Brian McBride is sitting on his porch, waiting for a delivery in the heat of an August afternoon and reflecting on the music he's spent the last two decades making as one half of Stars Of The Lid. We're separated by a continent, an ocean and an eight-hour time difference, but this is nothing new for him. While McBride lives in California, Adam Wiltzie, the other half of the band, moved to Brussels 15 years ago. It's been a very long time since they've lived and worked in the same city.
McBride and Wiltzie helped pioneer a new style of ambient music. They took a template of slow playing and close listening—something laid down by artists like Gavin Bryars, Pauline Oliveros and Arvo Pärt—and transformed it into their own weird, home-grown vision, full of drones, tape-hiss and twisted pop-culture references. Their later records—particularly And The Refinement Of Their Decline and The Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid, both of which have recently been reissued—established a way of integrating classical structure and instrumentation with a more intimate and approachable kind of ambience.
The duo's beautiful torpor—dark without being depressing, emotional but not heavy-handed—has had a huge influence on all kinds of artists, from bedroom tape manipulators to virtuosic classical performers. Labels like Erased Tapes, 130701 and Desire Path, as well as artists like Kyle Bobby Dunn and Benoit Pioulard, all owe a debt to their patient melodic sensibility and passion for texture. It's a strangely grand kind of intimacy that makes their music feel powerful and moving, whether it's experienced in a concert hall or alone in the dark on headphones. The result is a sound that led Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of 4AD Records, to say the group were "making the most important music of the 21st century."
Stars Of The Lid was born in Austin in the early '90s, when McBride and Wiltzie met at the University Of Texas and became mixtape-trading friends. Wiltzie spent his youth playing tennis, coached by his godfather, Chuck McKinley, who'd once won Wimbledon. When he was a teenager, an injury forced Wiltzie out of the game, giving him time to pick up the guitar. By the time Stars Of The Lid got started, he was an experienced sound engineer, having spent time on the road with bands like Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips (in their earlier, freakier days). McBride hosted a college radio show that saw him layering his own recorded sounds over other artists' music in experimental collages. Always in search of interesting material for the show, he rarely left the house without a tape recorder.
"Through most of my time in college, I used to walk around with whatever tape recorder I could find and I was just fascinated with sound," he says. "I was doing these field recordings almost all the time. It was actually kind of irritating to people that were around me. I would record inside your elevator, your bathroom, your basement."
The earliest Stars Of The Lid recordings were shaped by the pair's approach to sound as raw material, both of them eager to twist and shape strange recordings, hums and distortions into something beautiful and melancholic. Their first album, Music For Nitrous Oxide, appeared on the Sedimental label in 1995. It was littered with odd samples taken from the fringes of popular culture—Star Trek, Twin Peaks, Apocalypse Now—and more obscure sources, all mixed down on a four-track tape recorder. The original CD's liner notes proudly proclaimed that its droning, ambient sound was "produced without keyboards," relying instead on a mix of heavily affected guitar and skilful tape manipulation.
Though they both had plenty of friends in bands around Austin, the music McBride and Wiltzie were making did not appeal to the city's music scene, which McBride once described as being filled with "Stevie Ray Vaughan prodigies."
"We were total outcasts, we couldn't get a show," says Wiltzie. "That was our beginning, that's where we were from. People still seem to act like we're living there—we're referred to as 'Austin, Texas duo'—but we don't really have anything in common with the city. I don't really know what to say about that. It's hard to feel any kind of connection at all."
Music For Nitrous Oxide set the template for a clutch of records that would appear over the next few years, and formed a base for a psychedelic live show with multiple visual projections and overwhelming layers of sound. The Ballasted Orchestra—their third record, and first for Kranky—was both the culmination of this sound and the beginning of something new. An 80-minute sprawl, it allowed the patient melodies so often buried beneath the tape hiss to unfurl more than ever before, rising in pearlescent tones from a bed of echoes and ghostly resonances. The samples take a back seat on the longer tracks, while the guitar is allowed to flourish out front. It's a glorious record; shimmering and diaphanous, like gold glimpsed by lamplight.
