Oxford Collapse
Do the Collapse
by Josie Rubio (interview by Josie Rubio and Stephen Slaybaugh)

The MySpace page of Brooklyn-based Oxford Collapse classifies the trio as “Nu-Jazz/German Pop,” and the “Sounds like” category says “Ernest Borgnine ringtones.” But then again, it also says that they’re scheduled to play the Vatican in January 2010.

If the band’s page doesn’t categorize the sound guitarist/vocalist Michael Pace, bassist/vocalist Adam Rizer and drummer Dan Fetherston make, critics have not been able to clearly define them either. The band has been compared to a wide range of music: Sonic Youth, REM, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Superchunk, Yo La Tengo and Spoon, to name a few. With their fourth album, Bits, their second release on Sub Pop, Oxford Collapse continues to defy comparisons, encompassing a wide variety of style and influences ranging from the harmonic, Latin-tinged “Children’s Crusade” to the meandering guitar of the powerful “John Blood.” There’s the beautiful, bare bones of cello and Rizer’s vocals on “A Wedding,” followed by the bawdy near sing-along “Featherbeds,” with Pace and Rizer harmonizing and trading off vocal duties. Yet, there’s something familiar there, a thread runnning through the record that stirs fond musical memories, like the thrill of opening your first indie-rock cassette ordered by mail, if you’re of a certain age.

After a tour with Scottish outfit Frightened Rabbit, Oxford Collapse is currently on the road with fellow Brooklynites We Are Scientists. (Vocalist Keith Murray even joins Oxford Collapse onstage for vocal and tambourine duties for “John Blood.”)

We recently caught up with Pace before a show to talk to him about Bits, the band’s future and all the band comparisons—as well as Ernest Borgnine. Sadly, we forgot to ask about the Vatican show.

Why do you think Oxford Collapse is compared to such a wide range of bands?

Michael Pace: I think that’s just because we listen to so much, stuff that doesn’t necessarily influence us musically but we just really think is awesome. You don’t necessarily hear a whole lot of Randy Newman in our songs, but I love Randy Newman. I couldn’t even attempt to emulate that.

But I think that’s kind of a blessing and a curse in terms of not necessarily being able to be lumped into one specific thing. It’s a lot easier for people to say, “Oh, this band sounds like this; they play this type of music.”

For me, it sounds familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. It sort of sounds like something that I’ve heard, but I don’t know what it is.

MP: One of the things that I always think is funny is you get criticized for not being unique, doing something that you’ve heard before. But if everything you heard was unlike anything else that would take too much brain power. Not that I’m trying to dumb down what we do, but I feel there’s this weird weight put on creating something completely new.

Is there anything you’ve been compared to that didn’t make any sense to you? I saw on your MySpace page it says, “Sounds like: Ernest Borgnine ringtones.”

MP: The Ernest Borgnine ringtones was something I thought was funny. I don’t know how that came up. Sometimes when you do a Google search on something—or I think it’s MySpace—they connect these weird search engines, so maybe I was looking up Ernest Borgnine on IMDB, and something came up “Ernest Borgnine ringtones.” I just thought it was such an absurd thing that I needed to share it with people.

But again, band comparisons tend to limit. If you say someone sounds like Gang of Four, then you’re expecting a certain thing and it’s not fair to that band—they can do all different kinds of things. That’s just always been my thing, personally, I’ve never been satisfied. I could never be in a metal band and just play heavy metal. I like doing a lot of different things, and I think on our new record we’ve taken a step in terms of experimenting with different styles and not being afraid to try different things. As much fun as it is to bash away on a guitar and dance and jump around, there’s nothing wrong with being sweet every once in a while or quieting down or knowing when to pull back or to deviate from guitar-bass-drums.

“A Wedding” really stuck out as something different for you guys.

MP: That song—our drummer Dan wrote the lyrics. That came out of just a guitar-bass jam. We basically spent all of last summer writing, just recording everything trying to be really creative. And then we came up with this little dueling riff between the bass and the guitar. We had it kind of lying around, and it was a little instrumental piece, and I think it was Dan’s idea to transcribe it for cello. We had this friend of ours named Molly Schnick, who used to play in Out Hud; she played cello on that song for us. I love it. I love the way it turned out, but I have a feeling it may be polarizing song for people.

In terms of whether they like it or not?

MP: Yeah. I guess it’s better to either love it or hate it than to be indifferent about it. But because it’s just cello and voice—Adam singing Dan’s lyrics—it’s definitely something different. But resting on our laurels is something we’ve tried never to do—it’s just boring.

Do you think your fans have set expectations of you at this point?

