“Let’s Rock!”: An Interview with Misconstruity
Indie rockers Misconstruity are about to release their reunion album, che vuoi?. As I wrote in an earlier piece, it’s an energetic, exciting album characterized by top-notch instrumentals, poetic lyricism, and passionate emotional expression. Misconstruity is currently in the final week of an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for post-production, and it’s well worth your investment. I sat down with frontman and lead guitarist Russ Sbriglia to talk about the band’s inspiration, composition process, and the album as a whole. The resulting interview is also a thoughtful, significant meditation on making music, the creative process, and psychoanalytic theory (!) that was worth keeping in its entirety.
Sensible Reason: What was the motivation for getting the group back together?
Russ Sbriglia: After things kind of fell apart the first time around, there was a four or five year period where I didn’t play much music at all. Grad school was keeping me pretty busy, so at most I would pick up the guitar a few times a week and just noodle around on it, kind of mechanically, absent mindedly. Then, a few years ago, I was going through a pretty rough patch, and music has always been a kind of therapy for me, so I started writing songs again. Many of them were a bit softer, a bit more fragile than the older Misconstruity stuff — probably because they were all written on an acoustic guitar. That’s where songs like “30/13,” “Life in Silhouette,” and “Unrequited” came from. I played a handful of solo shows under the name of Misconstruity here and there, because the songs definitely sounded like Misconstruity songs, and Misconstruity actually started off as a solo project. But it didn’t really feel right. There’s nothing like playing with other people, especially ones that you’ve had some of the most formative experiences of your life with. So John [Sbriglia] and I started jamming again, and as we began trying out a few of the new songs, I realized that they needed to be a lot bigger.
We’d kind of lost touch with Tom [Sullivan] over the years, and he was at a different point in his life from the rest of us at the time, so that’s when we brought Rob [Goc] into the fold. We’d played with him in a side project a bunch of years ago called The Frodis Caper, so we already had chemistry with him. Plus, he and I collaborate really well. So, aside from the fact that he lives in San Francisco, it was kind of a no brainer. (Laughs.) The last piece of the puzzle was Bill [Fulton]. He was already in a few other bands at the time—including Wooden Waves, who are awesome—so we were a little anxious that he wouldn’t be interested in getting back together. But he was, and when the three of us jammed together for the first time in like eight or nine years (again, Rob was in San Fran), it was exactly like it was before. I mean, we were rusty, of course, but all of the old instincts between us were still there. We were always good at reading each other, and somehow we hadn’t lost that. It’s totally cliché, but it really was just like getting back on a bike after not having ridden one for years. And once the three of us started jamming again, mixing in some of the new songs along with the old ones, we knew that we wanted to keep things going and record a new album.
SR: How did the composition process work? The production process?
RS: The composition process for this album was pretty unorthodox. Pretty much everyone in this band lives in a different city. I’m in Rochester, Rob’s in San Francisco, and John and Bill are in Buffalo. So, for starters, there’s the logistical problem of not being able to get all four of us together in the same room more than two or three times a year. What that meant was that rather than writing and trying things out together during practice, which is the way we used to do it, we basically wrote everything piecemeal. I already had four or five more or less complete songs knocking about for a couple of years. I do a lot of low-fi home demos just to make sure that whatever I write (at least the things that I really like) gets documented, so for those handful of songs I’d already written multiple guitar parts and rudimentary bass lines—songs like “30/13,” “Let’s Rock!,” “Night of the World,” “Life in Silhouette,” and “Anamorphosis.” Basically, what happened with those songs is that I’d show them to John and Bill and then we’d jam on them. Although the basic song structure was already there and the majority of the music was already written, John and Bill would make some little tweaks and add some little parts here and there that really gave them much more character and helped to round them out. The three of us would then record a performance of those songs and send it to Rob. As was the case with John and Bill, I’d teach Rob the second guitar part, but he’d also make little adjustments and add little flourishes here and there that, again, made the song even bigger. That’s basically how the first half of the album was written.
The other half was really much more of a collaborative effort, especially between Rob and I. For a few of the songs — songs like “Sublimation Strange,” “Parade,” and “La Passe”—the main riffs or basic chord progressions were Rob’s. By that point, he and I were sending demos back and forth to each other on a pretty much weekly basis, so unlike most of the earlier songs, which were for all intents and purposes complete before we ever even jammed on them, the rest of them were written through this continual back and forth between the two of us. For these songs, what would typically happen was that Rob would come up with a basic chord progression or riff around which I’d then build a complete song. So, to give an example, for the song “La Passe,” Rob came up with both the main riff — the one that you hear at the very outset of the song and that comprises the basic progression of both verses — as well as the lead that accompanies it. When he sent that to me, I instantly loved it and immediately wanted to try to make it into a Misconstruity song. So, at that point, I went to work coming up with the chorus and the middle section of the song. Once that was done, as was the case with the songs we already had, John, Bill, and I would jam on them back in Buffalo, at which point both of them would again add their own little touches to the songs. John and Bill are pretty much the best rhythm section you could ask for; they’re both so amazing at their instruments. So even if Rob and I have something that we think is already sounding pretty good and complete, and even if I already have ideas as to what I think the bass and drums might sound like, the two of them make the song much bigger. Rob and I may be the primary songwriters in the band, but John and Bill are the true musicians.
