Bringing Back the Magic: A Conversation with Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions

on November 01, 2016, 12:00am

Photo by Luz Gallardo

Hope Sandoval and Colm Ó Cíosóig’s music has always sat at a strange intersection of mystical and intentional. The former’s work with Mazzy Star and the latter’s with My Bloody Valentine carries an air of the organic; it’s something entirely natural, living, and breathing, yet to call it messy or imprecise would be inaccurate. There’s room for experimentation, but always with the hand of intelligent composers guiding the way.

Their music together as Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions relies on that same sort of controlled chance. Sandoval and Ó Cíosóig are such skilled songwriters and musicians that they can strike out in whichever direction takes their fancy and find something powerful along the way. That magic carried over into the production of their forthcoming third album together, Until the Hunter. Only these two could search online for a place to stay and wind up in a Martello tower — a 19th-century British fort, circular in design, which surely added to the resonant, timeless echo of the album. And only these two could stumble into a street performer in Berkeley, California, and know that they had discovered one of their album’s key collaborators. Sandoval and Ó Cíosóig were able to work without restrictions, to trust in their strengths and let in risks, knowing that they could produce something real from the results.

That sense of fate resides in the music, the listener drawn into their world even as it melts around them, some sparkling thread drawn through the center of the shifting landscape. It was easy to locate that same feeling in speaking with the two, our conversation sliding from paranoia-inducing phone cameras to working with Kurt Vile, what it feels like to need music to the concept of writer’s block, all without a second thought. Throughout, Sandoval and Ó Cíosóig retained a warm subtlety, always revealing just enough to feel wrapped up in the beautiful mystery of the world.

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You’ve been playing music with each other for nearly two decades, and both of you have obviously been making music for longer. What is it about music that you admire?

Colm Ó Cíosóig: There are so many things in music that you can still love even after all these years. I’m so inspired by so many great songs and songwriters and great pieces of music out there that it’s a never-ending relationship. I’m always discovering stuff. I think to still have fresh ears in music is a good thing and not to feel burnt out. We never get burnt out. There’s always good music to be made and music to be found.

And you, Hope? Has your relationship to music changed over time at all?

Hope Sandoval: Oh no, it still tortures me.

I think this might be endemic of my generation, but sometimes I demand music in the same desperate way I did when I was 16. I’m still so dependent on it.

Sandoval: Completely, and I think for musicians you do depend on it. You need it, but you hate it. You hate that you need it! It’s a crazy, bad relationship.

Do you still get excited about making music?

Sandoval: It’s a necessary evil; we just have to do it.

Ó Cíosóig: We just have no choice at all. Obviously, we’re passed the beginning phases now, but it all still feels kind of fresh because there’s still more to be done. It’s a necessary evil: Once you do one, you have to do more.

You decamped to Ireland to write and record several of these sessions at the Martello towers. Not only do they house this rich history, but the actual design of the cylindrical shape of them must have helped the recording somewhat. Colm, can you tell me about this experience, specifically with your percussion?

Ó Cíosóig: Well, we just stumbled upon these towers by looking for somewhere to stay, like an Airbnb. We always try to find somewhere that we can play music in that doesn’t bother the neighbors. We found this one tower online and thought it looked great and thought, “Hang on, there’s no neighbors there, and it has really thick walls.” It’s completely soundproof in that sense, and we didn’t know how it would sound until we set up, and it was actually great-sounding to our surprise. Because of the circular dimensions, the reverb inside died naturally, and it had this curve; it didn’t bounce around like a square box. The resonance in the towers suggested sounds that might not have been there. They brought out existing sounds more. If you have parallel walls, the reverb keeps on going, and we had a nice natural decay that let the music just breathe inside it.

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Photo by Luz Gallardo

Like that echo during “A Wonderful Seed”?

Ó Cíosóig: Definitely, and that echo was suggested by all the elements, and then it kind of just fell into place. Everything that was there wanted to be there, so we put it there. The songs were crying out for it.

The phantom echo of the tower has invaded our conversation. Hope and Lior, can you hear that?

Sandoval: There are two Colms and two Hopes on this call. We did this interview yesterday, and it was happening the whole time. Poor guy, where was he from? I think he was French, and it was miserable with a crazy delay. Whenever I would speak I just had to rush through everything I was saying so that I would try to avoid hearing myself.

It’s a nightmare. I hate hearing my own voice, let alone multiplied.

Ó Cíosóig: I think it’s stopped now? I think spies were listening in and decided to switch to clock off.

Sandoval: This phone, though, this is an analog landline, but you know, they are probably listening to that shit, too. On my phones and Colm’s computer — I don’t have a computer — but on my phones, I cover all of the cameras.

I thought I was too paranoid to tell anybody I did the same!

Both: Oh yeah, we all do that!

Sandoval: Everybody is being watched, and everybody is being listened to. It’s a fact. Everybody has to cover their cameras. We have two cameras on our phone. We have the camera that faces out and the camera that faces us, and so you have to cover both lenses on your phone and your computer.

Hope, you don’t have a computer?

Sandoval: I know. How old are you? You’re probably really young. A lot of people my age don’t have computers.

