Altopalo interview: "We’re just family that loves creating, sharing, and being honest with each other."
New York based quartet Altopalo just put out their new album frozenthere earlier this month on Samedi Records. It's an album we've been looking forward to ever since hearing their double single 'Blur'/'Frozen Away' back in March, which increased dramatically with each follow up track that they dropped like breadcrumbs throughout the following months. Each one furthered their expansive, unpredictable and atmospheric musical mosaic style. The complete LP, frozenthere, is an undoubted achievement in future-facing pop music, and presented a plethora of questions about its creation - so we decided to email and ask them a bunch.
Each of the 4 members of Altopalo took some time to answer our questions in their own unique ways, and from their thought-provoking responses we learned not only about how their songs took their unique form, but also about the diverse individuals that created them. Check out our Q&A with Altopalo about their new album frozenthere below.
Let’s cover some background questions first:
You’ve all been floating around the New York music scene for a while, but how did you come into each other’s orbit and decide to form a band?
DILLON: The abridged version of how we all found each other is as follows. Jesse and I were in the jazz program together, Rahm was a composition major, and Mike was in the create your own major program (Gallatin) at NYU. We all were asked to join a project///performance by a mutual friend of ours at the end of sophomore year. That experience///show was truly magical for us, and we continued developing our friendship through sharing music, going to parties, and just learning a lot about each other. We became best friends very quickly, and ended up becoming the backing band for one of our dear friends, Kiah Victoria, who is a frequent collaborator of ours. Throughout that time, we realized that we share a liking for thinking outside of the “norm,” pushing boundaries, and creating as honestly as we can with no compromises. We decided to form a band with this in mind which you really cannot do when you are performing other people’s music.
You’re New York based, but Altopalo is a play on a Californian city, why did you decide on that?
DILLON: We initially called ourselves “ALT DZNY” as a play on the phrase “alt” which had an ENTIRELY different meaning and connotation in 2013 than it does now in 2018 (lol). “Alt” was just a catch all term for art and expression in the college world that was “other” and we just felt like making fun of it. Now that I think about it, “alt” in 2012///2013 was the birth of the memes we see now, internet art (vapor wave, etc), and just the overall absurd (trolly memes, Harambe) that splashes my Facebook and IG all the time. We also really loved the way the “alt” (or “option”) symbol (⌥) on our Macs looked, and incorporated that into our preliminary social media design. We realized “ALT DZNY” would get us sued buy the House of Ideas and we wanted to keep the word “alt” in the name so Jesse said “altopalo.” The ONLY connection we have to Palo Alto is that my (and Jesse and Rahm’s) old roommate was from there, but other than that we have no connection to Palo Alto whatsoever. We just liked the way it sounded when we spoke it, and it just stuck.
Your sound is quite unique, did it take some time to find it? Do you consider yourselves experimental?
DILLON: I suppose our band has gone through slightly different iterations of sounds from the beginning, but it has always been approached with the same thought process of what I mentioned earlier, creating the most honest music we could muster. In the beginning, we were def college students that created with reckless abandonment of everything we were taught in music school. I know personally I had a chip on my shoulder concerning what was taught in jazz school, because I didn’t believe that was the only way to become a musician in the world, and jazz school def made it seem that anything not jazz wasn’t worth playing. I’m obviously projecting and over-exaggerating, but I doubt any musician that went to jazz school would disagree with me.
Because of that reckless abandonment, our music was very hyper. Very hyper. It definitely wasn’t bad, but I’d say it was very 21. We released our first project in September of 2015 (which can be found on Bandcamp) and it was though that that we learned our creative process of creating together in a rehearsal space, realize ideas in real time, flush them out, and form a song around those little ideas, which we call “germinals.” Germinals are created from recordings of our concerts and rehearsals that are all improv based, and taking either long or short ideas from those sessions, bringing them back into the studio, and creating songs around them.
This dynamic and thought process has carried on throughout the past two years, and the beauty of this band is that it is 100000% democratic. We respect each others ideas, listen, and no one person is the sole creator of the songs. Yes we have our own instruments that we play, but even the performance of those is a collaborative measure. Because our lives have us going all over the world and our time together is distant and limited, when we come together again there can be up to 6 months of not seeing one another and it feels like a family reunion. Sometimes we gel, sometimes we don’t, but we’re honest about that and willing to understand why something isn’t working, and always down to talk to each other as friends, and this influences our creative process with each other. So to answer the question, “are we experimental?”, the answer is we’re just family that loves creating, sharing, and being honest with each other. If this comes across as being experimental, then so be it, but to us, it’s just being who we are.
