Photo by Posternaks
Night, Exquisite is the new album from Brent Arnold, a cellist and composer who skirts the traditional form of cello playing and digs deep in the unique. It’s not that Arnold purposely avoids classical music—the bow does cross the strings—but sometimes he plays the cello like a synthesizer, changing and oscillating tones with various techniques. Maybe it’s just the fact that cellos are in every goddamn movie score ever, but the record is imbued with a cinematic quality giving you the sense that you’re listening to the soundtrack for an unmade film.
The story of the record being made is just as cinematic. It took years to put together, with layers added in different places and mental spaces from an old wooden theater in Maine to a castle in France. The album feels like a slow moving storm, where at times the clouds grow dark and ominous, but you can still make out silver linings, sun spots, and maybe a rainbow. The songs build and recede, the chords are plucked, pinged, strummed, looped, and processed, and the story moves forward. The album feels like a journey by the end, rather than individual songs. I caught up with him to see if I could get him to shed some light on his beautiful record.
VICE: Night, Exquisite feels both large in scope and hidden in the recesses of shadows. Where did this record come from?
Brent Arnold: I’m such a bad interview subject in that way. I just hear things and make them, you know? It didn’t come from a dream or anything. The record is me making different layers of cellos, which I recorded in maybe six or seven different places, sometimes within one song. It's interesting because it's always me, usually alone, and it's always my same cello. I've only got one. But it's different spaces, different mics, different equipment, different states, different countries, all layered together. And the thing they had in common is that almost all of it was me, far away from people, recording alone. Then I had to go back, with some help from Adam Haggar, who did most of the mixing, and sort through these takes that are all so different. But it made it interesting.
To me, this seems more complicated than building a bedroom pop record with a guitar and lyrics on love. It has complicated emotional arcs and space to explore. How did you actually build the songs?
The previous album had more of a pop structure to the songs, but I wanted to take more chances with the structure on this one. I think the questions are a little more open-ended. This one has more songs that don’t always come back around to the initial theme. Instead they might play A to B to C and that’s the end. I had the good and the bad luck to be recording it myself and being my main critic. It’s a way of working that’s time consuming and involves a lot of layering, adding and subtracting, and following that to a new place. You end up getting a different result and I know that I couldn’t have made these songs any other way. This record is much harder to perform than the last one, which was more jamming, while this is composed.
For example, the title track came from an idea I used in a film score, which was then only a 30-second sound cue. Over the next year I built on it in different ways, not just in my mind, but I’d record over top the initial idea, constantly expanding and contracting it. There are points where it feels elegant and waltzy, while the middle section is played with a pick and distortion and almost a middle period Pink Floyd vibe. The track is cinematic and each section feels like part of the story.
When creating a record by yourself, mostly isolated, and using only one instrument and pedals, how did you know when songs were done? Did you ever call your mom and complain or ask for help?
For this album, I was really into trying to finish these stubborn, mysterious pieces that I'd been working on for ages. I like to take time to set up a little recording situation whenever I get out of NYC, and at these various places, I would add some more layers to the tracks. I did a lot of tracking at this amazing castle on the French countryside, where I went for a composition retreat. But most of the time, it turned out to be just me there, on this entire estate, for days and days. Sometimes there was another artist, and sometimes the gardener. So I think many of the tracks on the record have this lovely but slightly spooky ambiance. All I can say is that it’s a slow process and I do have a hard time knowing when it’s done. It’s hard to put into words.
Yeah, I’m curious to know what inspires your tracks. The titles and content are dark and mystifying: "A Ghost in the Library," "Night, Exquisite," "Rattlesnake I Am," and "Giant Moth Perishes."
I don’t compose literally. Sometimes they relate to what I was thinking about. Other times I just like the phrase and its meaning grows together with the music later. With "Rattlesnake I Am," I wanted to use that title for a long time. I had actually already given the track that name, but it didn’t have that much meaning to me. While I was mixing the song I was staying in a shack in New Mexico and would take walks during breaks and one of those times I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. It kind of changed the imagery of the song for me and became this more significant piece. "A Ghost in the Library" is dedicated to the library in the castle in France, where I did a bunch of recording.
I also worked on an Antlers remix a lot there, that's why that was called "Empty Castles (No Widows)." For that one, I just knew I wanted to do something with that song, and I asked the Antlers and they said "sure", but it took a long time to get the stems from them, so in the meantime I just made it myself, with dozens of cellos, in the French countryside.
Photo by Makoto Ozaki
You’ve worked a bunch prominent artists from film and TV to music and theater. How do you balance your artistic voice with your cello-for-hire side?
I got called in for a recording session for Louie, with a bunch of amazing musicians, and at the end of the day, Reggie Watts, who was kind of directing things, said "Hey, show him what you do with your pedals." So I got set up and Louis CK would try to describe a scene and a mood to me, and I'd just come up with little pieces on the spot, looping, adding layers, and such. I didn't see the scenes, I just got feedback from him verbally. Funny thing is that he's very involved in every aspect of the production, so he usually has a very concrete plan for the music, with example tracks and such. But with this, he was giving me the scenes where he was a little stuck, I think, I mean he knew the feeling he wanted, but not the specific style or anything concrete. And that's perfect for me, because my music kind of lives in the in-betweens, not in any one specific genre, and I don't really play the cello like a cello anyway. Many of those things I thought were just sketches or random attempts, but he wound up using almost everything I played, most of which I didn't even remember playing! Then, later, he gave several interviews where he said "I worked with this incredible cellist, who came up with things on the spot, etc, etc... wish I could remember his fucking name." And my name got left off the credits... yeah, just an oversight, but it was a bummer, because nobody knew who I was, not even Louis [laughs].
Well it’s great to know that Louis loves you, even if he can’t remember. I mean, you’re a really nice guy who doesn’t come off as someone lying around looking for loneliness to inspire a track. Are you in the music biz for the big bucks and women? What type of ladies does being a brooding cellist draw?
Wall Street types. Ukrainian DJ’s. And baristas.
Good to know. Thanks Brent.
If you’re in the NYC area tonight, come on out for the album’s release at Rockwood Music Hall, where Brent will be performing along with a quartet of New York's most brilliant cellists and drummer Michael Lerner of The Antlers.
Night, Exquisite is Brent Arnold’s third official release following An Albatross and a Half (2010) and Cinema Deep Crush (2007). He has worked closely with Louis CK to create cello music for some of the classic scenes in the acclaimed dark comedy series Louie, and has made music with The Antlers, Reggie Watts, Eyvind Kang, Modest Mouse, Kristin Hersh, Jherek Bischoff, DJ /Rupture, and many more. Brent studied cello with Walter Gray of the Kronos Quartet and legendary jazz violinist Michael White. Check out his website Audio Friction for more information.