Interview with Saeta

Perhaps one of the most beautiful rock-influenced record in recent memory, We are Waiting All for Hope didn’t take me by surprise the way Saeta’s previous album, Resign to Ideal, did. I hadn’t heard of the band before Resign showed up, and it snuck up on me quietly. But then, Saeta is used to doing things quietly.

The Seattle-based band, consisting of Matt Menovick on guitar and vocals, Lesli Wood on piano and vocals, and Bob Smolenski on cello, released a moodier, richer album, produced by the venerable Steve Albini, in We are Waiting All for Hope. Some have said it takes a while to fall into this album, but in my personal experience, it’s those albums that are valued the most. And We are Waiting is surely at the top of my best-of list for 2004 so far.

Matt and Lesli were nice enough to take some time to answer some questions about the band’s writing process and the cathartic quality of their music, covering the Smiths and Magnetic Fields, and more.

Delusions of Adequacy: Give me some history of Saeta. How did you guys end up in Seattle, and how long have you been playing together?

Matt Menovick: Lesli and I have been playing music together, starting in Detroit, since about 1990. In 1997. Lesli moved out to Seattle and we began creating music apart in more of a singer/songwriter style. Then in 1998, I moved out to Seattle and we basically became each other’s backing bands. Lesli’s music evolved into more of a rock sound, and we have a band where she is the principal songwriter, Ms. Led. My music took on a different style, and we formed Saeta as my project with Lesli backing me on a few songs on piano. Lesli added piano to my first recordings and we had a cellist she worked with in music theater add some cello lines to some of the songs. That’s basically how the first record, Burn, happened. After that album was released, we decided to make things more like a band so we found a fulltime cellist, Bob Smolenski, and went from there.

DOA: Lesli’s project Ms. Led is totally different from Saeta. How do you make the transition to the more mellow and melodic music of Saeta? And what would a Ms. Led/Saeta show be like?

MM: I think for both of us, we just like playing music so much that it’s pretty easy to transition between both bands. We’ve both been in bands that have really been across the board stylistically – hardcore, ska, even rap (I was the keyboardist/producer not the rapper). When we write for our own projects, I think you really see what we really love in music

Regarding the second part of the question, there has only been one instance I can think of where Ms. Led and Saeta played on the same bill and that was probably one of my favorite moments as a performer. We did a U2 cover and segued from Saeta into Ms. Led going from “40” into “Sunday Bloody Sunday” using the “how long to sing this song” of both songs to move from one into the next.

Lesli Wood: It’s true – we both love playing in both bands and it brings out different parts of each of us. We’re very sincere about the music in both – it’s not like we decided to have a “rock” band and a “quiet” band. It’s just how it turned out. Matt has contributed a song to the new Ms. Led album and it certainly doesn’t sound like a Saeta song – it sounds like a Ms. Led song that Matt wrote. It’s nice to be able to express different aspects of ourselves musically.

And I just have to add that that U2 cover night was a really amazing experience – transitioning from one band to the next. It was especially poignant to go from a really beautiful political song to a really rockin’ political song – showing that there is more than one voice for political music.

DOA: What is your background musically? If I had to guess, I’d think there’s some classical training. But then, you don’t see too many guitar/piano/cello trios…

MM: Lesli is classically trained and I am self-taught. Lesli’s training has really helped in creating the arrangements, especially on the new album. I feel that what I do is more emotional, so I think that my self-training has worked out very well for that.

DOA: What does Saeta mean? Have you ever gotten confused with the hardcore band Saetia? (I have to admit, I made that mistake when I first saw your album.)

MM: “Saeta” is a song on my favorite Miles Davis album, Sketches of Spain. In the liner notes for the album, it explains the history of the Saeta, which is a type of flamenco music where a woman sings a lament, which is the Saeta, from a balcony while a procession passes underneath. The notes say that the ancient meaning of the word is a musical arrow piercing the heart with grief. I guess, the modern translation, while it’s not a very common word now, is just arrow – a little less poetic.

We have had a number of people mention that they were confused at first because of the band Saetia. I haven’t actually heard them, but I saw their album recently and was surprised at how close the artwork looked to what we did. I would certainly have thought that it was the same band if I had seen it.

