“As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or colour”, American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler once said. The Gilded Age Massachusetts native drew parallels between his artwork and music, dubbing his work as ‘arrangements’ and ‘symphonies’ often titling them thus, and perfectly understanding that when the painted art joins forces with impressive, adventurous songcraft and you create a parallel between the two, you enter a new dimension of art experience.
“Friedrich“, the new album from experimental, post rock infused screamo / post hardcore band LOCKTENDER, immortalizes the story of Caspar David Friedrich, an 18th century German landscape painter, and takes the band’s performance into a stunningly powerful and poetic new level. We caught up with the band to recall some older days with their previous incarnation MEN AS TREES and dive deep into the rich substance of “Friedrich“. Scroll down to read the full interview and get your copy via i.currupt.records, Middle-Man Records, Zegema Beach Records, or Deadwood Records.
A Monk, at the twilight of his life and overcome with his lack of faith, drowns himself in the sea. “Friedrich” tells the story of this man’s troubled life. The son of a wealthy merchant is shipwrecked on his maiden journey, conscripted into a foreign legion, and eventually escapes to the solace of a Monastery. Here, his experiences and past trauma, gravely, force him to come to grips with his faith. His lack of conviction in every facet of his life – industry, war, and religion – ultimately became his downfall.
Although CasparDavid Friedrich was a deeply religious man when he crafted the paintings in which these songs are based, the underlying themes of loneliness, melancholy, and despair are hard to deny. However, Friedrich’s paintings, along with the story of this Monk’s life, are a testament to the fact that with great sadness comes great beauty.
Hey Andrew! Thanks so much for taking some time with my little, low-key webzine. How are you? How’s Cleveland?
Hey Karol! Very happy to chat with you. I’m doing great lately. Thanks for asking. I’m sure Cleveland is good but I actually no longer live there. I did when the band started but for the last 3 years I’ve lived in western Michigan, in a little beach town. Very low key but surrounded by Lake Michigan and many sand dunes. I’m closer to Chicago then Cleveland. Jason and Frank still live in Cleveland though and our singer Nick is still outside Detroit like he’s always been.
Awesome! Ok, so before we discuss it more thoroughly and dive into the depths of LOCKTENDER’s work, I’d like to recall your previous era and particularly late summer of 2009 when you toured Europe with MEN AS TREES. Your show with Germany’s SINGLE STATE OF MEN at a house show in Warsaw on August 17th (see the flyer here, first band opening for you guys here). It was a closing performance of your Polish run of 3 shows and I remember it was a one hell of a gig, with loads of people packed in a small, one-room apartment located in an atmospheric, old building with some haunting surroundings haha. Do you remember that show? How do you recall that era and that Euro trek in particular?
Oh we all definitely remember that show. The whole tour was very memorable for us but that show in particular was a lot of fun and had a great energy to it. There is actually a cool video of it on the MAT facebook, that Single State of Man took, starting from the outside and slowly moving to the show space while we played “Germinal”. Locktender unfortunately has not played Poland yet but I’d love to remedy that some day. I still copy the awesome shredded cabbage/carrot salad recipe that our very hospitable hosts made for us.
In terms of that era/tour, it was really special to all of us. We spent so many years playing bad shows in the Detroit area where no one cared about us at all. When we started touring the USA/Canada in 2007, it was so revitalizing for the band to stumble into scenes with other bands like us and to start meeting other people with the same passion for this type of music. Then when we made it to Europe, it was like a dream. The hospitality was so insane and all the shows were so great. The audiences were so attentive, polite and genuinely excited to have us play for them. We knew the band would probably be stopping after the tour because Frank was moving away for graduate school and Jason & I were moving to South Korea to teach English, so ending on the European tour was a great finale for the band.
Wow, thanks so much for the vid! I’ve been browsing the Web in search of some video documents of that show! Actually, I was a bit afraid to hit play as I am pretty sure I did a couple of stage dives from your drum kit that night haha. I remember that the plaster on my broken elbow didn’t stop me from doing this haha.
As for the finale of MEN AS TREES, can you share the story of your path to reforming as LOCKTENDER?
That’s amazing you stage dived. I always miss that stuff. I get in the zone when we play and miss everything. The place could be on fire and I wouldn’t notice haha.
I’d be happy to share the transformation story of Men As Trees to Locktender. Basically Men As Trees was ending after our 2009 European tour because we were all heading off in different directions. We never officially said it was over, or even had a final show, but it was definitely a project that would be going on hiatus for a while. We all had stayed in Michigan for years to focus on the band but we now had other interests we wanted to pursue and it made sense to take a break.