I’m 30, and going by the writers I meet, I’m an old goat compared to the lot of them.

Sandoval: Oh girl, you’re a baby! When I was 30, you think I’d be here right now? I’d be out somewhere having a great, old time.

Well, I’m having the best time with the two of you, so cut me some slack!

Sandoval: You’re right. [Laughs] Let’s focus on the now.

Tell me about the other places you recorded this album in.

Ó Cíosóig: Some of it was done in Hope’s house in Berkeley, California, actually, so between Berkeley and Dublin, and one song was done in a college in Dublin. We used two different towers. One had more furniture and one had less furniture, so the sound could echo differently. What’s interesting is how less furniture had a better sound.

Do you find that this collaboration brings something out of you that you feel your other projects might not?

Ó Cíosóig: We kind of see ourselves as experimental in a way, even though we don’t sound it. That means we can go anywhere we want with no restriction. It’s not that our other bands, Mazzy Star and My Bloody Valentine, have restrictions, but there’s a certain sound in those bands. Hope and I have a sound, but it’s always changing and morphing into different things while still carrying a similar thread. It’s so good to explore different avenues as an artist.

And most experimental rock and folk is based around improvisation, but this sounds quite structured, really. The intricacy is the sound. The collaborators you both chose to use must have aided that as well?

Ó Cíosóig: Hope can explain to you how we found Michael Masley!

Sandoval: Can I? Alright, well Michael Masley … he’s amazing. We just love him and he’s like our family now, and we haven’t really even known him for a year. He’s a street musician who plays every weekend by the BART Station in Berkeley, and that’s how we found him — we walked by and heard this beautiful music.

So you just asked him?

Sandoval: Yeah! We got his card, gave him some money in the hat he places in front of him. And then we met him and just invited him to come over and play some of his really cool, weird sounds. He basically reinvents instruments.

How so?

Sandoval: He has this gong — a big, giant cymbal — and he drills a hole in the middle of the gong and does all these crazy sounds with it. Who knew you can make some of the sounds that he makes with a gong? And whatever I thought a gong might sound like vanished the minute he started playing. I thought you just hit a gong with a mallet, but no. He has all this weird, crazy stuff that he does to create these amazing sounds, and he tells you [Masley impression]: “You’re never gonna hear this sound again. Nobody is going to give you this sound!”

He’s so confident.

Sandoval: Oh yeah! Oh yeah! You need to Google him now. He’ll blow your mind. It’s not a joke.

Ó Cíosóig: Well, he calls himself “The Artist General.”

Sandoval: Someone is making a film about him, too, a documentary. There’s a lot of really cool music in the Downtown Berkeley BART station. There’s this guy that shows up in a truck, and at the back of his truck is a piano, an upright piano, and he takes the piano off the truck, puts it in front of the Berkeley Bart station, and a drummer shows up and they play the most beautiful, crazy blues. We’ve got some really amazing music here in Berkeley.

Was there any specific sound that Michael used — a song that stood out for you that he worked on?

Ó Cíosóig: He used this instrument called a Nyckelharpa, which is a weird Eastern European violin-y thing. It looks like a lute mixed with a violin. He created all these drones and tunes it himself — some of the violin that you hear on the album is that Nyckelharpa instrument Michael is playing.

I’m so fascinated by musicians commanding their instruments and wielding them in a way they want to and feeling confident to do so. There’s this pianist, Hauschka, who uses a prepared piano technique to get the desired sound, so for hi-hat sounds he uses paper and thin plastic pieces; he uses bottle caps and necklaces, too.

Ó Cíosóig: Oh wow, I find it so fascinating, too, and not knowing which songs he would add his wildness to! You can hear him on “Into the Trees” quite clearly.

I love how the album opens with that track, like this ominous siren call from an organ, which provides a space for your listener to settle in. It’s also nine minutes long. Like an entrance into a new world that the two of you are exploring. It feels more comfortable than grand, but always tapped into some sort of deep feeling.

Sandoval: I really love that song. It was just Colm and I when we recorded it. We were in the Dalkey tower, but the song is way longer than it is on the record. I don’t even know how long it was originally? We just had wine, got stoned, and played non-stop. I got this new organ, and it was the first time I played it, and Colm played drums. It was crazy, wild, dark, and spooky. I think that song represents the mood of what was happening on the night.

Ó Cíosóig: And it’s nice to be able to finish up a record where you can start it all over again; it has that fluid movement to it.

“Let Me Get There” brings in Kurt Vile, and in the presser he says it gave him chills to sing with you, Hope, which seems like a very common response to listening to your music, let alone playing on it. Why do you think people have such a physical reaction in addition to an emotional one?

Sandoval: We recently went to see Connan Mockasin, and I completely fell in love with him to the point where I was dreaming about him. Yeah, I fell madly in love with this crazy guy because of his music. He’s incredible. Music definitely moves me in ways I can’t fully understand.

It’s no surprise that music traffics between your emotions, too. There seems to be this never-ending well of characters that reappear in your music.

Ó Cíosóig: We paid attention to each other, and to the backing vocals, which was a new venture. We’ve done some before, but we haven’t done as many.

