If Ashes Grammar, the sophomore album from Philadelphia's A Sunny Day In Glasgow, sounds more expansive than its bedroom-recorded debut, that's only halfway accidental. After touring across the U.S. and Europe for Sunny Day's critically lauded Scribble Mural Comic Journal, band leader/songwriter Ben Daniels returned to the States eager to record, only to find his band disintegrating. A bizarre incident involving a toolbox broke bassist Brice Hickey's leg in four places, confining him to bed for months; his girlfriend, who is Daniels' sister, left the band to take care of him. Daniels soldiered on, abandoning the claustrophobic home recording of the first record in favor of a vast dance studio in which he could experiment with unusual acoustics. The resulting Ashes Grammar is an immense record, full of breathy soundscapes and hypnotic pop. Before Sunny Day's show Friday, Nov. 20 at the Rathskeller, The A.V. Club spoke with Daniels and the band's new vocalist, Annie Fredrickson, about accidental noise and avant-garde composers.
The A.V. Club: Were you surprised when your recording project took off this way?
Ben Daniels: It's really kind of sweet how things started. I was just recording these things and I went to my dad's for dinner and Robin [Daniels, former vocalist] was there and I was like, "Why don't you sing on these songs I have?" And she was like, "Okay." So we finished a few songs and then I was like, "I'm just going to make this CD and mail it to PRB," which is this radio station around Philly, and to NYU's radio station. Then, all these people started e-mailing me and were like, "This is such a great record." It snowballed. I never thought I would have a career—and we don't have a career! [Laughs.] At least one that pays money.
Annie Fredrickson: Yeah, this is not a career yet.
AVC: How did Annie join the group?
BD: Annie has this friend who's a fan of ours, who actually lived a block away from me in West Philly. We were recording the album this time last year. It was a particularly dark, horrible moment in the band where Josh [Meakim] was going to be the singer and I was getting ready to just quit. It was all going to end. Out of nowhere this guy wrote who I had known from shows to ask what kind of fuzz pedal I used, and so I told him and I was like, "Do you know anybody who sings?" And he wrote back and was like, "I actually know the perfect person for you. This is her name and I'll tell her you're going to write her." That was Annie.
AVC: Annie, you're a classically trained cellist. What was it like coming from that background to more experimental modern music?
AF: It certainly gives me a really solid technical background, to the point where I don't even think about it. I automatically know things about theory and music that are just always there and I can draw from them. That's really helpful in a way that I don't even realize all the time.
AVC: What made you want to make the first song, "Magna For Annie, Josh, And Robin," an homage to Estonian composer Arvo Part?
BD: When I finished the first album I had all these ideas, and by that point I'd really gotten to know my sisters' voices and how to work with them. I wanted to make a very vocal album; incredibly sparse instrumental arrangements and lots of vocals. I went out and bought all these choral albums. Arvo Part was my favorite of that bunch. Once it became clear that my sisters weren't going to be around, I had to abandon that idea, but he has this song called "Summa For Choir" which is beautiful, and I quickly ripped that off for ten seconds. I wanted to throw it on there since it had been such a big part of my life since the first album came out.
AVC: Ashes Grammar was recorded in a large dance studio. Do you have plans to continue experimenting with acoustics and unusual recording processes?
BD: I'd like to do something different next time. I'd actually just like to go to a professional studio with a producer who knows what he's doing and make a really good album. I've never done that. With the first album, I never recorded anything in my life. One of the most exciting things about that record was I learned how to do it. For this new record, I purposefully switched the recording software I used, and it was a whole different thing. Josh has a background in recording and working in studios. I leaned on him heavily for a lot of mic-ing and things like that. It wasn't as challenging as the first one but it was still just as exciting.
AVC: Was there still a lot of experimenting as you tried to get certain sounds?
BD: Definitely. It took six months to make the record so, yeah, a lot of that. The thing I thought we did that was the neatest to try was this thing that Alvin Lucier did in the sixties. He recorded himself speaking, and then he played the recording back into the room and recorded that, and then he played that recording back into the room, and eventually, whatever sound you start with is obliterated by the resonant frequencies of the room.
AVC: This album is full of short songs and fragments—are the songs built up from these sounds you discover through experimentation?
BD: You know… I guess they did. It's all accident, really. You make some weird noise and then you're like, "Oh that sounds kind of cool. Let me just play around with this for the next five hours." That's what comes out. "West Philly Vocoder" was me spending a day going in every room of this small mansion in West Philly I was house sitting, and doing weird stuff. They start all different ways. I play mandolin a lot, and sometimes there will just be noises on the computer that sound neat. "Canal Fish" and "Blood White" started from a song where I was playing a synth bass on my computer and I heard this weird little noise in the bass tone. I kept putting equalizers on it to kill the bass and bring up the treble where the noise was and then, I got this… it sounds like a little bell flickering. I don't know how that stuff happens. You just have to get lucky.