Search The Line of Best Fit
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Theforms noahkalina 1

Empire State of Mind

29 March 2022, 13:30
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Noah Kalina

Alex Tween of New York duo The Forms tells the story of the band’s return after a decade and how the landscape of New York and music have changed beyond recognition.

2011 was a year of beginnings and endings. Game of Thrones launched its first series, Steve Jobs resigned from Apple and Adele released 21. It was also the year The Forms last released music into the world

Derealization, the third album by New York duo Alex Tween and Matt Walsh, saw them experiencing their very own ending and beginning. A reimagining of songs from 2003’s Icarus and 2007’s The FormsDerealization was something else altogether. Adopting an approach akin to William Burroughs cut-up technique in literature, where the original songs were rearranged to create completely different versions, with Tween’s vocal duties handled by Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren, The National’s Matt Berninger and Pattern is Movement’s Andrew Thiboldeaux. And then they seemingly vanished, until now.

Their next record, currently untitled and due for release this year, is another shift in The Forms amorphous shape. First single “Head Underwater” outlines the blueprint; it’s an album where the guitars are dialled down, the synths are thrillingly ramped up, yet it still bears the indelible imprint of their manifesto to make music that doesn’t adhere to rules.

When I speak to Tween he’s in his New York apartment, reflecting on the chaos of the last two years, where all the rules of social norms have been remoulded, an era that’s seen the city shift and adjust to the impact of lockdown and Covid. “New York was the ground zero for the pandemic and it was terrifying. I heard ambulances going up and down my street all day and night for months. Then the ambulances went away, and people gradually started creeping outside.”

As well as lockdown having a profound cultural impact on the city, with music venues and local shops closing down, it’s also prompted an exodus. “Before people would commute to the city and live in the suburbs and that's happening all over again, although now it's not the suburbs they’re moving to, it’s the middle of the woods - as long as they can get a Wi-Fi connection” he tells me. “The city around you is totally changed. Instead of having to pay $2,000 a month to live in a closet, people can live in a cabin and do Zoom meetings. New York was declared dead because of that, but I can report that's not really what's happened. It's still alive. It's hurt. It’s damaged for sure, but we're still kicking.”

In contrast to the UK, where the government has declared that wearing a mask in public spaces is at the discretion of its citizens - which has resulted many choosing not to do so, Tween explains that many New Yorker’s still wear them. “There's a public shaming that happens with dirty looks if you don't; the community is enforcing the policy. It's become so politicised the States, where if you aren't wearing a mask that means you support Donald Trump and in New York City a lot of people don't want to signal to others that they support him. Even though he's gone, he's still looming in the psyche of Americans, and of course, he’s threatening to come back.”

The potential for Trump to make a political resurrection prompted Tween to apply for an Irish passport during lockdown, by virtue of his Irish Grandmother. “If all hell breaks loose in the United States, then The Forms will be an Irish band playing gigs in Limerick!”

Today’s New York music has a different state of mind than the early noughties era The Forms emerged from, which was brilliantly brought to life in Lizzy Goldman’s book Meet Me in the Bathroom, where the New York bands of the time were portrayed as a mixture of ambition, competitiveness and fraternity. But The Forms have never belonged to anything resembling a scene, which Tween feels is how it’s always been for them. “2000 was around the time we did our first album and I think musically we were more of a Midwestern band, where it made more sense to us to play with bands like The Dismemberment Plan or bands from other parts of the country.”

They found that worked to their advantage, “because anytime any of those bands played in New York, we were the only band that could open for them.” Tween explains. “We ended up playing with a lot the Dischord bands because there were no other bands like us, we were the only math rock band - or whatever that was - in New York. And then in parallel to that there was this whole Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs scene, and they were all jockeying for their own stuff.” Tween feels that their friends The National were in a similar position at the time, “They were in New York, but they were not at all similar to what Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or any of those bands were doing. We've always been a fish out of water.”

