t could have hardly been expected on the basis of three EP’s that Kelley Polar would drop the quartet, shorten his songs, and release the best disco-pop record of 2005. But when you combine a classical music pedigree, a breathy vocal style that recalls a “sheepish Junior Boys,” and Morgan Geist’s production, that’s exactly what you get. Stylus writer Michael F. Gill sat down with the New Hampshire based producer who lives in a farmhouse basement studio, and is the caretaker of a herd of Scottish Longhair cattle, to talk in advance of the release of his debut LP.
Michael F. Gill [STYLUS]: So you have a classical music background?
Kelley Polar [KP]: Yes.
STYLUS: I’m interested, did you see any similarities between electronic music and classical music growing up?
KP: Yeah. I was kind of pushed into doing classical music when I was young, and then the electronic music on the radio in the late 70s and early 80s, I mean, it was electronic music and it was pop music, but there was something engagingly “non-threatening,” something fun, about it.
STYLUS: Were you listening to any of the stuff Morgan [Geist] references in his music? Disco, Italo-disco, Boogie…
KP: No, not really, that stuff really got discovered later on.
KP: But even very mainstream stuff. When I was very young, listening to Kraftwerk, Slick Rick, Talking Heads, and all that stuff that’s really mainstream but still very funky and nothing like pop music now. Pop music now is so hard, so oppressive.
STYLUS: I think there is a sort of rhythmic looseness that is often missing nowadays. But even thinking back to a lot of ‘80s new wave bands, a lot of them had such four-square rhythms that offered a lot of sharp and angular grooves, but hardly anything funky.
KP: Well, there’s lots of interesting questions about the relationships between classical and electronic music. And even popular music. I remember doing recordings with Metro Area, and I’d be around these rockers, and I’d sit down and write these chords, and play it back, or write down a quick part, and they’d be really impressed by these very basic parts. But then I also would see these classical performers who would be desperately trying to make “groovy” music and just failing miserably. I think musicians see something very attractive in one another. Even in genres like 20th Century classical music, which is awesomely unhip at the moment.
STYLUS: It is, kind of. I’ve known people who went to Berklee [local music college in Boston], which is somewhat similar to Julliard, and some of them talk about doing endless scales and practicing with their instruments, while others are off playing in rock bands.
KP: The whole thing with reaching out of the classical tradition is cool. I heard about this recent album, which is classical arrangements of Aphex Twin songs.
STYLUS: Right, that Alarm Will Sound disc.
KP: It’s kind of frightening…and also very interesting. And then the whole fact that art music and popular music used to be closely connected, until the last century, right around Gerswhin, and in the ‘20s and ’30s…
STYLUS: They started to separate.
KP: Right. Which has become harder on classical music than pop music. I don’t know if this is the proper way to describe the split…
STYLUS: Well, there’s probably hundreds of minute reasons why this style went this way, why that style went that way. Another thing I was thinking of is how the artistic drive and motivation in popular and classical music are nearly opposite. In popular music there is a tendency to burn out or at least cool down your ambitions as you grow older. You hardly see a new artist over thirty or forty, where some classical musicians don’t hit their prime until they are middle-aged.
KP: Yeah, in classical music, there is a definite longevity in both the material being used and the performers who play it. You can be a performer playing someone else’s material your whole life and still get a lot out of it. New arrangements and treatments of works are always appearing. It’s definitely a different mind-frame than pop musicians.
STYLUS: But I think on your album you are sort of bringing them back together a bit. No one is going to call you record a classical record, but there are subtle elements of the classic tradition in there. You use the string quartet, which often gives off this very clean, breezy, simple, yet intimate sound. And you of course add in the disco/vocal pop framework, but you play towards this aesthetic of the string quartet.
KP: Right, but at the same time, it wasn’t on my radar screen but there are lots of classical quartets that play modern and pop music. I was just trying to make music that I liked, and I think I was only like 60% successful. I really wanted to make music that both my dance music friends and pop music friends could enjoy equally. So I was somewhat upset, but I learned a lot while recording this album. My kind of ideal is like Quincy Jones produced stuff where he has that classically trained background but still can be accessible.
STYLUS: Right, he was very much into jazz before going into pop and soul.
KP: Yeah, it’s music that's complicated enough to really hang out with in a deep way if you want to, but at the same time, you can just throw it on and totally have fun dancing to it.
STYLUS: Totally. So, how is the collaboration process with Morgan Geist? I know he’s listed as co-producer, but how much of a hand did he have in the final product? The overall production just sounds so incredible and labored over.
KP: Yes, we worked hard on it. But the recording with Morgan was really fun and nice for me. I had started recording with Metro Area…
STYLUS: Right, and the three tracks you did [“Miura,” “The Art of Hot,” “Caught Up”] just happen to be the most popular Metro Area tracks.
