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MENTAL TOPOLOGY: The Impossible Shapes' Geometric Advancement

Interview with Chris Barth of the Impossible Shapes
Conducted on August 10, 2005 at 2:00 p.m.
by Marc Hirsh

The Impossible Shapes pic #1 Chris Barth, frontman for the Impossible Shapes, knows where the action is. Calling Bloomington, Indiana his home, he shares both a town and a label (Secretly Canadian) that are on the verge of Next Big Thing status. Before that, as an employee at Luna Music, he was at the center of Indianapolis's only real sanctuary for indie kids and music nerds who wanted a bit more of a hands-on album-buying experience than they could get from chains or large electronics stores.

That was where we met in the late 1990s, and not only did I spend countess afternoons hanging out and talking music with him and his coworkers, I caught the Impossible Shapes a number of times during their formative years. With Barth and fellow multi-instrumentalist Aaron Deer anchoring a slowly morphing group of players, the band has grown over the last seven years or so, to the point where the knotty musical connections made on their most recent album, Horus, bear little to no resemblance to the trebly indie-pop act whose infancy I bore witness to. I recently caught up with Barth and chatted about the ever-changing indie scene, the attentive nature of European audiences and his love affair with the town he calls home.

I guess I'll start out with a hypothetical question. If an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you how to describe your music, what would you say?
Oh... (laughs) How to describe my music... God damn, I hate that question sometimes. Well, maybe I'll describe it the way a really good friend of mine recently described it to me. It's sort of like walking on a solitary path through the wilderness, is what I would say.

And you agree with your friend.
Yeah. I really liked it when they said that. He said that's how my music made him feel. And I do a lot of that in my time, so it makes sense. (laughs)

What's the worst description you've ever seen?
The worst description of my music that I've ever heard is usually when people use other bands, especially a modern band. So that always really bothers me when they're like, "They sound like Pavement meets Guided By Voices," or something. I dislike those [descriptions], but I understand it. It's an easy way to describe music. And maybe we are part of some lineage with those bands, I don't know. I definitely grew up listening to those bands, so I don't know.

Having worked at Luna, doesn't that sort of automatically throw the Guided By Voices umbrella over you guys?
Yeah, I'm gonna be carrying that around for a while, I'm sure. Just being associated with Luna, and all that. Actually, though, lately it seems to be not so much of a thing. I think we've separated ourselves from that a little bit.

Then I won't ask too many questions about it.
(laughs) You can. I'm happy to talk about that kind of stuff. Guided By Voices or whatever.

But Luna's not something you're sweeping under the rug.
No, I still talk to those dudes a lot. I'd be even into working with them again sometime and releasing some music. I don't know if they would be into it, but yeah, they're still pretty much a big part of the band, I would say. I mean, they definitely started everything off, somehow.

-- The Impossible Shapes record cover
The Impossible Shapes, Horus


(Music courtesy of Secretly Canadian Records.)


The Impossible Shapes

Secretly Canadian Records

Big Car

Luna Music

When did the band start?
I would say that it started... let's say six years ago. Six, seven years ago, around that time. Like, me and Aaron, the two founding members of the band and the only ones who have been in it consistently all the way through, and our other friend Peter [King]. The band started with us just making tapes. It was really not a real band so much as just a fun recording project that we would occasionally play the songs live. But very rarely, randomly.

How did you guys know each other?
We all went to high school together. High school buddies.

How long had you known each other?
We weren't really friends till high school, but we'd known each other since elementary school. We all lived in the same neighborhood and had been around each other for a long, long time. Me and Aaron were even born in the same hospital two days apart.

What made you become friends in high school?
I think our sophomore year, we all just got into the same music and just found each other, that we all had similar interests, and we all were into a lot of the same bands that we were just discovering all at once. It was cool to share that, and there weren't a lot of people we knew who were into the same stuff. Like, we were getting into bands that were just recording albums on four-tracks, and once we realized we could do that, then we spent lots of time together doing that.

The Impossible Shapes pic #2 How did you personally start playing music?
I started playing music maybe in seventh grade, because I was really into Nirvana. I was very taken with that whole explosion that happened, and I wanted to play guitar just like Kurt Cobain. Rock out. And so I got an electric guitar like in seventh grade and learned a Nirvana song. (laughs) That whole sort of thing. And we started playing with friends in short-lived bands. And really, right from the beginning, right from when I first got a guitar, I was really into the idea of writing songs. And I was right away just writing lyrics and guitar riffs and all that. That was what drew me to it the most, just the idea of making up my own songs.

