Arms of Tripoli – The Heavy Blog Is Heavy Interview

As I mentioned in my review of LA post/math-rock enclave Arms of Tripoli‘s recent sophomore album Daughters, I have a particular soft spot for the band not only because they clearly pull influence from so many instrumental and progressive bands that I already love, but also because they were the first band I came to know and love specifically through writing for Heavy Blog back in 2014 for their debut full-length Dream In Tongues. In my mind the band are just about everything that is good about instrumental post-rock without any of the bloat, mediocrity, and tediousness that plagues so much of the genre and its heavier cousins in post-metal. I’ve been following them closely since and eagerly awaited their next release. So when Arms’ bassist Mike Bouvet reached out to me personally about the upcoming release of Daughters, I knew that I wanted to talk to them about a whole bunch of things. Over a few e-mails we discussed their formation, their collaboration and improv-focused writing process, what sets them apart from most post-rock bands out there, and, of course, eggs.


Nick Cusworth: What was the original genesis of Arms of Tripoli? Your band description implies that the band came about from a bunch of different projects in the LA scene.

Mike Bouvet (Bass, Guitar, Percussion): Yup, that’s exactly how we started.  George, K.C. and I used to be in a band called The Half Mantis Group.  I, and another member of that band (Robert Oppenheimer), joined another of our friends’ band, The Lights From Here, as they were going through a transition.  Robert Bauwens and Brian Vasillo (from Signal Hill) were also in that adaptation of The Lights From Here.  Well, long story short, The Lights From Here broke up after writing and tracking their second album. Some members left, and Arms of Tripoli was what was left over.  We picked up Jaime, an old bandmate from our drummer at the time, and we all started collaborating and writing together.  That is the origin story of our little band.  

K.C. Maloney (Keys, Guitar): Actually it goes back even further because George, Mike and I were in a band together when we were in high school called Rhelphe. Mike and I went to the same school and we placed an ad in the Recycler classified newspaper looking for a drummer who was into the same “underground” bands we were into (Chokebore, Unwound, Jesus Lizard, etc.). And that’s how we met George. He had long hair and it was love at first sight. Rhelphe was a short lived band where we tried to sound like the bands that regularly played at the Jabberjaw (R.I.P.). We recorded a demo, but I think’s it’s been lost to time. Then over the years we just kept playing with each other in different formations. We were all in Half Mantis Group at the same time for about a year or so, until I was kicked out after pawning some of their equipment for heroin money, which I still feel terrible about. But some time later, after being sober for several years, they asked me to join Arms of Tripoli. So it’s a reunion of sorts.

George Tseng (Drums, Percussion): I tried to change the locks before K.C. could get his stuff cause I was so mad that I wanted to pawn his shit, but K.C. was tipped off by some mutual friends.

MB: Ahhh, good times!

NC: Oh wow, so it sounds like there’s a pretty long and complex history among the group of you that brought you all to this point. Has the type of music you’ve all written together or the way you’ve approached writing music together changed a lot over the years?

MB: Yes and no… Yes, the type of music has gone through some evolution as our musical tastes have matured, our skills have grown, and our bandmates have revolved, but that is to be expected. However, I don’t think we’ve drastically changed styles.  I mean, we weren’t playing country before or anything.  Also, I think that we have always utilized band practice as a tool for writing music together.  We often go off on tangent jam sessions between practicing songs that starts with one of us striking a chord or toying with a melody.  It is the most pure way of composing to me, because everyone is contributing to this impromptu work and developing it, shaping it, and guiding it all at once.  It has always existed amongst us in our writing processes in every band I’ve been in with these wonderful musicians, and it definitely is still a method we utilize to compose songs currently.


NC:
Right, makes sense. So the one common theme that seems to run through everything Arms of Tripoli has put out is this idea of collaboration and bringing in a rotating set of musicians to work with a core group. How exactly does that work in terms of how you all approach writing and performing your music?

MB: The band continues to evolve and mature to this very day. Each album has had different members on it, as well as additional collaborators, and future ones will most likely too.  The reality of it is that people’s lives change dramatically as we age and bandmates break off to have kids, move to different states, pursue other endeavors, etc… That’s just the nature of it.  We are fortunate to have a large pool of friends to collaborate with, and that is what has been fundamental to the band itself… collaboration.  That underlying sentiment extends through the rotating core members, of whom are primarily responsible for composing the tracks and reconstructing our songs in a live setting, to the other talented multi-instrumentalist that we invite down to the studio during the tracking process.  In my opinion, it keeps things fresh for all of us.  It allows us to explore new musical genres and tastes through each contributor’s style and influences, but it also allows us to approach old songs in a completely different manner when performing live, hearing and playing the songs in a unique way through other musician’s nuances and abilities.  I can say that we have never approached writing itself in one single way or method.  Our current process seems to heavily revolve around selecting bits from our improv practices and piecing them together into complete compositions.

