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by Conor Prischmann

The Curtains are a little different than any other group you've heard before. Constantly inventive and unfailingly intriguing, they couldn't be run-of-the-mill if they tried. Featuring members of Deerhoof and Natural Dreamers, among other groups, their latest album, Flybys, is out now on Thin Wrist Records, and a new record's already on the way. I spoke with guitarist, Los Angeles resident, and lead Curtain Chris Cohen through the miracle of the Internet.

SCR: When/where/why did the Curtains start, and by whom?
Chris: I met Trevor when he worked at a Chinese take-out restaurant in Santa Cruz in 1998. It was across the street from where the place where they had rock music shows. Bands like Axaxaxas Mlo, Botulism, The Champs, Interration, and TNT played there. I felt extremely uncomfortable but loved music.
Years later, in Oakland, the Curtains began as an attempt to play composed music under the guise of free improvisation. We wanted to play only the good parts. Not all the parts where nothing happens, and I just stare at my hands on the guitar strings and sweat, in front of people. That's what I don't like. This would be the best moments only, where, as though it were an accident, everybody came together and a melody would come out. We would also try to stay still and not get too hot on stage.

-- The Curtains pic #1


The Curtains -- http://curtains.suchfun.net/

Thin Wrist Records -- http://www.thinwrist.com/

Photos courtesy of Blue Ghost PR.

We had color pencil drawings; they were supposed to be graphic scores. I don't know how to read music. I know what the notes are on the staff and I know the signs for rhythms, but I can't read it easily. I wrote out these graphic scores. Progress was slow. A guy I worked with came over to play the drums. He played in bands. Trevor and I seemed to get along with him. But after some months, everything snapped. We were recording a demo tape, and he reached the breaking point.
Then Jamie, who was our friend, wanted to be in a new band -- her old one broke up, Saint Andre. Her and Trevor and I were friends and we enjoyed spending time together in the Curtains. This led to playing shows; we met other bands. Deerhoof was our favorite band. We became friends. Now what Trevor didn't like, I couldn't exactly explain, but he got tired of being in the band. I think he didn't like going to shows -- he was saving himself. Trevor is an amazing artist! Anyway, he left, and we asked Greg and Satomi to join, because John was going away for 3 months. Well, Satomi didn't have too much time for music; she was still waiting tables and Deerhoof took up enough time already.
Greg has an enormous appetite for music, though. Jamie and Greg and I went on, we did a tour with the band Young People. We kept running out of gas and had to be towed. A while after this, Jamie wanted to go away. She went to Italy. Then came Andrew. Actually, for a while though, we had no drummer. We asked different people to play with us. Trevor played the drum machine for some shows. We wanted to just float around, Greg and me, with no drummer who knew the songs. Then we took Andrew on tour with us. Andrew is an old friend of mine from the Santa Cruz days. He lived in the garage in a big house where a lot of us lived. He played the guitar a lot on the couch, extremely quietly while the radio or TV was also on. He didn't know I'd always be listening to him at those times. The Curtains is only a cover band -- my impressions of what Andrew would play, late at night in the next room. After playing one show together, Greg and I knew Andrew was in the band already.

Who is in the Curtains now? Who used to be in the Curtains, and why did they leave?
The Curtains remained Andrew, Greg, and me for a long time. Now I don't know what will happen. That version has ended. We will release another album, this fall. As a live band, we don't exist currently; that is, we can't play.

Right; your membership's split between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Do you feel that has a negative or positive impact on the band, and why?
Well, the impact it has had is okay with me. We've worked on things separately a lot; we made this new album, called Vehicles of Travel, a long-distance type of album. It was made in different places at different times by different people. This situation we were in was the subject matter of the album. For shows we would practice right before, in a panic. Things had to come together on stage, which was not what we wanted necessarily, but we attempted it.

What are the Curtains' musical influences? Have any non-musical influences affected the Curtains?
We went on tour with Maher Shalal Hash Baz last September and that changed things a lot. When I heard them the first time, I thought they sounded a lot like things we did, but I didn't understand their philosophy at all. Now that I am getting older, I am concerned with music and the reasons people have. It's not only a musical issue, but I think really great music has more behind it than other kinds of music. I'm not talking about religions or morals necessarily, just having a personal reason.

How did "The Curtains" originate as the name for the band?
I thought of a darkened theater, or maybe a plush Edwardian drawing room. This was where I wanted us to exist. Curtains suggest "expectation." It's a difficult philosophy to maintain as a band.

You and Greg are both in Deerhoof, which more people know about than the Curtains. Do you feel that the Curtains is a "side project", and how do you balance your time and energy among your various musical projects? Are you happy with the degree of exposure the Curtains have received?
Since the Curtains was begun long before I was in Deerhoof, it's not a side project for me. If people look at it that way, though, I don't mind. I'm happy when anyone wants to hear us at all. We've already had more exposure than I would have ever expected, or even would have been comfortable with in the beginning.

When you have musical ideas, is it always clear which project the idea is best suited for?
Not really. We try them in all the bands, Natural Dreamers included. They will come out completely differently depending on who does them. I'd like to do songs in multiple bands and release them.

