A Q&A with Morningbell’s Eric Atria and Travis Atria

The Gainesville, FL-based quartet of Morningbell, which consists of brothers Eric and Travis Atria, Eric’s wife Stacie Thrushman-Atria and Chris Hilman has developed a reputation for one of the more prolific, and inventive and perhaps eccentric bands in the country. Since their founding by the Atria brothers in 2001, the band has managed to release 5 full-length albums, including their critically acclaimed 2009 release, Sincerely. Severely, as well as 4 EPs. On each of their efforts, the band pushes itself further creatively, playing with and distorting genre conventions to the point that they’re unrecognizable – and altogether new. And Morningbell has done so with a fiercely independent spirit. 

Boa Noite, the band’s 6th full-length effort, much like the band’s previous efforts was written, recorded, mixed, and produced by the band in their home studio. Sonically, the material draws from a wide array of influences, including African field recordings, classical romantic music, Hungarian folk music, hip hop, funk and others. Instead of the icy minimalism that’s once again become popular in modern music, the material goes in the complete opposite direction – a swooning, joyous, densely layered maximalism that captures both a childlike sense of awe and wonder, but beneath the surface darker, more ominous undertones. it’s a psychedelic trip of an experience.  (For you true audiophiles out there, consider the fact that on a great deal of the album’s songs, more than 150 tracks of instrumentation were used from various sessions with classical musicians to create an orchestral backing.) 

The lyrics written by primarily songwriter Travis Atria include contemplations on the tenuous lines between life, death, sanity and insanity are heavily inspired both by Atria’s own personal experiences of illness, and by the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges. Travis Atria’s lyrics add a heady metaphysical and occasionally somber feel to the proceedings, grounding the more psychedelic, and romantic passages with a sense of realism. 

Naturally, with the release of a new album, Morningbell will be touring to support it and it’ll include a New York area stop at Brooklyn’s Union Hall on June 7th. In this Q&A, I spoke with both Eric and Travis Atria via email, right before they were about to embark on their tour about the new album, the album’s sonic and lyrical influences, and how they recreate the album’s sound live. AddItionally, Eric Atria dispense some great advice for any aspiring artist throughout the interview. Check it out below. 

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Photo Credit; Chris Hilman

WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that music was your calling? 

Eric Atria: Travis and I took piano lessons starting in 1st grade.  It was strictly classical music and we weren’t that into it.  It was more of something we HAD to do.  That being said, we took them for 10 years!  I’d like to pretend to be cool and say that the whole grunge movement, which happened during my late middle school/early high school years, was the turning point for me, but that’s not entirely true.  In reality it was the Beatles and Aerosmith.  This was around the mid 90’s when the Beatles Anthology series first aired on tv, and that just blew my mind.  Also, Aerosmith’s videos were pretty incredible to a 13 year old.  I knew I had to learn guitar and start a 5 piece band just like Aerosmith (fortunately this never happened).  

Travis Atria: Eric and I started learning the guitar at the same time. He was around 14 and I was 12. I think that music is only one of many callings for us. I’m writing a book right now. Music is more important to me than anything else, though. I’d say I knew that from a young age. I listened to Thriller so many times, the cassette wore out and warped. 

WRH: How did the band meet? 

EA: Travis is my younger brother.  We started jamming together on Aerosmith and Beatles songs.  We never had any other friends who could really play bass or drums, so we languished in a bandless world until I went to college.  Many of my friends were music students and when Travis started as a freshman, I already had a drummer and keyboardist lined up.  That didn’t work out and we split up after about 8 months.  Then, I asked my then girlfriend, now wife, Stacie [Thrushman-Atria] to join on keys and another friend to join on drums.  We’re currently on our 6th drummer, but the rest of the lineup hasn’t changed since summer of 2001.

WRH: Who are your influences?

EA: Since I handle the business and stage show aspects, I’m influenced by visual things as well as musical things.  I’m a huge Flaming Lips fan and would love to have a light show like theirs.  I do my best to create a low budget version that we affectionately call the hundred-dollar light show.  It’s evolved over the years and has included suit jackets covered in motion Christmas lights, a slew of strobe lights, and other simple things that you can find at Lowes such as shop lamps, LED light glasses, and so on.  I also build foot controllers to change the lights while we play.  Musically, I’m a huge fan of anyone who makes the bass a lead instrument without going overly flashy or too thumb snappy, so Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, James Jamerson and the like.   

TA: Well, I would say my influences are as far ranging as can be. You can hear everything from Nas to Debussy on this album.

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

EA: Our music appears schizophrenic until you really start to digest it and notice that there are specific themes and similarities.  We’ve incorporated many genres into our songs, but to me, they definitely hold together as a collective work.  Our live shows pull the material together best.  We released Boa Noite at the planetarium in town.  While talking about our music with the guy who runs it, he said we’re like Pluto.  Some people call it a planet, some a dwarf planet, but most agree that it evades specific categorization.  There are bands like Camera Obscura or Of Montreal where you know it’s them before 4 bars have played.  They have such a specific sound.  To us, that’s boring.  

