Emphysema Speaks: An Interview with Erin Sullivan of the A Frames
The Seattle trio A Frames have kicked out three albums cleverly angular and paranoid rock, the latest being Black Forest, released earlier this year on Sub Pop. Their first two albums were DIY affairs on the tiny Dragnet/SS label. The band consists of Erin Sullivan on guitar, Min Yee on bass and Lars Finberg on drums, billed on the record sleeves as Emphysema, Cholera and Rickets. Dusted talked to Sullivan by phone, and discussed how they developed and go about recording their distinctive music.
Dusted: The press stuff from Sub Pop talks about how you were influenced by the Cows and the Butthole Surfers, which isn't immediately obvious from your sound. It's more controlled than those bands.
A Frames: The person that wrote that is a friend of ours and knows that we're into a lot of that stuff. They were paying homage to that. We listen to Cows all the time. Those were two thing we were into. And I knew one of the guys from Scratch Acid when I was in college. I got turned on to a lot of Texas punk. I think a band that didn't get mentioned in there was Stickmen with Rayguns. We liked them a lot.
Dusted: When was your first album recorded?
A Frames: 2001. I think the first record came out in 2002. On vinyl. We did a 500 pressing on vinyl because nobody cared about us back then. We put out our own first 7", “Test Tube Baby.” We got a weird double pressing of it because they screwed up the labels. So half of them have these screwed up labels. We make these cool covers for them and sell them at shows.
Our second 7" was a version of "Plastica," before it was on the first album. And it's way raunchier sounding.
Dusted: When did you start moving to the more stripped down sound, that austere sound? Did that happen gradually.
A Frames: That more formal, more open sound? It's sort of always been there, but we started stripping stuff back early on. Before, we had two guitars. The guy is still good friends with us. But I couldn\'t deal with having two guitars. It was too much guitar all the time. So when we switched to a three piece, things just gradually started opening up. They opened up more and more. As a three piece, we're doing something that's been done a lot. We have to ask, "what are we going to do to make it feel like it's our own?\"
Dusted: What in your own mind makes it different?
A Frames: I do a couple of weird tunings. Originally it was this three piece doing a garage thing, but with these tunings. Which kicked the whole thing a little bit sideways. I like to drop things out, open the sound completely up.
Dusted: Do you use a lot alternate tunings?
A Frames: I have two. In each on I've written chords. They're these two different languages. Some of the songs are in one, some in the other. But I don't ever play normal tuning.
Dusted: When I first heard you guys I thought there was a second guitarist. That must be the tunings.
A Frames: Other people have said that. I do think the weird tuning can make it sound like a couple of people playing.
I have this really good chord in one of the tunings. When I plug in my guitar and hit that chord, it's THE A FRAMES. It's just slightly different than a normal barre chord.
Dusted: Your sound seems to be driven by the rhythm. In each song, it seems like you've crafted this one beat to stand out. Is that self-conscious? Do you spend a lot of time planning a strange beat to build the song around?
A Frames: Yes, actually. You're on to it. I write most of the stuff on a four track. And I start with the drum track, always. Actually, I've played drums for a long time. I got a guitar when I was seven. But in sixth or seventh grade I started playing the drums. Drums were the main thing in my life, as a kid. I got an electric guitar later on, and switched back. But there's something about a rhythm. That's always the place a song has to come from. For a lot of folks, it's the total opposite. It's probably more prevalent in something like hip hop. In a rock band, its usually a guitarist strumming a guitar. I hardly ever do that. You write however you can. But I like the drums.
Dusted: One of things I notice about your guitar playing is that the melody doesn't matter in a lot of places. Obviously, it does at some level, but mostly it folds into the rhythm. It lays on top, and plays off the other instruments, rather than driving the song.
A Frames: Yes - There's exceptions, like “Black Forest.” But your right. That's one of the ways to change things up.
Dusted: What other bands are you guys involved with?
A Frames: The are two other bands we've been in, or are in. There's the Dipers. That's me on guitar. Lars (A Frames drummer) plays bass. Then our friend Dean plays the drums. Dean was in a cool band that we put out on Dragnet Records, called Double Fudge.
Then Lars plays guitar in a band called the Intelligence. They have a CD on Omnibus. The vinyl was put out by Narnack. I've played bass in it once, Mihn has played bass in it twice. Now he has some guys from a band called the Popular Shapes playing with him. Spazzy fast punk is how the Popular Shapes are. The Intelligence is about halfway between that and the A Frames, but a little more pop.
I've played drums with the Climax Golden Twins once in a while. They're buddies with the Sun City Girls. They're god-like, it's insane, it so great. They're here in Seattle.
Dusted: What was the band Bend Sinister? I've heard that tied to you.
