You hear it all the time that, like so many things in life, life itself is a cycle – a cycle of cycles, even. As time goes on, tastes change and new experiences are always just around the corner, but so are opportunities to revisit the past – potentially closing, or even creating a cycle in itself.
In the US, we’ve been cultural meta-witnesses to this the last twenty odd years or so as the turn of the century was defined by a number of retro pop culture obsessions – the late fifties and early sixties, specifically. Then the seventies… the eighties… you get it. For many creatives, this has meant suffering for decades as new ideas had to compete directly with commodified nostalgia.
But all that being said, the recent return of Ativin is the latest in welcome announcements that indeed, perhaps the superior decade is ‘back.’ And in case you were wondering, that decade is the nineties. Well, technically the early oughts, but the 1990’s slide into the 2000’s was really an interesting musical transition as post-grunge and nu-metal started to give way to garage rock, indie, and emo. With Lynx, June of 44, Drill for Absentee and other 90’s luminaries returning to the fold these days as well, we couldn’t think of a better timed return for Ativin.
For those of you who might not remember, or were possibly not even born yet, in 1996, Ativin released an EP engineered by Carl Saff and Steve Albini at famed Electrical Audio Studios called Pills vs Planes. The band’s murky but undeniably beautiful textures quickly spawned them a fan base, and they recorded their debut German Water the following year. The band’s fresh take on experimental post-rock had also taken on a bit of space rock, allowing them to achieve new heights in terms of dynamic.
German Water closes with slo-core classic “Meeting with the Center of the Earth,” which cleverly juxtaposes the plodding heaviness of shoegaze with a minor, jazz-informed aesthetic. These artful positioning continued throughout the band’s first active period, and it should be noted that the batter-head / snare dynamics on follow up EP Summing the Approach is god-tier thanks to Albini’s ever-watchful ear. 2002’s Interiors saw the band take things further into the jazz side of things, sprawling into hazy, unpredictable string parts. Looking back, it almost represents a missing link between Rob Crowe and Sufjan Stevens – the level of detail throughout is daunting, much of it seemingly filled with a symbolic purpose that can only be decoded/created after years of listening. Two years later, the band was back with another surprise – some of their most aggressive material to date. Indeed, 2004’s Night Mute sounds like a different band at times, despite occasionally resembling their earliest, most agitated incarnation. You can practically hear the gears grinding in their heads as they try their best to contain songs like “Night Terror,” “Scout,” and “Concentrate.” But that was 20 years ago, and outside of a small tour in 2015, it was the last many of us heard from them.
Until recently, that is. Last year, Chris Carothers contacted us last year about the band’s potential reunion, and we may or may not have foamed at the mouth. Things happened fast after that, with the band teasing singles and releasing a number of amazing pre-orders and collectible options. Once the singles were officially out, it was clear that the band was firing on all cylinders. “Mountain Visions” is classic Ativin, with floating, atmospheric movements featuring a vocal performance by the etheric Natasha Noramly. “Drought Sheers” is also an effective mantra, cathartically building a bridge from the not so distant past into the present. Once things cooled down, and the album was released a couple weeks ago, we finally got a chance to talk with Chris about the band’s past, present, and potential futures.
We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
FB: First of all, welcome back! How long has the return of Ativin been in the works?
Chris: It’s great to be back. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk a bit about the band and album. So, we actually reunited in early 2015 with Mark Rice (who played on Night Mute) on drums and Johnathon Ford (Roadside Monument, Unwed Sailor) adding bass for a short tour later that summer. No new material was written during that period and the focus was purely on rehearsing selected songs from each of our releases for that effort. After the tour was over, everyone pretty much went their separate ways and things were silent in our camp again. Dan and I didn’t seriously start discussing the possibility of writing new material until 2020 and it was the summer of that year that we started writing the material for Austere.
FB: It’s been quite a while! What would you say are some of the biggest changes in your life since the days of Night Mute?
Chris: Agreed! Nineteen years is certainly no drop in the bucket. But considering that we have been together for almost thirty of them, it does put some perspective on things. I had become really nomadic following the release of Night Mute and lived in a number of places around the country where I worked and pursued another degree. After my dad’s death in 2014, I really struggled to make sense out of my life and reality. Things got pretty dark for me and I ended up leaving the country all together to Bologna, Italy, where relocated to and taught English.