As far as the production process goes, we recorded the album at GCR Audio in Buffalo, which is an absolutely fantastic studio. It really is the premier studio in the greater Buffalo area. It used to be called Trackmaster, and a few big records were recorded there back in the day: the Goo Goo Dolls’ A Boy Named Goo, some of Ani Difranco’s and Rick James’s stuff. I think Yes might have even recorded something there. Anyway, the place kind of fell apart in the late 90s. Then, about ten years ago or so, Johnny (Rzeznik) and Robby (Takac) from the Goo Goo Dolls bought it and did this huge overhaul to it. I’m pretty sure they recorded their album Something for the Rest of Us there. Eventually, Robby took over the whole studio and named it GCR Audio after his record label, Good Charamel Records.
But even though the studio itself is terrific, the main reason we ended up recording the album there is that our good friend Jay Zubricky, with whom we’ve recorded in the past, works there. His engineering and production company is based out of GCR. So it really was the best of both worlds: not only did we have this amazing, world class studio to track in, but we also got to do it with one of our buddies as the engineer and co-producer. We recorded our last album, American Dream, with Jay, but back then he was just starting out. Now he’s the man, especially on the Western New York music scene. He’s worked with a lot of bands who are either already pretty big or are up and coming on the independent circuit, so he was really the only choice for us. Plus, he already knows the sound of the band so well because, in some ways, he helped to shape it on those old Misconstruity records.
As for the actual recording of the album, that’s where all of us living elsewhere wasn’t all that big of a factor. The way albums are typically done these days, everyone tracks their parts separately, so, for the most part, there weren’t many times at which we needed all four of us in the studio at once. As is almost always the case, we tracked the drums first. That took two days. On those days, it was just John and I together in the big studio. I’d play the basic chord progression for him so he’d have something to follow while tracking. After that, we tracked all of the bass in one day. Then, a couple of months later, Rob flew in for a week so that the two of us could record our guitar parts together. After that, I recorded the vocals here and there over the course of a couple months. Once the vocals were done, Jay began the mixing process. That was pretty much it. Now we’re just waiting on the mastering, which is going to be done by Paul Leavitt in Baltimore. Paul has mastered records for a bunch of big bands — Emarosa, The Used, Yellowcard, Senses Fail — so we couldn’t be more excited to be working with him.
SR: Is there a theme or arc to the album?
RS: I don’t know if I’d call it a definitive theme or arc per se, but many of the songs are of a psychoanalytic nature—lyrically, that is. Even the ones that don’t explicitly address psychoanalytic concepts like sublimation, anamorphosis, or the pass (la passe) still have little traces of and nods to psychoanalytic thought throughout them. And then there’s the album title, “chè vuoi?”, which is also a reference to a psychoanalytic concept — one that the album artwork also reinforces. So I guess you could say that there’s some sort of overarching theme to it after all. But it’s not a concept album or anything like that. Yes, songs like “Sublimation Strange,” “Anamorphosis,” “La Passe,” and even “Night of the World” are explicitly about psychoanalytic concepts. But then other songs like “30/13,” “Life in Silhouette,” and “Ithaca Is Gorges” are far more personal in nature, and “Parade” is a straight-up protest song, so there’s a good deal of variety in the material, I think. Having said that, there are definitely certain recurring themes that crop up across virtually all of the songs: loss, denial, desire—basically all of the happy feels. (Laughs.)
SR: What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
RS: Wow. That’s a tough one! Can I choose two? (Laughs.) If forced to pick, I’d have to go with “Parade,” not only because I think it’s a viable candidate for best song on the album, but more importantly because that’s one of three songs that were truly collaborative efforts. Rob and I wrote that song together. He wrote the main chord progression that you hear at the very beginning of the song and throughout all of the verses. When he sent me the first demo of that progression, about 40 seconds into it or so he did this cool thing where he put what’s called a “harmonizer” effect on it that entirely changed the key of what he was playing. When I heard that, I was like, “Wow. Well, that’s clearly the chorus.” The harmonizer pedal basically took care of that for us. From that point, I wrote the lead guitar riff — the e-bow part that you hear before each verse and that gets played as octaves during the back half of the verses—as well as bassline and the heavier middle section of the song.
