It doesn’t seem like it was two years ago, but indeed it was early 2013 when I first heard the South Korean band Language of Shapes. Their debut record was what music scholars hundreds of years from now will call the beginning of “post-apocalyptic folk”. It was a mix of earthy, stringed jangle, tribal rhythms, and lyrically somewhere between Philip K. Dick and William Blake. Tristram Burden, J.E. Seuk, Courtland Miles, and Robert Goldberg created a musical world all their very own with nothing more than mandolins, bass, djembe, and haunting vocals. Burden’s voice is pitted, dark, and deep with echoed peaks and valleys. He has a classic tenor that is shone only brighter with J.E. Seuk’s ghostly harmonies.
Recently the band released their second album, the excellent Mother Mountain. The band hasn’t traded in their acoustically organic sound for Marshall half stacks and fog machines, but that’s not to say things haven’t changed much. While their sound remains true to the blueprints drawn on their debut, Burden, Seuk, Miles, and Goldberg have honed their skills, both as musicians and songwriters, and have given us a sophomore album that indeed lives up to the debut.
I caught up with Language of Shapes to talk about Mother Mountain, touring, and the band’s love of nude recording.
J. Hubner: It’s been awhile since we spoke, how has the last year been for you guys? Do you feel you all went as far as you wanted to go with the first LP?
Tristram: It’s been a weird year, John. J.E. and I moved location to Wonju, about halfway between where we were, Gangneung, and Seoul. Same province, but a totally different vibe. A friend says people come here to die, but we’re thriving! And we got a baby turtle. He, too, is thriving.
J.E. Seuk: One of the proudest moments of my life, when our first LP came out. This second one takes me to a whole new realm. We’re all kind of feeling like a pack of beasts circling around our new baby cub. We feel fierce about this one.
J. Hubner: Talk to me about the new LP, Mother Mountain. It’s a great record to my ears. How was the writing and recording process? How long did LoS work on the record? Where did you record? Tell me everything!
Tristram: It took almost a year of recording and mixing in Gangneung and Wonju. The sounds are sharper and clearer because last time we recorded straight into the mic jack of my laptop through a shitty Radio Shack lead: this time we bought USB interfaces.
J. Hubner: From the first record to Mother Mountain, do you feel the songwriting process with the band has improved?
Tristram: All Language of Shapes’ songs are direct results of traffic with non-human entities. I don’t have much to do with it. I just listen and foster good relations with the unconscious. Everyone else gives invaluable assistance in the texture, dynamics and final structure. And general feedback on whether it’s a good song. I tend to only use the stuff that turns people on.
J.E. Seuk: Personally, I equally love the songs on our 1st and 2nd albums. And they’re not at all chronological: our 3rd album’s going to feature some of our very first songs! (We seem to prefer the Shapes of circles and spirals to straight lines…) The clear improvement lies in the recording quality, and some of our orchestration has gotten more sophisticated.
J. Hubner: Back to recording the LP, have you changed the process of recording at all? Sonically the record sounds more in focus. Does that come with just trial and error? Do you all feel more comfortable with getting the sound you want with mics and the recording process?
Tristram: Absolutely. The process hasn’t changed much, but we have a better idea of how it all ends up and weaves together. I bought a ton of effects pedals and a Roland Space Echo since the last record, which contribute to the different textures of everything. So there’s a lot of wah, also. Maybe not quite enough.
J.E. Seuk: I was initially anti-pedals. I have a more acoustic background. But now I’ve embraced the wah. (Mostly.)
Tristram: Working on the album between our day jobs, we had the flexibility and enjoyed the privacy and freedom to experiment that only a home studio can provide. This produced a lot of great moments which I hope translate to the listener. The ThunderKryst mandola solo stands out to me. That was an improvisation recorded in about the time it took J.E. to go pee.
J.E. Seuk: I had no idea at the time that pee break would be so productive.
J. Hubner: You all did a lot of playing out in 2013 and 2014, which shows in how tight you guys(and gal) sound as a band on Mother Mountain. Is there more extensive touring and live shows planned for 2015 to promote the album? Has there been any talk about possibly doing some European or US dates?
