The Sunless World Of The Small Hours
Words and Photos by Lisa Nola
published in West Coast Perfomer, Nov. 2003
Oakland electronic synth duo the Small Hours met in a way befitting a band that spends the majority of an interview hidden behind lap top computers, joking that they’ll “surf for their answers.” Chris Wetherell (Citizens Here and Abroad, Dealership) met Adam Marks at a Technicolor show when Marks was doing video synthesis for the band. “[Marks] wrote a MIDI-controlled visualization engine for Linux which he would play live on stage via laptop,” explains Wetherell. An introduction initially intended for geek talk evolved into a year long discussion about music, and ultimately the formation of the Small Hours.
The Small Hours write poetically melancholic lyrics and rich, danceable melodies. The lyrics are sad, really sad, and reveal the soft underbelly of two outwardly amiable geeks. Describing the Small Hours’ first EP, Everywhere At Once, which has already sparked label interest without even an official release, is not a simple task. The genre is electronic synth pop so one would assume obvious comparisons to influential ‘80s bands. However, the Small Hours do not bring to mind any specific bands from that era, nor any contemporary bands, and there’s a reason why. Neither Wetherell and Marks grew up listening to ‘80s music, they’ve only recently discovered New Order and Depeche Mode. Wetherell cut his teeth in the ‘80s on Rush, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Soundtrack to E.T., and Ottorino Respighi. Marks’ list looks something like this: Queen, Asia, Loverboy, Night Ranger, Metallica, and Minor Threat. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around these influences after listening to their first single, “Sunless World” www.thesmallhours.net. But therein lies what makes the Small Hours unique.
In terms of musical backgrounds, a lack of exposure to electronic pop during the ‘80s is about all Marks and Wetherell have in common . Wetherell, formally trained and once on track to be a conductor, idolized Leonard Bernstein and took music theory and composition courses in his hometown of Portland, continuing at UC Berkeley. He actually knows that a bassoon was used as the voice of the duck in Peter And The Wolf. After college, Wetherell developed a love of indie pop ,played in local Bay Area bands and quickly caught up on all the sounds he missed during his early years.
Marks, on the other hand, has had no formal music training, but has a natural talent for sound synthesis and has long been a connoisseur of independent music. “I finally started [taking] a music theory class at Laney, but had to drop it because we had a lot of work to do for a show,“ Marks explains. And yet these differences work, bound tightly with a geek rapport. Wetherell explains that Marks brings “a lot of musical ideas, a very visual creativity, a PS 2 and another laptop,” to the table. And Marks comments that Wetherell “brings a large amount of musical talent and expertise, he’s equally good with words and has a strong aesthetic, which keeps a creative dynamic going between us.”
Marks and Wetherell’s differing backgrounds make for unclassifiable music. You might hear a little of New Order, who was a key band when Wetherell and Marks’ discussed their vision for the Small Hours. That slight feeling of dysphoria, lyrically, combined with the fact that the songs are danceable, hint at the darker songs of the ‘80s. But there exists something contemporary and not quite identifiable, yet.
The Small Hours’ contemporary influences include Lalipuna, Figurine, Ladytron, Lowfish, J-pop, though Marks is heavily influenced by shoegazer bands, especially Slowdive. Wetherell, when asked to describe their sound without making references to other bands (and being as true to his geek self as he wants) replied: “vintage drum machines, large keyboard sounds, melancholic vocals, definitely diatonic harmonic progressions but with a lot less of the passacaglia which marks much of electronic pop and hip-hop. Our songs sound very pop but with a darker voice (and a lower one, at that, as I'm more bass than baritone). Each song has some ‘bittersweet’ counter to the underlying dance-oriented patterns. The music is usually very full. We feel for our poor CPUs.”
The Small Hours is an all out tech-geek affair in terms of more than the music. Shock of all shocks, Marks and Wetherell are software engineers by day. Although live it looks as simple as Marks plays the keyboards and Wetherell sings, the back story is the culmination of a lot of applied geek knowledge. The Small Hours’ hardware and software list alone may give you some idea: 2 Titanium Powerbooks, MOTU 896, EZBus, Korg MS 2000, Moog Prodigy, Sequential Prophet VS, Mackie 1202 mixer, a vocal effects unit, Fatboy MIDI controller, Toshiba digital video projector, Reason 2.5, Cubase SX, Peak, QuickTime Pro, iMovie, and Vim. Although Marks states, “I sometimes find that when it comes to writing music, the technology that some people really geek out on irritates me because it gets in the way. I hate having to spend time doing technical stuff when I really just want to write a song.”
Their complimentary balance doesn't interfere with the song writing process which seems methodical to say the least: “Generally,” explains Wetherell, “one person comes up with a song fragment. We'll meet and build off that, usually by one person playing something on the keyboard, and the other playing something else, gradually building each section until we have an entire song sans vocals. We'll talk about a theme, then create a title. In each case, the working title has been the name of a programming language. (For the nerdy: we've used FORTRAN, COBOL, Smalltalk, Ruby, Scheme, Prolog, etc) Then, usually, I will craft a melody. With very few exceptions, we sit down and write the lyrics together. Sometimes (no joke), syllable by syllable.” In this way, there is no real jamming that takes place in their virtual studio. The Small Hours craft a sequence, and as Wetherell says, “it jams for us.”
“Although we should jam,” Marks replies.
“Yeah, how would that work?,” Wetherell laughs. Wetherell describes the process of song writing as surprisingly similar to that of his other bands with more traditional instrumentation, though the performance aspect is completely different.
During the first Small Hours show, as part of The Bay Area Noise Pop Festival 2003, audience members approached the back side of the stage to see what was going on behind those laptops and keyboards. Their performance has since evolved, Wetherall has learned he can’t hide in the back behind a drum set, like he does in his other bands. Their evolution is driven by their desire to have an audience “awash in energy and melody...a bit of sadness,” which you’ll sense when Wetherell sings: “It's a beautiful world / when you're fooling yourself that you've got someone to care about / who's choosing you and your darkness / who'll choose to sail into your sunless world. “
To enhance this successful mix of energy, melody and sadness, the Small Hours recently added video to their performance, projecting ghostly images onto a screen behind them. Marks comments: “Basically, we decided that having only the two of us on stage doesn't convey as compelling an experience visually, so we decided to augment that with video. It's a challenge, we're constantly trying to find ways to make the experience more ‘live,’ but without obtaining more actual humans. The imagery, at times, is connected with the songs -but we don't hold hard-and-fast to a literal representation of the songs.”
For the future, they anticipate that their songs will get darker, and though the lyrical narratives are fictional, much of the emotions behind them are not. Wetherell’s theory is that “every day a person ages, they become a little sadder,” a sentiment echoed in their song “Somebody New:” “how dare they tell you life goes on (in every line, in every song).”
The Small Hours are soon releasing their EP, Everywhere At Once, to be followed by a full length album. Marks, reflecting on their future, explains that “the vision is certainly different, given that we've moved past the formative, almost brainstorm-like part of beginning a creative endeavor.” The Small Hours enjoy holding their own in live, standing out on bills where they are the only synth band, for instance recently sharing the stage at The Bottom of the Hill with Austin’s American Analog Set and Southern California band Irving. And standing out on the bill is no surprise when looking at this unlikely pair with divergent pasts, creating strikingly emotional and melodic music via wire. Painfully romantic geeks the Small Hours gracefully close their laptops signifying the end of the interview, without once having to surf for answers.