TA: Whatever we want. I think we’ve proven ourselves adept at everything from R&B slow jams to Colombian folk music. We never had a sound and probably never will. I think this is one reason that we are still getting better after 9 years and 6 albums. 

WRH: Who are you listening to now?  

EA: This is always the hardest question to answer because 1. you want to give a cool answer, and 2. it’s never a cool answer.  Actually, today I was listening to a lot of Grand Buffet, a pseudo-comedy hip-hop duo from Pittsburgh that I really love and have followed for over 10 years.  Otherwise, I’m so bad at digesting new music these days.  I’m always up for old classics such as The Beatles, Zeppelin, the Stax and Motown collections, as well as more modern classics such as The Flaming Lips and Wilco.  I’ve recently gotten into Serge Gainsbourg too. 

TA: I just bought Snoop Dogg’s The Doggfather. Also, Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire. The Singing Nun. And recordings of weird Catholic masses. The next album is starting to form.  

WRH: The band has managed to be remarkably prolific over the years releasing 6 albums and 4 EPs over the course of 9 years. Has there ever been a moment where you were afraid of plagiarizing yourself? When do you know that you have a finished song? Do you go into the studio with fully fleshed material?

EA: Travis is the primary songwriter.  I’d say he does about 85-90% of the writing and recording.  We just fill in the blanks when he needs us to and then help perform them live.  We’ve built up a respectable home studio over the years, so we can take our time and afford to waste time.  This record took us the better part of a year to finish.  Travis’ songwriting evolves with his tastes, so the next album won’t likely sound anything like this one.  We know we have a finished song when we all agree.  With the 4 of us, we typically follow a ¾ths majority vote to move things forward, but when it comes to songs, it’s rare that we all don’t agree what should make the cut. 

TA: We don’t really have two songs that sound the same in our entire catalogue. I never worry about it. I wish I could sometimes make something that sounded like another thing we’ve made. It usually takes a year of work until the songs are finished. It’s done when you can’t possibly stand to listen to it again and make another change to it.  I write in the studio, so almost never is the material fully fleshed. 

WRH: The band has been around for a bit. What do you ascribe to the band’s longevity? 

EA: ¾’s of us are related to each other.  Also, we’ve made a home out of the town we live in.  Most local bands move on eventually as Gainesville tends to be a transient town after 4 or 5 years.  The music is important to us.  We do it for our own enjoyment.  That’s the first rule of creating art.  If you’re not pleasing yourself, you’re wasting your time.  Other than that, we’ve always had the 6 month goal.  Are we better than we were 6 months ago?  If so, we move on.  If not, we need to reevaluate.  We’ve never had to reevaluate.  It keeps your focus specific and doesn’t distract you with some fictional big picture.  Success in music or any creative outlet is a long road, so you better have patience. 

TA: We’re related and we love doing it. 

WRH: How is this effort different from your previous ones?

EA: It’s the most complex for sure.  We wanted to have an orchestra.  Without access to one and without wanting to use synthesizers to do it, we found a very talented guy in town named Will Winter.  He scored all the parts, found the musicians, scheduled the sessions, and helped us create an orchestra in 2 weeks.  Some songs had over 150 tracks of instruments, half of them being classical.  It was a real challenge for me as the mixing engineer to figure out how to make these things fit in.  After some experimentation, it became quite easy and we were thrilled with the result.  This album is definitely a complete work.  It’s not 9 songs.  It’s two movements, the A side and the B side.  It’s meant to be listened to as one work.  Not many people do that anymore.  I also think it’s Travis’ best songwriting.  There is a great range of emotion and sounds. 

TA: I think it is the most mature, the most original and the most complex thing we’ve done.  

WRH: Your latest album Boa Noite is at times a lushly layered, psychedelic album with a childlike sense of wonder – such as on “Yes, Wonderful Things,” at other times such as on “We Have Eyes As Well As Ears,” and “You Needn’t Had Bothered” the material sounds heavily influenced by the Talking Heads and old breakbeat albums. Lyrically the album discusses surreal visions, dreams and the metaphysical in the same rubric, while questioning the tenuous line between sanity and insanity – it’s reminiscent of the Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd (sort of), and others. Each track is quite different, and yet, there’s a sense of each track fitting organically in its proper place. How difficult was it to put everything in an order that fits so well?

EA: I’ll leave this one up to Travis, but you’re right on with the Talking Heads.  I forgot to mention them earlier. 

TA: The A side came together quite easily, actually. Those songs really flowed. The B side took some romancing before it fell into place. I can tell you listened closely, which I appreciate. I would say that there is a mixture of childlike wonder and adult life lessons that came hard.   

WRH: With material that’s so difficult to pin down and plays with so many different genres simultaneously, have you experienced situations where people haven’t quite gotten your sound? What inspires the lyrical content? 

