Interview with Jonathan Graves of Corbu
with Song River
If lucid is to dreams what notes are to music then Corbu’s music would be the physicality of experiencing a mood in its totality.
Song River: Would you consider your sound to lean towards ambient meant to create a flow or mood- even though there is at times a very consistent beat to your music.
Jonathan Graves: There’s an ambient component to what we do, for sure. Some of my favorite albums are Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II and Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land. Boards of Canada’s The Campfire Headphase was a really important record for me, too. I think the overall mood a song creates is just as important as its melody and lyrics. Sometimes lyrics can feel like decoration – the sound and the chords carry a lot more of the “meaning.”
SR: Listening to your album there seems to be a definite harmonizing cohesiveness in its presentation and creation. How much is this projection musically a reflection of who you are as individuals?
Jonathan Graves: It’s a reflection of who we are and what we love, as people. We like watching space documentaries, listening to the Radio Dept. and being closet hippies, which have all influenced the tone of the album. Crayon Soul is really personal, and it’s the culmination of so many things we’ve always wanted to do. It’s not the totality of who we are, though.
There’s a part of me that really wants to make a hip-hop record, and has no interest in playing guitar or acoustic drums. Maybe that will come next?
SR: Two successful EPs have given way to this now full length album, Crayon Soul. What was the catalyst that lead Corbu to do a full length now?
Jonathan Graves: I’ve always taken the concept of an “album” really seriously, and I never wanted to make one until I thought the music was good enough. Some artists release a dozen of them while they’re still figuring out their sound, but you only get one debut album, and I wanted to be proud of it. We just didn’t have the ability, the resources or the people around us to do that until now. I’m really happy we waited.
SR: Is this album, would you say, an unusual album nowadays in the mix of music lyrically, instrumentally and in video production?
Jonathan Graves: think the concept of the “album” is in a weird place, with songs being listened to mostly in play lists and in rapid-fire mode on Spotify. People have been saying “the album is dying/the album is dead” for as long as I can remember, but there’s a reason it keeps holding on. My favorite albums are like movies – they’re all-inclusive universes that you can get lost in. Every piece of artwork you see from them is like a transmission from another world. Those records have gotten me through life, basically, so when it was our turn, I wanted to try to create that experience for other people.
SR: Noticing the songs/videos are being listed as ‘Episodes’- talk about this idea and its execution.
Jonathan Graves: We wrote a whole story to go along with the album, like a movie in our heads. Each song is a different scene. It’s not something we set out to do at all – I would probably laugh at someone if they suggested it a couple years ago.
We were about 85% done with the record, and one night Amanda and I both realized we had a story floating around. Like Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 crossed with Adventure Time. We talked about it all night and wrote it down, and that became the basis for everything we did afterward. The story kept getting more and more detailed, and it informed all of the artwork and the transitions. We told it to Dave Fridmann before he mixed the songs, and he worked in little details from it, sonically.
We’ll probably never get to make the whole animated Crayon Soul movie, but we do get to make a couple scenes from it with music videos. “Battles” is the eighth track on the album, so the video for it is “Episode 8.”
SR: You worked with Daniel Cordero for video artwork, correct? How did this what almost seems a very simpatico relationship come about?
Jonathan Graves: Daniel directed and animated the videos for “Battles” and “Prism.” We needed someone who could create likable characters, and make something crazy, abstract and psychedelic at the same time. Amanda found Daniel’s work on Instagram, and we reached out to him that night. Luckily for us, he answered right away and said yes.
We worked closely with Daniel on everything, passing artwork back and forth and iterating the character designs together. He based the videos off of our colors, our story and our world, but took it in his own direction and made it come alive. I can’t give him and his team enough credit.
Imagine a client telling you, “Okay, so these creatures called Time Beings have geometric shapes for heads, and they’re running away from an evil dark liquid that’s trying to eat the Universe.” I would email things like this to him, and he would understand me and get it perfect on the first try.
SR: Would you say this album is a complete story, or is there more to come that could perhaps connect it to others coming?
