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Set Fires To Flames' Sleep-Deprivation Sound

Thirteen people convene for a five-day stretch in a dilapidated building, get drunk, deprive themselves of sleep, and spend the whole time recording the proceedings. It sounds like a pitch for the latest reality-television scam — it's Pop Stars meet the Stanford Prison Experiment! — but, in actual reality, it's Set Fire to Flames, the most shadowy branch dangling from Montreal's Constellation family tree.

It's no surprise that such a rock-band concept — the brainchild of Godspeed You! Black Emperor guitarist David Bryant — was cooked up whilst whiling hours away in bars, passionately discussing music. With the political content that exists in most Constellation acts, it's no surprise that lively discussions exist within that much-lauded Montreal community. Bryant happily fesses up to there being some political element in the conception of Set Fire to Flames, even offering that he doesn't "feel comfortable sitting in a room, plunking out pretty little melodies, and putting out these abstracted soundscapes without there being some sort of political backbone to it."

As Bryant talks of rock bands as communicative vehicles, and of different forms of rock band being like different political models, the subject of the "collective" comes up. These days, any band over six members seems to be called a collective; but, surely, Set Fire to Flames, with their revolving cast of 13 players, must actually be one. "I like the collective model. We operate, on some level, with a collectivized idea, but I'm not sure if we really are a collective, because it's not pure democracy," he hedges. "There's a smaller core of people that have a larger hand within it all, in terms of shaping the sound, and in terms of guiding the music. But, at the same time, there isn't anyone at the top dictating what everyone should do."

Even though Set Fire to Flames is Bryant's brainchild and baby, he is, he says, not in charge of the band. Where Godspeed's Efrim Munuck is very much the leader of that supertight crew, Bryant is merely the creator of the "process" with which Set Fire to Flames make music. Initially, he says, he wanted to build a mobile recording studio in a generator-equipped truck and "drive across the country looking for interesting pieces of architecture to record in," but, perhaps not surprisingly, he found few takers (even though, now, he reckons, he's discovered that members of Jackie O Motherfucker have the same dream, and that such a wacky idea may one day bear fruit).

So, Bryant settled on the idea of recording in interesting architectural places in nearby locations. Recruiting members of the Constellation crew whose abilities/spirit seemed to suit the concept, he found willing participants in four of his fellow Godspeed! travelers, plus folks from the likely likes of Hangedup and Fly Pan Am. The recordings took place in a run-down Montreal apartment — built in 1878, a shoeshine parlor in the 1920s and a brothel in the 1940s. At the time Bryant wrote: "You can hear the house all over the recording — (the staircase/groaning floorboards/creaking chairs/traffic and police cars outside/men coming out of the mosque downstairs)...."

But these recordings, he says, weren't undertaken with the idea of making an album. They were really just part of that great sociological experiment. "I was more interested in finding out what would happen if a group of people locked themselves in an isolated space and forced themselves to push certain thresholds and tolerance levels; pushing the point of comfort and seeing what the end result would be from a sound point of view," Bryant declares. "People say now that they didn't even understand or weren't aware of the really basic fundamental idea, which I really don't believe. It sounds super-conceptual, and super-highbrow, but in reality it was just a bunch of people drinking a lot in a room with a bunch of noisemakers."

He continues: "It was recorded in this straight five-day period. Some people took it much less seriously than others, but there were some people who really did not leave for that five-day stint and really pushed those limitations of no-sleep and confinement and intoxication and tolerance and duration. A lot of the time when you're composing or just jamming or whatever, when things fall apart or you hit an area in which people feel uncomfortable or awkward, you'll stop playing and start talking. That was something I wanted to try and avoid with this, so we tried to push through those awkward, fragile, uncomfortable moments to see what would start to happen. The medium that we recorded on had the ability to run tape for two-hour chunks, so we would play for a full two hours and only then talk."

These brothel-house sessions were eventually collated, cut down, reshaped and remixed as the band's debut album, Sings Reign Rebuilder. But, as Bryant points out, "at that point, there wasn't even any conception of a record. It was based on a bunch of people talking in a bar saying 'we should do this'. And, we did it. There wasn't any discussion beyond that in terms of what it'd be, it was something both confronting and fun to do. Long after the recording period, when I put it together as that first record, I was really blown away, because at the time a lot of people had gotten 'lost' in the process, and I was one of them, and I wasn't really all that sure of what was happening over that five day period."

The album was released in late 2001 (its spooky soundtracks of society-in-decay coming right after the celebrated terrorist attacks of the time, no less), but, even then, Set Fire to Flames was still a concept more than anything else. Things only really changed last year, Bryant explains. "We played our first show in May [of 2002] at this highbrow experimental music festival in Quebec, which was actually a huge pain in the ass and not all that successful from a performance point of view. But I think it actually gave us a kick in the ass to start trying to figure things out a little bit. I think that ended up informing what happened in August."

What happened in August, 2002, were the recordings for the second Set Fire to Flames record; a two-CD/90-minute opus called Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static that shifts from Godspeed-ish moments of post-rock bluster through to minimalist drone pieces and naked field recordings. Again, the album was recorded in similar circumstances, with the band bunkering down in a dilapidated barn outside of Montreal for five days and improvising for much of that period.

It's at this point that Bryant stops me, and says: "I don't want to talk about the process too much. Because, even though it's important, I don't want the way it's recorded to be more meaningful than the music."

Meaning, maybe, that you should be aware that this isn't a recorded companion to a reality-television program, and that anything trying to "represent" something — like an album for a five-day period of time — can never truly accomplish that ambition. Meaning, maybe you'll have to pretend you didn't read this if you're to hear Set Fire to Flames in your own way; such individual interpretation is something Bryant calls "the real beauty of instrumental music." — Anthony Carew [Thursday, May 15, 2003]


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