This comes from the Pigeons & Planes’ spread in the June/July issue of Complex Magazine.
What a difference four years can make. Purity Ring’s Shrines, released in 2011, was a cultural event that seemed to get stronger as its ripples spread ever outward: “Fineshrine” became a battle cry for the incoming electronic takeover, and the Canadian duo became the young decade’s indie darlings.
Four years in, Megan James and Corin Roddick have adjusted to life after fame. Their followup, Another Eternity, saw the band sharpen their pop songwriting abilities and they also found time to create genre-bending collaborations with the likes of Danny Brown. The duo evolved by way of reclusion, retreating to their hometown of Edmonton to try something new: work in the same room. The resulting ten tracks pass by too fast—Roddick’s booming production accented by James’ voice, capable of a cooing lilt and subtle menace.
Ahead of two sold out shows at New York’s Terminal 5 (June 2 and 3), we talk to Purity Ring about the new creation process for Another Eternity, Danny Brown, and the artists who have followed in their wake.
What was it like going home to Edmonton after all the success of Shrines? Because last time…
Megan James: Last time, over the course of Shrines, we said we were from Halifax and Montreal. But that’s just where we were at the time. But we are from Edmonton. I moved back there. So Corin would come over for a week at a time or we’d meet wherever it was convenient to be able to do it together.
Corin Roddick: Yeah, we technically started the band in Edmonton. I was still living there at the time.
MJ: And I had just moved to Halifax.
So did you go back to Edmonton just to be close to home, be around family again or was it just—?
MJ: I moved back home for a while and my whole family lives there. I was done with Halifax. It’s beautiful to visit but a weird place to live. Very isolated.
CR: It’s the furthest tip of Canada.
MJ: Yeah, and it’s a port town so it’s always low clouds and when it snows they freak out and the airport doesn’t work.
Well, it’s in tune with your music. Low clouds, churning ocean and such. But then you moved to Los Angeles, which is like the exact opposite of Edmonton.
CR: Yeah, most of the songs were written already but we put the finishing touches on everything while we were in L.A., just wrapping the whole thing up.
Have you built any new stage experiments for your live show?
CR: We’ve been working on that, yeah. It’s been kind of frantica. There’s a lot to do and it’s crazy how time just goes by really quickly. From our very first show where we just played for like 50 people in Edmonton, we were trying to design stage elements that were connected and having lighting that’s actually integrated as part of the instruments, not just for an additive thing.
MJ: And the whole stage from the very beginning was very designed and concise. We had these backdrop curtains, we had drums from the beginning, but it was just for live performance. We weren’t writing that way.
CR: But knowing what was going to be on stage was something we definitely wanted to do from the very beginning. I think for years before we started this band I was always thinking about creative ways to perform and I didn’t really have a chance to do it because I was just drumming in more regular types of bands at that time. So by the time we started the band and we were trying to figure out what to do live it was like, “Cool, now there’s this chance to do all this interesting stuff and connect things electronically in different ways.” There’s so much potential.
MJ: You probably go to a lot of shows, right?
MJ: And how long do you usually stay?
Forty five minutes to an hour and a half.
MJ: That’s really good, that’s really good.
CR: Whoa, you have a crazy attention span.
MJ: We’re like twenty minutes.
You guys just dip after twenty minutes?
MJ: Yeah, we’re like “okay, saw it, get it, gotta go!”
I’m always really surprised when someone can watch a show for even forty five minutes, it’s kinda crazy.
So that was one of the motivations?
CR: Totally. Going to a lot of shows and being like, “At what point am I getting bored, and how can I help change that.” I dunno, I’m always really surprised when someone can watch a show for even forty five minutes, it’s kinda crazy.
MJ: Even ours, I think! I would be—I mean I dunno what it’s like watching our show because I’m so inside of it but it’s impressive if people can last an hour. It’s like wow.
CR: We never play encores because we feel—
CR: We feel like, “We just played for 45-50 minutes! seriously, what more do you want from us?” It’s surprising to me that after watching one artist do something for a period of time like that people will still want more. It’s crazy.