The focus on instrumentation increased with the addition of cellos on Per Aspera Ad Astra (1998) and Avec Laudenem (1999). But it was with their sixth album, The Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid, that the duo realised the full scope of their ambition. A two-hour triple-LP, Tired Sounds has the same mood as earlier Stars Of The Lid records, but along with the usual tape hiss and late-night TV samples, you find flutes, strings, piano and horns layered together in heartbreakingly still arrangements, an enveloping stasis maintained at the volume of a whisper.
"Before Tired Sounds we both kind of came to an agreement that we wanted something we described as stronger sounds," says McBride. "We wanted to push ourselves to find stuff that was more than just incidental, find things that could be sonically relevant by themselves."
For two untrained musicians more used to trading tapes than writing sheet music, working so closely with formally-trained musicians wasn't easy, but it did force them to develop new skills, and to recognise where their strengths were.
"It was difficult at the start," says Wiltzie. "I taught myself how to write music. In the beginning it was a little bit daunting but now I've gotten a lot better at it. I'm recording with orchestras now so I feel very confident. It's just like learning another language. After a while, you wake up one morning and you realise, 'Oh, I understand this'. Then it's fine."
"I think it just taught me that I have a different relationship with it," adds McBride. "It definitely made me try harder. It definitely gave me a chip on my shoulder, that they had formal training, they were better at playing the guitar than I was. I sort of eventually realised that what I thought was better at playing the guitar was just one way of approaching an instrument. And maybe I had a different kind of appreciation for detail than other people do. I have a weird, weird ability to listen to something and to pay attention to things that I don't know if other folks pay attention to."
By the time Tired Sounds came out, McBride had moved to Chicago, and Wiltzie was in the process of moving to Brussels. In Austin, they had often worked separately, recording at home and bringing ideas to each other for further development. Now, unable to meet up regularly, they exchanged DAT tapes through the post, slowly piecing these missives together until they became large-scale structures. This way of working suited them. After ten years in the same place, they trusted each other enough to take their time and to give honest feedback.
"When we give each other things, little bits and pieces or sometimes more fleshed out ideas, nowadays there's never an expectation that the next day or even the next week that you're going to respond," says McBride. "It's not like a business relationship. There's not a deadline where you have to listen instantly and get back because there's a meeting that's coming up. You want to listen in the right place, the right time. I don't think either one of us has the assumption that the other one presses play as soon as something shows up in their inbox."
"The word 'slow' is very much part of our vocabulary," says Wiltzie. "And 'distance,' too. The distance we have, these oceans and continents that separate us. It's almost like slowing down time or something. It's fine. I think we just decided a long time ago, when it gets done it gets done."
Tired Sounds was Stars Of The Lid's sixth album in six years. After that, their output slowed considerably. Wiltzie says the noise surrounding that record was hard to ignore, and he felt like "the world just needed another one immediately." Instead, they took some time off. Both worked on other projects, and only came together to play the Tired Sounds material live. The shift in instrumentation on the record had forced them to reconsider their usual live setup, and after posting an ad on MySpace looking for players, they brought a small string section on the road with them. This changed the dynamic of their live performances completely.
"I remember folks coming up to us after a performance and saying, 'I didn't think that you could do it,'" says McBride. "They didn't think you could translate what was on the record to a live context. I think that's a testament to the fact that there is some structure going on. Even if we can't perfectly approximate a lot of the stuff that's going on, the fidelity of what happens on the record, it is possible to at least emulate some of that structure. So a song like 'Requiem For Dying Mothers' is something that we can play and play at a close approximation to the actual recording, even though it's always going to be a little bit different."
It took the pair six years to follow up Tired Sounds—once again, they were working separately and slowly. And The Refinement Of Their Decline is another two-hour album of beautiful ambient music. At first it might not seem so different from its predecessor, but the key to the record is its title. The album is a refined version of an ongoing process—prettier, more stark, more still than their previous work. The guitar has become largely unrecognisable, still present but reduced to a pure wash of tone and colour. The piano sits way back in the mix. There's a greater confidence to the arrangements, which are more patient, more ambiguous than before. The track titles, which had always been a bulwark against them taking their work too seriously, are even funnier than usual. "Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage" (a reference to the other Brian McBride, a professional footballer previously of Fulham FC), "That Finger On Your Temple Is The Barrel Of My Raygun," and the final, defining statement of "December Hunting For Vegetarian Fuckface," actively undercut any would-be pretensions, marrying their gorgeous music to uncouth titles.
