Brisbane progsters, Arcane returned earlier this year with their third, double album titled “Known/Learned,” a release that many fans already see as one of the year’s top records. Guitarist Michael Gagen was in a good mood to answer our questions about the new release.
Define the mission of Arcane.
Arcane are inspired by the complexity and technicality of progressive and metal music, combined with the more genteel aesthetics of folk and the dynamics of classical music.
Tell me about the creative process that informed your new album “Known/Learned.”
Arcane’s creative process is very much an organic place for us. We write in our jam environment and employ an unhurried approach. Because our music can meander and shift through many musical moods, we always work towards a goal of the song being a whole and unified piece of art. We do chop out sections that aren’t working, or are disrupting the flow of the song.
How did you document the music while it was being formulated?
We have a pretty rudimentary recording setup in our jam space. It won’t win awards, but it allows us to capture the noise of our jam environment when our ideas are flowing. Pre-production for Known/Learned was completed as an ancillary process to the writing, we had the songs working as jams before we began to structure them in pre-production. In the jam room there’s 5 or 6 microphones scattered around and they’re almost always rolling. Someone; somewhere has a vast catalogue of recordings of me making a lot of mistakes.
Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected or is it an organic outgrowth of performing them together?
To be honest, it’s both. There is definitely moments when we have taken our time and worked hard to craft the tracks, but it is more the individual sections; in particular the more intricate arrangements which are orchestrated prior to building a finished piece around them. The two respective sides; Known and Learned is this schism in action. Most of the more intricate and technical material on Known is painstakingly crafted, and most of the material on Learned, which is more about building an atmosphere, came about through a much more organic process.
Describe the approach to recording the album.
We wanted to have both albums feel like two sides of the one band, and whilst we wanted the atmosphere of side A: Known to be denser and darker, and side B: Learned to feel more open and spacious, we still wanted the two albums to run together, and be able to be listened to back to back without jolting the listener out of the journey of the album. This proved a difficult task, given that their combined runtime just eclipses the two hour mark. We needed the sounds to be ever evolving, always fresh in the ear, but not too eclectic. We enlisted the help of Sam Vallen, Known/Learned‘s producer. We’ve not worked with many producers over the years; however I will say that Sam has a remarkable gift for both mixing, and for understanding exactly how a band operates, given that he plays full time in one. He took our many different voices and approaches and structured them into a textured and ethereal statement of Arcane‘s music. I’ve met exceedingly few people like him in the industry in that he’s both mega-talented and very humble; a real joy of a musician to work with.
How long was “Known/Learned” in the making?
We began writing in 2010 after a few months of downtime following the release of our previous album Chronicles Of The Waking Dream in late 2009. The first audio was officially recorded in June of 2013 and recording wrapped in mid 2014.
Tell me about the themes the album captures.
Love, loss, the family unit. The album focusses on different character archetypes as they weave through life, but as the characters reoccur throughout the story line; they are not necessarily the same people. The album looks at the issues we all face, and the ways in which we face them. Those issues in their own way become the focus, whilst the character merely the vehicle to give that emotion a form.
We often leave our lyrical message open for interpretation, however I will say that if you Google for Eden Kupermintz’s breakdown of Known/Learned on the website Heavy Blog Is Heavy you can read an insightful and remarkably accurate interpretation of some of the album’s key themes.
Provide some insight into the group’s chemistry that allows this music to emerge.
Arcane personally is a much of a melting pot as it is musically. The individual members range from the very extroverted, to the very introverted, however; I think a huge part of the chemistry is down to respect. We all respect one another’s voice and input, and recognize that the sound of the band is fundamentally a melting pot. Nobody brings full songs to the others and demands they be played a certain way, no idea is too crazy, no chord progression or rhythmic device is off limits. It’s liberating.
How do you know when a piece is complete?
We often have an outro or ending theme that we’re working towards. Arcane‘s music does peak and trough in a formulaic way; that being said, the formula itself is a little left of the radio centre. We don’t try to quit a song too early, we always let it roll until it reaches its natural conclusion. This attitude results in tracks like ‘Learned‘ which has a huge runtime of over 20 minutes and is basically a musical stream of consciousness from start to end.
Which bands or artists influenced your work on the album?
Many. In the progressive world; Pain of Salvation, Devin Townsend, Pink Floyd. In the metal world, Meshuggah, Fallujah, Opeth, The Ocean. Artists our progressive fan base might not expect us to be into such as Loreena McKennitt, celtic folk group Kornog, Imogen Heap, Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, film composer Clint Mansell, Mark Isham and Eric Serra, Sigur Ros etc.
How would you describe what you create to someone who didn’t hear you before?
Wow. I’ve never been asked that before. I guess I’ll say that we sound like 30 different bands having a polite, but loud argument.
What kind of gear do you use for recording your music?
The album was largely tracked in three locations. Dry guitar and keyboard was all recorded at my home studio. The guitar was later reamped in our practice space, using five different amplifiers. Grand piano, drums, bass guitar reamping and vocals were all recorded in Sam’s studio on the Gold Coast.
What is your view on technology in music?
I am a technophobe at heart (Arcane keyboardist Matt often gets my tech-support questions at all hours), but I embrace technology as much as I can, and I treat cynicism of music technology with equal disdain. There’s a huge puritanical resurgence afoot in music at the moment. I feel that people often forget that the way that they feel about recording on analogue tape and guitars made in 1950-something, people in the 1950′s probably felt about the wax cylinder and gramophone. It’s worth remembering that one hundred years ago, the piano-accordion was the most popular instrument in America, by a huge margin. We are on a continuum, and technology will forever be in flux, that’s what it does. Embrace what you have access to.
Do you see the band’s music as serving a purpose beyond music?
I’m glad our music brings positivity to people, in spite of its melancholy. Arcane do have a sad sounding aesthetic, and the subject matter of Jim’s lyrics is dark, but not without redemption and hope. As individuals, Arcane are all very political people and we are all very scientifically minded people, and whilst that does, to an extent, shape the art we output, we are not really a particularly political band. Whilst our music does touch on themes of secularism, making good music is definitely our most fervent goal.
What advice or philosophy might you impart to other musicians, be it in forms of creativity, technical stuff, the business side of it, or anything else?
My father gives a piece of advice to any guitar student he teaches. ‘If you want to be a good guitarist, just don’t stop‘. I’ve had that advice ring in my ears all my life. Don’t stop. Make whatever music excites you, challenges you, moves you in some way. That and don’t ever worry about appealing to everyone, because you never will anyway. Make music you are proud to call your own in this moment. If you get that right, nothing will stop you.
What are your plans for the future?
The members of Arcane are currently embroiled in our many side projects. We may reconvene to do another album at some point, but at the moment, our collective focus is elsewhere. Please check out the groups we are involved with; Caligula’s Horse, Echotide, Irukandji, hazards of swimming naked, agrammeofsoma, & Polaroid Bag.