DOA: We are Waiting All for Hope is your fourth album. Besides working with Albini, tell me about how this album was different for you? I definitely feel a more laid-back feel, and there’s more focus on Lesli’s vocals as well.

LW: We took much more of a “song” approach with this album. Our previous albums were more non-traditional in arrangements, whereas this album has songs that are more standard as far as the verse/chorus formula. There was also a more interesting songwriting progression in that Matt would write the songs and give them to me and I would sometimes completely restructure the song. They definitely remained Matt’s songs, but through the filter of what I heard. It was a really great experience writing this way as the songs ended up being representative of both of our styles.

MM: I like Lesli’s answer for this one. Mainly for me, it was that this album is more song-oriented. I had been listening to a lot of “pop music” (Beach Boys, stuff Phil Spector did, modern pop (Christina, Britney, Avril)) and I really wanted to write an album of pop songs that I would like to hear. I feel that Lesli’s voice is more “pop” in a lot of aspects so I think that’s why there is more of a focus on her voice.

DOA: How has the album been received so far? How do you feel your music has developed, too, since your first album?

MM: We’ve actually heard from a lot of people that the album takes a while to warm up to, but once they do warm up to it, they really like it a lot. I think that’s great, actually, because those are the albums that always end up being my favorites for a long time. I hope we can be that album for people.

I think that I’ve become a better songwriter since the first album and I think that we’ve opened ourselves up more to experimenting with our sound.

LW: It’s so hard when you’re so close to an album to understand what others hear in it. I was really surprised when people didn’t latch onto the album right away, especially because we do feel that it is the most “accessible” material we’ve released. But, I agree with Matt that the album that you have to listen to twice to understand can end up being a favorite.

Since the first album, I would say that Matt and I have collaborated more on the arrangements and the songs – thus making more of a band outlet. I think Matt has always been an amazing songwriter and that these songs aren’t necessarily better, they are just a different direction from that first album or second or third. It’s really exciting to have a Saeta album come together to look at what the mood is, because it’s been different for us from album to album.

DOA: The album as a whole does seem to take a while to warm up to, but it feels like a full album, not merely a collection of songs – even with the covers! Matt, it sounds like you’re a big fan of the classic ‘albums’ rather than merely collection of singles? Do you think that’s missing in today’s modern music? Who still does the full album well?

MM: I certainly am a big fan of the classic “albums”. I was just camping this weekend and heard a song from Laughing Stock by Talk Talk and was just reminded what an amazing album that is (probably my favorite) and how much work went into making that record. I love the classic pop single, too, but I think a great album can really be a true work of art (Laughing Stock). I do think that it is harder to find that today. I was just at the record store the other day and was just overwhelmed with the immense amount of albums that are out right now that are huge one minute and forgotten the next. It’s usually that they have one or two great ideas and then a lot of filler. I just don’t think that people are giving the time to their albums. I’m not sure where the fault lies with this, but I really do hope that things change. I think there are a lot of really talented people out there and a lot of great ideas. I just hope people slow down and give things a little more time. It may take more than that (I’m sure it does, actually), but I’m not really sure what that is. I read an article a while ago with Jason Pierce of Spiritualized and he was discussing the classic album and his determination to reach that with his albums and a producer (I believe that’s who it was) had told him that you want it to be/sound “brown”. I’m not sure I agree with that completely, but I think it one style’s path towards being that. I don’t think he is that style nor are we. So I guess I quest with him in spirit.

Who still does the full album well? I think Spoon is making great records (at least their last two, Girls Can Tell and Kill the Moonlight). I think U2 still makes albums that are amazing, and I think Sigur Ros is making some really strong albums as well.

LW: I agree that great “albums” are often missing in today’s music. I’ve been listening to Ziggy Stardust and Highway 61 Revisited – both amazing albums, start to finish. But in modern music, I agree that Spoon and Sigur Ros make amazing albums. So does Julie Doiron – some of her albums are seamless. And Blonde Redhead – they know how to make a good album (see Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons). Idaho, Hearts of Palm. Trespassers William, Different Stars.