So at the end of 2009, my brother Jason (MAT guitarist/vocals), myself and my then girlfriend Danielle, all signed up to head to South Korea to teach English. Jason and I had been writing music for so long that it made sense to keep it going in Korea. We also had this wild idea that we could win a Korean Grammy because a screamo band we liked from there called Hollow Jan had just done it and we thought it would be hilarious to have that award. Even if we didn’t win a grammy, haha, we thought it would at least be cool to play shows in Korea.
While we could have kept writing as Men As Trees, we decided we wanted a clean slate for this new project. That way we could not be tied to past material, could tune lower, focus on more concept based songs and also change the instrument line up. After having 8 bass players in Men As Trees, we decided Jason would play bass and I’d be the only guitarist. We figured we wouldn’t quit on each other so ideally we’d never have to train someone to play our songs again.
We started writing, and even found a Korean punk drummer to play with but before we could accomplish that much, my then girlfriend (now wife) Danielle got pregnant. We were shocked but also thrilled and decided it would be best to return to America to have the baby and find jobs. Danielle and I moved to Philadelphia to be near family and Jason stayed in Korea to finish his teaching contract. At that point, I figured the collaboration between Jason and I was over since I was going to be a dad and he wanted to continue to travel and teach abroad after his Korea contract finished.
So in early 2010 I was back in the USA. While dealing with working and getting ready to be a father, I kept writing and was starting to have a decent amount of ideas/songs written. Men As Trees were really good friends with this band called The Lady Is Not For Burning from the New Jersey/Philly Area, so I called up their guitarist Jon to see if he wanted to jam. Jon was now singing in Cassilis but wanted to play bass so we started jamming and got Kyle from The Lady to play drums. The 3 of us would hang out and play really slow, mellow post rock versions of what would become Locktender songs. Our audience was typically some high friends and the drug dealing North Philly neighbours who were always BBQ’ing outside. They liked our sound and even though it was sonically a lot slower and less heavy than I planned, I was having fun.
Months later, as we got ready to record a demo, everything kind of fell apart. Kyle had another band taking off, my daughter was born and Jon got a real demanding job. It made it almost impossible to get together and the project eventually fizzled out. While thinking of the daunting task of starting over again, I began wanting to play with some familiar faces. I had stayed in contact with Frank (MAT drummer) since I got back to the USA. His life also had a random change of events and he moved from Arizona to Cleveland for school. We decided it would be fun to play music together again so he drove to Philly and crushed the couple Locktender songs I showed him. As much as I enjoyed playing chill versions with Jon/Kyle, the songs felt best when played as a combination of fast screamo and post rock. Playing with Frank was also so natural after so many years in Men As Trees together. It felt right and at that point Danielle and I were thinking about moving back to the Midwest anyways, so we moved to Cleveland in May 2011. During all this Jason decided he missed playing music and would rather do that than travel so he also moved to Cleveland. Lastly, we knew we wanted a really powerful vocal presence and thought the idea of a stand alone singer would be a nice change of pace from MAT. While Nick was MAT’s last bass player, he had been a great vocalist and lyricist in many other Detroit area bands and we knew he’d be a perfect fit. He was into it so long story short, as of May 2011, all the members of Men As Trees were now in Locktender and the rest is history.
And now, almost 7 years later, you’re back at what feels as the most mature and remarkable moment of your history with the band. After gaining so much praise for your previous record “Rodin”, was it a challenge to write for this new record? Did you feel any pressure knowing it would be nice not to fuck up your ‘number three’, often dubbed as THE most important and THE hardest record in every band’s cycle?
Thank you for the kind words. We are all immensely proud of “Friedrich”. I think as a musician you’re always trying to write your best music. Whether it’s your first demo or 10th album, there is always a need to make it better than what you’ve done previously. I think with “Friedrich” there wasn’t too much outside pressure. Being a DIY band, there are no deadlines or expectations really other than the ones we put on ourselves. We’ve also always had the attitude that we will create the music we want regardless of how it’s received…. but obviously it’s nice to have people enjoy your music.
That said, this was definitely the hardest we’ve ever worked on a record and we did put a ton of internal pressure on ourselves. “Friedrich” was only supposed to be a 2 song EP initially but after delving further into his material and realizing how great his work was, our aspirations and ambitions grew. Then once the idea of doing a narrative came to the table, there was a ton of effort put forth creating music, lyrics, art and a story that all blended together. There was more rewriting on “Friedrich” than any of our other albums to get it just right. We also recorded live with very minimal overdubs which always puts a lot of stress on everyone to play their best and not mess up during takes.
