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An interview with Sonos

[originally published on Comfort Music]

I practically fell out of my chair when I first heard the debut album by a new a cappella group called Sonos. Long-time viewers of this program will know that I hardly ever, ever, ever write about a cappella music on this blog, even though it's been a decades-long obsession for me; the vast majority of the a cappella acts I heard over the years just couldn't rise above a bland and dour sameness. But Sonos has done as much to advance the state of the art of a cappella recording with their album SonoSings (due out this Wednesday) as The Nylons did when they released One Size Fits All back in 1982. (Oh, uh, sorry for referring to an album that ZERO PERCENT of people reading this blog will know. Aaaanyway.) SonoSings is comprised of a suite of unique arrangements of songs originally performed by Bon Iver, Radiohead, Sara Bareilles, Jackson 5, The Bird and The Bee, Jazzanova, Imogen Heap, Depeche Mode, Lewis Taylor, Rufus Wainwright, Björk, and Fleet Foxes. Sonos themselves are just six voices, supported by their handy electronics. In the five-plus years I've been writing this blog, I've almost never been motivated enough to try to line up an interview with a new act, but I had to talk to these folks, particularly after hearing this fantastic cover (forgive their lo-fi Brady Bunch aesthetic in the video and just focus on the music and how they sing it):

I got a chance to speak with the band recently on the eve of their CD release.

SCOTTO: Could you describe how you guys met? The press material says you've been working on this record for three years. What's the last three years been like for you guys?

PAUL PEGLAR: About half of us went to UCLA together, which is how we met. We sang in the a cappella group there called Awaken. And it was through Awaken that Hugo Vereker, who is our manager now, came up with the concept. Awaken did a track by Imogen Heap called "Hide and Seek" which made its way onto KCRW. And Hugo heard that track on that show and had this seed of an idea, which became Sonos. Back then, three years ago, with the help of Jessica who's in the group now, he said, "Hey, get some people from Awaken together, both current and alumni, and help me form this idea." So she did, and Chris and I were brought in as alumni, and some other members. It was like a twelve-person group back in the day. So we recorded a couple tracks just kind of for fun. We didn't really know what it would be. And then flash forward through the last three years, and we dropped some people and brought some new people in... for the the last year, it's been the six of us and the album now consists of songs that were recorded both three years ago and in the last month and a half. So it really kind of spans the breadth of our time together.

SCOTTO: Can you describe what the arranging process is like across that stretch of time?

JESSICA FREEDMAN: In the beginning, it was sort of our manager's initial concept. We would trade playlists and stuff like that; he had a big list of songs that he could see potentially working in this style. And then Chris, who has been in the group since three years ago, did the vast majority of the initial arrangements. He also is an amazing engineer, so he tracked them and mixed a lot of them as well. And then, as it got a lot more serious and narrowed down to this six people, a lot of us have contributed arrangements. It's also become a little more just taking more ownership among ourselves and really taking the time to pick songs that are important to us and we think would work really well in this style, and also that we'd want to share with our audience, for people who might know know those songs to begin with.

SCOTTO: One interesting thing to me is considering the studio as kind of an additional instrument. Can you elaborate how you factor that into your arranging process? How much of that are you doing on your feet in the studio and how much do you have planned out before you get there?

CHRIS HARRISON: It depends arrangement to arrangement. As far as planning goes, we definitely will have a finished piece of sheet music for everybody to look at before we start rehearsing and go in to record it. Once there, if we have ideas on the spot that require one person to be singing more than one thing because it would complement the recording, we'll do that from time to time. There was one song in particular that we arranged in the studio; there was a sketch, but then I started recording it before handing it to anybody, just getting parts down. Part of the way through that, Rachel came in and helped me finish it up that way; I just wasn't really sure where it was going, and we wrapped that up. And then we gave everybody the recording as sort of a score, and everybody came in and sang their parts. Once in the studio with that, we improvised some new stuff there too, which then got worked into the live performance of the song.