I remember from your first album and from the first shows I saw you guys play, which it sounds fairly early on, not to use the P or GbV words, but you used to be skewed but otherwise relatively straightforward indie-pop. Whereas Horus is very different. What's changed between then and now?
What do I think has changed since the first album to this album?

Yeah, do you consider those the work of the same band?
No, and there's a lot of factors, I think, that go into it. I kind of see the band in two different eras, really. One era is involving the me, Aaron and Peter era, where that was the The Great Migration, and then the second album, Laughter Fills Our Hollow Dome. And then the third album we did, Bless The Headless, which was our last album for Luna, was kinda like the transition where we started playing with these guys, Mark [Rice], who's the drummer, and Jason Groth, the lead guitarist. And we made more of a conscious effort to become a rock band, like a real band. And from then on, then we made the albums We Like It Wild and Horus as that band, and those albums are very much the band recording live as a full rock band in the studio and definitely a totally different thing. And that's what I think is the main difference, is that it went from being three friends kinda messing around with weird recordings at home to being like an actual rock band in a studio trying to craft some idea of a great record. Totally different attitude. And I think that Horus is kind of the culmination of that. It was like the end of that, too. Another thing that I think is, Horus is kind of a darker album. Whereas we were doing a lot more light-hearted things early on. And I don't know, when I listen to Horus, I can hear the tension that was my life when we were recording it and the tension in the band and just the tension that was in the studio between us and the guy recording it, and there was just a whole lot of like tension. (laughs) I won't listen to the album anymore, 'cause it kind of scares me. It was a pretty heavy time.

What was going on?
Well, I feel like everyone's personal lives were just going through heavy stuff, whether it was relationships or what have you, and then the band was going through weird stuff. Jason and Mark had begun playing full-time with the Magnolia Electric Co. At first me and Aaron were pretty bummed, because we were rolling with the band and we wanted to keep going and we'd have to work around their schedule with that. And then after we made Horus and did a tour for Horus with them, we went our separate ways. They went off and started doing the Magnolia thing full-time and actually have been touring non-stop with that band for the last eight months. And me and Aaron made another record on the side that sort of went back to our roots of just having a lot of fun recording in this garage where we set up a little studio. It's called Tum. It's actually my favorite record we've ever made. It's like the light-hearted counterpart to Horus. It's some of the same themes, but a different approach. And so things are sort of changed again. We're in, I would consider, a third era of the band now, which is basically just me and Aaron and whoever else we get to play with us.

You're making it sound almost as though the Impossible Shapes are... I don't know if "over" is too much of a concrete thing, but it sounds like you guys consider this very much a conclusion of something.
Yeah, well, it's a conclusion of that era of the band, I think. Of me, Aaron, Jason and Mark, and trying to do this more of a rock band thing. I definitely see that as being over. And we're trying to figure out where to go now, but we've set up another home studio and we're recording another album at home and having lots of different people play on it with us. But basically it's me and Aaron guiding the whole thing. And yeah, I think we're entering definitely a new phase of the band now. I'm pretty excited to see where it goes.

Who writes the songs?
I write most of the songs. I would say maybe even 80-90% of the songs I write. I will write all the lyrics and the music and then I bring them to the band and everyone kind of comes up with their own arrangements or parts. But the basic songs are written by me. But then every album there's a few songs that Aaron also writes, where he'll come in with the idea and we work with that. So it's divided between me and Aaron, but it's not even. Aaron's more of the arranger. He's really skilled at layering things and building songs up from the basic chords that I've come up with. And I definitely write all the lyrics. I've gotten way more into that aspect of writing songs, of just really focusing on lyrics a lot. Writing lots of poetry as well helps that.

Yeah, one of the things that I had certainly noticed on Horus is that, more than what you guys were when I was seeing you guys live, your songs are very vocal-based. You're doing a lot more things with your singing that you weren't doing before.
Yeah, definitely. I've definitely gotten more into that, just the idea of singing and lyrics and all that. Whereas yeah, early on we were kinda more into sound, I think, more into experimenting with weird sounds and melodies.