During the initial spread of COVID from China to Europe started in that region of Italy around March of 2020, I relocated back to TN where I am originally from. I finally came to the realization that I simply couldn’t control much of anything in the world besides my own behavior, actions and feelings. I just needed to find a better way to do that if I wanted to move away from so much of the chaos that I was experiencing in life. The solution for me was sobriety and so much of the madness I had been experiencing in my life dissipated as I pursued that path. I am sober today and feel like making that decision was the best gift I could ever give myself. A true blessing.
FB: How did you meet Chris Brokaw and how did you know he was the right fit for what you were trying to do?
Chris: Dan was friends with Chris and had done some touring with him previously. We had written most of the record between the two of us, but weren’t sure where to find a proficient drummer that could keep up with the hectic schedule of sporadically meeting up in New Orleans (where Dan lived and we rehearsed). We had played with one drummer there and, while he was technically good, it just wasn’t the right fit. We were discussing some possibilities on a day we were down there writing, and Dan suggested Chris as a possibility. I am a huge Codeine and Come fan and have been listening to his music since high school, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity. Brokaw came down to New Orleans and we jumped right in. I remember thinking, “I know he is a very minimalist drummer, but is he intentionally not playing because he doesn’t like the music?” Honestly, I didn’t really grasp just how brilliant his approach to drumming with us was at first. It wasn’t until later that night of our first practice when I was listening back to the demos we had recorded that I had that epiphany. It was a revelation I kinda had all at once where I really started to grasp his genius and knew without a doubt that he was our drummer.
FB: When was the last time you saw Steve Albini before recording the new album?
Chris: I saw Steve at Jason Noble’s memorial in Louisville, KY in the Fall of 2012 and we spoke briefly. It was a really beautiful event, despite the somber nature of the loss.
FB: What’s your favorite thing Albini brings to the recording process for Ativin? Do you
have any favorite moments with him from this album or back in the day?
Chris: I would have to say it’s Steve’s approach to capturing a band’s music and the environment he creates to facilitate that process so perfectly. Sure, there are his amazing microphones, his world-class studio, the incredible studio gear and in-house equipment available, his supreme knowledge of recording techniques, his extensive recording history, etc. that everyone is aware of (and all of those things are certainly important). But, I think it’s more about his overall desire to simply create the best possible recording and reflect the essence of that band in that moment. I know the term has been overly-used, but I feel that it is Steve’s mindfulness, that is sort of a “je ne sais quoi” about him. An indefinable presence that allows for so many of the recordings that have gone down in history as being nothing short of legendary. It is a general integration of his knowledge, kindness, work ethic, expertise, artistic insight, honesty, and superb humor that is collectively so remarkable to me. There is just an ambiance to him that makes the intensity of being in the studio so much more fluid and comfortable. Naturally, we were stressed when thinking about having a total of three days to recored and mix a full length album that was all recorded live (with some over dubs) and only having three practices as a full band together.
But considering we did Pills vs Planes one day and Summing the Approach in two (both with him), and there fact that this was our third recording with him in almost 30 years, we weren’t too concerned if we had to make a trip back to Chicago to mix the album in the event that here was a problem or delay. But even with incorporating a good chunk of the second day to record Alison’s cello parts, we walked out of the studio with master tapes in hand by 10pm on the third night. He is a true master of his craft and an absolute joy to record music with.
FB: Have you noticed a lot of 90’s math rock and post-rock bands resurfacing the last couple of years? If so, had it affected how you felt about your own return?
Chris: Well, I will have to go on the record here and say that I have never thought of Ativin as a “math rock” band (and not exactly sure what “post rock” really means), so I don’t really identify as such. Sure, in our earlier days when we didn’t know how to really understand or embrace song structure, having never been in a band and each of us being inspired by some fairly adventurous music, we were all about pushing the envelope so to speak. The crazier the better. But as far as us fitting into a larger sub-genre of this particular category of rock music, it never really dawned on me that this is how our music was interpreted to some.
I suppose like everything else, it is what it is. In response to other bands in general from the 90’s that have gotten back together to make music, I say, “hell yeah”! I think there is something incredibly healthy and positive about a group of people who share a common love of music and are close enough to each of the other members to strap back in and create more music when the time is right. If a band is able to, why not? I think this was the motivation behind us getting back together after 19 years and to create what ultimately became the greatest album we have ever achieved (in my opinion).
FB: We spend a fair amount of time describing music and sounds to people – how would you describe the sound of Ativin?