BEN McLAIN: In terms of effects and having the studio play a role as another member in the group, it's been such a delight, especially as the beatboxer, just to lay down the tracks and do what we do, and then trick it out. That's where the fun in the post-editing process really is. You can hear it in the album. It's a lot of fun and we really enjoy doing it. I wouldn't go so far as to call it another member of the group, but it's definitely a part of the process.

PAUL: Just to bridge the gap to live performance, what Ben said with the studio effects, we have live performance with our pedals, and we have said that the pedals and electronic effects that we use are kind of the seventh member in a sense. What's unique about Sonos in terms of the a cappella community is that definitely all the source material is still voice, but we're not going to shy away from not sounding like voices necessarily. Ben has some really cool phaser effects on his beats, and Chris uses octave pedals actually, a couple of us do and we use these pedals to enhance the sound. So we can create a much bigger sound than just being voices, but we're still being authentic to not that we have this rule for ourselves, but the rule that some people might put on us to qualify as a cappella all the material still is voice, but we have this seventh member called pedals or electronics that help us sound a little cooler than just voice.

SCOTTO: That's one of the interesting things to me about this recording. When I listen to the album, the Bon Iver track that kicks it off ("Re: Stacks") is very, in this way, straightforward and lush and establishes that you guys have the vocal chops and could do it all that way for the entire record. And then the very next track is Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" [streaming here] - suddenly it's very clear you guys are playing a different ballgame. You're not completely distorting the vocals beyond recognition; but you're clearly not afraid to apply technology to the arrangement. I'm super curious about how that type of sound happens on stage. It's literally all accomplished with pedals? How many parts are happening that aren't happening on stage?

PAUL: Everything that we're doing on stage is being created with our voices. If it's something playing in the background that we're singing over, it was generated and then becomes something that's looping in the background. One of the most essential pedals we've got is a loop station, which allows a person, if there's something really repetitive that's going to happen throughout a song, that'll get thrown down right at the beginning so that we don't, for lack of a better term, waste a voice doing a one bar thing for four minutes. The Radiohead track, there's a pulse going through the whole thing, and Ben does that at the beginning of the song, and then gets to sing. But yeah, the sound guy doesn't have a CD or an MP3 mixed to play behind us.

SCOTTO: But it's also, to your point- I remember a bunch of years ago hearing this Streetnix record, I think it actually won a CARA [Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award], and it was so heavily processed that to my mind it was just a techno record. It was using the voice as a source of samples, but it didn't have any kind of organic quality to it. They actually shied away with their second record from even claiming they were a cappella in the first place. But with you guys, even though there's clearly a lot of effects in some of those tracks, like you were saying, the power of the voice is what's driving the music in the first place.

BEN: The Stanford Harmonics group that just had a big album come out, there's a big hubbub in the a cappella world about that being way too processed, and is it still a cappella? I think they just take a step further from us as well. I think we approach it on a song by song basis. I think that's the difference. "Re: Stacks" begs to be organic, and "White Water Hymnal" [Fleet Foxes - streaming here] begs to be organic. "Again and Again" [The Bird and the Bee - streaming here] does not. We'll try and stay as true to the song as possible.

JESSICA: We talked a lot about realizing that a cappella isn't a genre of music. It's a style of performance, and a style of music, so just as you could have jazz influences but not be a jazz artist, it's hard to just say, "Well, because you're using effects, it's not a cappella music." It is. The source of the sound is the voice, and that's all I think it needs to be qualified as that. From there, you can do whatever you want.

PAUL: We've dabbled in hip hop, we're going to dabble in jazz; Sonos kind of isn't limited by any barrier of genre. A cappella is our template, I guess, but with the help of seventh member pedals, we can kind of expand it to any genre we want. We've been asked to do specific gigs that are going to be coming up where we've even had to dig further, push further, to do something that we haven't done, some uncharted territory, and that frankly is what keeps it fresh and fun for us, is constantly exploring what new ways we can make these six voices do something else.

