Exitmusic: TAS In Session
Exitmusic's Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church have forged a profound partnership. The couple came together in a romantic, cinematic way, first meeting on a transcontinental train, and over the course of two albums, the most recent being Passage, they've created an artistic identity which is beautifully beguiling and darkly unsettling.
The band — which also includes drummer Dru Prentiss and Nicholas Shelestak on assorted electronics — launches a full North American tour on September 30 in Montréal, but they will play Hoboken's Maxwell's on September 26 (rescheduled from Saturday, September 8). A European tour follows in November, including a stop at Iceland's Airwaves Festival.
Exitmusic recently journeyed to the Bronx (not by train) for a live session in Studio A. Listen to the session this Friday, September 7 at 11 a.m. EDT on TAS on 91.5 WNYE and streaming on the TAS site. Watch Exitmusic's performance and read interview highlights below:
Kara Manning: I always describe you as being a bit like the Brooklyn Sigur Rós. Whereas Sigur Rós write about nature and Iceland and whatever the fjords and ponies are feeling, I feel that there’s an urban aspect — very New York, at 4 a.m. and a little anxious — [about your music].
Devon Church: There’s also a tug-of-war between urban and natural.
Aleksa Palladino: Probably us. I grew up in Manhattan and he grew up in Canada.
Devon: I’m from Winnipeg so I spent a lot of time in semi-Scandinavian conditions.
Aleksa: Also what that means internally in the person. That tug-of-war between what’s left of your natural instincts and what you have to do in the world.
Devon: Or what’s in the rest of the natural world and the encroachments of the city too. I feel there’s embattled nature involved. Not bucolic nature.
Kara: There’s something deeply emotive and primal about your music too.
Aleksa: I feel for me, the impetus to write comes from much deeper than my experience. There’s a place that you tape into and it is purely yours; it’s a human experience that transcends your situation or experience of the world into something that’s steeped in human history. That’s where I like to pull from, but it’s still personal.
Kara: What is the genesis of a track for you? Does it begin with a sample? What is the initial spark?
Aleksa: They start differently. Some songs I’ve written on guitar and piano. And then we produce them together. Some start with loops that Devon has made that we work on. But a lot of us start with us just wanting to write and we start with the sound. One of the things that I think is different about the way we write, then maybe most bands, is that we record as we write so it really, part by part, gets really fleshed out. We’ll fully flesh out a verse before we move to a chorus. It informs you of where it wants to go before you do it and it’s my favorite way to write although sometimes we’ll write a song totally before recording it. But I don’t like it as much.
Kara: There’s something very cinematic about each song. Do you have a strong visual idea of what the song is and what it means to you?
Devon: Not usually to begin with, right?
Aleksa: No, but as we start to put sounds down, I think we start talking to each other in visuals. I get glimpses of not really stories, but visuals. I feel that the whole process of writing a song is that there are these moments where you get these glimpses of it and you have to write it. As you write it, that glimpse gets further and further away. It’s this whole protective thing of never trying to step on the toes of what that initial spark was.
Kara: Aleksa, you’re also an actress. You’ve been in “Boardwalk Empire” and for those who follow the show — a spoiler alert — but your character,["Angela Darmody"], died. Quite terribly. You’ve been acting for a long time; you were in "Manny & Lo” about fifteen years ago. Do you find that you assume a character in the way you construct and idea behind each song?
Aleksa: I don’t know. It’s this vague thing. I feel that we assume characters anyway, even if we’re not writing from them. I think most people live as a character of themselves. My characters are definitely very close to me. Even in acting, there’s always a lot of myself in it, so it’s hard for me to know who I am sometimes! (laughs). Definitely when I was writing and still on “Boardwalk [Empire]” a lot of what I was making myself sit in to play her — a lot of vulnerability and pain and frustration — that definitely carried through with writing.
Kara: It must have been devastating when [Angela was killed off]. I assume you found out from the writers that she wasn’t going to make it.
Aleksa: It’s funny. TV is a funny thing because you don’t know where it’s going ever. If you have a film, you’ve read it and you know what’s going to happen before you start shooting. But with TV you never know so when you get it, it’s a shock to you. I loved her. I thought she was beautiful and really easy skin for me to live in. So it was sad that she died.
Kara: Devon, what did you think about your wife’s character getting killed?
Devon: Am I allowed to swear? It was a tragedy.
Kara: Did you watch it together when it aired?
Devon: We did.
Aleksa: We didn’t watch it for a long time though.
Devon: I put off watching that episode for months. But I’m glad to have her all to myself — well, not all to myself. I’m glad that we have the time to tour now.
Kara: On “White Noise” you speak of a “self-sick solitude” on that track. Was that something that was purely your lyric, Aleksa?
Aleksa: Yeah, that was mine. Anytime there’s loneliness or solitude (laughs).
Devon: We worked on that song together, though, a lot. I have like five pages of rejected lyrics for that song.
Kara: Now not only did you meet cute, but you met profoundly. You met in a way that people write movies about. So I’ll have to ask you as two 18-year-olds, smoking on a train …
Devon: I just think it’s because it’s an antiquated mode of transportation. I think if we met on a bus, nobody would be talking about it.
Kara: Which of you will have to explain, for the umpteenth time, the absolutely gorgeous way you met?