All of this was being done with the 4 of us living nowhere near each other for the first time. I moved to Western Michigan in 2014, Frank & Jason still lived in Cleveland and Nick was in Detroit, so it meant 3-5 hour commutes just to get in a room together to work on the record. Everyone also dealt with a lot of change during this record, some positive and some negative, that I think definitely contributed to everyone maturing personally and as musicians. Frank, Nick & Jason all got married since “Rodin” was released. They all have little kids now too. I on the other hand, had open heart surgery in 2016 and then severely herniated a disc in my back on tour with Lentic Waters a couple months later. I’m better now after almost 2 years of dealing with excruciating pain and many types of rehab to get better, but experiences like this have definitely focused me on what’s important. More than ever I want to be the best I can, whether it’s as a person, husband, father or musician.
So yeah, I guess this definitely was the hardest record in our cycle for a lot of different reasons but ultimately we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. All the effort paid off.
Ok, so let’s talk about the inevitable. The concept. After two excellent, groundbreaking offerings, “Kafka” and “Rodin”, you’re back with your re-interpretation of the works by German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. Can you talk about your interest in his art?
Our interest in Friedrich actually began with unfinished business from our Men As Trees days. The final 3 songs Men As Trees recorded were “Wreckage” for the Single State of Man split 7″, “Discovery” for the Dolcim, Dying in Motion & Le Pré Où Je Suis Mort split 12″ and “Courage” which was never released. Those songs all shared cohesive lyrics and were inspired by Friedrich’s painting “The Sea of Ice”. So essentially we’ve always been a fan of his work. With Locktender, as we dug deeper into his catalogue, we went from wanting to write a 2 song EP to deciding it would be great to focus an entire album on him. His paintings are so beautiful but can be equally sad, dark and brooding. They were an ideal base for the music we wrote and the subject matter we’ve attributed to it.
Art by Nate Burns of Revolting Worship
Speaking of painters and their work, what do you think makes some painting great and others not so great?
I think a lot comes down to personal taste and background. Something that I might think is fantastic, someone else may dismiss and vice versa. Jason and I grew up in Canada and our parents were really into the “Group of Seven”. They were a collective of famous Canadian landscape painters. Our parents owned a couple of their prints and we also saw a lot of their work in museums as kids. Maybe that early experience inherently made us drawn to landscapes.
I also think there is that special connection when you see a piece of art that speaks to you. I very vividly remember being in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, seeing the “Burghers of Calais”and immediately having strong creative urge. When writing, to any of the artists we’ve focused on, I’m always trying to envisioned what it would have been like to be at that moment in time and then try to create from there. With Locktender, I typically prefer to have our artist chosen and then write, versus trying to fit existing material to an artist.
What is it about art in general that makes it such a compelling subject for you as writers and storytellers?
Collectively, we’re all very passionate about making music of substance and art helps us achieve that. Music, for the most part, is pretty simple. It doesn’t take a lot to typically get to the heart of what’s going on in most songs, and I think that’s fine. For most people that’s probably all they’re looking for. Even with Locktender, you can enjoy it without digging into it if that’s your cup of tea. For us though, there is great reward in today’s age of instant gratification to create something that you have to work for to really understand. As songwriters, there is satisfaction in creating music with many layers that all tie together, and ultimately make a more significant whole than one layer alone could produce.
There is also a major feeling of accomplishment when we find out our music has been a catalyst to someone bettering their own knowledge of art. Many people have learned about these artists for the first time through our music. Whether it be looking up the works online or visiting a museum to look at Rodin’s works while listening to the record, an additional experience was had by the listener that was a direct result of art being the focus of our songs. It brings absolute joy to us as songwriters to know that our music doesn’t need to be solely an audible experience but can lead to visual discovery and perhaps even socials interactions and discussions as well.
Another reason art is compelling is because we also feel like it’s personally relevant on an emotional level. Typically, Locktender tends to focus on late 19th and early 20th century works, right around the time of Romanticism and Modernism. These movements work well with our longstanding feeling of Weltschmerz, the concept that our ideals will never live up to reality. We use art to express feelings of inspiration and joy but also disappointment, sadness and the exhaustion of dealing with reality. We’re songwriters but also people who have good and bad days just like everyone else. Art can be a great medium to focus those feelings and also know that the way we feel is nothing new. The artists we utilize were probably experiencing the same issues when they were creating many years ago. While many of the artists we’ve chosen are now well known and received, in their time most were disregarded, unappreciated and died penniless. As perpetuators of a genre of music that will never be mainstream, it nice to know that we’re not alone in the struggle to create works of importance, regardless of the profitability or acceptance from the masses.