SCOTTO: The song selection, in a specific way, seems tailored to try to appeal to, say, the KCRW type of audience, or the KEXP type of audience even, a little more indie, with Radiohead, and I'm from Seattle, so everyone here is just constantly babbling about the Fleet Foxes and also Rufus Wainwright, and Björk; the selection is almost tailor-made to get the attention of a person like me who is familiar with two-thirds of those artists and is really into that scene. Do you feel like if you start diffusing into, "now we're vocal jazz, now we're hip hop," that you're going to lose a sense of identity, or do you actually feel like that's part of the mission?

KATHARINE ANNE HOYE: I think that really is part of the mission. I mean, the album that we have now, we tried really really really hard to make every single track sound completely different. Granted, they may all come from kind of one very hip listener's playlist, but we still wanted it to have as much variety as possible. And we all want to continue to push where we're going and stretch ourselves to all different kinds of directions. So I think that the whole thing about "the KCRW listener" is that they are probably more open than a lot of other people to hearing new stuff and to hearing different re-inventions that might make them surprised in any way.

SCOTTO: I wanted to talk about a couple of the tracks in particular. Let's start with "I Want You Back." To my ears, that sounded like the arrangement that deviated the most from the original and just really put a stamp on it that was unique. How did that come about?

CHRIS: That was the one in particular that actually kind of got arranged backwards, at least as far as I'm used to arranging. It started with our manager calling me really late at night and saying he had a vision of a trip hop bass line taking place in a Motown song, and I thought he was nuts. I thought it sounded really weird, but I like trip hop, and Motown, so we were talking about it for a while, and I didn't know if it was going to work. I had a ten-second snippet of what it maybe could be. And everybody kind of dug it, and we went ahead with it. I felt pretty unsure I'm just used to planning something ahead of time in my head, and getting it down, tweaking little things, and then giving it to everybody. This was just the reverse of that. It was like, "Okay, this is something that'll happen. What's everything else that will happen in the arrangement?" So instead of thinking about it and writing it down, it just got sort of invented in the studio with Rachel and myself. We got it to a stage and showed it to everybody, everybody was down, everyone came in and laid down their respective parts, and then in the bridge of the song and at the beginning, actually people got to kind of riff for a while and find something that sort of was representative a bit of them, of their own voice in Sonos, and actually it all tied together really well. So the bridge is, everyone's lick that you hear, that's their own little signature in the track.

SCOTTO: I was reading the YouTube comments on the video that you posted for that track - and YouTube commenters are all sort of "take it or leave it" - but one guy was bitterly complaining that you had stripped out the best part of the original song, which was the signature walking bass line that's in the original. To my mind, though, that immediately focuses your attention on the lead vocals for a change; I hadn't quite realized how sort of poignant the lyrics are. And then you guys made the song really sexy at the same time. You potentially couldn't do that with that original bass line roaming around and being all playful in the middle of all that.

CHRIS: Absolutely. I want to apologize to that guy. I didn't mean to upset him. We just thought it would be really cool.

RACHEL BEARER: The whole point was to reinvent "I Want You Back" in general, and the bass line in "I Want You Back" is such a Motown kind of feel, that pop Motown sound, that to make it a trip hop sounding reinvention, we really had to do away with the bass line. There are other places in the arrangement that I think echo the bass line of the original song, later during the bridge in the breakdown it's obviously not note for note, but we didn't want to totally do away with that line. That's actually something I said: "Oh, I really miss that," I missed the Motown bass line, so we took it and tried to make it a little bit darker to fit the rest of the tone of the song. I hope we didn't offend him too much.

SCOTTO: How did you wind up working with Sara Bareilles? [Bareilles sings guest lead vocals on the band's cover of her song "Gravity."]

CHRIS: She was in the UCLA a cappella group, Awaken, that I was actually in with her in college. She was an a cappella kid in college, and the group actually covered "Gravity" while I was in the group; that's actually on a record that Awaken did a number of years ago. And we asked her if she wouldn't mind collaborating with us again since part of what got Sonos started was the recording that Awaken had done, that prompted the idea of slightly more music nerd / music snob type songs, and doing a whole record of those. She was really happy to be a part and has been super supportive the whole way and continues to be.