KP: Ha, but I’m not really doing much on those records! So what was really fun for me was that I had always been fooling around with electronic stuff and when I starting showing Morgan stuff he was coming from this more techno background. So the first couple twelve inches I did I would bring in these ideas and he would help me out, mostly with the drum parts. But then what was really nice for me, as we progressed, he had to do that less and less, to the point where on the album it is mostly myself playing the instruments. He did give me a lot of helpful insight on how the album was formed though. He was telling me that the tracks I was doing were half dance/house oriented and half weird pop tracks, and for the album I should adhere less strictly to the dance-floor and indulge in this weird song side. Which was really good advice because it gave the whole project a defined goal.
STYLUS: Well, that’s been the dance tradition, the twelve inches are usually aimed for the dancefloor while the albums, which are usually removed from this club context, give you more room to experiment.
KP: Yes, and Morgan’s understanding of just production in general is really sophisticated. I’d say his ears are way more discerning to texture than all these ivory tower classical musicians I know of.
STYLUS: Well, there could be a disconnect with popular culture there…
KP: But I still think that in art music, people still even in this day and age think about notes more than sound.
STYLUS: Ah, a classic division of thought! So, let’s move on to the lyrical themes of the album, which err, with a title like “Love Songs from The Hanging Garden” might not seem to be so jolly.
STYLUS: The title kind of sets you up there. But these are all songs about relationships I assume, and it sort of set me thinking about the electronic music community, and how special and rare these musical relationships and bonds can be. For me these things are very important, even if they can be very frustrating. And your lyrics do mention a lot of failed or strained relationships, so it sort of struck a chord with me. But this is all my impression, so I should probably let you explain…
KP: Well, I used to live in New York with these people in this penthouse recording studio in Times Square. It was really intense and mostly fun; I was surrounded by people nearly all the time. It led to a lot of important relationships, but also a lot of strained ones. In the aftermath of that I moved out here to New Hampshire, which is pretty much the opposite. I do travel around with a musical group but there aren’t many people around here at all. It’s weird contrasting the intensity of Manhattan and my “imaginary world” here.
Also, I don’t know how apparent this is, but a lot of my lyrics are inspired by these romantic art songs from Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann. There is a tradition of songs from the 19th century that are hyper-emotional and very heart-on-the-sleeve which is sort of counter to the pop music scene. When you read the lyrics to these songs, it’s unbearably cheesy, because it’s all about love torn, love unrequited, love lost. It’s all done in such an over-the-top manner.
STYLUS: And that fed into the inspiration for the lyrics on the record?
KP: Definitely. There was also a lot of influence from the songs of Ravel and Debussy.
STYLUS: Ah, the French impressionists. They use more color and texture than notes, to bring up one of our earlier points.
STYLUS: Since we are on the subject, is your song “Tyrungalia” a reference to a Messian symphony?
KP: Yeah, yeah. In that piece, it’s really cool how he solves the problem of having these hyper-romantic notions but not letting it dominate his music.
STYLUS: When I looked the word up, one of the translations I found was “a song of love; a hymn to the superhuman joy that transcends everything”
STYLUS: It sort of relates to the relationship themes on the album.
KP: Have you heard my third twelve inch?
KP: There’s another subtle classical reference in there.
STYLUS: Hmm…I don’t think I caught it. There’s that track “Maurizio” which makes me think of the guys from Basic Channel.
KP: You see, that’s what you might think. But if you think back to those French composers…
STYLUS: [pause] I’m missing the connection….
KP: Think of their first names.
STYLUS: Claude and Maurice. [slaps forehead] Oh, Maurizio is play on Maurice!
STYLUS: Ah. Ok.
So we were sort of talking earlier about the vocal pop influence on the album, which has been drawing comparisons to the voice stylings of the Beach Boys, Arthur Russell, and Junior Boys. Maybe even a little Laurie Anderson in there [Michael starts to sing “O Superman”]
KP: [laughs] Nice. Well, all the vocals are designed to work with the fact that I technically can’t sing. But the thing I can do is, to make myself sound better or more interesting, is to layer and harmonize my vocals and sing very softly.
STYLUS: You see it as just another instrument instead of a “lead vocal?”
KP: Kind of. I don’t know how the Beach Boys were recording, but I think with the Junior Boys and Arthur Russell thing, it wasn’t something that I set out to consciously imitate, it was more like “oh, these people are using their voice in this way, I can do it this way too.”
STYLUS: It was a style you saw that you could fit in with.
STYLUS: So what does the future hold for Kelley Polar?
KP: Well, hopefully the album does well enough and helps out Environ. I’m also excited to work on new material, because I feel like I’ve only just started to get where I want to be with creating music. Working on this album has definitely been a motivating process.