DOA: What was it like working with Albini? Certainly, Kramer, who did your past few albums, is no slouch. Why the change? Was it strange working with someone who (at least as far as I know) is more known for his harder rock sound?

MM: Working with Albini was really a dream come true. He has done some of our favorite albums and to have him record us was really incredible. He was a really great guy, too. There was absolutely no attitude and he really made us feel comfortable – which is, I imagine, where the laid-back feel may come from. We were able to room at the studio, so we really didn’t leave the building for the three days it took us to make the record. It let us just focus on the album and create a world for it.

Kramer is, I agree, a great producer. I am still working with him on a more electronic project called ROPE, INC. I do the vocals, keyboards, and programming and he does guitar, electronics, and additional keyboards. I’m hoping our first album will be coming out sometime in 2005.

LW: I agree that working with Albini was a dream come true. He is known for his rock sound, but we were excited to work with him for what he did with Low, Dirty Three, and Godspeed You Black Emperor. Not to mention, the numerous other bands that he’s worked with. We definitely can’t say enough good things about him. He is an amazing producer, but he’s also incredible to work with as a person. We never felt pressured or demeaned as a “lesser known” band. He was very involved in the record – as if we were any of the major bands he works with. That, to us, is really exceptional.

DOA: What did Steve bring out in your album, do you think? How was his approach differently on this album, or are the changes more your doing?

MM: We went in knowing that we had three days to record and mix these songs, so we were very prepared with the parts of the songs and how we wanted to songs to be. Steve took that on, made us comfortable in the process, and let us do what we do. Steve is definitely an expert at what he does and he certainly brought that in spades. I am eternally grateful for his contribution to this album.

DOA: Your choice of covers on the album is interesting too. How did you choose to cover the Smiths and Stephen Merritt? Are you a big fan of the Magnetic Fields?

LW: “Last Night I Dreamt” has been my favorite Smiths song for as long as I’ve liked the Smiths. We were given the opportunity to perform this song at a local venue for a Smiths Cover Night and it was like a teenage-dream-come-true to put this together. It was definitely inspired by Low’s version, as well. “Grand Canyon” was similar in that Saeta was asked to be the backing band for a local theater company that was performing selections from 69 Love Songs over Valentine’s Day weekend. We re-arranged a bunch of Magnetic Fields songs for our instrumentation, and “Grand Canyon” was the one that we were the proudest of. And, yes, we are definitely big fans of Magnetic Fields. They were very sweet when we asked permission to record “Grand Canyon”, which makes me like them even more.

MM: I like Lesli’s answer for this one as well. I’d just add that The Smiths were my favorite band when I was growing up and being able to do “Last Night I Dreamt…” was like a teenage dream come true for me as well. And, yes, I am also a huge fan of the Magnetic Fields.

DOA: Your music always feels very deep, somber, and resonating… it’s powerful stuff. Who does the songwriting, and where do the songs come from for you?

MM: I write the original song. Then I usually present it to the band and it gets fleshed out from there. On this last album, for the most part, Lesli would take the songs and rearrange them and flesh them out a bit. It’s hard to talk about where the songs come from. Most of them do come from sad places. I do have a problem with depression which I have been trying to work on. The music actually does help with sort of creating a space for some of the emotions, but sometimes it is hard to go back to those places. “To Fear You Return” from Resign to Ideal is a tough one to go back to.

DOA: Is playing the music cathartic for you, a kind of emotional release? Do you hear from a lot of fans that they’re able to relate to the more personal quality of your music?

MM: The performances of the music are certainly cathartic for me. The shows kind of exhaust me to a degree. I really feel spent after a performance because of the emotional investment, I think. It’s kind of strange because when I play with Ms. Led, the performances are very high energy so I come away exhausted physically, whereas after a Saeta show, I come away exhausted emotionally.
I know that there is a lot of crying in the audience at Saeta shows. I don’t really have many people approach me after our shows. They usually talk to Lesli. I think she’s more approachable.

LW: I agree – I’m also emotionally exhausted after Saeta shows. It is absolutely cathartic. We definitely go to that place in the song when we play them, which I think helps make for a more genuine experience for the audience. That’s not our intention (to give the audience a certain experience), it’s just what happens. Some people see it as too heavy-handed, or just talk right over it. They don’t want to go to see a band play and go to a really difficult place in themselves. Which is fine, that’s the great thing about music is you can get what you want from it.