MJ: They just wanna hear the songs, though.
What are some of the things you want to have happen, visually, in this upcoming tour?
MJ: We’re going to remake Corin’s instrument. It’ll be similar, but bigger and a little more sturdy. It was definitely homemade last time.
CR: Last time we just built it out of stuff we could find at the hardware store. There was a lot of electrical tape. And it looked really good from far away but once you got up close and looked at it, it was really sketchy.
Good from far, far from good.
CR: Yeah, it was a bit tough because we had to travel around with it so much, so we were constantly having to replace parts of it. But it was good because the parts falling apart were things that you could get anywhere, since it was just a bunch of stuff like taped together. The previous set-up was eight lanterns that were touch sensitive, that were set up in a kind of array in front of me and I would play them with mallets. Like how you would play a xylophone or something like that, and that’s how we would play all the main synth lines and melodies from all the songs.
MJ: It was also designed around—because Corin is originally a drummer—so it’s designed in a way that he could play the melodies completely.
CR: Yeah, I actually can hardly play keyboard really, at all. I don’t use keyboards when we’re making our music I’ll just use pads or even just the keypad on the laptop. Very two-finger kinda things. I definitely didn’t want to be onstage trying to play a keyboard. It doesn’t make sense for me because I’m not proficient at it and I just don’t think it would be a very exciting way to see our music as well. So being able to create this thing felt really comfortable, because I’m a drummer and I can hit things and it’s great. It also seemed like a really good way to visualize each individual note as it’s being created. You hit the lantern and it pulses and lights up in a way that represents each sound and the audience can see it and be like “Oh, I see what’s happening”
Which is much more engaging, visually at least, than just pressing play.
CR: Well, I mean, whether you’re pressing play or even just having a bunch of knobs and stuff that you’re turning, it’s like, 99% of the audience is gonna have no clue. It looks like you’re doing something up there but they don’t know how it’s effecting the music, you can’t see directly. When you go to see a full band play, you see a guitar player strum the guitar and it’s like, “I see that, I hear it, that makes sense,” but I feel like the problem with most electronic shows is you just see someone up there doing something and you hear the music. It’s somehow connected but… We wanted to be able to create a direct connection where people could just see the sound being made. I think that’s just one more way for people to feel like they’re with us.
MJ: To feel like they’re part of it. More interactive.
CR: It’s almost like more respectful to the audience or something. [laughs]
When you released Shrines there was very little that sounded like your music, and now there have been a lot of people who have followed in your wake, so to speak. Was that on your mind as you worked on this new album? Were you thinking about the current sound-scape of music?
MJ: We were only really thinking about ourselves. I’ve definitely noticed that happening and maybe it’s us, but maybe it’s a trend that people lump us into electronic music with female vocals, and I just feel like Shrines hit at the right time. But you can’t really say for sure.
It was definitely a cultural moment. It sort of lined up.
MJ: Very well timed.
CR: I don’t even really know what effect we’ve had, I guess. You said other artists who have followed in our wake but—
MJ: They’re not in our wake anymore. [laughs]
CR: [laughs] Those artists probably aren’t something I would listen to, so I was totally unaware. I had no idea, I only listen to other stuff, very different from our own.
MJ: We make music specifically for us to fill a space that isn’t filled. But music that people lump us in with, I don’t feel like I would listen to that. And yeah, Another Eternity is definitely a different thing while still being us. It’s still electronic music and it’s pop-sounding, like Shrines, but we’re carving out our own space. We’re not like, “we’re gonna change this,” and, “someone else did that so we can’t do that,” we’re constantly searching for new things.
Music that people lump us in with, I don’t feel like I would listen to that.