Fast forward to twenty years and the impact of the pandemic has taken its toll on not only on New York’s music scene, but across the country. Tween tells me there’s now no longer the centralised hubs of kindred musical spirits. “It’s rare now to hear of things the way that say Omaha was in the early 2000s, with Bright Eyes, Cursive and Rilo Kiley, or Seattle in the ‘90s, or even in New York in the mid-2000s. You don't hear too much about ‘The city with the bands that everyone's talking about’, because a lot of the bands are on Tik Tok and don't even really exist in real life.”

Tween and Walsh became friends at high school and played in school bands, cutting demos that he recalls “all sounded like ‘Cut Your Hair’ by Pavement”, before a moment of “lightning bolts of different music that just came to us, that was a total left turn - classical music, like Stravinsky.” The lightning bolts of the music they were listening to inspired an ideal of what The Forms could be, a musical approach that Tween defines as ‘no rules’ music. “With stuff like Pavement, you’ve got to do verse/chorus and by the numbers songwriting. The rule is to do lyrics about breaking up with someone, which gets boring after a while.” The shift for The Forms was to instead deconstruct the accepted narrative of guitar rock. “We threw all that stuff out the window and tried to do something that had no rules, where you could do whatever you want.”

It was at this point they found one of the constants in their career in Steve Albini, the recording engineer for Pixies and Nirvana, among others, who they happened upon via a punt. In 2014, more than a decade after meeting The Forms for the first time, Albini made the keynote address at Melbourne’s Face the Music conference, that could equally be read as part of The Forms story. “These independent bands had to be resourceful. They’d built their own infrastructure of independent clubs, promoters, fanzines and DJs. They had their own channels of promotion, including the beginnings of the internet culture that is so prevalent today”

“We found his contact information through the proto internet.” Tween explains. “He’d record anybody that came to him, as long as it wasn't someone like Depeche Mode - I think he turned them and Courtney Love down. There are certain artists he loathed that he didn't want to record, but everyone else, no matter how unfamous you were, he would do it.” Despite not having a released a note of music, they found themselves in the position of working with world-renowned engineer. “He’d just done Page and Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale. We were these kids who didn't have anything and he gave us a chance. We were so lucky to have crossed paths and do the first step with him.”

Tween laughs at the memory of initially trying Albini’s patience, with their desire to explore the possibilities of studio trickery. “He doesn't really like that, he wants it to be a live snapshot of the band. On Icarus we cross-faded a lot of the songs so it was almost one continuous song. He helped us do it, but he fought that a bit because he thought it was like Pink Floyd.” Tween reflects. “We did lots of takes, which he also doesn't really like. There was one point where he was ‘You've done this 58 times! Stop!’”

The best artist / producer relationships have always been collaborative, rather than dictatorial, where the producer’s job is to tease out the sound that artists hear in their heads. Tween cites George Martin’s work with The Beatles and Nigel Godrich’s ongoing relationship with Radiohead as best in class examples. “Our approach is obsessive and meticulous, to do things over and over, Steve’s approach is to let it ride. Our creative partnership has been a fight between those two ways of doing things. With that tension and give and take, the end result - the recordings - isn’t even compromise, it's the child of the two inputs.”

They found another long-term collaborator in Noah Kalina, who as well as being the photographer at Mark Zuckerberg’s wedding, took pictures of himself for six years and created a time lapse video of the results, which led to him being parodied on The Simpsons. Tween laughs Kalina “was a viral star even before he was known as a photographer.” The Forms were looking for a photographer and crossed paths with the then unknown Kalina in Williamsburg, “We have a particular sensibility and we're very fussy. It's really difficult to find anything - even in our own songs - that we can agree on, so when we find something we both like we stick with it, because it'll be too hard to find something else.”

With their collaborators in place, Icarus was released at a time when the music industry was in stage of transition, triggered by two things that it didn’t seen coming, both of which enabled by the arrival of the internet. With the advent of file sharing, artists were unexpectedly less reliant on a record deal to get exposure to the wider world, and music became viral rather than controlled by release dates and marketing campaigns. In tandem to this, the monopoly of the printed press was challenged by the emergence of online music sites, making the critics pool wider and more egalitarian, where all of a sudden, writers didn’t have to cut their teeth at the NME or Rolling Stone, instead, and for better or worse, anyone could have a voice.