It’s interesting to hear from people which songs really hit them. For different reasons, usually a break-up or some sort of loss, there’s someone that comes up and tells a really difficult story about how they listened to our album non-stop during some awful period. It’s nice to be someone’s safe place – it really is ok to feel really awful sometimes. And it’s true, we have had a lot of crying in our audiences.

DOA: Your style of music is different…do you find it hard to play at venues? I imagine you get mismatched quite a bit. Do you feel you fit in with the music scene in Seattle? How is your live show different?

LW: We’ve actually had really good luck in Seattle. We’ve generally ended up on really wonderful bills, it’s been a great exposure to some of the most amazing bands in this city. Bands like The Dead Science, Suffering & the Hideous Thieves, and Asahi have all been bands that we’ve played shows with that also don’t fit in the traditional “rock band” sense. And we’ve been lucky to play with some amazing touring bands like Low, The Church, and Rasputina, simply because our sound is unique.

Unfortunately touring has been harder as we don’t know the other bands to play with in, say, Chicago, or Minneapolis. Often the bookers don’t know what to do with us and so we’ve ended up just playing a lot of bookstores. We often think about the first times we saw Low and what their shows were like – we once saw them in a living room and then another time they were opening for Soul Coughing, which was really odd.

We like our live show to bring people to the place they go when they hear the record. It’s hard for people to be at a bar and hear music that makes them emotional, but we try to maintain the same sort of intensity as we put out on the album. As opposed to being the band up there to “rock you”. We never like to think that our show “rocked”. We just like to hear that our music has touched people and really made them feel something.

Matt and I have a few standards that have been set for us over the years of shows that were so amazing, it was practically a spiritual experience. Like The Swans show in 1994, or seeing Low in that living room in Detroit. These shows were so intense and so powerful, that they really had an impact on the way we approached music. We’d like to make that sort of impact on our audience.

MM: Yes, I’d just add that The Dirty Three is another inspiration for what I would like to do with a live show. It’s like you just get lost and come back and you just can’t say anything.

DOA: Is this album self-released, or released on your own label? It’s unclear. But I imagine you must have had interest from other labels?

LW: This album was released on our label, Fish the Cat Records. Matt and I started the label in the early 90s in response to our frustration with the whole label-debacle. We only recently made the label an official corporation, but after years of putting out albums, we’ve felt the most comfortable that we are the ones that will work hardest for this album. We don’t know that there’s another label that would give us the priority we would hope for.

MM: We do like having control over the way things are happening with the music. We care a lot about what we do and we work very hard at it. A friend of ours released our second album, but I think that label disbanded soon afterwards. Otherwise, we haven’t really been fighting off the labels. I am very happy with the position that we are in right now, though. I’m not sure what the future has in store, but I’m happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish on our own so far.

DOA: What have you guys been listening to lately?

MM: I really like the latest from Mum, Summer Make Good and the new Shannon Wright album that she recorded with Albini. The new Andrea Maxand album, Where the Words Go. Astor Piazzolla. Arvo Part’s Alina.

LW: I’ve been listening to Jolie Holland, Jesse Sykes, The Delays, Andrea Maxand, and The Fitness. I’m especially impressed with that new Jolie Holland record. We played with a band called Hem a few years ago, and I fell in love with them but then they disappeared. Jolie Holland is filling in that spot for me.

DOA: What are your touring plans? And plans for future releases?

MM: Lesli’s our booker, so I let her handle this one.

As far as future releases, I have 30+ songs already written, but it’ll probably be a while before a new album as we really want to give this album as much time as we can as we are very proud of it.

We’re really excited about the future of the band right now. We have been experimenting with our live shows recently by having a community of players on call. When someone can play, we add that to the show. We’ve been working with a trumpet player, violinist, and background vocalist (female). It has been a lot of fun. I’d like to incorporate these new elements into our next recording.

LW: We are doing a few mini-tours in the fall, some on the west coast and one on the east coast. We’d like to get out there as much as possible, it’s just a matter of finding those quiet little bars in each city that look for moody music like ours.