MEB writer and photographer Connor Feimster had a special chance to sit down with Rich Balling (codename: The Nightingale), the mastermind behind everything seen and heard from The Sound of Animals Fighting, at the Trocadero Theatre right before the mysterious super group took the stage for the first time in eight years.
MEB: For the record, please state your name and what you do in the band.
Rich Balling: The Nightingale and I share vocal duties.
So how are you doing? Keeping busy?
Beyond. Beyond busy. I have two young daughters and I help with the soccer team, I teach high school English by day, I run a record label called Handmade Birds, and do various musical projects and it just really…it gets crazy.
That sounds wonderfully crazy.
Yeah, I’m actually loving my phone these days because I’ve never really kept a calendar, but recently I’ve been utilizing the digital calendar with all the reminders. It’s great technology; it tells me where I need to be for me.
I totally get that, it’s the very same for me. So, I’d like to start off going back to when The Sound of Animals Fighting was first exposed to the world. There isn’t too much about the group’s history anywhere online because you do like to keep things relatively underground. But with that being said, how did this “supergroup” ever even come to be?
It was just a bunch of friends who wanted to do a project together, that could explore things outside of the realm of the normal atmosphere of their respective bands. I had just met Anthony Green, I think through Charlie [Adams, TM], and he was in Saosin at the time and I just fell in love with his voice immediately which, apparently, the rest of the world has now as well. I just thought “I have to do a project with this guy”, first of all, and second of all, “who are the best musicians I know?” Those guys from RX Bandits are some of the most underrated and amazing musicians still playing music. So it just sounded like a good combination and throughout the course of the three records, we’ve brought in friends as guests, but really the core has been Anthony, myself, Matt Embree, and Chris Tsagakis from RX Bandits.
After reading up on what the recording process was like for Tiger and the Duke and Lover, The Lord Has Left Us…, what was the process like for The Ocean and The Sun? Were those same kinds of extremes taken? I know you’ve had some seclusion and secrecy even within the recording processes in the past.
Yeah, that is a great question. Tiger and Lover were both recorded backwards starting with the drums.
And that was purposely done?
Purposely, yeah. It was a side project, we didn’t have a lot of time to invest in it, and everyone lived all over the place. The best way [for us] to write songs without being in a room together was just adding. But with The Ocean and The Sun, a lot of that material sort of harvested from various jams that the rhythm section guys had come up with over the years. Just jamming. Not the whole record but a lot of it, so there was less improvisation but still, there were no vocals planned for any of those jams, so those were added after the fact. There was still some improv, but it was more structured.
Jumping back to the present, whose idea was it to get back into the swing of things, for this seven-show run?
The rest of the guys had been wanting to do something for quite a few years and I just have a, sort of, intuition and it just didn’t feel right. Then, just for whatever reason, I was watching a friend of mine, John Gourley; Portugal. The Man was in town and they came through Dallas where I live now and I was watching them play the House of Blues and I sorta just got the itch. It was like, “You know what? It feels like it’s time; we could do a venue like this and do visual stuff” and it just felt right. It’s been validated through this whole planning process and everything is coming together very well.
Speaking of “visual stuff”, will there be any special spectacles for these shows, such as the dual painters you had onstage back when you last played? Will we see another film screening in the backdrop?
Well, there’s no film projection in the background. There’s no predictable banner hanging from the back. There’s definitely a visual element and we’re taking a “human art” approach, a “living art” approach, if you will, using colored body suits. I won’t say anything more, I’ll let you work that into your narrative after you see it.*
Wonderful, that sounds exciting. So the current lineup for this tour…who is it?
We have the core four: myself, Anthony, Matt, and Chris. We also have Matthew Kelly, who is secretly all of our unsung hero. This guy sang for a band called The Autumns and he’s the guy that sings “The Heretic” on Lover–the real pretty, angelic voice–and he also sings the last half of [“On the Occasion of Wet Snow”]. He also sings on “My Horse Must Lose” from Lover, as well. So he’s here and he’s also going to fill in the gaps where other voices are needed. I’m really just trying to keep it the intimate, core four and then have our really good friend who’s been on multiple records. He’s the only “guest” that’s been on more than one record. Any others that have come by has lent their voice to a song or two and it’s just been for one record.
And is that a planned thing to just do one-and-done, or is it more like “Hey, we need you to do this for us, let’s see how it goes”?
It’s honestly just “Hey, do you wanna come sing on the album?” just as a friendly approach, really.
So I suppose that “method” accounts for why we don’t really hear much from Craig Owens or Keith Goodwin on other records.
Exactly, it’s a friendly offer.
Like, “If you have the time, we’d love to have you.”
Exactly, “Here’s where we’re recording, come on by.” It’s just like any album that would have [guests], it’s just that we’ve been so extreme about it that it’s just linked to this perception that the band is an army, you know what I mean?
Yeah, because I remember seeing an old promo shots with ten people in it or something, so that’s where I got my assumption.
Yeah, there’s that original photo where we’re all in a line and the guy up front with the horse mask, I think we even had Porter McKnight, who did the artwork for the original Tiger and the Duke album…
Oh, so it was like actually everyone involved in all aspects.
It was everybody, yeah.
Will there be any dates of the tour that have specific people helping you out or any guest appearances? You don’t have to say who, but will there be certain special people?
I’m not sure. Typically, I would say “yes” if somebody drops by, like I know Keith [Goodwin] lives out here so if he would drop by, that would be fun. The issue has been that we actually have someone new filling in on bass and his name is Jonathan Hischke. He’s played with The Shins and Broken Bells and he’s had to learn the songs in, like, two weeks’ time, so those potential extra ones would need to be improvised [and] might not be as attainable as it could be.
What made you guys want to start this tour in Philadelphia? I figured it was because of Anthony’s availability or local following.
Well this tour was all about the east coast, really. We did west and we weren’t sure if we were ever going to play again but we knew that if we did, it would have to be the east coast. Not to forget about the mid west but we just can’t do it all, so we go where people can travel.
So the best bet would be to just hit both ends of the spectrum: east and west.
Yeah, so we thought that doing two nights in Anthony’s home region would work so we could do Thursday and Friday here and then hit New York right on the Saturday and it all just worked out.
Just earlier today, you announced the preorders for Tiger and the Duke and Lover, The Lord Has Left Us… on vinyl. Are there any plans to do something of that sort for The Ocean and The Sun?
Possibly. Honestly, we haven’t even discussed it. The issue of vinyl was just sort of tossed out there with the shows coming up. Equal Vision thought it was a great idea so I didn’t really spend much time exploring The Ocean and The Sun option. I’m sure that’ll happen eventually, though. I’m definitely not opposed to it.
My last question for you would be that, ever since announcing these shows, people had been buzzing about what it could mean for the future, so can we expect a fourth record?
Right now, it’s just [these] shows. When we did our practice yesterday, obviously there was banter about what could be, “this is cool, we could do another record”, but there’s been no plan made yet, so we’ll just see how it feels.
*Balling wasn’t kidding around. Close to thirty people from the crowd were enlisted (not sure how, I think a raffle?) to head backstage while the band was setting up to don solid-colored bodysuits so they could be used as scenery and as a message themselves. I personally don’t wish to share much else, on account of people planning to go see one of the six remaining shows, but it truly was a beheld spectacle.