The thing I’m most struck by on the new record are the harmonies. There’s something really serene, really rich, really communal about the way you all sing together. What was the biggest risk you took on Until the Hunter?

Ó Cíosóig: Sneaking into the tower with our equipment and pretending we were just a college band!

You didn’t tell anybody?

Ó Cíosóig: We didn’t tell the owners that we had a whole band lineup coming in to record an entire album.

Sandoval: They caught us out, though! One day, they just showed up, and Colm invited them in. They saw everything, the seven musicians, the gear, the drums were set up and the amp. But they were cool, you know? They love Colm! I think they liked the idea that somebody was inspired by the building.

Ó Cíosóig: You can get nervous when you rent a place. You wonder what the owners are like. They might think you’re this rock and roll band. We tread lightly and call ourselves songwriters and carry acoustic guitars and then sneak around in the middle of the night doing the exact opposite.

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Photo by Luz Gallardo

So, am I allowed to ask who “Liquid Lady” is from that track? Was she involved in those late nights?

Sandoval: [Giggles]

Ó Cíosóig: Well, I don’t think Liquid Lady is actually a person.

Sandoval: I don’t know who she is, but I wish I had some Liquid Ladies right about now.

I mean, you say the line, “Keep you warm like a hurricane into a storm.” Hope, do you write all the lyrics?

Ó Cíosóig: Hope has to write all the lyrics because if I step in, it would be a disaster.

Sandoval: Colm comes up with some really good ideas, actually. Colm wrote some of the lyrics in My Bloody Valentine, too. He’s pretty amazing. He can play basically any instrument, he can write lyrics, he can sing. He doesn’t sing on this record, but he sings on the record before this. So what is it … A man of all trades?

Ó Cíosóig: Hope, a jack of all trades, master of none? [Laughs]

Sandoval: [Laughs]

Look what you’ve done now, Hope! Did you write the lyrics for “Day Disguise”?

Sandoval: Colm?

Ó Cíosóig: Hope wrote those.

I’m unsure why I felt these lyrics were more poetic this time around, like on that track, “Why don’t you linger on/ Make my branches strong/ Until I know I can shade you.”

Ó Cíosóig: I’ve always thought Hope can actually read peoples’ minds.

It’s possible. I mean, some people talk about songwriting like it’s a business. Others feel it’s much more muse-driven and more spontaneous. Isn’t writer’s block just the most archaic idea?

Sandoval: I didn’t even know what that was until the late ‘90s. Like, what the hell is that? People aren’t able to do something? That’s crazy. What does that mean, “writer’s block?” What the hell does that mean? You can’t write or play music or paint? That’s just crazy. It’s like a posh term. You’ve gotta be super rich to fucking have writer’s block, you know what I mean?

Because it’s not your full-time job and it’s just a hobby on the side, so you can take time to muse about writer’s block.

Sandoval: [Mocking] “I’ve got writer’s block, guys. I can’t work!” Honestly, writer’s block is baby crap. Get it together, people. Stop thinking about it and just do it. That’s just overthinking it. It’s not so precious; it’s just a song. It’s just art and art is nothing. Art is not precious, anybody can do it. A five-year-old can do it. It’s not a big deal.

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I feel like once you take your focus off of something, whether it’s art or your relationships or yourself, it comes naturally. But people are so aware of how they are portrayed nowadays as an artist. Are you ever surprised, then, by the insatiable public demand for private information in certain parts of the world? In America, right now, this kind of thing is reaching horrifying new heights. You also both come from an era where we were obsessed with artistry, but we couldn’t communicate directly with our artists.

Ó Cíosóig: It’s true. It’s where we come from. I don’t have many friends who are young artists, so I can’t really tell. If people choose to share information on Facebook, then they can. We actually just don’t feel like doing that, and that’s fine with us. We don’t feel like we should have to. People shouldn’t be forced into doing these things just because everybody else is doing it.

I want to know my artists, but I don’t really want to know how the rabbit gets taken out of the hat.

Ó Cíosóig: The problem with the modern world and all that crap, it’s destroying the idea of mystery and enchantment that exists with musicians. It’s stripping that away for really boring reasons. It’s not adding anything spectacular to the picture; it’s the opposite, so I find it boring, and I don’t have to partake. We do interviews occasionally, but really, as you know, not often. There’s way too much unnecessary crap out there. Why are all these governments listening to everyone? They have their ears full of crap, which is fair enough if they want to choose to do that, that’s their decision, but there’s so much crap out there.

Sandoval: The only really good thing is if you need a new recipe for something. It’s quick, you just Google “enchilada sauce,” and it comes right up. They have pictures, too. And now everybody can cook. That’s when it’s really good.

Ó Cíosóig: For that reason, and for independent music, it’s great. You can just create your own world. Part of what’s amazing about it is that you can make your own little movie and stick it up online and get things out there really fast.

It should complement your real life. Being digital has become somewhat separate to your physical life. People do need to get out more. Will you be touring a lot?

Ó Cíosóig: We’re planning on it! At the beginning of next year in March.

Sandoval: It’ll be a cinch!

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