Ok, so back to the new record and its lyrical structure, can you elaborate a bit about your writing practice and how you approached this new chapter with a narrative idea?
Andrew: I’ll let our singer Nick handle the next two since I think he can explain it better.
Nick: When we set out to write this album, I wanted to approach it differently that what we have done in the past. I had always admired musicians who could tell one cohesive story across an entire record. When the music was being written, it felt to me like one 45 minute long song, so I kind of wanted to treat the lyrical content the same way. At the tail end of Men as Tress, we wrote a triptych of songs based on Friedrich’s Sea of Ice that dealt with the voyage and eventual destruction of a crew of sailors. I kept some elements (and even some lyrics) from those songs and I like to think of the Men as Trees songs as a companion piece, telling a story from the perspective of the crew that inhabits the same ship (and fate) as the protagonist from Friedrich. On top of that, I tried to connect some of the visual elements from other Locktender albums into Friedrich to tell a deeper over-arching story. It’s much more subtle, but I’d like to think this new album was the glue the binds all of our releases together.
About the practice and structure – The clean vocals come from Andrew when he begins the writing process. He’s not just writing a riff or two, he’s putting together a greater cohesive idea. Jason and myself often write large chunks of the more aggressive vocals separately and then piece them together to see what fits and what doesn’t. Often, Jason starts the process with an idea in mind – he writes much more poetically than I do. I’ll then fill in the gaps with more descriptive language and rearrange to create a narrative. Everyone contributes and I think someone paying attention to the lyrics could probably pinpoint who wrote what with relative ease.
Speaking of the lyrical sphere of ‘Friedrich’, do you find yourself responding through your work to the grim realities of contemporary society and politics?
Nick: For the current release? Not so much. Older releases tended to be a reflection of how we felt as we were writing. The songs on Kafka are probably some of the most introspective and personal songs we’ve written, whereas songs from Rodin and our splits were definitely more rooted in contemporary politics and societal anxieties. With the narrative being the focus for Friedrich – most current trends fell to the wayside. That’s not to say some themes didn’t make it in, and there were times we tried to shoe-horn those realities into the record – The album started off much more nihilist with a strong atheist bend to it, but gradually became less bitter and more melancholy. Afterall, the overarching theme isn’t about the ugliness and brutality of life as much as it’s the beauty in sorrow. As bleak as the story can seem, I thought there was room to find comfort and harmony within.”
How do you determine what artists you will praise in your next piece? Are there already some ideas for your next records?
Many of our selections are made based on inspiration from spontaneous museum viewings. Rodin happened because I felt so overwhelmed when I saw the massiveness of “The Gates of Hell” & “The Burghers of Calais” at the Philadelphia Rodin Museum. Gleitsmann’s “The White Dam” and Sage’s “A Bird in the Room” were a result of random visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art. I really enjoy stumbling upon a visually impressive work, especially when it gets my inner creative gears moving to where I’ll think to myself, “There’s a song in that”.
Other the other hand there are also instances where we’ve had an artist predetermined to work with but we’re just waiting for the right time. “Friedrich” was essentially years in the making dating back in our Men As Trees days. “Kafka” was a result of Jason carrying around “The Zürau Aphorisms” with him while we were in Korea. We’d talk about how much we could relate his writings to our personal experiences until it eventually made sense that it should be a record. Jason and Nick both have pretty strong literary backgrounds that has resulted in us focusing on the likes of Melville, Kafka and Blake.
I guess what I’m saying is because there are different methods of discovery, it’s hard to know exactly what artist we will choose next. There is no formula. It has to be a very natural process. Never forced. Especially for myself, I need to feel excited about the artist for the result to be genuine. Right now, I’ve only just started writing for a new record. Between focusing on getting “Friedrich” released and working on other projects, only now do I find myself finally ready to move forward with Locktender. That said, I do have plans to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art in February with Jason. We’re going just for fun but who knows what we might stumble upon….
Musically, was it a struggle to decide on a specific direction for your new record? How did you get into this creative phase?