Tween reflects that it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. “Icarus was released when blogs were emerging, and no one knew what a blog was. We were both software engineers, so we knew about the internet.” They sent their debut album to blog editors and the response was proof of the tidal shift of the age of bands posting a demo to record in the hope of getting a record deal. “The blogs all loved Icarus and reviewed it. It created the modern equivalent of a feeling of virality on the internet - that our album was popular, even though there was no record company, and we were starting from nothing. It was funny that Icarus got some attention, because we got ahead of the Blog World, which became ubiquitous in the years that went on.”

With the release of The Forms four years later, Tween and Walsh decided to reshape their musical ideals. “Instead of doing this ‘no rules’, very fragmentary music we were ‘OK, let's do a few rules now’” Tween says. “The rules were ‘We’re going to be a little bit more coherent and have songs with a verse and a chorus. But there was still a lot of weirdness, because we can't help it; if it isn't weird, it's going bore us. Every song was in an odd time signature, but there was a little bit more conventionality. The songs were a little longer and a little less insane.”

Whilst touring The Forms, Tween recalls an evening where they played vinyl copy the album at 45’ and had a eureka moment, which in turn inspired the approach for Derealization. “We thought, ‘Wow, these songs sound really cool sped up.’ We took a bunch of songs from the first two records and did a theme and variations thing, where you totally change it. We got other vocalists to sing and made reformulations of the original songs.”

While the approach was entirely in keeping with The Forms desire to break the rules, with hindsight Tween feels they should have completed the project quicker than they ended up doing so. “We spent a few years on it, which is probably stupid, we should have been working on new stuff, but it is what it is. We released that in 2011 and then we started working on new music, a couple years after that.”

As work on new music progressed after the release of Derealization, the pair took on other projects, which included Walsh building a studio in Rockaway. Tween looks back on the timeline with a shrug. “If you do the math, we got side-lined by four years building a new studio, writing the album for three years and a couple years by the pandemic. Before you know it 10 years have gone by!” Despite the new album’s gestation period, Tween sees a timeliness in their re-emergence, which also coincides with that of other kindred spirits. “There's this huge spring awakening happening after the pandemic and we're excited to be part of it. The Wrens are releasing music after 18 years, Animal Collective after six years, but it's also a crowded space. Everyone that didn't tour for two years are trying to tour all at once and there's all this competition to play”

It’s not just artists competing for limited space in music venues calendars that’s changed since The Forms last toured, Tween tells that that everything’s completely changed. “Now we're releasing music again I've noticed it's so different. It’s much harder being a band now, because the music world is so fractured across Spotify, Tik Tok, Facebook and Instagram. There's bands that are huge on Spotify who you've probably never heard of. There's bands that are huge on Tik Tok who aren't even on Spotify. SoundCloud has rappers that are world famous. It's very fractured and yet, as a band, you have to give some attention to all these different channels.

I put it to Tween that there are bands who put a record out every two years, but The Forms seem to be driven by a control for what they’re doing, with a desire for perfectionism, rather than following the established rules of the game? “That's probably hurt us to a large degree - that we are a bit obsessive and want everything to be perfect. But at the same time, I have a long view, that if you get it right you and others will be able to look back years down the road and the music will hold up better, because it was meticulously put together rather than rushed out. With a lot of bands their first album or two will be really strong, but then they get caught up in the factory of the music industry and everything else feels rushed.”

He cites the example of fellow perfectionists, My Bloody Valentine. “They had Loveless in 91’ and then the MBV album was 2013. Some bands take no time at all because they have this idea of engagement, that you don't want to be irrelevant. And then there's another class, that’s ‘I'm going withdraw from this social media rat race. We're going to do whatever the hell we want.”

"Some bands make a perfect album every time in two years, but that's hard, especially now when there's so much competition and so much more work to do as a band."

