Progress Report: Purity Ring
Name: Purity Ring
Progress Report: Corin Roddick discusses success, Shrines, and the perils of building your own instruments.
Purity Ring have only been making music for two years, but the duo of Megan James (vocals) and Corin Roddick (instrumentals) have managed to generate a mountain of buzz, book a series of high profile tours, and record an excellent debut album — the just-released Shrines — in the same amount of time it takes other bands to find a suitable practice space or concoct the perfect band name. The band’s peculiar blend of laptop electronica meets alternate universe R&B (which Roddick plays on a device that resembles a light up tree from a 1950s science fiction movie) has made them one of 2012’s brightest surprises. I called up Corin Roddick to talk about the band’s speedy career trajectory and just what informs their otherworldly vibe.
STEREOGUM: Where are you right now?
RODDICK: Right now I’m in Minneapolis. We just played our last show with the Dirty Projectors last night, so I’m heading home.
STEREOGUM: How was the tour?
RODDICK: It was great. All the shows were really awesome and the Dirty Projectors are just really sweet people to hang out with.
STEREOGUM: Will you be touring throughout the summer or do you get a break now?
RODDICK: We get a little break now, but the day our record is officially released we are playing a show in NYC and then heading to Japan. Our main headlining tour will start up in mid-August.
STEREOGUM: This is obviously a very exciting time for you guys. People are really enthusiastic about the record as well as your live show. Are you currently drowning in press requests?
RODDICK: Yeah, we’ve been doing a fair amount … which is totally a new thing for me. Initially we avoided doing press, which was easier to do early on when it was just the two of us doing everything ourselves. But now, after you put out a record, people expect you to actually promote it. So … I’m getting used to it.
STEREOGUM: No one ever starts a band by imagining how much it will eventually involve having to talk about yourself. That’s one of the repercussions of actually being popular.
RODDICK: I know, but it’s been kind of interesting. I think I’ve actually learned a lot about myself by being forced to talk about myself so much over the past couple of months.
STEREOGUM: That’s good. Bands have often told me that they actually figured out what their record was really all about by having to talk about it in interviews. In that way, it can actually be a healthy process.
RODDICK: Yeah, I think so to. In any case, it’s becoming less weird the more we do it.
STEREOGUM: Purity Ring has such a distinctive, unusual sound. How did your aesthetic develop?
RODDICK: It happened pretty much by accident. There wasn’t a lot of thought put into it, to be honest. I had been messing around for a long time trying to make electronic music, but it took a long time before it actually started to sound like something good. I don’t really listen to much instrumental music — I like pop music with vocals — so I sent some music to Megan back in December of 2010. And those were the first couple of tracks we made, including “Ungirthed.” I had no idea what it was going to sound like to have someone singing over the music, but right away it kind of just worked. We met up and spent a couple of hours properly recording her vocals and it really felt right. Those first two songs we did really just set the tone for the rest of the material that ended up on the album. I wanted there to be variations between the songs but for the whole album to have a very consistent tone … and that happened pretty naturally. The rest of the record was really just an expansion of that sound palette.
STEREOGUM: So how does it usually work? You just create the tracks and then send them to her to do her part separately?
RODDICK: I basically make the entire track and have a general idea where the vocals might fit. Then I send them to her. We don’t live in the same city. In fact, she lives pretty far away from me, so I’ll send her a pretty finished track and then she does her thing. She has this amazing reservoir of lyrical ideas, so generally she works really fast. She just immediately knows what she wants to sing. For example, I sent her “Lofticries” and she basically recorded the vocals on her phone and sent me the finished track less than two hours later. I rearranged the track a little bit, but all the vocal parts are the same. So basically I send her music, she very quickly sends me back a demo of the song, and then we make a time to get together and record the finished track with the real vocal takes. And then I spend some time mixing it and playing with the little details.
STEREOGUM: So where was the bulk of Shrines recorded?
RODDICK: Quite a few places. The first few songs were recorded while I was on tour playing percussion in another band. So those first songs were written in a van on the road. About half of the record was written in Edmonton, then I moved to Montreal. A lot of the record was basically just done in an apartment and some of it was done while we were on tour. “Fineshrine” was written while we were on tour in Europe.