I’m also really happy with how the lyrics turned out for that song. One of the things that’s both a blessing and a curse when it comes to this genre, I think, is that, lyrically at least, it lends itself to greater introspection and emotional depth, or at least emotional turmoil, than most other genres of popular music. On the one hand, that’s great, because it allows you to wear your heart on your sleeve and to go to darker emotional places than a lot of other types of rock music typically allow. On the other hand, that very same thing makes it really easy to become self-indulgent and to wallow in self-pity. It really can cause you to lose sight of the bigger picture, of the far more substantial, far more important things going on in the world around you. So that’s the greatest pitfall of this particular genre, I think—that it can make you myopic and solipsistic. That’s why I’m proud of the political nature of that song, the clear protest angle of it and the message behind it. The excesses of capitalism is a subject that I’ve addressed in our music before; that’s what the title track of our last album, American Dream, is all about. But the message definitely carries a lot more weight now, post-2008, and it seems to me that, every day, people are more and more ready and willing to not only hear it but also heed it. I mean, look at the success that Bernie Sanders is having at the moment. I’d really love to see “Parade” become his campaign song. He can have it for free. (Laughs.)
A close second would be “Sublimation Strange.” That song was an even more collaborative effort than “Parade.” Basically, Rob and I were working on two different songs that just so happened to be in the same key and that had some pretty similar chords. Neither of us were really crazy about either one of them. They weren’t really going anywhere. At some point, I sent Rob a demo of the one I was working on to see if he thought it was any good, and it was just one of those things where parts of it happened to mesh with the song that he was working on at the time. So when he called me and played the opening chords to his song, I was instantly like, “That’s it!” So the verses of the song—the heavier parts, including the lead riff—are Rob’s, and the jangly, softer parts—the pre-choruses and choruses—are mine. But even among those parts there was some collaboration. Rob wrote the descending lead that accompanies the jangly progression that I came up with during the softer parts, and I wrote the octave solo to complement what’s essentially the third verse of the song.
On top of that, “Sublimation” was also one of the few songs for which I didn’t already have at least some rudimentary idea of what I thought the drums and bass should sound like. So the drum parts for that song, which are amazing, are all John’s. (He also came up with the intro and verses for “Night of the World,” which are these big tom parts that give the song a bigger, roomier feel, I think). And the same goes for the bass. That bassline is all Bill’s, and it’s hands down my favorite bassline of any song on the entire album. In my mind, that song easily has the best rhythm section on it. There’s a real groove to it.
SR: Can you explain the significance of the album title?
RS: “Chè vuoi?” is an Italian phrase that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to convey what he termed the “desire of the Other”—Other with a capital “O.” A loose English translation of “chè vuoi?” would basically be, “What do you want from me?” But in the sense that Lacan used it, it’s not really, or at least not directly, about interpersonal relationships—like, “What does my girlfriend or boyfriend want from me?” It doesn’t so much have to do with the desire of a specific, individualized “you.” It has much more to do with the desire of what Lacan called the “big Other,” or the “Symbolic Order.” The big Other/Symbolic Order is basically society and culture, but it’s also in some ways a stand-in for the Law, with a capital “L.” From this perspective, the question “What do you want from me?” is something far more loaded, far more terrifying than simply wondering what a particular person wants from me. A perfect example of the terrifying nature of the “chè vuoi?” as Lacan conceived of it is the good old story from Genesis—the one that virtually everybody knows—in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to prove his devotion to Him. This example perfectly conveys the fact that the Other to whom the subject poses the question of “chè vuoi?” is an inaccessible, unknowable monster whose perverse, enigmatic desires are all but impossible for us to fulfill. But the real horror of the “chè vuoi?” — “the catch,” as they say — is that, for Lacan, we can’t simply turn away from or refuse the call to answer the desire of the Other, because it’s only by responding to this obscene, impossible desire, by attempting to comply with and fulfill it, that we as human beings become “subjects” in the first place, become integrated into the Symbolic Order. And becoming integrated into the Symbolic Order is something that must happen if we are to function in society and participate in everyday life. That’s where the notion of “Symbolic debt” in “Night of the World” comes from.
The main reason why I thought this concept of “chè vuoi?” would make for a fitting album title is that, as I’ve said, the influence of psychoanalysis, especially the Lacanian variety, is all over the album. But on a far more practical level, I also thought that “chè vuoi?” would make for a really good visual motif. Lacan has this essay called “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire” in which he includes four “graphs of desire.” For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard of these graphs (which is probably most everybody), visually speaking, they’re very cool. At least I think so. The four of them form a series in which each successive graph is more complex than the preceding one.