The other thing is that the songs sound very meticulously arranged. The only way I can think of describing it is almost like an overlay, like an overhead projector. Like, each of you is one transparency, and it doesn't necessarily look like anything in and of itself, but when you start layering the guitars on top and the bass and the drums and your vocals, they sort of all create the picture together. They're all very complementary in that way. I don't even know if there's a question in here, actually.
(laughs) No, I mean, I know what you're saying.

It sounds so complexly arranged. Is that done by each person? You said they come up with their own arrangements.
Yeah, for a lot of these songs, too, we had done a long tour right before we recorded. So on that tour, we were learning and working with all the songs every night, so that at the end of the tour, we had all the songs. Everyone had a part, and we had been playing them as a band for months. So when we went into the studio, everyone already had a part and not that much overdubbing was even done. Just here and there, like subtle things. But yeah, I think a lot of it happened just live. Like us coming up with our parts just playing them live.

What made you move from Indianapolis to Bloomington?
Well, the superficial reason was to go to school.

The Impossible Shapes pic #3 Right. That's the part that I figured I knew.
Yeah, now that I look back, I realize I didn't really come here to go to school. I was drawn here. I had come here a lot in high school just to visit and hang out and I just really loved the feel of the town. And coming from the suburbs of Indianapolis, it was just a totally different world, and one of the only real liberal artistic places in Indiana to be. And I was really drawn to that, even though I kinda was like, "Well, I'm gonna go here to go to school." And then my first couple years, I was pretty much just involved with being in school, and then after about two years, I started to branch out and meet people who were from the community, people that actually lived and grew up here, a lot of artists and musicians that were living and working here. And I just really fell in love. Actually, I fell in love harder with Bloomington than I have with any woman. (laughs) I don't know, I fell hard. And now I've been having mixed feelings after being here six years. I'm kinda like, "Oh, do I wanna stay? Do I wanna get out of here?" But there's still a charm here that I can't deny. I mean, it's a special place and a lot of my music is really influenced, I think, by living here and by the area.

Yeah, "The Blooming Town" is almost one of the most unabashed love songs I think you've written.
Yeah, that's the song that's about my love affair with Bloomington. But it's kind of hiding the fact that it's also about a specific person. But it's kinda weird. It's kind of romanticizing the place and this woman who I was involved with who grew up in Bloomington and I don't know, just sort of hanging out with her and discovering a lot about this place was a pretty big deal for me. That's what that song came out of, for sure.

Why do you think Bloomington is that different from Indianapolis in terms of artistic community?
Well, I think that the people have a lot of the same complaints about Indianapolis, that it's really spread out. Like, the city itself is just spread out in such a way that it's hard to have a cohesive community there, and there's a lot of little different things, little scenes that don't really cross over too much. Whereas in Bloomington, there's a whole variety of things going on, but also everyone knows each other, helps each other, works with each other, even if it's like this one metal band and this one noise band and this folk singer. Like, totally different things, but they're all hanging out at the same house on any given night. Whereas in Indianapolis, it just never felt like that to me. Which is kind of unfair for me to say, 'cause like I said, I grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis. When I was there in high school, I wasn't really involved with what was really going on in the artistic community of Indianapolis, so now when I go back, I'm discovering more and more about what actually was there and what is going on there still. And I think there are really good things going on there, but I was just more turned on by the smallness and the way that the town of Bloomington is laid out. It's just a really small, really nicely laid out town with good little neighborhoods, where there's lot of houses that people put on concerts and art shows and all this stuff in their basements and living rooms. And that to me is really exciting. And you don't have that as much in Indianapolis. It's a lot more centered around clubs there, I guess. Though I've heard that's changing. Like, I keep hearing from people that there's way more house shows going on in Indianapolis and stuff. That's what I hear. I mean, I don't know, I haven't been to any, but... You know John Clark?

Is he the PlopLop guy?
PlopLop, yeah. He's running this amazing place, this collective called Big Car. They've got this huge studio where all these artists are doing shows, and they're doing music shows there. And that's down in Fountain Square. It seems like they've got a great thing going. I'm actually talking to him now about the next tour we do. We're gonna try and play a show at that place since they've been doing really well with that.