Chris: That is a tough one as you can imagine. I think after having so many tags, categories and comparisons attached to us, I really struggled when asked by folks from time to time to describe what kind of music we make. I actually asked Dan that question when I went down to New Orleans for that initial session to start fleshing out some songs and he gave me the best answer I’ve heard to date. He said, “well, I tell people what we are doing now is ‘minimalist experimental rock,'” and I think that is a good way to phrase it.
FB: Some of your coolest tunes feature orchestral arrangements mixed very subtly into the song. Do you hear and/or write songs with those arrangements in mind?
Chris: Well, when it came to “False River,” that was a song I wrote at home in Nashville in 2020 and I specifically knew a cello needed to be incorporated somehow for it to be complete. It was an intuitive feeling, but I didn’t have any specific idea as to what that part should be. It was nothing short of a miracle to have Alison Chesley (Helen Money) share her love and supreme skill of playing the cello with us on that track. It turned out so much better than I ever could have hoped. Such a tremendous experience creating music with her and something that will stay fondly in my memories for the rest of my life.
Now, the strings you hear on “Interiors” were a very spontaneous idea I had when we were writing and recording that record. You have to take into account that everything was spontaneous with ‘Interiors’, as Dan and I hadn’t played together in over three years, had no music written prior, and wrote and recorded that entire record in one week (only because Secretly Canadian was kind enough to fly me out to Bloomington from Los Angeles where I was living at the time because I didn’t have enough money to buy my own) Interiors was a lot of throwing noodles at the wall to see what stuck. Everything with the writing of that record was extremely in the moment. We didn’t have the luxury of overthinking much, we just had to write, record and not look back. And that is what we did. All recorded on Protools using an old Mac with OS9, in fact – the “salad days” for sure!
FB: You have a very distinct delivery with the guitar. Do you have a particular process for creating melodies for the guitar and/or bass?
Chris: Thank you. I honestly am very self-conscious about my playing because I am totally self-taught and am absolutely clueless when it comes to any type of formal understanding of the instrument (beyond the letters of the strings). I just sort of picked up bits and pieces of really adventurous guitar styles and song writing through different friends who were in bands and still do to this day. I originally learned guitar by playing along to early R.E.M. songs (“Driver 8” was the first song I learned how to play around the age of 13) and Peter Buck’s infamous arpeggiated style is still very apparent in the music I make today. Of all the guitarists I could have latched onto as a beacon, I’m so happy it was him. I really don’t have a process for writing music and I don’t force it.
This is why our albums have no set timeline because we make the music we want when it feels natural. I suppose it is absolutely self-serving in certain ways, not so much in others. I certainly have gone through periods of time (sometimes years) where I didn’t pick up a guitar because I just wasn’t feeling it. I don’t see myself as a guitarist at all. I had to do my best to understand the instrument and how to best use it to create the music I felt passionate about solely through observation. Not an easy task if your heroes have a common thread of testing thresholds of one kind or another, but certainly exciting if you have nothing to lose! But sure, that is one of the freedoms you get when you make music like we do that doesn’t really have a demand of any kind. I have always thought that if we had the time, resources and ability to make a record, we would do our best to take advantage of that opportunity to create the best possible music with what we had at that time. And I think we were successful at that for the most part.
FB: Is there any particular piece of gear like a guitar or effects pedal that you’re particularly attached to, and if so, is there any Ativin history behind it?
Chris: Absolutely. I still have the Univox High Flier that I bought for $100 at a pawn shop in Nashville back in the early 90’s and it is the guitar that I played on the first four Ativin releases. I don’t play it anymore, but I cherish it. I have a number of different guitars, but the ones that stand out the most are my two 90’s Les Paul Classics. There is just something about a Les Paul that really translates well to Ativin. Dan plays one as well and agrees. They just have this really full, clear tone that we both love. I’m not one of those, “create a small city out of guitar pedals” kind of guy, but I do have some choice pedals that are an important part to my sound.
The main one was created for me by good friend Enrico Tauraso from Italy (who now lives in Valencia, Spain). He is this electrical wizard who makes all the effects and amps for his band The Turin Horse and has a company called Sacred Fire where he designs and hand-builds the most amazing pedals. He designed my all-time favorite, “always on” pedal that was critical to my tone on ‘Austere’ called a Black Flame. It is actually based on a late 60’s Colorsound Tone Bender, but has much more functionality, tone and presence due to the meticulous design and military grade components. It is one of the only pedals that never gets bypassed and is constantly used to color my overall sound and enhance specific frequencies that only this pedal can achieve. I’ve played a lot of pedals over the years, and the one he designed and made for me is unlike any other. If anything happened to it, that would be a very dark day in my guitar universe.