They basically build off of one another. Graph four, the complete graph, is the coolest one in my opinion because it has the most going on in it. If you saw it and didn’t know what it was, it almost looks like a little robot. At least that’s what the majority of people with whom we’ve shared the artwork so far have told us they thought it was. But because the third graph is the one the illustrates the desire of the Other, the enigma of the “chè vuoi?”, that one, naturally, had to be the cover. That’s what that figure is in the center of the album cover, a more abstract version of Lacan’s third graph of desire. The digipack version of the CD is going to feature pop art renditions all four graphs. A friend of mine, an extremely talented artist by the name of Renée Heininger, did all of the artwork for the album. If it wasn’t for her, there’s no way we could’ve done the concept the justice it deserved. She made it about 1,000 times better than I originally envisioned it. I was the one who came up with the idea of setting the graphs atop a Pollock-esque pop art splatter pattern. (I’ve always loved Jackson Pollock. “Convergence” is maybe my favorite painting.) But Renée not only made this idea work; she brought it to life. I mean, a lot of time, energy, and hard work went into writing and recording these songs, and it’s far and away the album of ours that I’m most proud of. But I have to say, the artwork really does give the music a run for its money. I love it.
SR: How has your sound evolved since the last album?
RS: Well, for one thing, the songs are definitely more diverse. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re any more complex, because I’d like to think that we’ve always had a lot going on in our songs and that their complexity has been a big part of the appeal for those whom we’ve been lucky enough to count as fans over the years. But we’re certainly working with a much broader palate on this record. I mean, if you consider the fact that our last album was 12 years ago and that we’re all a little bit older now, a little bit more eclectic in our tastes, it would be pretty depressing, frankly, if we hadn’t evolved at all. Evolution is one of the main things I look for in a band. Many of my favorite bands—Sunny Day Real Estate, Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, even an older band like The Monkees—they all sound different from album to album. The Sunny Day of How It Feels to Be Something On sounds different from the Sunny Day of Diary and LP2. The Radiohead of Kid A sounds different from the Radiohead of The Bends and even OK Computer. The Monkees of Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. sounds different from The Monkees of More of the Monkees. So striving for growth and progression is definitely something that I’m conscious of as a songwriter and that all of us are conscious of as a band. But having said that, there are a number of songs on the album that are instantly recognizable as Misconstruity songs.
SR: Are you going to be touring?
RS: We don’t have any concrete plans to tour as of yet, but I also wouldn’t rule it out. I mean, the fact that we all live in different cities, with Rob living on the complete opposite side of the country, makes it difficult. Plus, it’s been quite some time since we’ve done the full-fledged band thing, and we’ve all gone on to other careers in the interim. At the moment, the only show we have planned is a CD release party in Buffalo for late-December. But we’re certainly open to playing more shows, and I for one would love to hit the road. Whether or not we do will depend on how well the album does, I think. If it’s well received and there’s an audience out there, we’d love to do it.
SR: How can we get/purchase/listen to the album?
Right now, the album is available for pre-order as a digital download (flac and mp3) and a deluxe edition digipack CD. We’re currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help pay for the mastering and pressing of it. Everything has already been recorded and mixed, so, in a sense, the album is already finished; we just need some financial help on the post-production end of things and with getting it out to people. The campaign runs from now until October 31st. (We liked the idea of the campaign ending on Halloween.) We’re hoping to have the CDs ready to ship out to contributors by mid-December. The digital download will be available to contributors earlier than that—as soon as the mastering process is complete. Once the digital download goes out to contributors, the album will be made available to stream at misconstruity.com and on bandcamp, and you’ll also be able to purchase the digital download of it on bandcamp. Likewise, as soon as the CDs go out to contributors, the general public will be able to purchase them at misconstruity.com.
In the interim, we’ve posted a couple songs from the album—“Parade” and “Let’s Rock!”—to misconstruity.com, bandcamp, and youtube. As we get deeper into the campaign, we’ll probably post one or two more songs in an attempt to wrangle a few more of the unconverted.
SR: What kinds of cool stuff are you offering for those who contribute to the Indiegogo campaign?
RS: On the music end of things, all those who contribute $10 or more will receive a digital download of the album once it’s mastered. All those who contribute $25 or more will receive the digital download, as well as a deluxe edition digipack CD, as well as stickers, buttons, and posters. For those who contribute $50 or more, there are a few different t-shirt and hoodie packages. All of the different tiers are listed on the campaign site. If the campaign goes really well, there’s also a possibility that we might press a deluxe edition vinyl of the album. But we’ll have to wait and see on that. Vinyl is expensive!