Cool. There were times it almost seemed like Luna and Luna customers were sort of singlehandedly trying, at least, to create an underground music scene in Indianapolis. I still to this day talk about the Music Box Caf», which I still think was the most brilliant idea for a club. And I absolutely understand why it closed its doors in about four months.
Yeah. It was right by my house where I grew up.

Oh, was it?
It was so weird. Like, that place, I loved that place.

Any music club where you could sit on a couch, eat an ice cream sundae, play Connect Four and listen to a band...
Yeah. (laughs) That was rad.

But like I said, I also can appreciate why it couldn't possibly have remained.
Yeah. You know, I think that there was definitely a little underground scene centered around Luna. I mean, that was my first experience with that kind of thing. It was just working at Luna and the shows that we put on and that sort of stuff, the records we were making. But then it was another one of those things where there was that little scene, but it didn't necessarily cross over with any of the other scenes that were going. You know? It was kind of its own separate little thing.

I was reading something in the Metro yesterday. There was an article about Magnolia Electric Co., and it basically said that Bloomington is the next Omaha and that Secretly Canadian is the next Saddle Creek.
Damn, I hope so. (laughs)

What's your take on that?
Well, I can see a whole lot of similarities, having spent a little bit of time in Omaha and just hearing a lot about it. I don't know. I mean, it's hard to make those kind of comparisons, but Secretly Canadian definitely has the same kind of impact on Bloomington that Saddle Creek has on Omaha. I can see that just with the culture and the arts and everything. I don't know. Saddle Creek seems like it's huge now, with the whole Bright Eyes and whatever. And I've watched Secretly Canadian grow so fast over the last few years, it's insane. To the point where I don't even go in there anymore. The office is down the street from my house, but the place is just so huge and chaotic and there's all these different people working there and they're switching jobs constantly. It just seems to be growing, and they're getting bigger and bigger artists and selling more and more records. But I could see that happening. I could see it getting to the point of Saddle Creek. I would just like it if that had a positive effect on our band. (laughs) I mean, we sell more records than I would have ever hoped, but we're at the very, very bottom of the Secretly Canadian totem pole.

What do you do when you're not in the band? Do you have outside jobs?
Well, it's interesting. I've actually not had a real job for the last three or four months and have somehow miraculously been supporting myself from going on tours and getting little bits of recording money here and there from Secretly Canadian. And I also live very, very cheaply, so that helps. But, yeah, Aaron works, like, ten hours a week at the local bakery, and I don't work, so yeah. Somehow we're making it work. I mean, you can live in Bloomington on nothing, 'cause there's an excess of free food and you can always have somewhere to crash and the rent's really cheap if you wanna pay rent. You can pretty much live on nothing here. Which is why I'm still here, I would say, the main reason why I'm still here. (laughs)

And how much longer do you plan on living on nothing in Bloomington?
I don't know. It's hard to say. I've flirted with the idea of moving this fall, but I think I am gonna just stick around at least another six months. Me and Aaron are making another record, like I said. We're working pretty hard on that, but my main goal is to be touring constantly. I can just keep my stuff here really cheaply and then go be on the road for a long time and come back. It's pretty easy to keep doing that.

So am I catching you at basically the very end of the Horus promotional cycle?
Yeah, we're gonna do one more tour that's I guess part of that. I mean, I don't like to think of tours as like promoting records so much. I just love to do it no matter what. But yeah, we're doing like another tour in November, an East Coast thing. And then our next album will be out sometime next spring. We'll probably do another big couple months of touring. Hopefully try to go to Europe if we can again.

How much have you been able to tour outside the U.S.?
We just did one tour overseas, which was mostly in Sweden but also went into like Germany and France and Holland and Belgium and Czech Republic, sort of that area. And that was really amazing. So we've been wanting to try and get back there ever since.

The Impossible Shapes pic #4 How different were the shows that you were doing over there than in the U.S.?
Oh, way different. Like, playing to like hundreds of people instead of like 20 people. Like, being fed multiple times a day. (laughs) Yeah, I don't know, you definitely feel more like a big rock star over there. People listen very intently to the songs. After shows, people would come up to me and talk specifically about song lyrics just from having heard them that night. Kind of blew my mind. I feel like it might just be 'cause we're the band from America, but it just seemed like a bigger deal to people over there, like the shows we played were like a big deal. Which I was into. (laughs) I love touring the U.S., too. I mean, don't get me wrong. I will always love doing that. It's just harder. You have to really work hard to build your connections with people and all that here.

