Interview with Andrew Sutherland, aka Secret School

Last time we checked in with my friend Andrew, it was to interview him about the free EP release of The Modern Things by band of the same name (The Modern Things are tracks still available for free download here).  That was almost two years ago.  Since then much has happened in Andrew’s life, including marriage, a blog endeavor with his wife, and a daring new musical project he’s dubbed Secret School.

Andrew Sutherland, image from http://www.secretschoolmusic.com

For those familiar with Andrew’s prolific solo musical output over the past 15 or so years, you will not be surprised by the high quality of the music of Secret School, nor its electronic origins.  What may surprise you, however, is the vocal presence of Andrew himself, as well as the rather pop-oriented song structures.  This isn’t Drum and Bass, this isn’t Folktronica, nor is it IDM, Glitch, Ambient, Trip Hop, Jungle, or the sort of IDB that has permeated Andrew’s work.  This is pop music.

Over the course of my familiarity with Andrew’s music, he has ranged from extreme ambient drones to hard-edged industrial to funky dance grooves, and with these evolutions have come some songs that were extremely catchy and accessible to some sounds that were violently harsh on the ears or too niche for the average listener.  There was never a loss in the quality of his craft, however, despite the music not being for everyone.  With Secret School he combines his musicianship with a pop-sensibility that is exciting, and inviting to the masses.

Which is important since Secret School is intended to be live.  In a bold move, Andrew has made live performance a major facet of the Secret School project.   Secret School recently performed at Enormous Room in Boston, photos of which can be viewed at Foundwaves and here.  Stepping out of the solitary studio environment and into the public spotlight is helping to shape the music as he creates it, and several songs have seen many iterations as he has performed them and altered them specifically for live performance.  I highly recommend following the Running Double blog, checking out Secret School on Facebook and MySpace, checking the Secret School website frequently as the songs available to download (free!) have changed as he has updated them, showing his work in progress.

FREE TRACKS!

Secret School Rehearsals, image by Cara Sutherland

And now on to the interview

Tell me about the new project.

Secret School is a solo project I started a few months ago. It’s inspired by indie rock, dance music, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s really a way for me to get some songs out there and try and play out live.

Why now?  What has changed since The Modern Things?

Well, Dan, the guitar wizard in TMT moved out to San Diego to pursue a degree in architecture, so we never had a chance to really push the live thing. We all got on with our lives, three of the four of us got or are getting married, one of us had a kid, some of us bought houses, etc. So, I guess yeah, pretty much everything has changed since The Modern Things. What didn’t change was writing – I kept recording, although more and more of my music ended up being electronic, more based in dance music.

I’ve always wanted to do a show by myself, just me and some gear, maybe some vocals. So here I am, trying it out.

Where did the name Secret School come from?

It’s a book by Whitley Strieber. The guy claims he’s been visited by aliens – Secret School refers to a collective of children who would meet at night in rural Texas with these beings. Haven’t read the book, but I love the name, I love the sound of it.  [for more info on Whitley Streiber check out his webpage, Unknown Country – JC]

Where do you draw inspiration from for Secret School music?

Musically, there are a ton of new artists I’ve been getting into – Washed Out, Forest Swords, Active Child, Delorean, Baths – these guys are coming out with some really fresh stuff. I got away from getting into new music for a long time, and now it’s like this crazy flood all of a sudden. I’m loving so much of what’s coming out right now, and I’ve been really motivated to just put stuff out there, see what happens. I think there’s a movement in this genre to be real – to not worry about sound quality and process and all that, to just get music out there that’s straight from the gut. I’m into that right now. Only with a laptop.

I think what influences my musical sensibilities most though is electronic music that has a lot of heart – where you can tell it came from a place that really meant something to the creator. I cut my teeth on Bjork and Aphex Twin back in the day – stuff that was so full of emotion that it was hard to believe they were using computers to make it. It’s out there, but still pop.

What instruments and tools are you using to create Secret School’s music?

I’m using Ableton Live to play out – it’s been a total dream. It’s the first time I feel like I can really manipulate and play my music live… I write + record in Logic Pro, but Ableton is definitely the muscle behind the live show.

I’m trying to teach myself guitar, so almost all of the tracks have some sort of manipulated guitar on them. I do a lot of mangling of the sounds in Logic and Ableton, and I have some funky outboard gear to mash things up. Obviously I’m a big fan of synths, so big giant synth stuff is all over the place. (We have a friend who has probably the most amazing collection of analog synths and gear on the east coast. No lie, this guy has a museum. If I finally get over there to hang out, I’m afraid I’ll never leave.)

One trick I’ve been using is keeping a mic on in the room, ready to record finger snaps or tambourine or crinkling paper, whatever.

The thing I’ve tried to keep as a rule though is that it has to be done live, so nothing is too sequenced. Everything is laid out so I can control it, and most of the recordings are of me actually playing the stuff live in Ableton, then singing over the top later.

Secret School Live at Enormous Room, June 22 - Photo by Matthew Mittelstadt

You are making a commitment to this being a “live” project.  Is this daunting?  What is playing live like for you?  What do you hope your audience takes from a Secret School live experience?  What tools are you using during your live shows?