A Frames: That was me and Mihn before Lars. That was the first 7" I was ever on. That was right when I was at the edge of figuring this shit out. It has the root of an A Frames sound. But just a little looser.
Dusted: Even after the hype left, a lot of good music has come out of Washington.
A Frames: There's a lot of good bands here right now. The weird thing is it does have a more conservative bend to it. When we go down to San Francisco, I'm always struck by... t's just a little crazier, and the stuff that people dig is just weirder. It's a little bit noisier and crazier and more how I feel how we are. Up in Seattle it's more garage and punky.
Dusted: Would you have recorded this album the same way if your weren't associated with Sub Pop?
A Frames: This record was done before we were signed to Sub Pop. We recorded just like we have, with the same guy. We did a session in Sacramento. We didn't think it was that great at first, but then we ended up using a bunch of it. And in retrospect, I really like what we did there. We did another up here, like we've always done it before: in our practice space.
Dusted: You record in your practice space? What's your practice space like?
A Frames: It's a concrete basement in an industrial building. It's got high ceilings and carpet everywhere.
We record the band tracks all live there. My house is close by. We go to my house and do vocal tracks and overdubs. It sound cool 'cause it's this little 50s house. The floor and the rooms have a really great live sound to them.
There is a song, "Flies", on Black Forest that uses an acoustic guitar...
There's one. Which we've done before. “Surveillance Camera” from the first record has one. “Search and Rescue” does. There are a few things we've always done. We've had a girl vocalist since our first 7". Some times we stick a little keyboard. Just here or there. Cello or saxophone.
Dusted: Do you guys play that?
A Frames: No we have our friends come over. On the first two records especially. Well, we did it on the third one too. We will be doing overdubs at my house, and we have a bunch of people scheduled to come over at different times. It is set up to record in the living room. There's a mic set up in the bedroom too. There's different people rotating through on different instruments and singing backup. It makes it like a party. Not a super crazy party, 'cause everyone is trying to do a good job.
Dusted: Are there expectations coming in to play, now that your are with a larger label? Are you going to be touring more widely to support Black Forest?
A Frames: There was nothing like that in the basic deal. We all have jobs. We can only tour so much. We'll do what we can. Thats all we can do. We're going to record for the next album. We've got that started.
We wish we could tour... but... jobs.
Dusted: What kinda jobs do you guys do?
A Frames: Different stuff. That's a super boring topic.
Dusted: Is there a theme with Black Forest? There's all the German and Nazi imagery in the lyrics, and the title track is presented three times.
A Frames: It was random that that happened. It seems ridiculous to say, but it was not intentional. If you look at the second record- it\'s got a topic. It's more about technology. This one has got a thing about the end of the world, and World War II. It's just something that was in my head over time. I was playing the album for someone the other day. They said, "It seems like such a concept record." It wasn't going to be that at all.
The last version of the song “Black Forest” was one of the first songs mixed. It's our friend Chris, who we record with. He goes and does these crazy mixes on his own. That's also where the first take on the record came from. So there were these two little bits from this same song. So we decided we wanted to do a band version of it. We liked how it sounded as a band. We wanted to make sure there was a more band-sounding mix. So there's three versions. So I said "Let's use that to surround the whole record and name it that." Now the record has topics that go with that. But it's funny, because it's a combination of topics World War II, but the other stories don't necessarily go along with that.
"Death Train;" It was never meant to be about the trains to the death camps. I know that that is what the expression is used for. But it's about something different. But I guess it ties in. Writing lyrics is weird. I try real hard. But we stick it way out there and some people don't like it.
Dusted: You push images so far that it isn't clear if you are being serious or just seeing how far you can push it.
A Frames: It's like a cynical joke. It sort of is how I feel. But it's ridiculous too.
Dusted: I've played you for people, and they say, "No these guys aren't being funny" Songs like the "Surveillance Camera" - “I look into your eye...” They're hilarious but they are delivered deadpan.
A Frames: Have you seen us play?
A Frames: If you saw us, you'd totally understand. That's where I really wish more people had seen us play. We're not hipsters at all. When you see us play we're a lot more punk. It comes across more as trashy punk. With the same beats and feel. When you hear us live and see that we're not in suits.
Not that we haven't worn suits. But even when we did, it seemed sort of funny. I think if people have seen us, it really changes perceptions of the music.
Dusted: One of the things I like about you is that your are very clearly a punk band, but not in a cliched way.
A Frames: We don\'t fit that perfectly into the punk category. We fall between stuff. The hardcore and garage punk people, sort of like us, but we're a little weird for them. Then the weird music people say, "Oh, they're a punk band. We've created our own little spot in the middle.
By Ben Donnelly