Q&A With Her Space Holiday

This week’s release of Her Space Holiday‘s 10-track, self-titled album marks the end of the one-man musical project that Marc Bianchi started back in 1996. Fittingly, HSH’s final album is also the first on the Austin-based Bianchi’s No More Good Ideas label. While he has some live dates set to support the LP, the genre-defying musician mostly plans for the album to be the closing statement from HSH, who over the past decade and a half has also remixed tracks by the likes of R.E.M., Bright Eyes, Elastica and the Faint. Bianchi can now add MAGNET guest editor to his already-impressive resume, as that’s what he’ll be doing all week. We recently caught up with him via email.

“Ghost In The Garden” (download):

“The Ballad Of Jan And Bess” (download):

MAGNET: After 15 years of doing HSH, why did you decide to pull the plug on it now? What do you plan on doing next, and how will it be different from HSH? What were you doing prior to 1996?
Bianchi: There are a lot of different factors that lead up to the decision to stop doing Her Space Holiday. However, the timing of the ending seemed somewhat out of my control. In April 2010, I went to Tokyo to play a show that Hennessey was hosting. The whole time I was in Japan, something felt a little off to me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could tell that there was definitely something looming in the background. As soon as I stepped on stage to perform, I realized that “it” just wasn’t there anymore. Whatever it was that drove me to do this for so long up and left. It was a very peculiar moment. But not surprising in the least. I knew it would be coming sooner or later, I just didn’t know when. This isn’t to suggest that I don’t want to keep making new things or that I am not inspired. It just means that this specific part of my life had run it’s course.
Life has a funny way of showing where you need to go. I have ignored those signs in the past with disastrous results. You have to learn to say goodbye to things when they decide to leave. And try to be appreciative as you can for the time you got to spend with it.
I don’t know exactly what I will be doing next. I still have a year of spot dates and some production and film-score stuff on the horizon. There are a lot of things I am interested in outside of music. Making little films, writing fiction, taking photographs. Whatever it is I end up doing, I would like to do it as purely and simply as possible. I want to try not to be so concerned with the outcome and just enjoy the process of creating.
Before 1996, I was playing in a couple of different bands. The ones that were more serious attempts at music were Indian Summer, a brief stint in a band called Mohinder, and then finally Calm.

The new album sort of encapsulates all the different styles you have worked in over the years with HSH. Was that hard to do on a single album? How long did it take to put the record together?
I don’t think I intentionally set out to incorporate all of the different styles that were on the past albums. It just sort of happened. When I started recording my own music in ’96, I didn’t use a computer; it was four tracks, then up to eight. The sounds mainly came from guitar pedals and cheap synthesizers. Eventually, computers and samples ended up in the mix. I got reliant on technology and editing. After a while, I started to question if I was really writing songs at all or just collaging sounds. That’s why I made XOXO, Panda And The New Kid Revival. I wanted to feel the instruments and prove to myself that I could make music without samples again. After I put the New Kid Revival record out, I wasn’t hesitant to bring electronics back into my music. I think that is probably how the old elements started creeping back in.
The new album was recorded in two separate stages. The first being in the Bay Area from early 2008 to early 2009. And then after I moved to Texas in late 2009, I met a producer name Stephen Ceresia from Sundayhouse Studio, and he invited me to come mix and track drums out at his place in Bastrop, Texas. His studio is in this amazing 150-year-old farmhouse. It’s really peaceful out there. They have chickens, and his wife Phoebe raises bees. You feel like you are in an artists retreat. The setting gives you a chance to just focus on the work without all the distractions of everyday life. And visually, the town of Bastrop is stunning. Some of The Tree Of Life was shot out there. It has a very classic Americana feel about it.

What is the usual way for you to approach writing a song? What is the primary instrument you use?
I almost always pick up a guitar and just play around until something strikes me, then I start working in a vocal melody. I never knew how people could sit down and write lyrics without music. It blows my mind. Usually the limitations of my voice or the timing of the chord changes will dictate what the lyrics are about. I guess each set of personal issues have their own number of syllables. So in a way, it ends up being more like problem-solving than songwriting. I find freedom in restriction.

You self-released the new LP. Do you wish you would have done that more in the past?
In a way, I am glad I waited this long to release the album myself. There were tremendous benefits to working with labels. I don’t think I would have toured all over the world if it weren’t for the record labels lining all of that up for me. I don’t think we would even be doing this interview without the efforts of the labels I have worked with in the states. With that being said, depending on who you sign with, being on a label can have its own set backs. Unless you are selling a ton of records, which I never did, you have to compromise on certain things. Not on the songwriting but how some of the business aspects are handled. It is a partnership. There is give and take. The album is ultimately in the hands of someone else, so you better trust those hands.
At the end of the day, I have had some really great experiences working with the labels and some not so great ones. But I wouldn’t change a thing about the path I took. I am extremely happy to be releasing this last album on my own. It is the proper way for me to say goodbye to Her Space Holiday.

