Quilt Weaves a Wide-Open Sound
Though the group has released three albums since 2011, Quilt has been together since late 2008. Formed in Boston by Shane Butler and Anna Fox Rochinski – then students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts – the group grew out of the city’s do-it-yourself music scene. “There was a very free-form DIY network,” says Butler. “It was so open that you could play with tons of different kinds of bands all the time.” The centerpiece of that scene was an apartment in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. Rochinski notes that “my first experience playing in front of people was in that house.”
That wide-open musical approach informed Quilt’s own musical aesthetic. “It’s not that we were improvisational like a jazz group,” Butler emphasizes. “There was no intention behind our music. We just wanted to be a band.” They began to write songs, but with no particular style or musical approach in mind. “There was no need to tell ourselves what we were, what we were going to be, or what our songs were going to sound like,” he recalls. “We were able to figure that out, half at home and half in front of people.”
Rochinski first got to know Butler and Quilt’s original drummer at those late-night hootenannies. “They weren’t really parties,” she says. “They were just … gatherings. We felt like we could do ‘whatever’ musically, and not have any pressure. It was a very comfortable and open community, and it extended into an anything-goes attitude toward music and art.”
Butler remarks on the uniqueness of that DIY scene. “There will be nothing like it again,” he says, “and I feel very thankful for being around it.” The foundation those early days provided allowed Quilt to develop a musical approach that has served them well, as displayed on their third album, Plaza, released earlier this year.
With Plaza, Quilt dials back the more overt psychedelic/garage textures of their first two full-lengths. Rochinski remains the primary vocal focus, but Butler takes the lead on the Monkees-flavored “Searching For,” and other tunes feature a dual male-female lead vocal in the tradition of Jefferson Airplane and HP Lovecraft. Quilt puts care into the melodies; rather than a brooding, Velvet Underground style vibe, they craft tunes with melodies that will stick with the listener. Rochinski’s combo organ remains a key component of Quilt’s aural sculptures, but it’s integrated into arrangements that are less backward-looking than what came before. (That said, “Hissing My Plea” recalls The Beatles‘ “Taxman.”)
The band’s freewheeling approach to music reveals itself in their multiple methods of songwriting. “It’s different for every single song,” Butler says. “Some songs, one of us will have it completely done before it’s brought to the band. Other songs are completely jammed out by the entire band. And some are a mixture, where we’ll add parts that someone wrote at home. Sometimes in the studio [a song] turns into a whole ‘nother thing. It’s always different, and I really like that. It’s not just one process.”
Rochinski says that for the Plaza sessions, the songs started as individual compositions, growing into collaborative works during rehearsals. Each member “had different pieces in their tool belt,” she says. “In the past it was a bit more free form; with Plaza, we firmed up the songwriting process.”
Their fundamentally collaborative mindset may be part of the secret to the band’s longevity. Butler believes their approach “fully embrace[s] the nature of each member of the group as a member and as an individual. That’s a very, very cool thing,” he says. “And I’m happy to be in a band that has that. I’ve always been attracted to records that have multiple voices and songwriters; I think that’s rare.”
Butler notes that in their time together, the band members have become and remained really good friends. “Being together for seven years now, everyone’s become much more talented musicians, and better writers,” he believes. “And in a group situation, you acknowledge that and ask yourselves, ‘Okay, so how can we honor and use those things?’”
Some critics have compared Quilt’s sound to “psych revival” bands. So does Quilt aim for a certain style? “We’ve never had a conversation about that kind of thing,” Butler laughs. “I am very, very interested in exploring a lot of different types of music, and I know that the band is as well. I think we’re all really interested in songwriting, harmony, and a mixture of electric, electronic and acoustic instruments. Sometimes when you have all of those elements together – especially when you play finger-picked guitar and sing harmonies, it’s going to get compared to the ’60s vibe. I’m interested in exploring that, but at the same time I don’t feel too strong a need to make that sort of music.”
Rochinski views Quilt’s three albums – their 2011 self-titled debut, Held in Splendor (2014) and Plaza – as a progression. “At first,” she says, “we really, really weren’t going for a sound; it was very ramshackle. But we were inspired by albums like [2007’s] Sucks Blood by Thee Oh Sees.” She characterizes the music on Held in Splendor as being influenced more by “strange, forgotten, long-lost 1960s and ’70s albums.” She believes that Plaza was built on that foundation, but focuses more on strong songwriting: “Here’s all the best stuff we have.” Rochinski admits that when approaching the Plaza songs, she embraced her love of pop. “And I want to keep doing that,” she says.
Both Butler and Rochinski appreciate the multimedia aspect of live performance, but both are careful not to let it overwhelm the music. “I honestly believe that setting in general is a big additive to the music,” Butler says. “I also think that if we were to have certain kinds of lights, it would make people’s experience of our music one thing, because it would draw a set of references.”
“I’ve gotten to a place where I feel confident enough in our playing that I don’t think [light shows] are always necessary,” Rochinski says. “But it’s nice to gussy it up with that stuff.” The band currently tours with rear-projection images onstage. “That makes it a more awesome experience for the audience. And you can’t go wrong with that.” But she also notes that at the occasional show “where we’re onstage with blinding dentist office lights, I’m not going to freak out about it.”
Not long ago the band was asked to perform on the late-night TV show Last Call with Carson Daly. Butler was delighted to appear on the show. “In this age, people are getting media from so many different sources,” he observes. “There are a lot of people who do not watch TV at all; they just watch things on their computer. And there are people who just watch TV. So Last Call gave us more exposure.”
“For me, it was an interesting moment,” says Rochinski. “It was our first time on TV, and they re-ran the episode a bunch of times.” In the weeks and months that followed, Rochinski says that “a lot of people came up to us and said that they had first found us on that show.”
Butler remarks on the homogeneity of much of the music in today’s pop mainstream, adding, “there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re gonna give them that, then please also give them something else. Because while maybe not everybody will like this other kind of music, some would. And some need it. So any chance that we have as artists – and I’m not saying that people need our music – to go on something like Last Call, we should do.”
While Rochinski is proud of the group’s earliest music, she believes that these days the band emphasizes “quality over quantity. When you’re putting an album together, you want to have the best material possible. And sometimes that means cutting a song here or there. Way back in the day, that would have been very hard to do.” But after playing together for the better part of a decade, the band members have learned each others’ strengths and weaknesses. “And we’ve gotten better at the interplay between them,” Rochinski says.
Time spent on the road changes a band, too. “The first time we toured, it was six days, and it felt like an eternity,” Rochinski recalls. “It was so exciting; a big deal. We didn’t make any money, and we were all in a station wagon.” Today things are different. “We can say that we’ve gone across the country and back multiple times; that changes your attitude a lot in terms of professionalism.” Unlike the early days, in 2016 Rochinski feels that the stage is her home. “Every day leads up to that show.”
Butler believes that Quilt’s touring has helped his own songwriting. “Whether it’s the thankfulness you have for being home and appreciating the simple things in life – cooking, seeing friends – or whether it’s the literal experience of being somewhere else, I find that touring has a really great effect on the creative process.” He subscribes to avant-garde composer John Cage’s ideas about taking in all the experiences one can. “Don’t use all of it, but ingest everything that you can, and it might come out in really interesting ways. I find that when you put yourself around different people, places and scenarios, you’re going to learn about things that you would have never known. Some are good, some are bad. You take what you will.”
Photo by Daniel Dorsa.