FB: Do you have any favorite songs from the old days to play or listen to?
Chris: I don’t really listen to much of our music outside of Austere and really felt like it was the first record that I could listen back to and actually enjoy as a listener (rather than as an active creator of the music) and that was completely unexpected. I do have very fond memories of playing “Back At The Lab” and really having fun rocking out at the end when we played it live. “Meeting with the Center of the Earth” and “Stations” were also both a joy to play live back in the day. I remember feeling so adventurous after writing those songs and performing them live to an audience was so exciting. It was a new era for us and we were lucky enough to be in the wonderful city of Bloomington, IN in the 90s where there was so much energy and excitement around all the music happening at the time there. No doubt a golden age.
FB: New singles, new album… we are pretty excited by these facts alone, but one thing has changed for lots of people in the music industry: touring. Is touring something you’re looking into following the release of Austere? If so, has planning it been any different than the last time you planned a tour?
Chris: Both Dan and I are almost 50 and have other obligations that come before being in a band. Touring has always been fairly grueling and depressing for us, and while ultimately rewarding, the idea of hopping into a rented van and spending weeks driving to shows where the turnout was typically very scant, well, quickly lost its appeal. It is just logistically difficult for us to pull off the type of well-oiled performance we idealize when we all live in different states, have to fly from different parts of the country to rehearse and then trying to go back out and garnish the type of attention needed for a successful tour (especially after being off the radar for so long). It isn’t in the cards right now, but who knows what the future holds or how a new reality will develop for the band. Time will tell.
FB: Vinyl is another big thing that’s changed for artists these days – it’s just so expensive, and takes forever too, but some things seem to be getting easier. How has the “vinyl crisis” played into the release of Austere, if at all?
Chris: We have been incredibly lucky to be able to work with Joyful Noise for this release. Such a fantastic label comprised of some really great folks who really know how to run it and take great pride in the music that they very selectively release. You have to understand that this album has been about three years in the making, from the album’s inception to its release. We were never under any rigid time contract, so the inevitable delays with getting vinyl pressed was never an issue (a realistic timeline for the manufacturing of the vinyl was established early on. Naturally there are issues here and there that happen with any massive undertaking (like having a record made where you are closely monitoring the process) and have to work through hurdles. Sure, having records made today isn’t like it was 20 years ago, but few things on the current musical landscape are what they were then. Once again, it is what it is.
FB: The new singles are really great – so far, “Drought Shears” is our favorite. What about Austere are you most excited for people to hear?
Chris: I’m flattered, thank you! I think I have a more generalized excitement about the album reaching a whole new frontier of listeners than we never had exposure to before for a variety of reasons. Yes, it is a completely different musical terrain that years past when we were active, but that is thrilling to me. I mean, we have never garnished a lot of attention and have always made the honest music we wanted to make without much anticipation of a unified favorable response to it. When your expectation of a listener is realistically modest in general, any positive feedback you get is cherished and typically unexpected. We never tried to make music for anyone but ourselves , and in turn, anything encouraging we heard was viewed as a cherry on top of the sundae.
This record as a whole is something that I feel we have worked the almost 30 years of making music together to reach. It is, the album I always wanted to unconsciously make. Everything came together in as close to what I can say is “lightning in a bottle” for us. I am so happy that things happened exactly as they did and we can share this pinnacle of our achievements to the largest possible audience we could humbly offer it to.
FB: Okay, last question. Back in the day, you guys used to have sort of this cycle of recording an album, then recording an EP. Without thinking about it too much, what would you say the odds are we could get a follow up EP in the next couple years?
Chris: I encourage you to dust off your Magic 8 Ball, shake it aggressively and see what it says. Please fill me in when you do. I misplaced mine.
FB: Will do!
That wraps it up for our first week in vacation mode – all three were bangers! Elders was tight, Right Chipper was tight, and this was a really special interview for us. Special thanks again to Chris for being so forthcoming and sharing so much – be sure to check out the host of ways you can get your hands on the record at Joyful Noise Recordings here or the Ativin Bandcamp here! Alright, our skin is barely peeling off from the burns we got last weekend at the local reservoir – now it’s off for round 2 in the Grand Canyon! Enjoy the weekend, everyone. Thanks for reading!