True Widow: “Skull Eyes”
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Following the dissolution of his punk band Slowride, guitarist and vocalist Dan Phillips could have spent his two years living in Massachusetts solely focusing on his art and woodworking. But his creative expression didn’t limit itself to his small, New England quarters. After returning to Dallas, Texas, Phillips crafted a new brand of heavy, melodic material with the help of bassist and vocalist Nicole Estill and drummer Timothy (Slim) Starks, in the trio known as True Widow.
The stonegaze outfit is set to release its second album, As High as the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth, through Kemado Records at the end of next month. The new album merges heartfelt melodies that drip over distorted guitar chords with heavier rock interludes. Here, Philips explains his passion for visual art, True Widow’s approach to music, and the process of writing and recording deep in the Texan woods.
After the disbandment of your previous band, Slowride, you had a brief stay in Massachusetts where you trained in woodworking and some other forms of art. Can you describe a little about your move and your developments in painting, woods, and drawing?
I moved to Boston to go to the furniture-making program at The North Bennet Street School. It was a two-year program, and during those two years, that was all that I was concerned with. I spent every minute that I could at the school. The curriculum included several visits to museums and American furniture collections in New England. Being a person who draws and paints, I was very interested in the whole gamut of early American decorative arts — not only the furniture that I was there to see.
While immersed in research, I found myself exploring the themes and aesthetics of all of the art forms of colonial America up through the Federal period. Unconsciously, the influence of all of this stuff found its way into my drawings and paintings. My approach is simple: I like that; I want to make one too. The things I make are often based on or rooted in something that has existed before, or a variation of a theme — never a reproduction.
I saw that some of your projects were used as a backdrop for live-music performances, particularly your painted recreation of the Virgin Mary. How do your art interests relate to your music? And do they have any influence over True Widow’s creation and initial material?
I was commissioned to make that Virgin and a couple of big skulls for that show. It is not something I ever do. I just happened to know the girl in charge of the set design, and that is what we came up with. She knew that I could build things and paint, so I got the job.
The two are related in that it is all art. It is all creative expression. I have been doing all of this stuff since I was child. My parents are artists, and my father and his father play and played music. It is just how I grew up, so it all feels very natural and very much the same thing. Sometimes the urge comes out as a song; other times it is a drawing. The band is a result of me being holed up in a small apartment for two years with an 8-track, drum machine, bass, and a guitar. I am always fooling around on the guitar, and, after my stay in Boston, I had a collection of songs written and recorded that I had no plans for. At some point, I thought that it would be fun to make a band for the songs, and so that is what happened.
Other than shoegaze and stoner rock, what elements do you think give True Widow a “stonegaze” style?
I am not really sure. It is not something I am able to describe. The songs take on that shape when we play them together. They sound different on my couch with my acoustic guitar. But I always know when something I am playing on my guitar will sound extra special with Slim and Nicole, and those are the songs that I bring to the band.
I think that a considerable amount of credit is owed to the tones created by de-tuning the guitars and bass. I am using four different tunings at the moment. There is something magical that happens when you play an average chord progression on a guitar that is tuned a different way. Certain notes drone on, and harmonics enhance the highest highs, creating a vast frequency range that cannot be accomplished on a regular-tuned guitar. Add a nice, simple drum beat and a good melody, and there it is.
True Widow’s debut in 2008 was with End Sounds, but your upcoming second album will be released via New-York based Kemado Records. How did you end up working with Kemado, and has it had any effect on the band so far?
The most tangible effect is that they recorded us and are putting out a record. We have wanted to do another one for a while, so we are very happy to have this opportunity. Kemado is a record company that I have admired from afar for some time. I appreciate the quality of the projects that they release and their passion for the art of it all. It is nice to be with a label that concerns themselves with fine work, and it makes me feel nice that they would want to include our band in what they have going on.
Basically, a guy (who is now our good friend Rennie) wrote us to tell us that he was excited that we were coming to Philly. We try to write people back as much as we can, and so a conversation began and evolved into questions about what we had in the works. When my answer was “not much,” he asked if we had demos. We did, and I sent them to him. He passed them on to a couple of people that he thought might be into it, and Kemado was one of them.
Speaking of the second album, you can hear a little more of Nicole’s vocals on As High As The Highest Heavens... Was it a premeditated decision to include more female vocals on this album? Can you briefly explain the writing process for the sophomore record?
Having a female voice was always the intention for the band. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but never had the right band for. So many of my favorite bands have this going on, and I really wanted it for myself. You are hearing more of Nicole now because I have more experience writing for the two of us. The first record was recorded pretty early on for us. I don’t want to say that we were underdeveloped, but we were unaware of and had not explored the possibilities yet.
When I am writing songs, I am always thinking about who could deliver the vocal part best. Sometimes this is obvious, and sometimes I will sing the song for three months and then Nicole will take over the part. We try to harmonize as much as we can — at least where it is tasteful. I love Nicole’s voice, so I am always trying to write songs that she can sing.
There really is not much of a defined process. When I have a song that I feel good about, I take it to the band. We work through it for a while, and when we have three or four new songs, we pull out the microphones and recorders and make demos of the new stuff. When we are listening back, it becomes clear where we need to enhance parts, or put harmonies, or add steel guitar, or whatever it might need. Ultimately, we end up with several songs to pick from and those are what become the record.
The album teaser is pretty enticing! For the second time, you returned to the Argyle, Texas woods and recorded with Matt Pence at the Echo Lab. What about the environment and the engineer influenced you to make that trek again? And how was this second visit different than the debut album recording?
I have worked with Matt on several projects over the years. All of the records in my personal discography that I am most proud of and like the best were done with the assistance of Matt Pence. He is very creative and knows his equipment very well, and, at this point, we have a good working relationship, and I feel comfortable out there. We knew we wanted to go back to Matt for the second record for these reasons — not to mention the beautiful studio and the part of Texas where the studio sits. It is so very nice. We did not want to recreate the sessions from the first time around, but we knew that whatever we came up with would be something we liked.
Basically, we used the rooms in different ways. We put the drums in the big room, whereas on the first record, they were recorded in the small room, etc. We recorded everything live and went back to fix stuff up. Also, we had more time than we did for the first record. S/T was recorded and mixed in 10 days. For the new record, we had a total of 16 days. We recorded for eight, then were off for a week. When we finished the first block, we had rough mixes to scrutinize. When we went back, we spent the first day and a half wrapping up the tracking and the rest of the time mixing. More time is great.