CR: Yeah, we don’t really give ourselves any limitations based on outside music. I think with the new album, though, the only real approach was looking back at ourselves, looking back at Shrines and we set out with this certain particular sound for that album, and we explored it to its fullest in those eleven songs. We kind of did everything we wanted to do with that. So it didn’t feel necessary to revisit that structure. We felt that we accomplished what we set out to do with that, so I think for the new album it was more about “where can we go next?” Because we don’t really have an interest in repeating ourselves. But also, it’s a question of how we retain some of the characteristics that make us who we are, so it doesn’t sound like you’re listening to a totally new band.
MJ: That’s the part though, that I feel happened really naturally.
CR: Yeah, that’s something that I was maybe thinking about a bit more at first or a bit worried about, but as we started writing it became obvious that no matter what we make, no matter how different it is, it still sounds like us because Meghan’s voice sounds so particular that no matter what she’s singing, it’s always going to sound like her and then the types of melodies that I write, no matter what they sound like—
MJ: You can’t control that.
CR: Yeah, we realized we have very particular ways of doing things and no matter what form it takes it’s still pretty recognizable. We’ll see if other people agree or not.
You have not swapped out souls. Can’t do that yet. Science eludes us.
CR: It’s true. I guess that goes for any artist, really. If they have a way of going about things, they can evolve and it still sounds like them.
But at the same time, you’re able to collaborate in different genres, like with Danny Brown on “25 Bucks.” Are there any collaborations coming down the pipe, either hip-hop specific or otherwise that you guys have been thinking about?
MJ: We just stuck to ourselves the past couple years. We don’t have any collaborations on the record.
CR: We’ve just been so busy with finishing the album that we haven’t really—
MJ: We haven’t thought about collaborations at all, yeah. But they’re definitely something that we wanna continue to do.
CR: Yeah, I imagine there’ll probably be some opportunities that’ll come up this year in that realm.
MJ: I would love to do more with Danny Brown, too. He’s sweet.
CR: Yeah, people are constantly hitting us up to do more work with Danny Brown.
MJ: I feel like with the collaborations we’ve done we could just keep doing, like Jon Hopkins and Danny Brown.
I would love to do more with Danny Brown, too. He’s sweet.
CR: Yeah, now that the album’s done we’ve got a little bit of time to possibly focus on something like that if the right opportunity comes up. I’ve done a couple things myself over the past year that are kind of in limbo, might come this year, might not. So there might be a couple things.
MJ: That’s another thing about collaborations, too.
CR: There might be a couple things I’ve produced that might reveal themselves or not, we’ll see. That’s always interesting.
One of the similarities between Another Eternity and Shrines lies in the lyrical content, it’s still relatively abstract. Do you want people to know what your songs are about or would you rather have them make their own assumptions and take from it what they will?
MJ: Definitely the latter. I’m a very secretive person so I write in cryptic terms but I just feel safe doing that. Everything I write is from a journal, and it’s not always written to be as public as it is, and I’m fine with that, but that’s just another reason I’d rather people to take what they will. But even if I was more direct I think people take what they will anyway, you let it go and it is what it is for me and I have to let it exist in whatever world it does. But there are a few major differences in Another Eternity. I’ve been saying “you” and “I” and “she” a lot more.
Everything I write is from a journal, and it’s not always written to be as public as it is.
When you guys were writing Another Eternity, was there a moment when you knew a song was finished? Or was it like you work on a song for a little bit and get something right, and move on into another?
CR: We finished all the songs at the same time. They were all finished in the week before we handed in the record, basically
MJ: But we did all demos and then we were like, “okay, that’s at a point where we can finish it and put it on the record.” It wasn’t like in the last week there was nothing for the record so we had to make all these songs. We had them ready to be finished. But “Heartsigh,” for example, there were iterations and reiterations of that.
CR: “Heartsigh” was the first song we started and the last song we finished. We worked on that constantly.
MJ: There were four different choruses for it.
CR: I think we would start a song and then as soon as it was obvious that it had a lot of potential, we would continually work on it and maybe the main form would come together quickly, and we would just keep chipping away at it. So we had all ten songs at a point where we working on them all together at the same time and brought them to the same end point. I think that’s a good way to keep a common thread through the record. And we did Shrines the same way.
MJ: Isn’t that what everybody does though? It felt normal.