You have worked with a ton of different musicians over the years. Who would you like to collaborate with again? Who else is out there that you are dying to work with?
I have been fortunate with having a good group of people around me. I really enjoyed working with Clay from Duster back in the day. Caroline Lufkin was amazing to collaborate with on my new album, and the remix I did for her was a lot fun. Hopefully I can work more with her in the future. If I had the chance, I would collaborate with just about everyone I worked with in the past all over again.
A couple of years ago I got to record my friend Hanni El Khatib’s album Will The Guns Come Out (which is set to be released on Innovative Leisure in September). That was a lot of fun. I think that was the first time I worked on someone else’s entire album. It was a great experience watching the whole thing unfold. It was effortless and raw. Hanni really attacked those songs without hesitation or second guessing anything. I learned a lot by seeing how someone else approaches the process of music making. I would definitely like to try my hand at recording other people’s records in the future.

What do you enjoy more, remixing another artist’s material or having your stuff remixed by someone else? What was it like remixing such a legendary band as R.E.M.? Was there added pressure?
I like having people do remixes of Her Space Holiday songs, but I think I enjoy doing remixes more. My favorite part is listening to the vocal tracks by themselves and hearing a totally different emotion in the singers voice that you can’t necessarily hear when they a part of the full song. Everyone sounds a little sadder without the music. I like that. I try to find that one line that really reveals what is going on with the lyrics and build off of that.
Remixing R.E.M. was one of my favorite experiences in the past 15 years because it was so unexpected. The whole thing happened because Michael Stipe and I were mutual friends with Andy Lemaster (Conor Oberst producer and sometime Bright Eyes Member). I believe Andy was the one who suggested me to R.E.M. for their remix album. It was a really long time ago, but what I remember is that Michael contacted me about doing a remix, and for a minute, I didn’t believe it was him. After talking for a while, I understood that it was a serious offer. He said something to the effect of, “Hey, I am going to be in the Bay Area for the Bridge School Benefit in a couple of weeks, so maybe I can swing by your studio to lay some vocals down.” My studio being my sister’s old bedroom, mind you. This was in the early days, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had a couple of weeks to sort the music portion of the remix out before he arrived. That was the first time I really felt pressure. But eventually, I pulled something together that myself and the band were happy with.
I was living back with my family at the time, and right before Michael arrived, my mom said, “I put out some chips and salsa in case you and Michael get hungry while recording.” She was so sweet. But the fact that she just made me feel like my new friend from school was coming over for the first time to play Super Mario Bros. didn’t calm the nerves. Michael showed up. He was amazingly gracious when he saw where we were actually going to record.  He laid the vocals down like a pro while his driver sat on the couch and watched TV. All in all, the experience lasted under two hours. It was short and sweet and something that I will never forget.

As a musician who has been doing this a long time, what do you think of the current state of the music industry? Do you think an artist such as yourself is better or worse off than you were, say, 10 years ago?
Sometimes I have trouble wrapping my head around how fast the record industry changes every year. I think it will be a while before anyone can tell what sort of impact this new “free for all” of the internet will have on not only the entertainment industry, but on the “arts” in general. The internet now levels the playing field in a lot of ways between the person just starting out and the veteran. For anyone who wants to express themselves and share their work without having to go through a formal distribution channel, the internet is ripe with boundless potential. You can make something in your bedroom, and 10 minutes later someone in a different country is watching or listening to what you did. That concept is mind-blowing. You can use the internet very casually, or you can be a full blown entrepreneur. It is up to you.
However, for someone looking to have a “traditional” career, so to speak, where they sign to a label and rely on album sales for their income, the free digital downloading will impact that dream in a major major way. That’s the bottom line. Even the top sellers sell a fraction of what they used to despite that fact that there fan base could be 20 times larger than it would have been without the internet. If you are a touring band, this all can turn into ticket sales, which is a good thing.
I think for where I am at in my career, the internet is helpful to keep the back catalog circulating and any kind of interest going in the name. Does it translate into sales? No, not likely. But I am very proud of this record, and I want as many people to hear it as possible. These days, you have to go into the game knowing that people will download your music for free. In a lot of cases, record sales do not come into consideration. Commercial, TV and film licenses are where you recoup. Ad agencies are quickly becoming the power houses in the music industry. So as far is it ultimately being better or worse for someone in my position, I really won’t know until from a year from now. But I am optimistic.