Aleksa: Go ahead, babe.
Devon: We met on a bus.
Aleksa: I was a bus driver.
Devon: We met in Canada — that’s where I’m from — and I was trying to get out of my hometown of Winnipeg and visit a friend in Montréal which I did by bumming a train pass off of an Australian guy who had his girlfriend’s pass. So I got on the train with his girlfriend’s name. Tammy. They let me on in Winnipeg but eventually kicked me off [in Toronto]. But that was fortuitous because Aleksa and I spent two or three days in Toronto hanging out.
Kara: Now Aleksa, where were you at that time? You’d already done some acting, like “Manny and Lo.”
Aleksa: I’d finished high school and me and my best friend just wanted to travel by train. It was a great experience. We rarely got off the train. We stayed on it and owned it — or we felt like we owned it. I was already acting and writing music.
Kara: You then separated for four years. And Devon, you wrote a letter.
Devon: I’d written a letter almost immediately after the first meeting, when we were still 18. But it took almost three years to get a response, but it did come. At that point I was living in Taiwan. After another year I came to New York and moved in.
Kara: Aleksa, what took you three years to answer and what compelled you to answer when you did?
Aleksa: I don’t know. I really liked being alone when I was a kid. I grew up an only child so I was used to it and comfortable with it. I definitely didn’t want boyfriends for some reason (laughs). I just wanted to be who I was and not have anyone else’s input in that. I avoided guys a lot. But there was such a familiarity between us. I remember being so struck; I literally had a visual image of us, when we were hanging out once, and it doesn’t makes sense, but it was an iron rod coming out of my ribs and going into his. A metal, steel connection. And I resented him so much for that (laughs)! I was like, no, I don’t want to like him! I went back to New York and it was the kind of thing where I thought, like a million other people you meet, that was that. But I’d just keep thinking about him. Not often, but when I did, I’d think about him all night. I’d never really reacted that way to a boy. Three years of that (laughs) and then I was like, I should write back and just see. And I did. It took two weeks. I mailed the letter. I remember kissing the envelope and putting it in the mailbox and just being like, whatever. I didn’t hear anything for two weeks and I was like, okay, at least I threw the ball back. But then he called me from a pay phone.
Devon: In Taiwan. The letter went to my family’s house in Winnipeg and I had my little brother open it and transcribe it to email and send it to me.
Aleksa. Because these were letters.
Devon: Aleksa didn’t get an email address until we were together.
Aleksa: So the whole year while he was in Taiwan and India, he was just writing me letters and I was writing him a couple of letters.
Devon: She still wasn’t very good at corresponding.
Aleksa: I’m not. I’m not good with mailing things.
Kara: You’ve been married how many years now?
Aleksa: Seven and a half. But together for ten.
Kara: Why did the song “The Modern Age” make the transition from the EP to the album [the only song that did]?
Devon: We thought we could make it better. We put out two singles from the EP and that wasn’t one of them. We thought it deserved a second chance.
Kara: Aleksa, your mom is an opera singer. Did she train you or did you take voice lessons?
Aleksa: No, I’m stubborn. I’d much rather mess things up for years than be told how to do them, sadly. I didn’t train at all. She wouldn’t have trained me anyway; she’s not like that. I’ve asked her for tips and she doesn’t want to tell me anything. She just tells me, “Don’t talk.”
Devon: Before a show (laughs).
Kara: You have such an unique voice. When you discovered that was your voice, did you go through a period of accepting that’s what your voice could do? Did you emulate anyone?
Aleksa: I started writing really young. I was emulating a lot of people at that point. But I didn’t think I could sing. I didn’t start writing to sing. I just wrote to write and sang … because I thought I coudl a little bit. I [was shy]. All of my first recordings were whisper-sing. That was my style for a long time; I was intimidated by being loud. My mother’s voice is really, really amazing and that was her thing.
Kara: What is her name?
Aleksa: Sabrina Palladino.
Kara: Classical music primarily in your house?
Aleksa: No. A lot of opera, but my mom was huge into the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen. Music was a huge bond for us when I was growing up. We’d sing songs together all of the time. But a lot of Italian music, because my family is Italian. I pull a lot from it.
Kara: You produced this album yourselves, but you worked with Nicolas Vernhes to work on the mixing of it with you. How did he uplift or heighten these tracks for you?
Devon: He just has vastly more expertise in that department.
Kara: He’s worked with Dirty Projectors ….
Devon: Deerhunter, Spoon, a bunch of great artists.
Kara: Would you ever work with an outside producer down the line?
Aleksa: It’s this weird thing. Because we record when we write, it kind of just happens. I feel for us production is just as much a part of writing as lyric-writing, as melody-writing. It would really have to be something special and not just the obvious next step to do. It would have to be this person that you want to write with.
Devon: And we’d still want to go in with tracks that we’d worked on. To re-record guitars and vocals in a good studio, that would be great.
Aleksa: I think the whole point for us is to make it. To make it yourself.
Kara: [Does your song] “The City” relate more to L.A. or New York or Winnipeg or nothing at all?
Aleksa: No, the city is just a metaphor for man, basically.
Kara: You’re very simplistic in your titles. You take an umbrella term and expand upon it within the music.
Aleksa: They’re these abtract impressions.
Devon: Archetypes. Whatever that means (laughs).