Jonathan Graves: I can’t say what we’ll decide to do in the future, but for now I’d say this record is a closed loop. Our focus is always on writing the songs in our heads, before anything else. Once the next record is close to finished, it will tell us how it wants to be presented. In some way, though, what we do in the future will always connect with the past.
SR: How important is story-telling to you both?
Jonathan Graves: I think “stories” are important, and all my favorite albums tell one in a really abstract way, but we never set out to tell an actual narrative. We just noticed that one was sitting there in front of us. It’s funny, people talk about this album being a concept record (it’s not), and ask us about prog rock. We never listen to any of that stuff, even though we do love the artwork from it. This is never something we intended to do; it just happened. Part of me always wanted to make movies, so maybe that’s coming out in this way.
SR: Do you think people seek out your music to make them feel better, more comfortable or is there meant to be comfort found in the message both auditory and visually?
Jonathan Graves: It’s a good question. I think it comes down to this:
When someone is feeling bad, the best thing you can do is to empathize and say, “I know, it really sucks. I’m sorry.” That’s more effective than trying to cheer them up, or find a solution, etc.
I think people need mirrors. They need to find resonance with something outside of themselves, so they don’t feel alone or crazy. If someone likes our music, it’s because they relate to it. They already feel what it’s conveying, and it becomes their soundtrack. Music that you love says, “I feel this too,” in a million different ways. It’s the same with Corbu, with metal, or anything else.
SR: For you both- when you are at the inception point of creating a song… describe the process from beginning to end.
Jonathan Graves: Our songs always start as sketches. I’ll hear a clip of a song in a dream or just in my head, and try to record every instrument before I lose it. It can be frustrating, because I’ll be in the middle of breakfast and it’s like, “Stop everything and record that synth right now! And get it right.”
We put those sketches into playlists, and live with them forever like a internal radio station. Amanda always has her favorites, and I have mine, and over time they start to gel together into groups. Amanda helps shape the overall vibe of each song with me.
We finish the lyrics together, and then usually work with an engineer to record the bigger pieces of audio, like the final vocals or the live drums. Todd plays drums in the studio and improves on whatever idea I have going, and then we mix it with someone we love, like Dave Fridmann or Jake Aron. Friends are always involved, at every stage. We used to be a bigger “live band,” but those guys are still around, still adding ideas and giving us perspective.
SR: And a curiosity question, how much does synthesia play in the creation of your music?
Jonathan Graves: It’s the way I make sense of music, I think. Every sound has a visual side to it in my head.When people work on film soundtracks, they’re staring at a moving image and trying to describe/amplify its mood with the music. That’s the same thing I do internally. A few months ago, I was working on a graphic design piece and it put a song in my head, so I had to stop and record the acoustic guitar and vocal for it. I’m trying to create an experience or a feeling with a song – the more dimensions I can give it, the better.
SR: Will place you at the Austin City Limits Festival come late September/early October. Where and how do you think Corbu fits into the festival scene?
Jonathan Graves: I honestly don’t know yet, since this is our first festival ever. I imagine the toms from “Polygon Forest” or “Better Better Off” would sound great on a huge system, laying in the grass somewhere. It can be a fun challenge to win new people over, like when you start a gig and no one’s into it… but by the middle of the set, everyone’s with you. We’d love to play more festivals and see how we fit into all of it.
SR: Dreams can lead us to places we’ve never imagined. How have they influenced what you’ve created, the structure behind the whole experience that is Corbu and what so far has been the general public’s response?
Jonathan Graves: Dreams are the most important thing to me, creatively or maybe even morally. There’s a kind of primal truth to the world you experience in them. There’s no ego, no lying to yourself. Everything is pure, no matter how beautiful or ugly it is. I can’t think of a better place to create from than that.
I’ve always wanted Corbu to be a thing that pulls you out of your everyday life, out of your email and your bills and your work. I don’t think of that as escapism. In a way, I think dreams are more “real” than the world you experience when you’re staring at your computer all day. I don’t know how people feel about all that, but if our music makes anyone’s life better in any small way, I’m happy.