Interview with Ambient Shoegazers We Are Parasols!
We Are Parasols are an atmospheric shoegaze band out of Portland, OR. This last October they released a fantastically dark, surreal music video for their new song “Hold Me Fire”. I had the opportunity to interview the band about the video, their origin and influences, and more!
First of all, how did you guys meet and how long ago? Did you start the band right away?
J – Well, this is gonna be quite a long one…Alec and I met in Atlanta in 1997. We were both in local bands – he was in a shoegaze band and I was in an electronic/trip-hop band called underwater. My band had just kicked out our previous drummer and we were pretty set on not ever getting another. But, Alec basically hung at out our house for a couple weeks non-stop until he convinced us that he would be the perfect drummer for us. We played in underwater together for five years, then we had a few other projects together until I moved to LA in 2003.
D and I met in 2010, shortly after I moved to Portland. A mutual friend brought her to see a band I was playing guitar and singing in called International Grey. That band played exactly one live show and it was how we met! D and I hung out as friends for a year and then started dating. At the time that we started dating I had just released a mostly instrumental electronic EP as Parasols. D started writing and recording with me and we did two EPs together before we broke up (musically and romantically) and I finished the final Parasols record myself.
D and I were broken up for about six months but obviously we got back together. Sometime in 2014 we decided to start writing music together again. Around that same time Alec and I reestablished our friendship after a few years of silence. He came out to visit and really liked the music we were working on and decided to join. He still lives in Atlanta and travels back and forth a couple times a year. In September 2015 D and I got married and we released the first We Are Parasols single, “re:union”. We’ve been writing, recording, making videos, and playing shows pretty consistently since then.
D – We met Emma and Aaron from Vibrissae about a year ago and shortly afterwards asked Emma to be in our video for “ss.tab”. Then, about six months ago, because I write and play most of the bass parts on our recordings, but prefer to focus on singing live, we asked her if she’d be interested in playing bass and keyboards with us. She played her first show with us in September for the release of No Center Line and we love her! So, we’re a four piece now.
What made you decide on the name We Are Parasols?
J – Well, as I mentioned D and I used to be called Parasols, which was inspired by a very stark image in the Joan Didion memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. After we broke up and got back together we made our first music video together for a song called “The Healing Properties of Pollution” from the final Parasols record. We decided to credit the video as “Directed by We Are Parasols” It was my way of saying that even though D had been gone for a bit, that once she was back it was both of us again, as partners. After making the video, we decided to dig through the Parasols back catalog, which was fairly diverse, and chose a select group of songs that we thought would be good to re-record as the basis for a new, more defined band sounding record that would become the first We Are Parasols album, Infrastructure. We also wrote a few new songs and did a cover of an old underwater song. By the time the record was done Alec was in the band and the name We Are Parasols seemed like a way to acknowledge that while we were still tied to our old Parasols identity, we had developed into something new that all three of us had equal roles and ownership in.
Also, there is a very vague idea about how each of us, as human beings, needs to step up and protect each other. We’re each a parasol or a shield, protecting someone else when they need it. We’re all in this together even though it doesn’t seem that way recently.
Who are your main music/artistic influences?
J – When we started We Are Parasols we were really focused on being a modern shoegaze band. We had just discovered SPC ECO and it reignited our mutual love of Curve. I guess we were going for that very specific electronic based shoegaze, more so than the rock based shoegaze. Curve, Seefeel, Pygmalion by Slowdive, etc. We all love the Cocteau Twins. But eventually our more industrial and electronic influences started to take over on our second record, Inertia. Gazelle Twin is a major influence, as well as Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy.
I’m also very inspired by film. We sample a lot of movies. David Cronenberg, Wong Kar Wai, David Lynch, Noah Baumbach, and Hal Hartley are all film directors who have had a massive influence on my music, sometimes in really obvious ways. Also, Battlestar Galactica. Everything about Battlestar Galactica. But, Cronenberg in particular will be playing a big role in our next incarnation. But that’s something to talk about in the future.
