Fragility and Strength: Cracking Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions
She was the frontwoman of Mazzy Star, he was in My Bloody Valentine. We talk kazoos, 'TigerBeat' pin-ups, and the scrutiny of the spotlight with the shy duo.
In the ever-churning waters of popular culture, many a seafarer has vanished on the hunt for that rarest of treasures: long term relevance. Charting a unique course, Hope Sandoval and Colm Ó Cíosóig, have stood at the helm of their shared project, Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, for some 15 years, and for any recent 90s-o-philia inductees, the two trail-blazed through the last decade of the 20th century in landmark bands Mazzy Star and My Bloody Valentine, respectively.
Sandoval and Cíosóig's music survived the expansion and rupture of the great tech bubble, the first Gulf War, Rwandan genocide, Y2K prepper mania, Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, ice-skating scandals, and Pogs. Time takes nothing from the duo. Today, Colm lives on a barge in Dublin, which he steers out for pizza brunch; he likes ocean swims. Hope, who hangs her hat in Berkeley, California has long captivated and puzzled fans and the press with her sphinx-like interview game, belying an illustrious career and collaborations with Jesus and Mary Chain, Beth Orton, The Chemical Brothers, Bert Jansch, Death in Vegas, and Massive Attack.
This past Friday, Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions released their latest long-awaited third offering, Until the Hunter. Featuring lo-fi indie royalty Kurt Vile, cimbalom virtuoso Michael Masley, and psych-folk siren Mariee Sioux, the album flits from pulsating drone to tender, sunlit folk and then alights somewhere along the perimeters of country-gothic, largely recorded largely in Ireland's 19th century defensive forts, the Martello Towers. Given Sandoval's notorious dislike of interviews and aversion to chit-chat, almost everything I'd ever heard about this thick-as-thieves collaboration led me to believe that I'd have to climb a Napoleonic tower of solid masonry to get them talking shop. But it turns out that besides being cool as hell, Sandoval and Ó Cíosóig are nice as pie.
Noisey: Tell us of the towers.
Colm: We were attracted to the towers because they're a soundproofed place that's not a studio. You can play music and not bother people and the sound itself is nice and reverb-y but not too reverb-y because it's circular and dome shaped. They're next to the sea, so there's a lot of sea salt.
Were Michael Masley's ghostly sound effects on a couple of the tracks inspired by that ambience?
Hope: Actually, we worked with Michael in Berkeley. But he's the type of artist who doesn't even need that atmosphere. He's just already ghostly and magical and amazing. He lives in his head. He would've just loved the towers.
Colm: It would've been difficult to get him to Dublin. Maybe fly him over on a dragon.
Is there any other way to arrive at a tower in Dublin than on a flying dragon?
Colm: Not really, no.
I gather these centuries-old fortifications were divided into officers' quarters, gun powder storage areas and topped with a canon platform. Did you guys explore those layers of history at all or have the spaces been modernized?
Hope: The two towers that we recorded at are homes, done up with kitchens and bedrooms. I never went to the very bottom where they used to keep the gunpowder and all. I sort of stayed away from that, but I think Colm did.
Colm: That's where I slept!
The creepiest part of the structure. Any bumps in the night?
Hope: There were strange noises and I spent a couple of nights by myself in [the towers] and you really don't wanna do that. You wanna avoid that as much as possible. It can get really scary. I mean nobody's gonna hear anything if something happens to you in there.
Nevermind supernatural encounters, if you stub your toe and fall, no one's gonna come help you.
Hope: Well, the towers are really beautiful and isolated and stunning.
The production on this album really lends itself to a sense of location. Between the sleepy pedal steel on "The Peasant" by Dirt Blue Gene and Marianne Sioux's backing vocals on a couple of tracks, you've amassed a whole little community. What about the warmth of Kurt Vile's call and response vocals on "Get Me There?" Are we listening to a conversation between lovers?
Hope: It is definitely a love song.
I love his non lyrical vocals on that track.
Colm: Yeah, we love those parts. Little animal sounds.
Hope: He used that old fashioned term for them—you know, scat.
I caught that clippy-cloppy percussion instrument you guys used on "The Hiking Song." Was that a castanette?
Hope: Colm played that. We basically just invented that instrument. It's a wooden box and we put some kind of weird scented Mexican twigs in it. My brother got them. And you know, you light them and they scent up the room. They added this really cool castanet sound.