STEREOGUM: Did you work with a producer or an engineer?
RODDICK: No, with the exception of one track — “Saltkin” — which had additional mixing by a guy named John Hopkins, who is one of my most admired electronic musicians. The rest of the record I produced and mixed myself.
STEREOGUM: At what point did you realize that things with the band were really starting to take off and that people were feeling it?
RODDICK: That happened pretty quickly. It was January of 2011 when we put out “Ungirthed.” We just put it up on the Internet, like most bands do. Within a week it had circled around to a few different publications and gotten some attention … and then it was like it just grew legs and ran off. By the end of that week we were really surprised by the response. We knew it would take some time for the band to grow into something that we could pursue full-time, but we knew right away that we wanted to make it priority. I was moving to Montreal at the time, so I basically sold all my recording gear, went to Montreal, and spent all my time working on new Purity Ring songs.
STEREOGUM: So how long was it after that before you guys were touring?
RODDICK: We did a short tour that summer with Neon Indian and then we did CMJ, which is when things really started to pick up for us. And labels became interested.
STEREOGUM: Was Megan in another band at the time?
RODDICK: No, she hadn’t really been playing in bands — or even writing music — for a long time. She’d been in Halifax and working as a seamstress.
STEREOGUM: That’s a pretty dramatic trajectory — from starting the band in 2010 to being signed to 4AD and touring with Dirty Projectors in 2012. Pretty amazing.
RODDICK: I’m glad you think so, too. We can’t complain.
STEREOGUM: You guys have such an interesting live setup. You know, bands making this kind of mellow, sort of amorphous-sounding electronic music don’t always have the most exciting live shows, but you guys have really taken it to the next level — and in a very DIY kind of way. I’m talking about the musical “light tree” thing that you play on stage. How did you come up with that?
RODDICK: I’d been thinking about it for a long time. Even before we started Purity Ring, I’d been thinking about interesting ways of performing electronic music. I had a few ideas of things I wanted to try. When we first started playing live, we built this little thing in about a week and a half. When there’s no actual “band” to watch — to guitar players, no drummers — it can be boring. We didn’t want to add extra musicians because that seemed like a cheat. Electronic music is all about production and sounds, so when you add a rock band on top of that just for the show, it really changes not only the sound of it but also the original intent. We knew we just wanted it to be us up there and we needed an interesting way to make the performance visual.
STEREOGUM: The thing that you play onstage — does it have a name?
RODDICK: It doesn’t really have a name, to be honest. We don’t really call it anything.
STEREOGUM: I keep looking at videos of you guys playing live and trying to figure out how it works. How did you devise it?
RODDICK: Well, the thing we have now — which has lights — is the second version. The first version we had was just basically a bunch of copper tubes, which basically did a similar thing. Each tube was sensitive to touch and connected to the musical equipment, so you could play all the main melodies just by touching it. Well, that one started to break down so we came up with the new one, which has eight lanterns which are made up of LED lights and cloth and they are touch sensitive. I can play them with mallets and they are connected to a synthesizer, so I can play synth notes. They are also programmed so that the sound of the note you are playing influences the color of the lights.
STEREOGUM: That’s so cool. I’m actually watching a YouTube video of you playing it right now. It’s also cool because … well, it gives you something to do, other than just pressing notes on a keyboard.
RODDICK: Yeah! You know I’m really a drummer at heart, not a keyboard player. It really didn’t make sense for me to have a keyboard. I don’t write the music on a keyboard and I don’t really know how to play one very well, so I wouldn’t be that comfortable doing so on stage. I’m in an instant comfort zone if I can be hitting something.
STEREOGUM: If it breaks down, are you the only one who can fix it?
RODDICK: Yeah, pretty much. It breaks a lot, actually. We’re working on having a new one made. I’m gonna show my little DIY thing to an actual engineer who can take my concept and build something out of better parts that will never break.
STEREOGUM: Are you the kind of band that is always constantly working on new stuff?
RODDICK: Not really, to be honest. I tend to work in little creative bursts. Plus, I wanted to take a step back before we start making new stuff. I want whatever we do next to be a move in some different direction. Whatever happens, I don’t want to make this same record all over again.
Shrines is out now on 4AD.