NC: That makes total sense. Listening to both Dream In Tongues and Daughters it’s pretty evident that there are a pretty wide variety of musical influences and tastes that run throughout the group from math rock, post-rock, more progressive stuff, shoegaze, and elsewhere. Are there specific influences that different members of the band bring to the writing process, or do you all just have very eclectic tastes?

MB: Well, both. We all have very eclectic tastes, and that is the beauty of collaborating with so many talented musicians.  I personally love Tortoise and The Mercury Program. I don’t consciously attempt to emulate them, but I think those influences (as with all of our influences) certainly bleed through in the music we create.  I know George, K.C. and I grew up listening to Slint, A Minor Forest, Fugazi and Unwound (cause I grew up with them)…

GT: Nirvana, Jesus Lizard, Shellac

MB: Exactly, and I think that there are certainly parts in Daughters entirely reminiscent of some of their work. Pink Floyd and King Crimson changed my life in high school, and it is hard to say they didn’t influence some of the progressive nature in some of our songs. I’m sure each and every one of us that contribute to Arms of Tripoli have a vast array of influences, some similar and some not, that just happen to come together in a quite beautiful manner.

KCM: Some of my influences are Echo & The Bunnymen, Can, Tonetta, Nicolas Jaar, Shaq Diesel, The Fixx, Comsat Angels.

Allen Porter (Guitar): Slint, Shellac, Unwound, Heavy Vegetable, Shipping News

Jaime Galvez (Guitar): Mine are Do Make Say Think, Tristeza, Kaki King, Sigur Rós

GT: Souplantation, Run the Jewels, Jessie Baylin, Tony Williams, Phil Collins, Jeff Mooridian Jr., Mac McNeilly, Todd Trainer, Muhammed Ali, Lebron James


NC:
Nice. So, Daughters has a distinctly darker feel to it than Dream In Tongues, especially in the longer tracks on the album. Was there any specific direction you all were aiming for when you started writing this one, or is this just what came out naturally?

MB: I don’t think we’ve ever approached an album as a whole concept album before. I mean, we certainly didn’t sit down prior to writing Daughters and say, “Hey, let’s make an album with a darker feel.” It is just a snapshot of the band at this point in our evolution.  The last album was written with Vic and Robert, who left due to life changes prior to us composing all of Daughters. We were fortunate to pull Allen on board as a full time member and that addition obviously influenced what we were writing. K.C. and Erik, as they did on previous albums, contributed when we were tracking, ultimately putting a different spin on what was already laid as the ground work. Since then K.C. has come on board as a full time member and we already can pick up on a shift in our style. There is definitely more of a psychedelic and krautrock feel to some of the new compositions.

NC: Yeah, I definitely picked up on those elements this time around. One thing I’ve noticed in most of your music, especially on lengthier tracks, is that you all really like inserting little twists and knots with shifting time signatures and more to change up the general groove of the songs somewhere towards the end, whereas a lot of instrumental bands normally end up going the crescendo-core route instead and simply build off the established theme to a huge climax. Would you say those subversions and musical asides are an integral part of how you approach longer-form songwriting?

MB: Absolutely.  That is a technique directly gleaned through our progressive influences.  We are constantly deconstructing practices with 3 hour versions of straight improv and saying, this is great, but how do we transition over to this other part as opposed to taking a single part and building and building on it.  We certainly take the buildup/crescendo approach for some of our songs, but the longer ones use those changes as transitions to keep the songs from being too monotonous from our perspective, which would most likely transfer over to the listener as well.


NC:
I totally feel you there and appreciate that impulse because I feel like it’s one that is so lacking in so much of the instrumental post-rock/math-rock/etc. that’s out there. I know that myself and our editor-in-chief Eden have spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to hammer this point home about instrumental bands getting too lost in building atmosphere without actually remembering that they have to actually give the listener a reason to keep their attention. You all already listed out a pretty veritable who’s who of post/math-rock greats, but are there any bands in particular (either old or new) you all look to as shining examples of instrumental rock that keeps their material engaging throughout?