The closing ballad, "Liquid Lady," really mesmerizes with your shadowy lyrics and the 3/4 time signature. You sing about a villain who "quickly woke and wrapped [you] in his coat," which got me thinking about whether musicians need some degree of darkness to create an impactful song narrative, or just art at large.
Hope: Well I know I do.
How do you go about locating it?
Hope: I don't think I seek it out. I think it's just around all the time.
Colm: Hope's very good at eavesdropping in restaurants.
I mean, isn't calamity waiting around every corner to be worked over creatively? It's 2016, we're looking at a good degree of global dread. Do you guys think evil is a real thing, or does all of this fall somewhere on a sliding scale?
Colm: That's a pretty heavy question. Well, [evil] seems real but it also seems misguided. It's not a physical thing. It's more a misappropriation of conscious directions. Or maybe there is real evil out there. Look at the history and some of the craziness that's happening now. You wonder, is there actual, pure evil? Or is this an escalation of the consequences of misdeeds?
Hope: I'm still in my PJs.
Fair enough. On a lighter note, if you traveled back in time to when the Martello Towers were built and had to go into battle against Napoleon? What would you play your battle song on?
Colm: The kazoo. They'd be so scared by you on your kazoo. They'd see you and say, "Oh dear, let's not go there."
They might think you were a powerful time traveler. I don't think they had kazoos yet. Your enemies would run off and then you could just have a cookout.
Colm: Exactly. You'd freak them out.
A movie plot in the making. Colm, have you been working much with film of late?
Colm: Unfortunately my 16mm camera has seized up and it's very hard to find anyone to repair these. There's actually nobody in Ireland who can repair these cameras.
Maybe someone in the US will read this and reach out with an offer. There are still a few outliers who haven't given up on physical filmstock or turnable pages. Do you miss the relationship with print, where you'd pick up a music magazine and hold it in your hands as opposed to scrolling through text on a screen?
Colm: Definitely. I do, anyway.
Hope: I don't. I never picked up any print magazines. Actually, I have to take that back. I have to say, I had some TigerBeat Magazines. You're probably too young to know what that is but you can Google it.
Are you kidding? I used to read them in my bedroom and tear out all the pictures of my dreamy crushes.
Hope: Well, I admit that I did have some of those.
Did you put any of the TigerBeat heartthrob centerfold posters on your wall?
Hope: I'm sure I did. Probably everyone that was in TigerBeat, I was in love with.
Colm, if 2016 you could meet 13 year old you, around the time you discovered punk, what would you say to him?
Colm: I'd say get behind that drum kit and start playing the hell out of them.
Hope, growing up in East LA, were you influenced by Mexican music? What did you guys listen to when you were growing up?
Hope: Definitely Spanish music. My parents played a lot of it. I have a lot of brothers and sisters and I was influenced by all of them.
Colm: My mom used to play Françoise Hardy. Punk rock was the generation of music my older sister was listening to. I was so happy when punk rock arrived. It arrived at the right time and I was the right age- twelve, thirteen, thereabout.
What's your take on some of the genre labels given to the work you've done like shoegazer, paisley underground, art rock, or drone?
Colm: It's mostly marketing. Any terms that came up all seemed kind of silly. You wouldn't really associate with terms like that. You'd be into certain bands but you couldn't quite see a movement. They always like to create movements in England. [They're] obsessed with movements, so it was always kind of funny in that sense, to see the terms they came up with. Back then, there were three competing weekly music papers—Melody Makers, Sounds, and New Musical Express—so they were inventing new music movements nearly every week. We'd buy them kind of religiously as kids, stuff with new bands, you know. But when they did create a new movement, it was kind of exciting and you'd get into it.
What are your thoughts on "staying real' in music today?
Hope: It is absolutely possible. The majority of artists do it. All you do is take a guitar, play and write. Just be true to yourself. I think one of the big mistakes people make is to have fame as one of their main goals. That is the biggest mistake when you're creating art.
Colm, your early career saw you making ends meet in some pretty real situations. Didn't you used to break into abandoned government housing when you were low on funds?
Colm: I was advised by an a British government official that my best housing option in England was to squat in a council house. It's changed. Margaret Thatcher, the Wicked Witch of the East, came in and changed the rules. It's possible today, people still do it. But the legalities aren't the same [anymore]. You're not protected by the law as you used to be. You have to be brazen enough and deal with the cops and weirdos turning up.
Any advice for first time squatters?
Colm: Well, you have to get in and put your own lock on the door, first. Hopefully the place has a way to be heated. Get hooked up to the power—by stealing it, if possible. Or if it has a fireplace, you can have a fire, which keeps it warm. You need security and warmth. And then you make yourself a nice cup of tea.