D – I am not quite sure who or what my overall main music/artisitic influences would be. Since I began making music in We Are Parasols, my music and artistic influences come and go depending on what we’re working on. I can say that, overall, I do have wildly varied influences and tastes. Lately, though, I have noticed myself revisiting many of my past influences, from my childhood and adolescence. How about I just give you a list of what I have been listening to lately in preparation for the new project we’ll be working on next year. — Madonna, Curve, Goldfrapp, Roisin Murphy, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Gazelle Twin, Arca, Meredith Monk, Enya, Lustmord, Brian Eno, Hildegard von Bingen, Julianna Barwick, Puce Mary.
A – Cocteau Twins, metal, and dark ambient.
What inspired No Center Line?
J – Last year D, Alec, and I took a trip to the Oregon Coast because Alec had never been. We were really inspired by the strange, almost alien landscape, and the intense darkness. It’s was already Fall so it was already pretty cold and dark. There wasn’t a ton of daylight so we spent quite a bit of time in our hotel room. At one point we recorded some samples of the ocean waves. I used Reason, on my laptop, to turn the ocean samples into a synth sound that I could actually play. Alec made a snare sample from it too. We used those samples to write and record the core of the first track from No Center Line, “At The Edge of the End”, in our hotel room. In between writing we went to a bar across the street and discussed the concept of a new witch-like character, traveling back and forth between life and death on the coast. We were talking a lot about the grey areas and blurry lines between life and death and dreams. We even wrote the lines that D speaks in “At the Edge of the End” in the bar. That’s how it started. Also, there is a road sign somewhere along Highway 20, on the way to the coast that says, “No Center Line”. I thought it would be a fitting title for the EP.
D – On my end, I recorded a demo around two years ago. At the time I was playing around with a simple vocal melody. I eventually started to sing random words—those words were “hold me fire”. I kept singing the words and melody; molding it and shaping it. I eventually began to develop those three words into a story about a woman burned alive because she was accused of being a witch. When I presented it to Jeremy and Alec, the three words soon expanded to include “habeo flammas, tene me, hold me fire, kiss me flames”. This became the woman’s way to embrace her fate. So, for me, the ideas and music we made during our trip to the coast that Jeremy mentioned intertwined with that witch narrative I’d been developing as well as topics we loosely explored like existential depression and death. For me, No Center Line is about embracing the flames, embracing the darkness, embracing the unknown. If I am honest with myself, the witch character I created is really my shadow self—really all of the characters I have and will continue to embody are aspects of my shadow self—and I think I’m slowly getting closer to embracing her, or them.
The music video for “Hold Me Fire” is visually and emotionally striking. Can you share what the writing process for it was like? Did you know beforehand the sort of picture you wanted to paint? What is it all about?
D – Of course, for me, I very much wanted to explore the witch character; I wanted to tell a story with her. But mostly, I wanted a full-circle effect for the music video; I wanted to honor the overall inspiration for the song—really the entire EP. Since the inspiration was a weekend getaway at the coast with Jeremy and Alec, I wanted the video to take place where it all started. Place mattered from the start. And the Oregon coast is a beautiful place to shoot and the ocean provides so much rich symbolism, how could we not shoot a witch themed music video about embracing the unknown there?
J – We knew we wanted it to be filmed at the coast, in black and white, and involving the witch character. The rest of the story was the product of Charlie Moses and I brainstorming back and forth, trying to think of the most simple way to tell a compelling story. I hate to spell it out too much but since you asked, we eventually landed on the idea that the “modern” D character was depressed and unhappy, but that she’d started dreaming of the witch character and a cryptic symbol. She wakes up trying to remember the symbol, frantically drawing. Meanwhile, the witch is in an entirely different world performing a sort of ritual to free the “modern” D character from the benign existence she’s trapped in. Eventually the two different worlds get blurred and they almost interact with each other. Some of the scenes where they’re together, one inside and the other outside of the house are my favorite scenes and we basically improvised those while shooting, partially because that house looked so cool from the outside.
