Just as a surrealist painter depicts normal, everyday objects in a new light, New York City-based band The New Lines attempts to do the same with pop music. Like such artists, by tweaking old ideas to become “new and alien landscapes” approached afresh as an outsider, Hewson Chen (vocals, guitar), Rene Dennis (keyboards) and Mark Di Donna (bass), create music with distinct escapist and surrealist qualities that is heavily rooted in late ’60s and early ’70s psychedelic pop and rock, while still managing to sound fresh and unique. Vintage instruments flesh out the band’s full, multi-layered sound, thanks to the extreme versatility of Dennis’ revered vintage organ, which was unearthed from a basement and came to be a staple of the band’s signature retro sound.
Without thinking too much about what kind of music they set out to make, Di Donna says their intricately layered songs seem to naturally grow and expand, guiding their sound to the towering heights reached on their 2011 debut LP, All That We See And Seem, their EP Witches’ Milk, and a handful of singles. It’s a wonderful thing to immerse yourself in: each fluttering sound flowing to the next, with Chen’s soothing vocals effortlessly meshing with the swirling instruments to create a dreamy, yet busy psychedelic “wall of sound” that is easy to get lost in. While sometimes moving in more freer, progressive territory, allowing the music to guide itself, they always go back to the Beach Boys-esque hooks to, as Chen says, “reward listeners for indulging us through all of that free-time business.”
The New Lines are readying their upcoming second LP, Fall In Line, for release this summer on the psych label Moon Glyph Records (featuring drummer Davis White of the Slumberland band Lorelei), as well as an EP of folkier leftovers from the recording sessions. With their new album and shows lined up, The New Lines are set to ride the iridescent wave of new psychedelia of the new millennium, all while keeping a down-to-earth approach to their otherworldly sound.
RMM: When did you realize you wanted to make music, and how did The New Lines form?
HC: Mostly we were just a bunch of friends who were all into music fooling around in 2006.
RD: I recall that we were at a New Year’s Eve party in Brooklyn and having had too much to drink I agreed to play with the New Lines (something that was outside my comfort zone, coming from a kind of uptight classical background).
HC: At first we were really into the idea of shoe-horning pop music into less common time signatures, like 5/4 or 7/8, sort of a-la Dave Brubeck’s Take Five or Pentangle’s Light Flight, but for the sanity of our listeners, perhaps, we retreated to the realm of normal meters. I think in an upcoming EP we finally broached the idea of a 5/4 song!
MD: As the newest member of the band, I was actually a really big fan of the music before I joined. I had met Hewson and Rene through some mutual friends and we always seemed to be at the same gatherings and shows. When I heard that they were looking for a bassist, I jumped at the opportunity to audition. . . I guess they liked what they heard!
HC: The truth is that we had asked him many years earlier if he wanted to join the band by appearing in a show, without any practice, to make ad-lib “shrieking noises” with his guitar and pedal board, but I think that idea must have overwhelmed him and it was not until much later that we were able to sweet talk him into joining the band!
RMM: Your sound is very rooted in 60’s psychedelia. When did you realize this was the type of music that you wanted to make? What do you like best about psychedelia?
HC: At first we were sort of all over the place, sort of just pop music with a love of poly-rhythms and jazz-tinged block chords. Eventually we started getting heavily into the sound of old, loosely tuned analog synths and organs and tape manipulation and such, and this really fit into our love of sort of seeing familiar things in a new light.
For example if you have a basic melody and its tuning is warped a little because you’re messing with speed of the recording or the tuning of the synth’s scale response, that changes the colour of the tune in a sort of psychedelic way that appealed to us. So like how a surrealist painting or a David Lynch film can take every day elements, like a clock or a urinal or a prosaic roadside diner, and tweak them so that they become new and alien landscapes which you approach afresh as an outsider. . . to a certain extent we try to do that with the pop music. Whether we are successful or not at this undertaking is a separate question!
So that’s the pretentious answer, and perhaps the more down to earth explanation is that as the Moog guitar pedals (moogerfoogers) were starting to become popular, I acquired one or two of these pedals and needed something to control and tame them a little, so after some internet sleuthing I came across George Mattson’s “Mattson Mini Modular” synth modules – the creator of one of the first commercially available keytars, perhaps even the first! – he happened to have a sample and hold module with a really slow clock rate which appealed to me, and he also decorated the cardboard box packaging so I could actually mount the module in the cardboard box, which really appealed to me, so from then I got heavily into analog modular synths, which invite you to think about and get involved with things like tuning and harmonics and the movement of all of that through time, and I guess that, combined with Rene getting really into her Farfisa and Mark being a fan of flatwound bass strings and felted bridges. . . that all perhaps boiled down to a sort of “psych sound”.