MB: I think the prog rock movement of the 70s encompasses all the shining examples of masters of these techniques. I mean, it’s called progressive for a reason. So many bands pulled this off during that time and I feel that modern post-rock could benefit tremendously by incorporating some of the techniques of that era. KC and I were just talking about this the other day and about bands from that era when we discovered our mutual affinity for Heart, believe it or not. “Magic Man” is nothing short of, well, magical. The breakdowns and transitions are just fantastic. We were throwing around the idea of adopting that whole instrumental middle section of that song as an intro to one of our songs in our live set. As mentioned before, I think Tortoise and The Mercury Program are huge influences for me and are the first two prime examples of contemporary post-rock bands that keep their material engaging I would think of. Battles is another good example, in my opinion.

GT: I don’t listen to instrumental music as much anymore, but in the past it would’ve been the Tony Williams Lifetime and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

KCM: Non-rock band, Floating Points, put out the best instrumental rock (and jazz) album of the past decade with Elaenia. Also, it’s not rock, but Jon Hopkins engages the fuck out of me. As far as Arms, I write and record vocals for every song but they always take it out during mixing… Bastards!

MB: Alternative facts, KC!

NC: All excellent bands that I support wholeheartedly! Switching gears, what exactly is going on with how the album title is depicted in Daughters’ album art? It sort of looks like it’s intended to depict braille, but I don’t know enough about braille to say for sure.

MB: That is exactly what it is – “Daughters” depicted in a braille formation.  Daughters has always been the working name of the album. Jaime really, really wanted to name the new album “Daughters” way back when it was just in its initial development. Once we started working on the artwork for the album, we just didn’t see how the moniker fit in with the artwork we finally all came to a consensus on. Most people would not begin to know what a journey that is, let alone tracking, mixing and mastering an album. There are so many renditions of everything before, we collectively as a band, agree on something. So we certainly didn’t want to change the name of the album just because it didn’t quite fit the artwork. We started to come up with different ways to depict “daughters”, without spelling it out. Morse code, binary, and other ciphers. K.C. suggested braille, and it looked great to everyone when mocked up… so we went with it.

GT: We thought blind people would appreciate the humor and irony in having Braille they can’t touch, but if they don’t then fuck it, they can still listen to the music.


NC:
LA is certainly known as a major hub for music of all sorts, especially rock, but I can’t say that I’ve heard of many instrumental post-rock or math rock bands coming from around there. What’s the scene/community like there for bands who play the kind of music that you do?

MB: Well, there certainly doesn’t appear to be a huge scene here. I would say we are a tight knit community of post-rockers in LA, and it certainly is the reason why we all pretty much know each other and end up joining up together in a band or for a show at some point… kinda exactly how Arms of Tripoli formed. It may not even be that a post/math rock scene doesn’t exist here, but more that it is drowned out by the immensely oversaturated music scene itself that exists in LA. I mean, it is hard to argue that LA doesn’t have a large music scene, but it consists largely of the standard boilerplate alternative scene bands where everyone wants to be the new Imagine Dragons or AWOL Nation down on Hollywood Blvd. I imagine we are fortunate to have one of the largest pools of musicians to pull from, which allows us to constantly discover new people to collaborate with.

NC: Yeah, I can imagine that the hugeness and somewhat monolithic nature of the music industry there can be a bit of a mixed blessing sometimes. Are there any other bands/projects from around there we’ve been sleeping on that we should know about?

MB: Not sure. Barrows, Signal Hill, Arms That Work, and W I R E S are all fantastic bands from LA. If you haven’t heard them or of them, please consider them highly recommended by us!

NC: Cool, we’ll have to check them out! Do you have any plans for tours coming up this year?

MB: Unfortunately not. We have a show on June 17th at the famous Casey’s Irish Pub in downtown LA, but nothing really planned after that. I think we really would like to focus our attention on the next AOT album, seeing that it took us so long to produce this one. I play in another project with K.C. called Adult Karate, which is going on a mini tour to NY and Philly in June. It is more of an electronic soundscape genre as opposed to a post-rock one though.


NC:
Oh nice, we will also have to check that out! As is Heavy Blog tradition, my final question must be this: How do you like your eggs?

MB: Yucatan style… basically, over easy on a tostada with black beans and a spicy puree.

JG: Scrambled w/ Mrs. Dash

AP: I saw Gordon Ramsy’s scrambled eggs on Reddit and always try to emulate that

GT: Cracked open on a Toyota Prius on a hot day because those environmental crybabies drive like assholes.

KCM: Raw and in a fucking protein shake, bro. I’m bulking.

Arms of Tripoli’s latest album is the excellent Daughters, which you can purchase from their Bandcamp here. You can also follow the band on Facebook.

"We're all fools, all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly." - Ray Bradbury