MP: I don’t know who are fans are. I have no idea. People come to see us, but it’s such a bizarre demographic. We have people in their 40s come because we remind them of, say, Mission of Burma, and then we’ll tour with the Scientists and it’s all younger kids, teenagers. Then we’ll play on our own in New York and college-age kids will show up. It’s really a wide range of different types of people.

I don’t know necessarily what people are going to think about it. I don’t know what I would think about it if it was a band that I liked. Over time I’ve grown to appreciate an album from beginning to end and how an album works as opposed to writing singles and stuff. We kept it on the record because we felt like, in the context of an album, you have to have an ebb and flow and you have to have peaks and valleys sonically. That’s what we think makes it an interesting album.

You wrote 30 songs for the record. Did you have a hard time editing down?

MP: What’s funny is it turned out from 30 songs, which was, I don’t know, an hour and a half of music, we whittled that down to 36 or 37 minutes in 13 songs. The songs are pretty short for the album. But then our record was actually delayed. It was supposed to come out in June, and it got pushed back to August. We found this out in January, and we wanted to tour in the summer. We hadn’t really toured last year very much, except maybe in the very beginning. Sub Pop was cool with us releasing some of the stuff that was left off the album on different labels. So we did a two-song 7-inch for Flameshovel in Chicago, and then we did a 5-song 12-inch EP for Comedy Minus One in Princeton. So we had these two vinyl-only, 500-copy releases that we toured around in June. We went out with Frightened Rabbit from Scotland and did a U.S. tour. So those came out and then we had the album coming out. And then there are a couple of stragglers left in the vaults, but the overall idea is for all of the stuff to kind of work as pieces of the same puzzle—this one creative outpouring that we have.

So it’s not like you’re saving them for the next one at this point?

MP: No, we’re creatively spent right now, at least in terms of writing completely new stuff. This is the first time we brought some acoustic guitars on this tour and I just bought a mandolin, and we’re coming up with an acoustic set because we’re actually doing a few radio shows and some in-stores and wanted to to do something different. So we’re re-writing some of the songs so they work for acoustic guitars. We’ll continue to release smaller releases after the album, maybe put out another 7-inch, but it’s all part of the same project, I guess.

Does the title refer to that?

MP: Bits? It does because we wound up with all these little parts of songs, and the average length is somewhere about two-and-a-half minutes. There’s nothing over four minutes on the record. I was really psyched about that because I prefer shorter songs. It’s funny, you look at our very first record, Some Wilderness, and all those songs are like four-and-a-half, five minutes. When we did our second record, we learned how to edit ourselves, just in the songwriting process, and that was hands-down the most valuable thing that we’ve learned: know when to say when, when a part does not need to go on.

Did you have the music written for most songs? Did you have the lyrics before the studio?

MP: The main difference between this record and the last one, Remember the Night Parties, was that that record was written in its entirety before we went in and actually recorded the songs. We knew what we were going to do. We took a lot of advice from (recorder/mixer) John Angello, who we worked with. He made a lot of great suggestions. But we knew how the vocals were going to go and the overdubs I had in mind. We recorded and mixed it in 10 days. So we decided—again, not resting on our laurels, trying to challenge ourselves—let’s take our time to record this one. Let’s record over four months and see how inspiration strikes when you’re working in the studio. So we were a little freer to experiment. We asked friends to write lyrics, to come up with melodies. All of us contributed equally in terms of coming up with lyrics, coming up with melodies, making suggestions.

So it was interesting being able to take out time to work on the record. That also was a liability, because at a certain point you have to be like, “Okay, this is done.” At a certain point, you start to second-guess yourself, especially in the mixing phase, so you have to eventually divorce yourself from the material. So that was also interesting because we hadn’t really encountered that before. With the last record, it was like we went on instinct, and this time, we were able to go back and forth on some things. It was really interesting and a lot of fun.

Was there any song that was impromptu or was there anything that you listened to that you were really surprised how well it turned out?

MP: Actually, yeah. There was a song called “Men and Their Ideas,” and it’s a really short song. Adam sings it. We had the music written and I think Adam literally went in and recorded a vocal line. Maybe he wrote down a couple of phrases, but he just belched something out. He did it a couple more times, but nothing matched the energy of the first take, so we just used that. When stuff like that works, it’s awesome. On this record, there were a couple times where it was like the first thing that came out that wound up being the best. So that was interesting to do that, coming from experiences of knowing what we wented the end result to sound like. It was liberating.

One thing that struck me that seems to carry over from the last record to this one is that you seem to tap into a certain amount of nostalgia.