You've had some instrumentation changes on the way to the current guitar/synth/drums line-up. Do you have any plans for additional or different instruments?
There are many people who could be in The Curtains. The band can adapt to a wide range of personalities, musical ideas, and instruments. I don't mean this statement to detract from me, Andrew, or Greg. But the definition of this band keeps having to change.
I do love: singers; pianos; basses; flutes; saxophones; any instrument, actually. It doesn't matter. Sometimes I have a hard time with the way people play the trumpet, but I don't blame the instrument.

How do you write Curtains songs? Do you all get together and jam, or do you come up with song structures that you then bring to the group?
We have done one jam, called "Cops in Cologne." Actually, it's only the first 15 seconds of the song that's a jam. The rest of the song was composed. Curtains songs are in general written by one person, and then arranged all together.

To what degree, if any, does improvisation play a part in Curtains performances, recordings, or song-writing?
We play compositions and we want them to sound alive. Many of these compositions have major gaps left in them that we fill in when we play them. I think that's improvisation, but it's not free improvisation. Last-minute decisions and instantaneous ideas are definitely allowed in the Curtains -- Greg and Andrew, especially, exercise this option in the live setting. The synthesizer which Greg plays is usually sabotaging his every move and he wrangles with it constantly; it seems to guarantee things won't come out the way we planned.

Do you feel the Curtains are developing in a certain direction, and if so, what? Has each album been a part of this progression, or more its own self-contained entity?
We develop, but we don't know what we're doing in advance. I could say what we've already done, but not what we will do. We seem to follow a pattern. It occurred to me the other day that we were aging. I would describe us now as adults.

The Curtains pic #2 The inside photo on your latest album, Flybys [out now on Thin Wrist Records!], with the piano planter, is funny. Where was it taken? What book is Andrew holding?
Hmmm. I can't zoom in far enough to see. I don't know. Andrew's main interests seem to be baseball, poetry, and movies. It could be something like that? Satomi took that photo; it's in San Francisco, outside of a closed-down piano store.

Who did the artwork for the album, and do you feel it's metaphorical with regard to the music of the Curtains?
The drawings on Flybys were done by me, but based on an idea of Andrew's. It was the basis of the song "Bummer With Cakes." It's also a representation of our music. We don't use an assembly line to make our music, but we try to make something sweet and appealing, like cake, only we get carried away. When we play, it can seem like people are booby-trapping each other, but that's not really what is happening. It's faulty construction in the music. For example, who thinks of making cakes like that on an assembly-line with a robotic arm dispensing frosting? It's bound to go crazy.

Do you ever do overdubs on Curtains recordings, or is it pretty much live in the studio? Were the recording methods or situation different for this album than the previous album [Fast Talks, also on Thin Wrist]?
We will definitely do anything to make it come out. We are not concerned with making our records be like live shows at this time. The feeling of Flybys might be a little like "live." We played all together on the basic tracks (in a kitchen, right after our first tour with Andrew). Fast Talks was also done all together, but overdubs were necessary to fulfill the potential of the recorded Curtains experience. The records have to be something special. Vehicles of Travel was created more artificially. This was how we had to make the album because of practical means, but it was also the idea for the album. We imagined ourselves to be like session musicians, hired to make a perfect pop album.

Usually your songs are instrumental. Was that a conscious decision, or the result of circumstances, and do you feel it's a plus or a minus?
Well I think the majority of people do have a preference for vocal music. I listen to a lot of instrumental music, and I would never say it's not as good, but everybody loves a good song. They know the human voice better than any instrument, and it seems to mean more to them. We never decided to be instrumental -- Trevor and I were terrified of singing at first. Trevor cured that during his time in the a capella group Reminisce, but in the Curtains it was a matter of fear and a general lack of interest. We were completely satisfied and challenged by what we had to do already on the instruments.
Jamie sometimes sang, and then gradually I did a little bit, and Greg did a little bit. Then when Andrew joined, it was just a matter of not telling him "no." Andrew is a born singer and entertainer, and we were happy to have his voice in the band. We want to make as much use of everyone's talents as possible.
After a while, we started to become more and more interested in vocals in the Curtains, and Vehicles of Travel has more vocals on it than any previous Curtains album. I'm also becoming more and more interested in singing because it places a new demand on how I write music. Curtains songs have always been short and without verses and choruses because we didn't have that extra layer of meaning that vocals and lyrics add, which lets the music stand more repetition. Now I'm trying to rethink the shape of our songs to support that. In our older songs, it seemed to me like there was just no room. I started to think, "how do people do this?" So it's good for me to try and figure it out. For Andrew and Greg, I think their music was already naturally more about singing than mine.

What bands, if any, do you feel are musical peers? Are there any groups around now or in the past that you feel are/were pursuing similar musical directions as the Curtains?
A few bands in the past and present who have pursued similar musical directions to the Curtains are:

  • Godzik Pink
  • Maher Shalal Hash Baz
  • Breezy Days Band
  • Gorge Trio
  • TheTeethe
  • The Shaggs
  • The Raincoats
  • The Red Krayola
  • Harry Pussy
  • Saccharine Trust

If you had your way, for a show in an ideal world, what band would you like to open for the Curtains? What band would you like the Curtains to open for?
See above, any order.

Are there any tour plans for the upcoming year?
Not at the moment.

Ask yourself a question to answer.
What would be a good ending for this interview?

You're welcome! END


All contents © 2004 Space City Rock, unless otherwise credited.