RMM: Your vocals in particular are very 1960s, the droney harmonies sounding like ’60s psychedelic folk and the ’90s psych that followed. Are there any bands you heard that employ those vocals that you wanted to embody?
HC: In my ideal world, my voice would have a little more dynamic range, somewhere between Syd Barrett and Mick Jagger, but not having found a way to wring that out of my voice yet, I retreat to the realm of a sort of chanting-monk territory. There’s a weight to a vocal line when it’s delivered in an almost church-choir sort of context that I enjoy, but it’s more a matter of what my voice has been able to do rather than a question of “this is what I want to sound like”. . . The vocal sound is more of a sort of work in progress. It’d be cool to try to embark on some three-part harmonies Mama’s and Papa’s style on stage sometime. . . I’ve always admired the sound of the vocals of our friends, the Still Corners – we used to send emails trading recording ideas and such, but I think they’ve grown by leaps and bounds since getting signed to Sub Pop and now it’s more like us just asking for their advice. Our go-to vocals mic, the Audix om-7 is just what Tessa (their vocalist) uses live, but we thought “Geez, the quality of their live sound is good enough for us,” so that’s what we went with!
RMM: Your music sounds very fleshed out and full, very layered with many instruments Is this a conscious decision, is it a sort of requirement when making psychedelic music?
HC: I think one side of that is just that we love gear – I have these synths and guitars, Rene’s Farfisa Pro 221 has a bazillion switches and voicing. . . .
RD: Well, I love my Farfisa that Mark serendipitously discovered in the basement of a friend. It’s a bit of a beast, maybe too large to play live but that model has been used by Sly and the Family Stone, Tangerine Dream and Kevin Ayers! It also reminds me, at times, of a harpsichord, an instrument I have been wanting to own for a long time now!
HC: Mark works at the Music Zoo, a guitar store, which exposes him to all sorts of instruments and pedals, and we get excited to use this stuff on the recordings. We also like getting lost in the sound which happens when you have all sorts of parts swirling around at once. For live performance this swirling can result in a bewildering maze, so we’ve also been enjoying stripping the tracks down to create tougher, live versions as well. We don’t consciously go in and think, “This needs to sound more like we ate a bunch of shrooms.” I think we approach it at a different level, like “Wouldn’t it be crazy for Rene to suddenly break into a blistering arpeggio here,” or “Mark’s hollow-body bass sounds really medieval when he plays it up high, let’s exploit that,” or “Wouldn’t it be funny to take the feel of the arp solo at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and tack that feeling onto the end of an otherwise sort of baroquey rock song?”
MD: I don’t think that we set out to make these massively layered songs from the start, but once we start recording, the songs kind of take on lives of their own and almost guide us along until we reach the final creation. . . we would add a part to a song and then hear another melody that isn’t really there yet, so we would add it (and so on and so forth). At times we even have to hold ourselves back from adding even more to the tracks, as it can get pretty addictive!
HC: Sometimes we hold ourselves back because we feel that we have gotten carried away, other times we hold back because we get a sense that my computer is about to crash from the load!
RMM: Who are some big inspirations of yours?
HC: The first thing that comes to mind is that we’re big fans of early Syd-Barrett era Pink Floyd. . . Like if we could drop something like a ‘Corporal Clegg’ or ‘The Gnome’ that would really put a smile on our faces, in terms of how simultaneously catchy and bizarre the songs are, but we haven’t quite worked up the courage (or chops?) yet. We also love the feel of that BBC Radiophonic stuff, Delia Derbyshire et al. I tend to drive music on heavy rotation into the ground on my stereo and have to cycle things in and out to keep things fresh. Maybe I’ll start listening to classical music more… there was a moment when Rene casually remarked that we had a lot of parts doubling each other on the fifths where we realized that it is time to expand our musical horizons a little! I guess most recently, we were all blown away by Tame Impala’s Lonerism, and I’ve been listening a lot to our Moon Glyph label mates, Halasan Bazar, and fellow Mattson Mini Modular users, Black Moth Super Rainbow. If, a year down the road, you check in with us and we sound way different, maybe blame them!