MP: It’s funny, we were talking about that the other day because people have said that, and I take that as a compliment. I just try to write about things that I find interesting. I think maybe a better way to put it is after the last record, a friend of ours said that we should try writing things that are more universal rather than being so abstract and obtuse all the time. If you trace the progression, it goes from clever word play, smartass stuff to getting more comfortable writing songs about things. And there is that on Night Parties. But our friend had a point. That’s another way to challenge ourselves, see if we can write songs that people can relate to that aren’t necessarily cliched. We shouldn’t feel afraid to write a love song, but do so in our way or try to come up with something people haven’t heard 1,000 times before. But I’m definitely comfortable if people think it’s nostalgic, if it reminds them of something.

I was thinking of the imagery you use on “Back of the Yards.”

MP: That’s interesting. That’s based on a true experience, a true event. I think this is what I was saying about me writing about things I find interesting, like the song “Lady Lawyers,” which is pretty much about lady lawyers. Not that I was really clamoring to hear a song about the legal system. The song “John Blood” is pretty much about professional wrestling.

“Back of the Yards” is about how in my parents’ backyard there was this row of bushes nine feet high that separated our house from the neighbor’s house. My parents had been in the house for 30 years, and these people who moved in during the past year or so ripped up all the bushes and put up a fence. Because the bushes were on their property, they technically didn’t have to ask my mom about it. But it was kind of a dipshit thing to do.

I was inspired, and I scribbled down some lines. I wanted that song to be about something, and I feel like some other times, I’ll stick with lines that don’t necessarily work in a narrative structure but I like the way they sound. But I feel like that song works. I mean, I don’t think anyone is ever going to intuit that’s what that song is about. That’s what I mean by not being cliched.

I also wanted to ask you about the cover (a Mexican Day of the Dead band of skeltons) and the Peruvian photos.

MP: The photos inside, the Peruvian women and stuff, were pictures that my grandfather had taken when he and my grandmother went to Peru. They were world travelers in the ‘60s and ‘70s and they went to Peru in 1974. He was a great photographer.

I had the Mexican Day of the Dead guys. That was a gift my girlfriend got for me in Mexico. I don’t know how that came about. We took a picture of that in my kitchen, just cut out the letters.

Was it meant to represent the band?

MP: Yeah, there are three guys, but one of their legs is broken. That’s obviously our bass player! If you look at the Firehose If‘n cover, there’s a picture of Mike Watt’s bedroom or something. It’s just a shelf, and there’s a poster of Hüsker Dü on the wall, and there are those little kachina dolls. So it’s heavily influenced by that.

It seems like you guys benefited from internet buzz to some extent. Do you find it hard to keep the public’s attention when Vampire Weekend or whoever the next one is comes down the pipe? Is it just more difficult these days to carve out your own little niche?

MP: Obviously, the power of the internet is immense. The way I look at it is it’s given people this outlet to put out music, to distribute music in a different way. It’s changed the way music gets out there, the way people listen to music. And anyone can do it, and that’s great. The downside is, anyone can do it. On top of that, you have the immersion of blogging culture, in which anyone can offer their two cents, regardless of how much or how little they know about music, journalism or both. It’s great in one sense and it’s more crap that everyone’s got to wade through in another way. But I think all that contributes to this lack of attention, this really shortened attention span. This sensationalist kind of approach—in a way it’s this glorified Tiger Beat. It’s picking these certain bands, a combination of luck and looks and a catchy chorus. There’s a corrolary between that and blogging culture in that there seems to be this mania for the band of the week. I came of age in the last time before you could use the internet to find everything. You still had to scour the bargain bins. MTV was still showing videos; 120 Minutes was the way you found out about bands. And it’s totally different. It’s awesome that people can find out about our band through these means.

I’d like to think that even though we use the internet that the way we’ve gone about operating our band is more akin to the SST aesthetic or before. What happened when Soul Asylum went on tour in 1985 and their van broke down and they couldn’t get to the show? What do you do? You have to run to find a payphone. But regardless of how many shows they missed, Soul Asylum kept touring their asses off and putting out records on Twin Tone. REM, too. The first time REM would play places, there were nine people there, then there were 30 people. I feel more in common with bands of that era in that respect of like grassroots, doing it from scratch.

After this tour, are you guys going to be off the road for a little while, then?

MP: This tour is like two weeks, and then we can come home for a couple days. Then we’re out for five-and-a-half weeks with Love is Laughter. We’re doing the U.S. and Canada, and then we’re working on a European tour for January. So between October and January, I’m moving to Austin. My girlfriend’s in grad school at UT, so I’m going to live there for a while. Adam, our bass player, is actually moving to Pittsburgh, and the plan it to hopefully pick up some appropriate tours in October and November and then do Europe in January.

You’re still going to continue with the band?

MP: Maybe, maybe not. We’ve been doing this for awhile. We are 100 percent committed to this record—we love this record, we’re very proud of it. We want to see it through and see what happens. Then we’ll take it from there.