I wouldn’t consider it a struggle but I do think there are reasons that the music on “Friedrich” went in the direction it did. We definitely wanted to pay homage to our Men As Trees roots with “Friedrich”, especially since he was the last creative endeavor for that band. I think this record, more than any of our others, sounds like the guys from MAT wrote it. More post rock. More clean group vocals. More repeating melody. Nothing too specific was done to get into this creative phase musically, outside of maybe looking back on some of the older works, but it was definitely on our minds while writing. Personally, I’ve also changed a lot as a songwriter since moving away from Cleveland. I started another band called PACK SOUNDS with my good friend Russ (guitarist for The Reptilian) in 2014. It’s very different from Locktender since I’m not just the songwriter but also the main vocalist. It’s given me a lot of perspective on melody and is a large reason there is so much more clean singing on the record. I’ve become much more comfortable and less shy as a singer since it is now part of my weekly musical routine. I think without me starting Pack sounds, I wouldn’t have had the fundamentals to implement the clean vocals that are on “Friedrich”. All of these factors contribute to the direction of “Friedrich”.
Musically, the only part that was really a struggle was dealing with the physical distance between us and working out rewrites. With past records, if a part or a sequence wasn’t working, I’d go home and work on it and then show the guys the changes at our weekly local band practice. Since the majority of “Friedrich” was written with me living 5 hours away, I’d have to wait greater periods of time to show the guys the changes and actually play it together to see if it worked. On the plus side, I also had more time to make sure I was happy with the riffs and give them time to develop, so it wasn’t all bad. Ideally though, it’s easier to write music locally.
I recently wrapped up a multi-artist and multi-label end-of-the-year session with loads of amazing records that came out in 2017 and I must say it’s almost overwhelming to see and hear so many conscious and inspiring bands out there. It’s almost depressing knowing I’ll never actually come across some of the best records I could ever hear in my life haha. What musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?
It can definitely be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to give it a proper listen. I still find myself trying to catch up on bands that people have been listening to for years and I’m out of the loop on.
I listen to a pretty broad variety of music but in terms of music that inspires Locktender, there are a couple albums I always come back to. Yage’s “Anders Leben” is just magical in my opinion. Super underrated band but I think they are one of the best. I don’t think I write like them but their music definitely pushes me to be a better musician. I have the same feeling about City of Caterpillar and Envy. Both bands have always been miles a head of everyone else. I was luckily enough to see both bands very early in my musical journey before they became better known in the scene. I think only 3 people watched CoC when I saw them and now they sell out everywhere haha.
I find I do tend to gravitate towards bands that release records that are great the whole way through. I love all of SPORT‘s records and really dig their progression as a band. It would be awesome to see them live, play a show or even tour with them some day. I guess other recent notables for me might be Boys Night Out “Trainwreck” & “Make Yourself Sick”, The Fullblast’s new EP “Attack.Sustain.Decay”, Tiny Moving Parts “Celebrate”, Julien Baker’s “Sprained Ankle” , Crash of Rhinos “Distal” and Beirut’s “No No No”. This is just a few but I run a lot and I tend to listen to these albums a lot while doing so. I also listen to a ton of older music like Sam Cooke, Toots & The Maytals, Eagles, Johnny Cash & REO Speedwagon. I kind of love pop jams. I grew up with my parents playing this stuff while making dinner on family nights and I tend to do the same with my family now. I always find it incredibly odd when someone only listens to one type of music. To me, it would be like only eating one type of food.
I know exactly what you mean haha.
Ok, so lastly, what are you most excited about this year?
We haven’t officially announced it yet but I am beyond excited to tour Europe this fall. We haven’t been since 2014 and I’m really looking forward to playing our new songs live. I also believe we may be hitting a couple spots we’ve never been to or at least never been to as Locktender so that should be an adventure as well. This tour feels like the reward for working on “Friedrich” for so long so I personally can’t wait.
Oh my… Sounds great! Can’t wait to get all the details on that!
Thanks so much for your time and honest, insightful answers, and once again, congratulations on your epic new record! There’s plenty to enjoy on Friedrich and it’s a great pleasure to see bands like yours that don’t limit themselves to replicating past glories, and try new exciting angles, both lyrically, and musically. Thanks for that! Cheers and good luck for the rest of the year! Best regards from smoggy Warsaw!
Thanks so much for the kind words and for speaking with me. We’ve been a fan of IDIOTEQ for a long time now and it was a pleasure to do our first interview in quite awhile with you. We are setting the tour route right now but hopefully we get close enough to meet in person this fall. Thanks again and cheers from frigid snowed in Michigan!