What’s the typical day in the life of Marc Bianchi like?
Of course, it varies, but this is an example of a good full day. I wake up around 7 am. My girlfriend and I make some fresh juice and listen to a podcast while we access the day. I will check my email to see if there is anything pressing; if there isn’t, then I will go meet my friend John at the cement half pipe, which is about three blocks from the house. Skate for an hour, come back and work on something, whether it be scoring a commercial, ghost writing for another artist, recording a song of my own, remixes, etc. Just something to keep busy and hopefully keep the lights on. Then around 6 p.m., we start making dinner. Something light. We clean up and then maybe go see a movie or play chess or hang out with friends. I am a very fortunate person to have this life.

How long have you lived in Austin? How has the music scene there changed since you’ve been there? Are you there for the long term?
This is my second time living in Austin, so collectively it is going on about five years now. I really don’t know how the new music scene is doing over all. I have only seen a few shows in the past couple of years, and they have been mostly friends’ bands. With the exception of Twin Shadow, the Walkmen and Wolf Parade, who all killed it. I do look through the Chronicle often, and there seems to be a lot of bands that are doing well both locally and nationally. I think Austin always has and always will primarily be a thriving rock ‘n’ roll town. Just walking down Sixth Street to go grab dinner or see a movie, music will still hit you from all directions. I think we may stay here for another year or two, then go back to the Bay Area. I love Austin, but these summers are getting so brutal. And the drought here is really becoming a problem. Plus, I just miss the ocean.

One of the things you are writing about this week is the movie The Conversation, which is my favorite film of all-time and also from my favorite period of American cinema? What other movies do you love as much as The Conversation? What are some movies from the last few years that you really liked?
That is so awesome that The Conversation is your favorite movie! I hope somebody who has never seen it will read this and check it out. It’s a gem for sure. I have always loved movies. They have been the biggest influence on my work. Each album has been inspired by a different film. For instance, I watched Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves over and over while I was recording Manic Expressive. It played a huge role in setting the tone of that record. In fact, one of the tracks on that album originally contained nothing but samples from the movie. We reached out to Lars von Trier’s office, and they said they would pass it along to him to review for approval, but after we sent the song, he never wrote back, so I had to scrap it and use audio from an interview I did instead. I was really let down. That album will always feel like there is a hole in it without that version on it. [The version of the song is called “The Ballad Of Jan And Bess,” and it has never been released. Until now. Download it above. —ed]
Though I have always watched a ton of movies, it wasn’t until the past couple of years where I started to actively seek out films that have been sited as highly influential or classic. I would say American cinema in the ’70s is probably my favorite period. Everything seemed really lean and dialogue-driven. I have always been fascinated with the sound of the human voice ever since my dad bought me a stack of old radio drama tapes. The movies in the 70’s were so dialogue-driven. And the texture of the film stock is so tangible and gritty. There isn’t anything too obscure on here, but these are some of my favorite films from that era: Straight Time, Badlands, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. Here are some films that have come out in the past few years that I also thought were great: Biutiful, Animal Kingdom, Lovely, Still, Dogville, 2046, There Will Be Blood and Little Children.

Wow. We have almost-identical tastes. Moving on: How many tattoos do you have? What are the first and last ones you got, and what do they represent? Will you keep getting more?
I just had to count. It looks like 21. The first one I got was a tiny pair of cowboy boots on my upper arm that says “DUSTER” underneath it. After I finished playing in in Indian Summer, I moved down to Cupertino, Calif., with my friend Clay. The tattoo is a testament to the crew of friends. Eventually I started Her Space Holiday, and they started the band Duster.
And the last ones were the stargazer lilies on the tops of my hands. Those were drawings that Shynola (the U.K. design firm) did for the Manic Expressive album. I got those to remind myself that anything is possible if you ask. I was a really big fan of the design work that Shynola did for Radiohead and U.N.K.L.E., but I just assumed they would be way out of my price range and I wasn’t well known enough. I was talking to Hanni about how much I wish I could have them design the cover for Manic Expressive. His response was, “Email them and ask.” So I did, and it turned out one of the designers was a fan of Home Is Where You Hang Yourself. Shynola was one of those rare beasts that picks and chooses who they work with based on their interest in the work, not solely they financial outcome. That was another little moment that will always go down as being one of my favorite things about the past 15 years. I don’t think I will get more tattoos at this point. The urge sort of went away.

What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
For now, I have a trip planned in September to play the Teico Festival in Japan. And then I go back to Japan in November for a week long tour with Caroline Lufkin and 4 Bonjour’s Parties. The rest of the year, I will be doing spot dates in different cities to play what will most likely be the last Her Space Holiday shows unless a good tour-support opportunity comes up. I am looking forward to playing these last shows. They will basically be laptop sets of just old songs with maybe a couple new ones in there. I want to take the back catalog out for a spin one last time.

—Eric T. Miller