EA: I’ve actually found the opposite.  Two albums ago (Sincerely, Severely -2009) was similar in its scattered styles.  The reviews of that album were universally in support of the range and found that it somehow managed to fit together.  We’ve always been good at album pacing and track listing.  The album wouldn’t work at all if the songs were rearranged.  I think after a listen or two, people understand that they’re going to be taken to many places with our records.  You wouldn’t want a 10 course dinner with every course being the same.  That’s boring!

TA: It happens. I think in general, though, people will follow you anywhere you want to go as long as you’re honest and the music is good. Lyrical content on this album was heavily inspired by an Argentinian poet/writer named J.L. Borges. I quote him a lot on the album. A friend of ours in another great Florida band called Candy Bars gave me a book of his, and it hit me pretty hard. I found that he thought about life, and death, and time in a way that I could identify with, but he always put it so powerfully. Stuff like, “I don’t understand how time can pass / I who am time, and blood, and agony.” I get that. I also don’t understand how time can pass. It makes no sense to me. I have also struggled with sickness for much of my life, so I was thinking about death a lot from an early age. I wanted this album to be about the things I learned the hard way as a result of all that–basically that life is simultaneously a bunch of shit and a really wonderful thing. You have to be an adult to get that, I think … to understand that two completely opposite things can be true at the same time.

WRH: As I understand it, the band went into the studio with the intent of creating this lush, insanely layered album – at times 128 tracks or more are used. What inspired that? And how do you go about recreating that sound live?

EA: We always use a heavy-handed approach in the studio.  Why use one drum take for the whole song?  Why not have an entirely different kit with an entirely different drummer (Travis and Chris [Hillman] both play drums) fill up 10 separate tracks for the second half of the song?  Why not have 3 bass tracks?  Why not 8 additional tracks of us all hitting tom drums?  And of course, why not 20 vocal tracks at times?  Once you finish “the band,” you most likely will be in the neighborhood of 60-80 tracks.  Then add the orchestra.  We recreate the music live with a sampler.  We don’t play along to a sequenced click track.  Rather, we took the most important parts and sampled them and Stacie hits them at the appropriate times of the song.  Also, we’re more aggressive live than the recordings suggest.  So, we can make up for a lack of orchestration with volume and strobe lights.  

TA: I got heavily into Debussy and really wanted to create something that would play like a symphony. I ended up meeting a guy named Will Winter who had the technical knowhow to take my ideas and write them down for every instrument–things like oboe, flute, trombone, tuba, clarinet, French horn, etc. Live, we use a sampler for some things, and sometimes we find other ways to bring out the rock & roll in the songs for live purposes. 

WRH: Some of my readers will be largely unfamiliar with the Gainesville, FL music scene, beyond the fact that Tom Petty is from there. Could you briefly describe the music scene there? And how different is it there than someplace else in the country?

EA: Gainesville has always been a music town.  Since the 60s, people have always and will always move here to start bands.  It’s one of the most open, friendly, and welcoming music scenes you’ll find.  There is no sense of competition or cutthroat behavior that you’d expect in LA or Nashville or Brooklyn or any other “industry town."  We’re all friends.  Bands become incestuous, sharing members freely and frequently.  Punk had a huge role in this town’s music development and has churned out some big names (Against Me! Hot Water Music, Less Than Jake).  It’s a college town in a laid back part of the country.  We may be in the Deep South, but Gainesville is a beacon of creativity and openness that you wouldn’t expect.   The music community is really what made this place home to us and is what keeps us here today.  There are shows going on every night at numerous venues.  It’s a great place to be.  (Blender Magazine called it the best place in America to start a band in 2008).

TA: Years ago, Gainesville was rated the best place to start a band in the country. I think it’s still that way. We have a really incredible scene here. Some people have made a lot of noise, like Against Me!, Hot Water Music, and our pals in Hundred Waters, and I’d say that there are several bands here  who aren’t as well known but are just as good. People tend to ignore us here. Maybe that’s a good thing.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?  

EA: You have to love what you’re doing first and foremost.  First, it will help get through the dues paying times.  Second, people will respond to your emotions with their own.  If you’re up on stage looking like you’re bored, why should the audience get into it?  As with anything, research what you want to do before you do it.  Look at what works for others.  How does that band set up their stage plot?  What can we do visually in addition to musically?  Look into basic showmanship.  How do the great performers stand, move, play, dress, etc.  I’m not saying that this stuff is the most important, or that you should copy others in every aspect but it does matter.  Be a performer!  Give people something to remember you by.  I’ve also found it’s great when you have another band around you that’s always one step ahead of you.  It forces you to try harder, do better, strive higher.  Finally, there is no better feedback than videotaping your performances and watching them back afterwards.  You’ll notice so many things to fix, improve, or change.  That’s always my most important piece of advice.  

TA: Ask someone else because I haven’t got a fucking clue.