MD: We definitely pull from all sorts of influences musically. From baroque and classical styles to pop and rock. There is no doubt that Barrett-era Floyd and bands like The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Doors have their influence, but also bands like The Cure and The Pixies are a big part of what I grew up on, as well. I think all of these personal (and shared) influences definitely add to the eclectic style of music that we make.
HC: The title track for the new LP, Fall in Line has a bit more of a strummy, mid-80s college-fi sound, which is a bit of new territory for us. Part of that is probably Mark’s influence, and the other part was that I had gotten this video game controller that also is playable as a normal electric guitar (the Rock Band 3 Squier Stratocaster). I thought it would be funny to take this game controller and use it seriously on one of our songs – so the guitar part to that song has an extra strummy, trebly tone as a result.
RMM: What do you try to accomplish with your music? Do you write pop music or try to go with more rock and progressive type elements?
HC: We are just quiet people looking for acceptance and a sense of belonging in this world, hah. . . ! I dunno, we don’t set out with some sort of particular mission or identity, it’s more casual. For example, for the Grim Smile of the Five Towns, the idea of the free intro was inspired by an Albert Ayler box set that I was listening to for work. I was listening to Albert Ayler, and was thinking “what would it be like to try and pull something like that off?” Of course, to balance everything out on the pretension scale, we felt it necessary to transition from that free-time intro into the Beach Boys-esque pop song to sort of reward listeners for indulging us through all of that free-time business. I guess maybe we have a pop-approach since we are typically thinking in terms of hooks and “what would the audience have patience for” and what-not. I don’t see The New Lines attempting anything like Stereolab’s ‘Blue Milk’ any time soon, although maybe some day we’ll start thinking big like that. . . .
RD: Hewson kids, we can actually be a pretty loud group once you get to know us! But mostly, we all just get along really well and enjoy playing with each other. It’s never been about setting out to achieve world domination (!), just having fun and if it takes us somewhere, that’s great. If not, at least we’ve had fun making some music amongst friends.
MD: Yeah, I really do think that we make music that we enjoy playing and listening to ourselves… I guess we figure that if we all like it, there must be others out there just like us that will like it too!
HC: Or at least we hope there are others out there . . . !
RMM: Do you employ any unique recording techniques when making music that has such a nostalgic feel, while still sounding new and refreshing?
HC: I’m not exactly sure what makes it sound like that. Everything is literally just recorded in someone’s living room, which maybe prevents us from sounding too pristine and “studio” perhaps? I wonder what would result if we were unleashed in some studio with loads of pizza and beer and time, but I guess that will have to wait until one of us has won the lottery. But certainly, Mark’s felted flatwounds are going to give the recording a particular feel, as will Rene’s Farfisa and I guess my modular synth. I remember when we were trying to figure out what to do for Rene’s keys to avoid the. . . blandness of her performing into a MIDI controller into a laptop we were first looking at a Nord or something because they just seemed to be what people did at the time, but those things were so expensive compared to someone’s gently used Farfisa! So we ended up with the Farfisa, not necessarily because we were trying to be purist snobs, but just because it was affordable. All that being said, we actually do favor the sort of melancholic tension that imperfectly tuned keys lend to the sound.
RD: There was a time, not too long ago, when our practices consisted mainly of pizza and beer. . .
MD: I think that our “sound” does sort of stem from our home-brewed recording process, technique and equipment choice. In using certain types of instruments and recording the way that we do, the music has a more organic quality and doesn’t sound as sterile, perfect or as polished as maybe a big studio album would. It all adds a certain charm to the sound, something i think a lot of bands (and producers) from the past achieved by experimenting with new and different instruments, tunings, strings, etc. within the limitations of recording equipment available to them at that time… Limitations that pushed them to be creative and innovative with the instruments and equipment that they used.
RMM: Your last full releases were back in 2011, is there anything new coming up for the band?
HC: Definitely. . . Our next LP, Fall in Line, is due this summer on Moon Glyph, which we are really excited about since I feel like we are really starting to . . . define a sound-identity for ourselves? I think they’re slated to announce an actual release date soon! Because there was a lot of material that didn’t fit on Fall in Line, there is an EP that will follow shortly afterwards on Moon Glyph – mainly it will include folksier territory that didn’t mix well with the LP tracks.
For more on The New Lines, visit their website, and have a listen to their single, ‘Off Axis’ below.