SCOTTO: Since I am a Seattle blogger, let's touch on that Fleet Foxes track. I'm not personally a big fan of Fleet Foxes, although I saw them at the Sasquatch Festival a couple years ago, and everybody around me immediately went, "Hey, wouldn't they be great a cappella?" But what you've done with "White Winter Hymnal" has made it less what I would call sort of hipster folk; your version has this sparse, emotional and ethereal quality about it. How did you guys approach that one?

CHRIS: Going in that direction was an idea of Hugo's as well, our manager and business partner. He had a copy of the [Fleet Foxes] record pre-release and was obsessed with it, and said, "What about this song, in Europe, in a church, in the snow? Do you feel that?" And I was like, "Yeah, that's totally a great idea."

PAUL: Sonos traveled to London back in early this year, in March, and we sang our entire set, which was about an hour at the time, in this sixteenth century church near Tin Pan Alley. All off mic, no pedals, every song we did was just completely the six voices, and we had a huge crowd watching us as we did these numbers, and during "White Winter Hymnal" and actually "Gravity," these two very organic numbers, for me it was like a checkpoint for Sonos, because here we were, in this church in London which is exactly where Hugo always imagined that song happening. It was very cool. It was like, "This is what we're doing." That was completely stripped. And now at our CD release show on the 15th, we're going to be doing one or two songs that don't have effects, so it really shows the breadth of where we've come with this music.

SCOTTO: Do you guys have any touch points or influences within the a cappella world that guided your style along the way, or that you had in mind when you were plotting your sound?

KATHARINE: I think maybe subconsciously, but for me personally and I'm probably just speaking for me I don't know if I took specific influences from other a cappella groups. But we definitely all take influence from just other artists in general, not necessarily other vocal things. I think subconsciously some of that slips in there, but it's maybe a good thing that we don't try to just base it obviously that's not what you're saying, but it might be one of the reasons why our sound is a little different, because we deliberately try and make it not like other a cappella music.

CHRIS: To add to that with a couple specifics, as far as exploring what can be done with voices in this style that I can relate to really well, Imogen Heap uses keyboards and samplers and whatever else, but a lot of her music, a lot of what you're hearing in her sound world is her voice processed and layered and layered. That's been a big thing. Also, a record called Medulla that Björk made a few years ago, which started out with voices and instruments and everything else, and in mixing it, she ended up stripping away everything but voices for almost the entire record, and it's one of my favorite records.

SCOTTO: I have my own answer for this next question, but I want to hear what you have to say. As this album goes out to the music snob crowd so to speak, the fact that all of the songs on the record are covers of other people's music makes me wonder how the indie alternative scene might react. Do you guys have any plans to write your own music? Do you feel like that's not something you need to worry about because the arranging itself is a significant enough statement?

KATHARINE: I think pretty much all of us are writers anyway and a lot of us spend time doing that anyway, so it's something that we definitely are planning on bringing into Sonos in the future. It's sort of difficult from a writing standpoint. It's like, "Am I going to write a song first and then do an a cappella version of my song? Or am I just going to write an a cappella song?" But the thing about the covers is that it's a good way to draw people in, because if we take these songs that they sort of know and love and then, a lot of them as you said are totally reinvented and very different from the originals, that's hopefully going to show them that we are able to be creative; it's not just a bunch of cover tunes. They're reinventions. We like to think of it like that. I think we're still enjoying being able to use other people's work and perform it and record it the way that we want to.

SCOTTO: I thought a lot about that when I first heard the record, because I think in this sort of indie alternative scene, songwriting rightfully so has attained this huge amount of prominence as a factor in a band's credibility. But if you go way back, the best singers that you remember from days gone by were known because of their interpretive powers, and their performance abilities, and they didn't have to be the songsmiths themselves; those people were separate. It would be the same as suggesting that every great actor in the world was also responsible for writing the plays that they performed in, and it just doesn't have to work that way.

JESSICA: It's really cool being with Verve, a jazz label, the home of so many amazing historic interpreters of songs, and not necessarily their own material, but all the old standards. It's just interesting that we're kind of doing that but it's a totally contemporary songbook. I think that's just really cool.

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