About the songs:
Warped voices are a main characteristic of your songs, what is it about it that appeals to you?
MIKE: have you ever had a video call go blurry and become garbled and glitchy as your device and your interlocutors try to re-establish a stable connection? Those types of moments really interest us, and so we take the most recognizably human part of our recordings (the voice) and by making it warped, distorted and disfigured, it hopefully creates a jarring effect so listeners frame the voice in a new way - lensed by tech, but nevertheless peeking through there still.
Your sound is undeniably modern, and so are many of your lyrics about technology and sexual relationships, was that a purposeful decision when writing the words?
MIKE: that was definitely a purposeful decision, yes. It’s an album about the ways different forms of intimacy and nearness are mutated with various technologies and social contexts pertinent to modern life, so we absolutely intended for there to be parallels there.
You often have visual ideas for the songs, where do they come from and do you discuss them together?
MIKE: Not sure what is meant here by visual ideas - but in the case of music videos, we’ve turned those over to the creative control of those making them! it’s an interpretive twist on our music that we welcome. I wouldn’t necessarily say we have a vision in mind for an appearance or image-aesthetic as we’re creating. we mostly go with what makes us go “woo.”
Is there a usual way that the songs come together musically, or has it been unique for each?
MIKE: It’s been unique for most of the songs, but we typically do a lot of generating of ideas by improvising together in order to form “germinals” or seeds of musical ideas to germinate into more arranged compositions. Lyrics are almost always some of the last pieces to fall into place, unless something really compelling is improvised.
Both ‘Frozen Away’ and ‘Cloche’ have two distinct musical sections – do you envision these like the moving of the scene to a different location? Were they always planned as part of the song or did it come later?
MIKE: Yes, those types of dramatic shifts are somewhat common in our new songs, and those dynamic leaps definitely lift the imaginative space for us into a new scene, but that obviously translates differently for different listeners. As for whether they were planned as part of the song, it’s hard to say since the songs get figured out piece by piece quite slowly and some of those more dramatic shifts in dynamics and overall vibe become more contrasting as we work longer on the track. In other words, what was once a gentle shift maybe became a real jarring jump way down the road, but through a long procession of tinkerings and modifications.
You add certain atmospheric effects like phone buzzing and static crinkling to your songs, giving them a three-dimensional feeling, at what point are these added to the songs?
MIKE: Those types of things are added throughout the creative process. there is so much musical and extra musical content that didn’t make it into these songs. Our move is to typically have each of us throw down a lot of ideas creatively, and we whittle away about 99.9% of them until we’re left with what feels right, somewhat like carving a sculpture out of a block of rock - there’s a lot of shavings and chips and shards on the ground. We recently opened up the sessions for a bunch of these songs to sample textures and other bits in order to help put the live show together, and we were pretty astonished by the amount of muted or unused randomness we generated for these tracks.
About the lyrics:
The idea of being “frozen” is in the album title, a couple of the track titles, and the lyrics – what is it about this feeling that connects with you?
JESSE: Firstly, most of these songs were written and recorded in the dead chill of a midwestern winter. We were making frequent subzero visits to the Indiana dunes, where we were met with a crunchy and eerie stillness in a place that looked both like a natural glacial phenomenon and also a post-industrial wasteland. These images resonate with a lot of the music we were making in the small house and inevitably swarmed the subconscious with this frigid dichotomy of earthly/living and mechanical. Secondly, in ‘Blur’ and the two ‘Frozen’ tracks, we make allusions to being frozen as being stuck in this inorganic state- like a video lag on your facetime, or the look on people’s faces as they scroll or stare at their smartphones. At times we were also having dark and lofty conversations about the current state of humanity feeling kind of frozen in place. In between the old and the destroyed. Not the most optimistic of vibes, but hey- it was 2016.
Some of the lyrics can become quite personal (‘Mono’), is it difficult to write and share them with the band? And then with the world?
JESSE: ‘Mono’ is a funny one. We actually collaborate on lyrics pretty intensely. It helps that we are the closest of friends. We let each other be incredibly sad around each other, and mad at each other- we sometimes inadvertently end up playing this game we call “hotseat” where we just ask one person a lot of really intense questions that have come up recently or even been on our minds for a while. This vulnerability between us makes sharing the personal stuff easier, but still not effortless.