Tristram: We have become very tight and cohesive as a unit over the past couple of years. There are currently some international opportunities to be confirmed. And we’ll inevitably be playing a lot around Asia.
J. Hubner: If you had to pick one eureka! moment on Mother Mountain, what would it be for each of you and why?
Tristram: Playing nude always creates a better take. The real secret to why we don’t record at studios.
J.E. Seuk: Playing gig after gig, we saturate our songs with the pumping blood and sweat and adrenaline of live shows. But some songs don‘t always quite click on stage; “Sleeping Eye” was one of those songs for me, but now it’s one of my favorites on the album... The track was basically finished. Then one day Tristram added some French horn. And then I added some flute and recorder, and we kept building these impromptu layers upon layers of Cave Music, including our gorilla chorus (“hoo hoo hoo, ha ha ha“) at the end. We couldn’t stop. We were riffing off each other’s ideas like mad. We were possessed and downright giddy. Also, I’m pretty sure our partial state of undress helped unleash the magic. We’re lucky our neighbors didn’t call the cops. (The French horn and flute can be LOUD.)
Bobby: One of the greatest moments was listening to the newly mastered tracks in J.E.‘s car one night in Wonju, and feeling something I’ve never felt before. We sound different live. There is an energy we have never been able to successfully capture. The instruments talk to each other very differently when you’re in the room with them, and when we are all holding and playing them together. Every band I’ve ever loved has had the same confession about their music, and the enchantment of being inspired by what their bandmates are doing at that moment. Our songs sound different every time we play them. However, in the back seat of J.E.’s old, rusty Click, spooning my percussion brother Courtland Miles, I heard the spirit of our songs actualized through the speakers. I cried like hope found me, waiting hard. I said, “eureka!”
Courtland: For me personally, I don’t think it was a specific moment. Rather, it was moments building upon moments. Keeping an eye on, and listening to, each track in little takes, with new additions and whatnot, constantly going back to them. Seeing the songs become this organic unit that morphed into a solid, unitary experience. I find it hard to listen to that album in bits and pieces, i.e., you gotta listen to the whole thing from beginning to end to get a real sense of what was going on, and what we were trying to do with it. That’s a total eureka moment for me, if I had one: seeing this thing finished. It’s funny to record something over a year, watching everyone add their parts, looking at it in layered track formats on a computer screen, seeing instruments strewn about a room, and then actually sitting and listening to it as a whole when it’s all finished. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the creative process, but that’s something pretty spectacular to me.
J. Hubner: So what’s the plan for 2015 and beyond?
Tristram: To push Mother Mountain well into this year, play shows abroad, finish up the third album and expand our instrumentation. The 3rd album will have some strong sonic differences, but most songs will remain in 6/8 time. We’re not THAT experimental.
Courtland: Looking towards a bright year ahead. I’m hoping to just play as much as we can, and get as much exposure in other parts of the world as we can. It’d be great to get out there, play with new artists, and meet some of the wonderful faces that have talked us up in the States and Europe. The States seem a little far off at the moment, but Europe would be fantastic. Let’s hope the album gets the attention it deserves, which in my humble opinion is quite a lot.
Bobby: Playing more shows. There’s nothing more intoxicating than a room full of strangers throwing their bodies in ecstasy to a bunch of songs you and your mates put together. I’m very much looking forward to that experience. There will be blood.
J.E. Seuk: And frequently taking off our pants. Like Tristram said, it helps us record better.
Language of Shapes are a group of not only great musicians and songwriters, but friends. That warmth comes through beautifully in their music. There’s no ego trip going on here. It’s all about music speaking to the heart, soul, and beyond. It’s a spiritual trip, listening to Language of Shapes. The great beyond seems to speak through these four and not many can say that.
Plus, it sounds like there’s lots of nudity going on.
Be like J.E., and embrace the wah. Also, buy their album. You can do that right here. If ever a band deserved some crossover love it’s Language of Shapes. Get to know them, people.