Interview: A Grave With No Name's Alex Shields

I reviewed A Grave with No Name's album 'Lower' about a year ago and have been mesmerized by its subtle, chilling aura ever since. When I heard that a new LP was in the works, I knew I had to ask a few questions to Alex Shields, the brains behind the project. The full interview is below:

This first question is more of an introduction: What's the story behind A Grave With No Name? Where did the name come from?

I’d love to say the name has some spiritual significance, but fact is I was just poking fun at a friend of mine who was into these emo bands with super earnest names like As I Lay Dying or At the Gates.

I can sort of pick out certain narrative elements in 2011's Lower and especially in 2009's  Mountain Debris. Do you see your releases as telling a cohesive story?

The three albums are a trilogy, and each one of them sonically, musically and lyrically play a part in the overarching narrative. I don’t want to spell it out, as I hope the process of piecing it together may be interesting for some listeners. Equally, other people may just want to enjoy the songs on a purely melodic level and I don’t want to detract from that experience either. What I will say is that the new record is the first chapter, Mountain Debris is the middle, and it concludes with Lower.

It's quite difficult for me to categorize a Grave With No Name, as there are so many songs branching out in completely different sonic directions. What bands/genres do you think are influences?

I’ve always been an album fanatic since I was really young, and everything I listen to in some respect feeds into the music I make regardless of genre. The Microphones, The Replacements, Mercury Rev, Wu Tang Clan, William Basinski and Sparklehorse are maybe the most formative influences, on the way I put an album together, but I enjoy listening to everything from ignorant rap mixtapes to musique concrete and I’m completely fascinated by the communicative allure of huge rock arena rock bands too.

In addition to the tracks built around guitar, there are a few beautiful piano tracks sprinkled in the discography ("Balloons", "Underpass") that are really chilling. Do you prefer writing for either instrument?

I can’t really play the piano, but there’s one in my parents’ house, which I mess around with when I go to visit them because, and occasionally a song will materialize so I’ll record it onto my  four track. I kind of feel like I can only express one emotion on the piano due to my limited technical capabilities, but I’d love to get better at playing it.

I heard there's a new album coming out soon, any details? What sort of differences will we see in it and past releases? Will it be as lo-fi sounding?

It was a really torturous process making the new record, which took over a year.  Whereas I recorded the majority of Mountain Debris and Lower, at home, alone with a few contributions from a couple of friends, the new album features around twenty people playing on it, and most of it was made in a proper studio. It’s a carefully recorded album of fully formed songs with arrangements incorporating strings, French horn, and people who are way better at singing and playing their instruments than I will ever be. The three albums, taken together, thematically express an arc of loss, longing and decay, so the sonic erosion from this record through to Lower plays a large part in telling that story. I was a complete nightmare to work with during its creation. I was drinking too much and consumed with paranoia, fear of failure and self-loathing. I fired one guy midway through mixing process, and then went back to the studio to work on it some more. Even after it was recorded and mixed, the tracklisting took me months to assemble, then I thought about scrapping it altogether until my close friends convinced me otherwise. As of last week, it has a title, artwork and has been mastered, and I’m guessing it will be out early summer.

Which A Grave With No Name track is your personal favorite? Any you'd like to go back and record again?

It changes. Sitting here, right now By the Water’s Edge, feels like one of the songs I am most proud of. I thought about re-recording that song, but something about its simplicity seems really appealing to me in my current state of mind. It’s just three chords strummed into a four track, and I really love the way it sounds.

The last label you put a full-length out on is Boiled Egg, the tape/art label run by Yuck's Daniel Blumberg. How did you and Blumberg cross paths?

Daniel came to see us play when we supported our friends Trailer Trash Tracys, at their single launch a few years ago, and then again a few weeks later when we played a show with Ariel Pink. I’d been friends with his brother for a few years, so we struck up conversation, and from that we ended up being inseparable. A Grave With No Name supported Yuck on one of their first tours. Everyone else in the touring party would go out every night and we’d stay in, getting drunk and chatting. Now we spend almost every day together, going out for food, talking about music, and helping each other out with ideas. So many people have mistaken us for brothers. My two most recent albums would never have seen the light of day without him helping me through my self doubt. He contributed vocals to a couple of songs for my new album, but they didn't make the final tracklisting.

How do you feel about cassettes as a medium? Any plans for the new album to be put on tape?

I’m really not into nostalgia, but I do think cassettes can be a cool way of presenting low-key releases. I had the opportunity to release Lower on other formats, but I just felt cassette format suited it best. Daniel [Blumberg] was saying how my new album is totally unsuited to cassette, and I agree with him, but I am working on something now which I think could end up on tape.

 If there was an ice cream flavor called 'A Grave With No Name' what would it taste like?

I've been wondering how the songs on both albums translate to a live show. What's a typical show like for the band?
I am not a fan of playing live, so I try and keep it as interesting for myself as possible. I’ve played alone with a bunch of pedals; I’ve used backing tracks, and we’ve performed the songs as a three piece rock group and I always feel like I’m detracting from the production and emotional core of the songs whichever way I do it.  I find playing live really  unrewarding, so I usually look at it as an opportunity to get drunk for free with my friends.

If you could use a time machine to play a show any time, anywhere, where and when would it be?
We recently were invited to play a festival in the Netherlands, and these dudes who live in a place called Haarlem just outside of Amsterdam asked us to play a house show the night before. They were genuinely the best hosts ever; they let everyone into their house for free, cooked them all food, stocked their fridge up with beer, and were just the coolest fucking guys I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Unfortunately, I had completely lost my voice travelling there, so I sounded terrible. It was still the most fun night, but I’d love to go back to then, but not suck as much.

Anything else to add?
I’ve spoken enough I think.

You can sample some A Grave With No Name tracks on Shields' soundcloud page and buy them on itunes.  The physical versions of the releases are available via Boiled Egg and No Pain In Pop.