Did you guys ever disagree during the writing process? How would you handle that? You don’t seem the types to butt heads too often but—
MJ: There was a lot of conversation that went into some parts, and then there were some parts that didn’t require any conversation at all. In the end we usually wanted the same thing. Just sometimes the process to get there looked like we wanted different things
CR: We had different ideas of how to get to the same goal. But that was just here and there. Also, this was the first time we actually collaborated closely together like that, so obviously when you’re starting to work with someone for the first time, a lot of learning goes into it. How do you work with this person? How do you learn each others processes and become comfortable, because prior to that we were really comfortable working on our own.
MJ: We still are. But I don’t think we’ll do another record like Shrines, doing it separately. It was too… slow.
Yeah, and with face-to-face interaction you’re forced to be honest.
CR: Things just seem a bit more exciting too, because—
MJ: There’s more energy going.
CR: Something can happen right there and you can feed off of it and keep going, whereas if you have an idea and email it off, then you hear back a couple days later, it’s hard to harness that creativity and feel like it’s moving forward.
I want to talk a little bit about being a part of an indie label in 2015, because Purity Ring is right on this border between pop culture and being more underground. Do you have aspirations of being on radio? Or is there a critical mass, a point you want to reach and not go past?
MJ: I don’t really believe in the latter. In a sense, it does exist, but also for us it’s important and special and desirable that as many people hear our music as possible. And selling out is not a thing anymore, it doesn’t apply. You can’t be disrespected or disrespectful to yourself if you’re trying to be a successful artist because it’s so much harder, there are so much more people in the boat then there were before. It’s hard to get on the radio in the U.S.
CR: Especially being on an independent label. We’ve learned that there’s lots of roadblocks to getting to radio.
MJ: A packed ladder to climb. But also, it’s full of flukes and there’ve been a lot of flukes along our whole career as a band.
Selling out is not a thing anymore, it doesn’t apply.
CR: It’s not impossible for us to be on the radio, I think. But there’s a reason why you don’t really hear independent artists or artists on independent labels on the radio, because the system is just not set up that way.
MJ: And indie labels just don’t have the means to get bands there, but that’s changing. In the next five to ten years you might not need to be on a major label to get on the radio, it might be a lot easier. And it is already easier in other territories.
CR: Yeah, the U.S. is still the toughest. It’s a closed door.
What’s the trade-off there? I feel like there could be a lot of good that comes from not having to be playing that game.
MJ: It is a game too, yeah. But I feel like we’ve done a really good job at not playing the game well while getting as far as we can within it. I feel that way, anyway. And I still have so much to learn about the industry before I can actually say, “Yes, this is what I want,” because I can’t actually say that right now.
CR: You think you know how something works, and there’s so many layers to it. It’s ever-changing too, like our ideas of how things work even now are so vastly different from when we first were starting the band.
MJ: But it’s mostly the States that’s dirty like that. Like BBC in the UK is just like, “this is a great band, we really like you guys, come in and do an interview,” and they’re generally just more excited about new music, but here you have to have the right keys. It’s way more of a game.
CR: At the end of the day, we want as many people as possible to hear our music, so if we were played on mainstream radio in Top 40, that would be great. We would welcome it. But we understand at this point…
MJ: It’s artistic control that you give up. We have to be able to choose what our singles are, we have to be able to choose our artwork, we have to be able to choose who directs our music videos and what they look like and we have to be able to choose what our banner ads look like or whatever. And I think a lot of those things are what you give up at a major label.
That’s as much a part of the band just as the music itself.
MJ: Yeah, totally! It’s like the other half.
CR: At the end of the day though, I do feel like the music we’re making right now could hold its own on the radio, and we’re currently making everything that we want make, artistically. We’re making all of the choices ourselves, so I do feel like we could work in that context but just getting there is pretty unlikely with the various gate-holders. Gate-guardians?
MJ: Yeah, that’s not the only thing.
CR: We’ll do our thing and the music will go where it goes and we’ll be happy.