Is there much of a difference between the band on record versus on stage?
For the band that recorded Horus, that was touring for that, when it was Jason and Mark, there was very little difference. I think we sounded a whole lot like we sound on that record. But like I said, that's something that's totally gonna change now that we're back to doing the recordings in a more loose way, where we're just throwing it all together in the studio. And then when we go to tour, depending on what the lineup's gonna be, I bet it'll be different. We just played a show in town that was just me and Aaron on guitar and bass and a friend of ours on cello doing a bunch of songs off Horus and Tum. And that was totally different than anything we've ever done. But I think that's what it's gonna be now, we're gonna just be trying all sorts of different stuff. And it won't be like the band that you hear on the album is the band that you're seeing live and that sort of thing. 'Cause we did that for a few years and while I was glad to have done it, it just sort of got stale I think after a while. For me.

Are you nervous at all about these changes?
I was at first, but now that things have been rolling, I'm really just excited about what's gonna happen. I mean, we already did a tour, it was me and Aaron and a new drummer and it went really well. It was really fun. We had a good response. And these recordings that we're doing now, I'm really excited about. So, yeah, I'm not nervous at all. Any more. And actually, Mark's gonna come back and play drums with us on this tour in November, so we're gonna be a three-piece, me, Aaron and Mark. And I'm really excited about that, 'cause we've played a bunch of shows that way before, and it's always been really good.

The Impossible Shapes power trio?
Yeah. That's been the thing lately, the power trio. We've been doing everything as a trio. So we're kind of into the simple side.

How hard is that, to do the songs and the arrangements as written?
We have to leave a lot out, but it just allows for more energy. Like, the energy becomes more important. I get to take a lot more guitar solos, which I think is pretty fun. It's a different thing, yeah. It's not as much about the arrangements as like just the feel of it.

"Survival" is so wildly different from anything else on Horus.
(laughs) Yeah.

I keep on thinking of Devo.
The song reminds you of Devo?

Yeah, and I'm not entirely sure why, but every time I hear it, that's what I think of. So you can deal with that however you'd like.
No, that's cool. I think other people have said that, too.

Then I'll have the comfort of knowing that I'm not crazy and the disappointment of knowing that it's not a brilliant, original idea. Were you concerned that putting a song like that on the album would somehow disrupt the balance of the rest of the record, or draw attention to that song?
Yeah, it's in the center of the album, and you kind of want to draw attention to it. I wanted it to really shake things up, 'cause it is a really mellow album most of the way through. I just wanted to throw in this crazy rock song that we've been playing that was like one chord.

It is one chord, isn't it?
Yeah, it's pretty much a one-chord song. I've been into that lately. I'm just trying to write songs that are like one chord or two chords and just trying to see what you can do with just that.

I think that may actually be the bulk of my actual questions. I've got the pointless emergency backups. If I ended up covering everything that we talked about in like 10 minutes, I've got the ones like, "Who do you consider your peers?"
You want me to answer that?

(laughs) It's up to you.
I don't know, the peer thing. Like, do you mean musical peers, like what bands or something?

Yeah, is there anybody you guys feel like you have any special kinship with?
The thing is, it's probably like bands you may not have heard of. Like, I feel it most with bands we've met while touring in specific little towns, where it's like, this is the band we know here, and we play with them there, and they come to Bloomington and play with us. Like my friends in Oakland, Birds Of America. Nat, he used to work at Luna, too. He moved out to Oakland, and he does this thing out there now. His name's Nat Russell. He was really into doing some screen printing stuff.

I may have one of his CDs.
Yeah, yeah, you probably do. I wouldn't be surprised if you did.

Jason [Pierce, manager of Luna] liked to send me home with things.
Yeah, I'm sure Jason would've given you something of his. Jason put out a few things of his. We've done lots of shows together. We're probably gonna do a tour together sometime. I feel a kinship with a lot of musicians in Oakland, actually. There's a lot of nice people I've met there and played with, like the whole Bay Area. And we've got some good friends on other random stops, like Kansas and, God, I don't even know where else. Knoxville, Tennessee. Just all these bands that we meet. It's pretty nice. END


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