Innocence Mission- Interview
I remember taking a cab when I lived in the city of Chicago to see The Innocence Mission in 2006. It was a cold night, and they were playing a small club, but I couldn’t have been more excited. The band was riding a small wave of popularity with a couple of singles, most notably Bright As Yellow which became ubiquitous as their signature song around this time. Meeting them after the show was done I was struck with how disaffected they were with popularity. Meeting lead singer Karen Peris and talking with her I’ll never forget simply because of how low-key and genial she was, the moment captured with a ballpoint autograph on a CD single I brought with me.
Her personality is the person you hear coming through the speakers and as they went from playing clubs to touring with Natalie Merchant when she broke from the 10,000 Maniacs they never conformed to any logic that dictated that you needed to change your “sound” with every progressive release. It’s almost a cliche at this point to hear how bands say “this” release is a real departure for them or that the band has never sounded better. But with every album Innocence Mission has released since 1995, 6 albums in total, they’ve kept things just as they’ve always been. With a sound that has been compared to The Sundays, I would say they possess a sound that is wholly their own. With an emphasis with muted percussion and deft guitar work, with Karen’s vocals languidly smoothing everything out, they are neither folk nor are they easy listening. The newest album out now, My Room in the Trees, is a testament to their power as a group that produces catchy, low-key songs that embody everything good about what’s possible with modern music that evokes the music you would play on a rainy morning or a gentle Sunday afternoon spent relaxing. The band answered some questions I submitted about their process and what it has been like to be together over two decades.
My Room in the Trees is available now.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: What drives you to keep putting out albums? Many bands from the mid-90’s who had some popularity are all but extinct yet you keep producing quality material.
THE INNOCENCE MISSION: It is really just a love of music, and an on-going searching for ways to express things that can’t really be expressed. Also it’s partly because of the kind letters we’ve received that we keep recording the songs and sharing them out loud. Otherwise I think I would just sings the songs to myself. But this way, it is like joining in a conversation with other people. That’s the way it feels to me, anyway.
CS: Does age slow your desire to play live? I saw you on a few dates during Natalie Merchant’s solo tour many many years ago and I recently found myself hoping you would get out of the house more often.
TIM: Well, not really age, as much as circumstance. Not wanting to leave our kids made me take a long break from touring, and then, maybe because of not using it in that way, my voice has sort of un-adapted itself to singing for long periods of time. Performing is a whole other discipline, so different from writing. The thing I miss is being able to meet and be with such kind people in different places. It really was a privilege that I enjoyed for a lot of years. Maybe we can do concerts again someday.
CS: The creative process. Has it gotten easier with the band being together for as long as it has? I would assume that the well you go to for inspiration constantly changes but are you finding there is always something new to write about?
TIM: Yes, I think there is always a lot to write about. But I am not always as aware of this. And then some days I feel that I want to try to write about every small aspect of a single moment, I get excited about words, about trying to see the words, and mapping out poems. It goes like that. Music is different, though. Music is more immediately discoverable. It is almost always easy to become absorbed in composing something new.
CS: The actual recording process. Some people go to exotic locations, mess with the physical ways they lay down tracks, work with an arcane producer who is convinced they can get “something new” out of the band, but you don’t seem to share any of those notions. Do you have favorite method when you have a batch of songs that need recording?
TIM: We used to travel to record and that was nice, too. But recording at home has been better for our music, I think. It is just us here, in our studio, and so we can take the time to really hear and to try to do our best with every song. I don’t know if I have a favorite method, other than thinking that just about every song should have pump organ on it.
CS: Is there an Innocence Mission sound? I hear many bands talk about wanting to reinvent themselves after album, after album but you’ve, delightfully, stayed consistent. Do you ever feel pressure that you should change it up?
TIM: Well, we really don’t think about the songs in that way. We don’t talk about changing or not changing. We just try to strive for the sounds that we’re hearing for each song. The first two albums are dramatically different from what we’ve made over the last twelve years or so, since Birds of My Neighborhood. It took a little while for us to find our way.
CS: The world consumes music differently than it did when you first came onto the scene. Do you see people’s shifting methods to getting music as a benefit to where you are today or are you finding yourselves on the outside looking in because of how fractured the marketplace is? Has it even mattered to you at all, the business of getting your music out into the world?
TIM: I have to admit, I don’t really think about it that much. I do see that new music in general is more accessible to everyone now, which is great.
CS: What does it take to stay together in a band like this? Is it easy for a group best known for its delicate arrangements? I would imagine any fighting is done politely and with the kind of manners usually reserved for those at a swanky dinner party.
TIM: That’s funny. Well, we don’t usually have fights about music. And if we do, it’s always Don’s fault. (Kidding). Working together on recordings has always been such a big part of our friendship and marriage. It’s not something I have to question, but I am grateful for it.
CS: This album in particular, what was the impetus for making it? Was there any great event that hurried you into the studio or was it a slow, progressive build-up of material?
TIM: It was just the enjoyment of writing and making the recordings. It does seem to take a long while to have a group of songs that we still feel close to over time. But that’s okay. It always seems better not to be in too much of a hurry to finish a record.
CS: What are your hopes for the future of this band? Do you see yourselves continuously putting out new material every now and then?
TIM: I hope to be able to keep writing. I hope the songs will be worthy of sharing. That’s about it.
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