Getting ready to play live has been an amazing challenge. I’ve been recording this kind of stuff in my bedroom since high school, so it’s nice to have an outlet where the only purpose is to get up in front of people and just do it. But yeah, daunting is the right word.

I played my first show on June 22 at Enormous Room in Cambridge, and it went really well… it was a cool vibe. The club usually hosts DJs, so it was perfect. We had lots of visuals projected that were timed to some of the music, and we had a little dancing happening. My goal is to put out something unique and new, something that the audience can tell is sincere, and bring some groove. If Brian Eno and George Clinton played a show together, maybe that would be it. Whatever happens, I’m having a blast. Hopefully that’s what that audience feels too.

Tea Party Boston (Supertonic) called Secret School an “organic” and “humanized” version of electronic music. I would say that is an apt description.  I see (historically speaking) electronic-based music to have a…perhaps overproduced?…quality to it,a Mutt Lange aspect to the drums and beats.  It has been almost as if electronic music existed solely “in studio” and not in the “real world,” even when considering live DJ shows (since they are rarely creating on the fly).  Is it your intent to remove that impression from electronic music, or would you say the your sound comes more about simply from the live recording methods you are using?

I see what you’re saying. I don’t know if I’m out to change any impressions or anything – I love some of that overproduced stuff! I tend to over think my music, so it’s nice to just put tracks out there that’s really aimed at playing live. It’s like simplifying the process has made it a lot more fun.

Rather than sampling vocal bits or using guest vocalists, you’re writing and singing yourself.  What’s that like for you? If taking the step to performing live was already a big one, I can only imagine that putting yourself out there that much more could be…anxiety inducing, but also ultimately revealing, or perhaps cathartic?

It’s definitely been more revealing than anxiety inducing. I’ve been singing for a long time, mostly behind other people, but I’m pretty used to my voice. It’s absolutely forced me to think about songs differently. I still love using vocal samples, whatever feels right, but using my own voice has been a challenge in that I have to write to my own limitations. I guess what I’m saying is I’m not a very good singer, so I have to be clever to make it sound OK.

What is the inspiration for your lyrics? “Goodbye Party”, for example.  Is that about an actual experience you have had?

That song, and a few others, are about getting older, looking back and realizing that a whole decade went by. Also, I’m at a place in my life where I’m completely happy and stable, more than any other time in my life, but there’s always a nostalgia for the past, or regrets about what I never did. Some of the lyrics speak to that weird place of being really secure, but somehow a little uncomfortable with that.

I’m a huge fan of artists covering the work of others and reinterpretation.  Any plans for that in your live shows?

Totally. Working on a Peter Gabriel cover right now. I feel like I’m treading on hallowed ground, but I don’t care – the song is too funky not to cover it.

You are co-authoring the Running Double blog with your wife Cara, and she’s been doing the graphic design work, as well as photo and video documentation for Secret School.  When it comes to creating visual representations of your sonic output, do you just let Cara work her magic, or is there a specific plan for creating this side of the musical project?

Oh it’s all her. I let her run with it, and she’s totally in control. She has the most amazing eye, and somehow just picks up exactly what the music is supposed to look like. I couldn’t be luckier.

Who came up with and created the hilarious video posted recently on Running Double?  Since I was unable to attend the event at Enormous Room, perhaps some explanation of how this and other videos are incorporated into your performance would be useful.

Right! Cara did that too. In fact, she put together all the projected visuals for the show. That literally came from us looking up aerobics videos from the 80s. We found a competition hosted by Alan Thicke sponsored by Crystal Light, and the performers were just so into it. That one guy is really throwing it all out there, I totally love that. It fits the song really well too. Every song during the show has it’s own little video – most of them we pulled from DVDs we bought at this amazing Indian dollar store. Some of them are early Japanese Sci-Fi, some are from 80s action movies, just really kitchy stuff.

When can we expect an official Secret School release, and subsequent world conquering?

Soon… If I do a release I want to make it really special. For now, free is the word. I probably won’t conquer the world, but it might be nice to play some of my favorite clubs in Boston, like Great Scott or Middle East.

My major gripe with the Secret School tracks is their length.  Why are they so short!?  Quite often I feel like the track as it stands (most notably Ars Nova, Cold Medication) are intros to what could be a much longer, perhaps more fleshed-out, track.  Any thoughts on these being expanded in their final, maybe album, format?

Absolutely. Most of them actually came from longer tracks, but just worked as little snippets. I did a lot of writing for TV commercials in the last few years, which forced me to get ideas crammed into 28 seconds. I’m really into brevity right now. 🙂

Future live shows?

Yes, more coming soon…

What’s next for Secret School, and you?

Shows, more free music, and I might try and run a 5K sometime soon.

Andrew Recommends

Some great albums and EPs I’m really into right now:

BathsCerulean
DeloreanSubiza
TanlinesSettings” EP
Broken BellsBroken Bells
Washed OutLife of Leisure” EP
DeastroMoondagger
The PresetsApocalypso
Local NativesGorilla Manor
Mystery Roaranything you can get, check it out!
BibioAmbivalence Avenue
School of Seven BellsAlpinisms
LusineA Certain Distance
Telefon Tel AvivMap of What is Effortless
BonoboBlack Sands

Links to Secret School on the interwebs

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2 responses to “Interview with Andrew Sutherland, aka Secret School

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