As for ‘Mono’, it was actually made up of lines that each of us wrote. It’s kind of irrelevant who wrote which line, but in the end it became this thing that I found myself surprisingly really strongly identifying with. As we were assembling the final version, I felt like I was helping add words to Rahm’s story, but I eventually started to feel like it is totally my story, and now I can’t even tell whose story it is. There are definitely some true references that overlap between all of our romantic lives and situations at the time.
There are several allusions to modern technology which are not positive, are you jaded about our necessity for cell phones?
JESSE: I think “jaded” is probably the right word. None of us are exempt- absolutely fucking not. We made it very clear between us that our intention was not to come off as preachy about this tech-addiction epidemic. I think we let ourselves get pretty frustrated and feel pretty damn despondent and it came out in our music - as it often does. What felt most frustrating for me at the time was that I felt like I couldn’t control any variables - in my own life and the world around me. The world was moving in a way where a year passes and all of a sudden I’m speaking a language I never signed up to learn, and I’m thrust into a confrontation of my own addiction and dependence. It felt like a gradual scam to get us to forget what living felt like, and I wanted a refund. It’s easy to hate the world and want it to be different. The hard part is finding a place in it and finding the things (and people) that you care about and nurture those while not letting the fear and stress weigh you down to the point of paralysis. The lyrics aren’t supposed to be a warning for the listener, at most it was just something we needed to acknowledge in a real and meaningful way. Maybe other people are feeling this frustration too, and it never hurts to give people another resource to feel understood or identified with.
I’m intrigued by the couplet in ‘Glow’ “if all good stories get retold/ are we more than just marigold?” can you tell me more about it?
JESSE: This is one of my favorite lines too. We were toying with loads of marigold imagery when we were writing words for these songs. We can do the whole English Lit professor deep analysis thing right now and deconstruct all the ways this can be interpreted. Some of these arose after we penned the words and recorded them too, but that’s a lot of the magic of words - sometimes they come out, and blossom later. I originally thought of it as another lofty and vague philosophical idea confronting legacy, mortality, and significance. Like, how can we use our short-lived lives to make a less short-lived impact or even just simply be remembered? “If all good stories get retold” is kind of referencing the idea of old songs and epics, as well as historical figures and border-destroyers that get immortalized through oral tradition. “Are we more than just more marigold” is the outcry of someone trapped in time who never asked to be born wanting to make a difference while everything feels simultaneously so big and so small. Wanting a life (and all of humanity even) to be more than just a pretty orange flower that blooms in spring and dies in the winter, maybe coming back a couple times in a slightly different form, but never for long, and never in control. As it pertains to the rest of the song, it more directly references an evening that dissolved into two separate imaginations, begging the questions “is one’s life just made up of these missed opportunities and echoic narratives, or is there more meaning? Is it just thinking and then dying?” Ya know, anxious people stuff. Plus, it sounds really nice and alliterative with that soft mmmmmm sound. “are we more than just more marigold?” It really satisfied me to write it and to hear it.
You’re working hard on your live show, did you have any thought about it when recording or were you just focused on making a record?
RAHM: We were definitely just focused on making the record. We had no idea how we were going to play any of these songs live until we did, which was last week. Honestly I surprise myself whenever we play the things. Like the chorus of ‘Terra’ hits and I'm like "hey this sounds kind of like the chorus of ‘Terra’! how'd we do that?!" the answer of course is that we have a rat in Mike's guitar case playing whatever parts we can't. And then the girlfriend gets angry and the food critic comes and the rat makes a meal and the food critic remembers his childhood and is transformed and writes a glowing review of Gusteaus that says that "not everyone can be a great cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere," which I still find moving.
What challenges are you facing in bringing these songs to the live arena? Are you enjoying the challenge?
RAHM: The multi-instrumental rat really helps.
Are you excited about going on the road?
RAHM: honestly I can't speak for everyone but I spent like 3 hours yesterday looking for parking spots running various errands in Brooklyn, so I don't feel particularly stoked on the idea of getting back on the road. Of course brooklyn is a grade A clusterfuck, so maybe the rest of the world's roads will feel different, but I'm not counting on it.
Are there any albums, books, films, TV or other that you would recommend to your fans? Anything that might have had an influence on the record?
Altopalo's frozenthere is out now on Samedi Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 28th September 2018.