Where was the video filmed and who all was involved?
D – The video was filmed in Yachats, Oregon. Jeremy and our friend Charlie Moses co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced it together. Moriah made the costume, did make-up and helped me get around on the beach. She also lent me some body heat to not freeze out there. I played both the characters. Our good friend Jason Roark let us borrow a bunch of equipment and recommended the app, Filmic Pro, that we used to film the entire video on two iPhone SEs.
J – The end of the shoot was actually shut down by a very nice fireman from the Yachats Fire Department. We did a ton of research on how to properly and legally build a bonfire on the coast, but we didn’t know that the Feds had shut down all fires on the beach that weekend due to the drought. Luckily he let us make sure we had our final shot before helping us put out the bonfire – which he said we’d done perfectly according to regulations!
Who created the head piece and costume?
D – Moriah West (of Mo West Creations and Xibling) designed the entire costume, including the amazing headdress. I really wanted the witch to stand out visually and I intuitively knew I wasn’t going to be able to create that character alone, so I reached out to Moriah. All I can say is that Moriah came up with the entire look, very much on the fly, including that beautifully crafted headdress. She made the witch look fantastic. Working with Moriah was absolutely wonderful. She got what I was trying to do and delivered. When I saw the early raw footage of me on the beach in the witch costume, I was so thrilled. It was perfect! But, I will say that it was a tricky costume to move around in on the beach.
What have been some of your favorite bands to play with?
D – Bloody Knives, Charlatan, Xibling, Sex Park, Vibrissae, Darkswoon.
J – Bloody Knives. I love those guys.
E – Darkswoon.
A – All of the above.
What are each of your top 5 favorite albums?
D – These kinds of questions can be so tricky to answer. I don’t think I am the only one when I say that my top 5 or top 10 favorite artist or album lists tend to change. It’s hardly ever the exact same list—the way it should be, right? So, I am going to type the ones that come to my mind right here, right now.
Portishead – Dummy
Nine Inch Nails – Downward Spiral
Bjork – Homogenic
Garbage – Version 2.0
Goldfrapp – Black Cherry
J – If I were to list my all-time favorites it’d just be the very predictable Cure and Depeche Mode record I grew up on. So, instead I’m gonna list my Top 5 albums from this year. I hope that’s ok.
Low – Double Negative
Matthew Dear – Bunny
Bloody Knives – White Light Black Moon
Nine Inch Nails – Bad Witch
Gazelle Twin – Pastoral
Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow
All of Broadcast, but especially The Future Crayon and Work And Non Work
All of Blonde Redhead, but especially Penny Sparkle and Misery Is a Butterfly
Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain
Billie Holiday – Last Recording
A – My current top three are:
Ariadne – Stabat Mater
Hide – Castration Anxiety
Imperial Triumphant – Vile Luxury
What’s in store for We Are Parasols in 2019?
J – We’re currently planning a short NW tour in late March with Mercury’s Antennae and Tangients (from LA). While Alec is in town for that we’re talking about going into a bigger recording studio than mine to experiment with some new techniques. Well, new for us, but nothing everyone else hasn’t been doing for the past 50 years! We want to record something with live drums. Even though Alec plays live, and is a great drummer, none of our recordings so far have had acoustic drums. He programs everything in the studio. And the main reason we want to experiment with it is because we’d like to record our entire next record that way, but I need to learn how to record and mix real drums while maintaining the same level of production as our electronics. Also, I’m currently mixing a collaboration record we did with Bloody Knives that will hopefully find its way into the world in 2019. It’s called Last Ice and so far I’m super excited by how the mixes are coming together!
D – First thing for next year is that we’re finally releasing a six song EP of remixes of Infrastructure. We’ve been sitting on some of those remixes for way too long. The single will be a new version of “No Movement” that we’re doing ourselves. I just realized recently that it’s the fourth version we’ve done of that song. After that I’ll be really focused on writing for our next record, Body Horror. We have a concept, of course, we always start with a concept, but we haven’t written a single note.