Despite their monumental length and abstract sounds, both Tired Sounds and Refinement sold well. Their music soundtracked everything from yoga classes to pre-natal listening sessions. A group of Australian science fiction authors apparently listened to Tired Sounds while at work on their books. By the end of 2007, Refinement was on course to being the most highly-rated record of the year, according to online review aggregator Metacritic, as it earned itself a massively positive consensus among indie music critics at Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes and The Guardian. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this resulted in a backlash.
"There were a bunch of people who rushed to reviewing the record and giving it a bad review, which would slide us down the Metacritic line," says McBride, laughing at the memory. "That's something that I actually kind of enjoy about the music. I like that it doesn't invoke ambivalence. Either people really view it as something that's important, or they hate it, they don't think it's music at all. I think that kind of policing of what was going to be the top-rated record of the year was sort of an indication that something was going on, that maybe it was at least big enough to have to respond to."
Though they have continued to play live together, various other projects and jobs have been keeping the pair busy since Refinement. Now fully settled in Brussels, Wiltzie has become a full-time composer, working on his own music, film scores and commercial projects. His main pursuit over the last few years has been A Winged Victory For The Sullen, an orchestral project with Berlin-based composer Dustin O'Halloran. Earlier this year they performed at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC's Proms season, a show that Wiltzie describes as "one of the best we ever had." That the same act can play both Boiler Room and the Proms in the space of a few months proves Wiltzie's point that traditionally classical environments are opening up to musicians from less traditional backgrounds.
"It takes time, it takes a bit of coddling and maybe now we're reaching a point where people are beginning to accept it a little bit more," he says. "In general, the classical music world, it's very insular and it's taken them time to realise. And part of it is maybe they realise that their gene pool, or their audience, is getting old and they're going to die soon. They have to find a way to bring in more people. In a sense, the curators, like Edward who runs the Proms, are realising we really need to breathe some new life in, to bring in new people, because you can't just play to empty houses. You need this interaction with the public."
In Los Angeles, McBride works with students at the University Of Southern California as a debate coach. Having been a champion debater himself in Austin, he has spent most of his adult life working in the field, coaching and judging competitions. It's a demanding job, one he says will "take all it can from you, and be unapologetic about it," though a good group of students can make the "creative repression" worthwhile. With both Stars Of The Lid and Bell Gardens, the gauzy pop project he does with Kenneth James Gibson, he's begun to think about making music a full-time occupation. For now though, the balance between work and music remains "a constant struggle."
"It's great in the sense that it is at an academic pace, which does afford me the ability to maintain a creative life, and it does give me days and weeks where I don't have to concentrate on debate," he says. "Do I like it? Nah, man, at times I don't. I fucking hate it to be perfectly honest. It's a weird thing. It is the exact opposite of what Stars Of The Lid is. It is literally the exact opposite in every way. There are tons of words, debaters speak at a very, very rapid rate. It is very, very rational and Stars Of The Lid is the exact opposite of that. In previous interviews I've said either that means I'm balanced or I'm bi-polar, I don't really know which."
Eight years on from their last record, Wiltzie and McBride are still surprised that so many people are interested in what they do, and that they're able to pursue this path in their lives. As Wiltzie says, "It's only a certain segment of society that can even have any sort of enjoyment out of what we're doing." With so many ongoing projects and some new Stars Of The Lid material in the pipeline for next year, neither McBride nor Wiltzie are eager to spend too much time looking backwards, but the re-issues of Tired Sounds and Refinment have given them an opportunity to take stock and to remember.
"It's bittersweet for sure," says McBride. "I actually just saw my ex-wife, who was the woman I was married to in Chicago at that time. I was just down in Austin for a couple of weeks, and I don't really talk to her very much, that's not the kind of relationship that we have. That's sort of what it brings me back to. It starts, obviously, with the setting—our studio in the largest room of our house. Those images mutate into who I was with, and not just who I was with, but Cherie. Those were great times and they seem very far away right now. I don't revisit those thoughts much, so it's nice I guess, if the reissue is bringing me back to remembering something that I'd pushed away. That's OK. I'm alright with that.
"I used to be able to want to transport myself into my older body and observe what life was like, or be a fly on the wall for your younger self, to see if I interacted with the world differently. I've kind of given up on that. I think it's better to not compare and to be OK in the present in some way. I know that sounds very California, but fuck it."