Tween sees the process of releasing music as a constant push and pull between spending the time artists need to create the record’s they want to make, but at the same time keeping the fans from forgetting about you. “It's a balance that’s very hard to strike. Some bands make a perfect album every time in two years, but that's hard, especially now when there's so much competition and so much more work to do as a band. You’ve got to create content for your social media channels and you're supposed to make music as well. You’ve got six times more to do and less money, because the streaming services don't pay as much as the record companies used to in the ‘90s, there’s more to do than ever, that’s the irony.

The Forms are exploring other outlets for their creativity, with video being among their current fascinations. “That goes back to the thing about getting bored with stuff and finding new things interesting” Tween explains. He was involved in editing the video for “All Souls Day” and discovered that he enjoyed the process and the possibilities that it opened up for The Forms. “I realised that if I learned how to shoot, that I can do end-to-end films. I already know how to do music, so I became excited by making films with music.”

He started by filming shows, including Ava Luna and Jennifer Vanilla and then moved to shooting drag performers, “I don't have to do anything because they play to the camera so much and the video comes out great, it’s really that they're good instead of me. Whereas any rock band mostly just stands there, so I have to do more work to make it an interesting video.”

Tween’s interest in video has led to a fascination with the short form possibilities of TikTok. “We’re making these 30 second films and 20,000 people will watch it on TikTok, or 1000’s on Instagram. With these videos we're making, I'm sure some portion of the viewers are tracking down the song on Spotify and listening to it.” He draws a parallel between the ascent of online music sites at the start of the noughties to the role that social media plays today, a new world of experimentation and artistic freedom.

“It feels like what I was saying about the Blog World being new and us taking advantage of the blog world. There's now TikTok and places to make videos for your music, that no one is really doing too much,” he explains. “I like this medium of the 30 second format of film, because you can do it quickly and it's not some belaboured 10-year album like we've been working on. It's creative and then you do something else. I'm really excited by it because it's so disposable, we have the freedom to not be perfect, but with an album we're always trying to make this perfect thing.”

It’s a different balance between social media being ephemeral, where you put something online, it spikes for a day, but a record needs to stand test of time? “We spent the ten years in the record, and we have that, but now there's this other medium of the more ephemeral thing. People will do podcasts, essays or blog posts and then they serialise it into a book. I don't know what the format will look like 10 years from now, but I could totally see us doing a compilation of these 30 second film pieces that we made and make a 30 second movie that strings them all together and releasing that.”

Tween’s view of how music is changing makes me think of the parallels with punk in the seventies, where in a reaction to the indulgence of prog-rock, instead of writing double albums for five years, bands would work fast and put out a seven-inch single day after they recorded it?

“It’s funny you mentioned the punk rock thing, because I had that thought the other day. How a punk rock band like Minor Threat would have a 30 second song, and that attitude is not unlike TikTok, where it's ‘Forget the official video, forget the three-minute song. We're going to do this other thing, and it's going to be cool, we're fucking with the format.’ They do a thirty or sixty second song and they take it seriously. TikTok is possibly going to be, in a weird way, a punk frontier, where it's breaking the rules and it's doing music centric content in a 30 second video. I really feel there's an analogy there to the 30 second punk song.”

As we come to a close, I tell Tween that for a band that’s never been part of a scene, and who take ten years to make a record, it’s a remarkably admirable thing to follow their own road? “Someone else might say, ‘How stupid is that?’ That's the flip side. It’s probably dumb that we did that, but if we tried to change the music to fit into the scene, we wouldn't feel good about what we did. We just tried to do the best music and then let the chips fall where they may.”

The music scene of Meet Me in the Bathroom, which The Forms viewed from a distance has long gone, and for Tween regardless of what changes in music, a constant remains. No matter how long it takes to write a record, it has to stand the test of time. “The scene has gone. The bathroom, the dark room, where everyone was doing coke? The dark room doesn't exist anymore. It closed 10 years ago and all that's left are the records. If you didn't make a good record, then there's nothing left. We want to make the best record, and hope that if you listen to it 20 years down the road, it'll still sound good.”

The Forms' as yet untitled new record wil be released this June
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