Words by David C. Obenour
The pandemic upended how we do a lot of things. It slowed down or stopped other things entirely. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. Other times, just in different ways.
For their 18th album, brothers Andy and Edwin White of Tonstartssbandht were confronted with new restrictions in creating. Without the opportunity to play out, the new collection of songs lived in a more controlled environment. Time and geography were limited and the usual creative process of a live performance was impossible. It was also the first time the brothers went outside the family to seek help in mixing the finished record. Not better. Not worse. Definitely different.
Over the years, Tonstartssbandht albums and live recordings are truly a snapshot of a place and time. The songs will continue to evolve as the world opens back up and the brothers go out on the road once more. But the beginning was different and it’s yet to be seen how that will play out in the end.
Off Shelf: Your second album for Mexican Summer, I imagine the label has brought you a lot of new fans and admittedly, I’m one of those who are just being introduced to your music now 18 albums in. Have you noticed a change in your audience since joining the roster?
Edwin White: More exposure and a wider audience probably just brings more kinds of people all around. Lotta nice people out there and we are happy to reach new listeners at a mellow pace.
OS: With such an extensive back catalog, do you have any recommendations as to a primer for new fans? Is there an album or albums you would suggest tracking down?
EW: Sorcerer (2017, Mexican Summer), Overseas (2014, Company / Arbutus), Now I Am Become (2011, Arbutus), Hymn (2011, Does Are), Dick Nights or An When (2009, Does Are). Those are all different eras kinda. Should bring you up to speed. And then fine tune your ear with some of the live cassettes.
OS: Following up on that, how do you put together a setlist with such an extensive catalog – but also newer fans and current albums to support? Are there aspects of older recordings that you want to make sure to cover in a live show?
EW: We play a lot of new stuff for sure, and then we add anything older in there that can fit the vibe of the set really.
Andy White: Our earliest albums had a fair amount of songs built off of vocal looping and samples, which we haven’t really bothered injecting into our live sets the last few years, focusing more on the guitar/drums/vocals set-up. But we always talk about bringing it back. Like Edwin said, we’ve just been focusing on maintaining the correct energy of a live set.
OS: A lot of your previous albums have been informed through playing the material out live. I was wondering how you thought not having that method – or at least being limited because of the pandemic – for Petunia affected these songs?
EW: I think “Falloff” had some early versions performed live, and maybe “Pass Away”. Otherwise, I’m not sure, maybe it let us lock the tunes down and not mess em up anymore with constant rewrites.
AW: Definitely. When we got to recording Sorcerer, those songs are all super long and jammed with parts and movements because we’d been playing out these ideas on the road for awhile. With Petunia, we tended more to lock down certain ideas and let them be.
OS: This was also the first time where a lot of the songwriting and recording process got condensed into a time and place. Do you hear any differences in these songs because of that?
EW: Yes, I think there’s a cohesive uniformity to the quality of the recordings for once. Most of all the singing and vocals got a lot of attention. Andy rigged up a damn vocal booth! The voices are clear and prominent compared to past albums.
AW: I rigged up a damn vocal booth.
OS: You also involved other people outside of your core duo in the production of Petunia. What led to that change? Do you think you’d want to collaborate further outside of the production of an album?
EW: Joe Santarpia and Roberto Pagano are good friends and serious pros. We realized we needed help mixing this one and their first pass was night and day on what we had done. Again I think we realized we had the time, as did they, and we trusted their input. It was a great call. As for the future collabs beyond production, hard to say! Never say never but I can’t think of anything. We’ll see where we’re at next time around.
OS: Having been forced to take a break from touring, do you think the time away has changed anything about how you think or approach performing live?
EW: Maybe in ways we haven’t realized yet. But for the most part the aim is unchanged. We go out there and try and perform the music as best we can each night, and do it justice.
AW: I would love to play with care and ecstatic release, and hopefully get to bed at a reasonable hour.
OS: With things starting to open back up, what excites you most about getting back out in front of live audiences?
EW: Making them dance.
AW: Meeting people and making new friends.
OS: You play a 12-string guitar, what appeals to you about this instrument? Do you feel there are still ways you’re exploring it and that it can excite you?
EW: It’s nice and thick and loud. That’s what I dig about Andy’s 12 string.
AW: There’s only 1 song – I think? – on the new album where I’m playing the 12 string, but it’s coming on tour with us for plenty of other songs.
For me, it can be a finicky task playing a 12-string for lead and bass at the same time, and its a workout to be constantly fingerpicking. But it sounds so nice blowing up on the preamps. I have found in the last year, I like putting it down and playing a 6-string again because when I come back to it, the songs I do end up writing and playing on it sound like they have to be 12-stringers.
OS: Is there a moment from Petunia, maybe a lyric, a melody, or an effect, that you find yourself particularly resonating with after the process of writing, recording and now releasing it?
EW: Currently, I think my favorite part to play is the middle section of “Falloff.”
AW: Since we’ve been rehearsing the new album the last few weeks, it’s all the harmonizing. Feels great to punch it in and lock it with my boy playing it live.