Hope, did you ever find yourself holding your life together with the proverbial shoestring before you got established?
Hope: Never like Colm. I think that's a pretty rare experience that he had. It definitely made him stronger. He never has to worry. If he doesn't have the money, he knows how to survive.
Colm: I have no regrets. I'll actually help people out to break into spots here.
You guys have both ended up sidestepping the snare of corporatized music to an impressive degree while remaining known to a large public. Hope, I know that you struggled in the mid-90s in order to maintain your creative autonomy and broke a major contract with Capitol Records after you went platinum with Mazzy Star. What was it like to push back against a major label rather than go along with production choices and songwriting formulas they proposed?
Hope: We wanted to do our thing and that's what became really important. I wanted to work with Colm. And I didn't want to do what Capitol Records wanted me to do.
Did you find yourself staring at a fancy executive Newton's Cradle clicker paperweight on a big desk with some powerful bald middle aged white guy behind it while you negotiated your…
Hope: I absolutely did not have have to do that. I had a manager. He had to do it!
So the rupture with Capitol happened through a middleman?
Hope: Yeah. I've been lucky. I've had the same manager for over 20 years. It's like an old marriage.
Did breaking free from such a major label deal come as a relief?
Hope: We were really happy, but we were broke. We ran out of money, quick. It was back to the old days, after that. There were some hard times, but everybody experiences hard times.
I can't help but feel as you answer all these questions like you've been misunderstood by the press. I mean, sure, you're not one for onstage banter, you're known for turning the lights down low and pretty non-traditional live performance behavior. Fine, maybe you're not wild about interviews. But our conversation here's got me wondering, what have you done that a fair number of other successful musicians haven't done in terms of firmly setting boundaries with the public? Why do you think it's been so off-putting to journalists?
Hope: I don't read press, so that's news to me.
You've been quoted over the years as saying stuff during shows like, "I don't need you to love me, I need you to shut the fuck up," or, "If this glockenspiel isn't mic'd in five minutes, we're out of here." Pretty badass. I hear you've walked off stage more than once, too. Do you remember those situations?
Hope: Yeah, I do. There were a lot of problems with the microphones and what I actually said was, "If the crew doesn't get it together, everybody will get their money back." Obviously nobody likes it when you walk offstage, including your band. So that's just not the right thing to do. I have done it a few times in my life!
You've been described as fragile. Do you think you're fragile?
Hope: Yeah, a little bit. What do you think, Colm?
Colm: Yeah, she's a little bit fragile, but she could bite the head off me any day!
Hope: That is so funny. It's probably Colm who's the more fragile one.
Colm: I'm actually more fragile.
If there was a way for you to share your music with a live audience but reconfigure the age-old notion of performance to be more comfortable, what would that look like?
Hope: I think if people wore blindfolds—including myself—it would be a lot easier. The biggest problem for people who get really, really nervous when they perform live is that you think everybody's looking at you. It's really unnatural for us.
Well, your fans do want to see you at close range. But if you want showgoers to wear blindfolds to your next show, this interview could be a good way to tell them.
Hope: You're so funny!
Do you feel that you're being scrutinized?
Hope: Well, yeah. I mean, you put yourself up there and you're playing and singing your deepest thoughts and it's really scary. But at the same time it's amazing when you have great live shows and everybody's getting along in the band. I've always loved playing music and I always will. Overall my experiences have been great.
There are people who just love to watch you to perform. Your physical presence is meaningful for them. I've seen your face referred to online, adoringly in caps, as THE FACE. Does that feel creepy and objectifying, or do you like the idea that you inspire love in people?
Hope: I suppose it's nice. I definitely hope that my music does.
Colm, you probably get sick of hearing about THE FACE. You're like, "When does my face get a turn? When are people gonna start looking at my hands as they delicately play the glockenspiel and mysteriously transport everyone, huh?"
Colm: Exactly. That what I've been saying to Hope all the time.
Colm, have you seen this galvanizing effect Hope has on people?
Colm: I've heard people through the grapevine saying "Hm, Hope's got a bit of a crazy attitude" and I've seen a few episodes where she's stormed offstage. I've been witness to it.
But don't a number of career musicians do that at some point when their patience has reached its limit?
Colm: Well, yeah.
Hope: Colm, have you ever done it?
Colm: Stormed offstage, no. I've wandered off when things have fallen apart, just scratching my head.
Joanie Wolkoff makes music as Wolkoff. Follow her on Twitter.