah. I think that now I’m just really locking down what my pallate is. I’ve had long periods of exploration where I’ve played all different kinds of things, figuring out what works and with sings I think I am finally getting what are my signature sounds I guess you could say? So I have something more identifiable coming out. I really am a fan of pillowy, thumping kick drums that are more like heart beats and that don’t have a lot of high end at all. That’s a big one. The Moog has been a real boon for me in terms of getting the sort of bendy, analogue synth, real beautiful flute-like tones. And then with drums I’m forever using really wooden kind of percussion: wood blocks, claves, rimshots, that kind of thing. So, if I had to describe it, it would be more like muted, filtered, rather than buzzy or aggressive. There’s a lot of fuzzy and aggressive electronic music right now. I tend towards lo-fi.
MA: How did you get turned onto all of this music in Charlotte?
MC: Yeah, well the first thing I did was my drums, I played all through school. And then I picked up Djing when I was 15 I saw the Beat Junkies and Dilated Peoples playing together and I was a big hip hop nerd. And I saw them do this five band turntable routine and I was like ‘that’s the shit, that’s exactly what I want to do’ because it was futuristic and it was cool and it was also very rhythhmic. And then from there that’s when Djing was my introduction to leftfield electronic music. That’s when I started shopping for records. Those records, which you wouldn’t just find on the shelves at Blockbuster Music next to Matchbox 20. So, that was how I got into it. But I don’t think I could’ve done it without the internet, it was like napster and little Real Player snippets which I could hear shopping for records online. I picked up “Music Has a Right to Children” purely on the strength of this review. There this website called Turntable Lab, which is purely for hip hop nerds back in the day and they were like ‘this record is not something you’d fnd here but it is amazing’ and I just bought the record mail order and knew nothing about it and little did I know the significance of that album.
Marley Carroll “Sings” on Melanaster Records
1. The Hunter 04:05
2. Speed Reader 06:23
3. Lossless (with Miranda Rae) 04:21
4. Fold Your Wings 03:05
5. Cedars 05:12
6. 1985 01:06
7. First Thought, Best Thought 04:13
8. Woodwork 04:25
9. Black Light 05:27
10. R&S 04:10
11. Prepared Piano 01:37
12. Look Out 03:34