Reconstruction: Pattern is Movement Amends its Process

After 2008’s All Together, Philadelphia duo Pattern is Movement set to work on the next record. But it wasn’t until April this year that their self-titled fifth album finally found its way into the public sphere.

There were the usual things that find ways to interrupt and delay passion pursuits. Life happens. Percussionist Chris Ward got divorced sometime during the process. He has a full-time job. Writing, recording, mixing: it all takes time.

But when bands, like The Growlers and The Mountain Goats can release material almost yearly, sometimes twice a year, Pattern is Movement’s six-year turnaround between albums can appear to be a bit of a lag.

It’s impossible to say when Pattern is Movement might have seen light had Ward and Andrew Thiboldeaux not reapproached the entire work after closing the book on it once. But certainly rewriting bass parts for a month, remixing and reproducing a record are not timely pursuits. In any case, Ward found the efforts worthwhile.

“I think it really worked, this is the best record I’ve ever been a part of.”

The record sits confidently between James Blake’s Overgrown and The Roots’ How I Got Over. Thiboldeaux’s voice is consistently comfortable and familiar. But looking closer, it’s not doing all the heavy-lifting. There’s an intricate, well-worked system at play where, without densely layered keyboard parts or Ward’s drumming, Thiboldeaux would have no one with whom to work.

Pattern is Movement is something like watching the San Antonio Spurs on a Finals run. We can latch onto Thiboldeaux as the most visible just as we can Tim Duncan, but the vocal work is really only a more recognizable cog in a complex, detailed machine. And so much of that effect is owed to to Ward’s production work on the album and what he calls “lead drumming.”

Pattern is Movement plays Vega Sunday night with Tie These Hands. RSVP here.

Yesterday, Hear Nebraska talked with Ward about the process for the recent album, writing with a lifelong friend and why Pattern is Movement garners such a strong reception in Lincoln. Read the full interview below.

“[Andrew] sends it to me and I remember sitting in my office, and I cried because it was so fucking good.”      

HN: So you guys are playing Lincoln on Sunday night, you guys have played here fairly often. It seems like you always get a good turnout. Is there anything different about playing Lincoln than other places?

CW: That’s true. Lincoln is indicative of a lot of smaller markets. It’s indicative in that people are very grateful that you come to their city. There’s a lot of built-in hospitality just by the mere fact that you came to that town. When you play Chicago or L.A., they don’t really care as much, which has it’s pluses and minuses. What’s nice about Lincoln specifically, people in Nebraska are really kind. There’s this warmness to playing Lincoln, as well as Omaha.

HN: What other markets can it be indicative of?

CW: Athens, Georgia would be immediately on my mind. It’s very small compared to Atlanta. A lot of people skip Athens. Columbus, Ohio. Those are good examples.

HN: Athens has a pretty sweet music scene, or did like six years ago at least.

CW: Totally. But everybody skips it. Not everybody, but the big brother is definitely Atlanta. It’s too close to play both so they lose a lot of shows. Playing Lincoln is like playing Athens. I really enjoy it. We also have a connection to Lincoln, which is Tie These Hands, which is a reason we originally started playing there.

HN: How did you get connected?

CW: I was working at a recording studio called the Gradwell House and the owner, Steve Poponi, had a band called Up Up Down Down Left Right B A Start and they had played together. Somehow we heard them and we were booking our own tour. Steve told us we should play with them and that it’s a cool town. We met them, played together. So that’s what originally got us in the door in Lincoln. We just keep coming back because we always have a good time.

HN: When would that have been?

CW: Oh man. A long time ago. 2006 probably. Almost ten years ago.

HN: Were you guys still a five-piece back then?

CW: We were a three-piece at that point. The five-piece only existed for like a year. It’s hard to sustain that. It’s a lot of people to have on tour.

HN: Are there differences when it comes to writing? Is it more intense with just one other person?

CW: I’ll speak to how this album was written. Andrew went ahead and recorded all of his parts as well as all of the acoustic instruments. Pretty much everything on that record is not synthetic. It’s all human beings playing instruments, but Andrew had to arrange those parts. He did that first without me. I didn’t go to those sessions. I just said ‘hey man, I’ve been making music with you for a long time. I trust you. You’re going to do what you’re going to do anyway.’ And that’s kind of what I’m getting at when there’s just two people. There isn’t a lot of fighting because if you do something and the other person doesn’t like it, the argument isn’t that long. The argument becomes ‘I want it.’ If the other person doesn’t want it, they’ll have to really fight hard because there’s no way to get another person on your side. You’re not going to fight it that hard because it’s not something you wrote. I didn’t write that. I can make a case but I didn’t write it.

That’s what happened on this record. I’m not going to fight his arrangements because I didn’t write them. There’s nothing to argue. I can tell you how I feel about them. Maybe if there’s something devastatingly like, ‘oh no.’ I’ve been making music with this guy since I was 14. I trust him.

So I told him to record all his stuff. Then I’ll do the drums. But I’m going to do the drums last. The reason I wanted to do drums last is I’m sick of recording drums to a click track and some stupid scratch track. Every drummer in the world has to play to a click track to some stupid scratch that sounds nothing like what the song is going to be. I said I want that whole song recorded. When a singer goes into the studio, they play to the whole song because they need to respond to the song. I made the statement out loud that he’s a lead singer, I’m a lead drummer. So that’s what we did. It was a great experience. I felt like I didn’t have to justify my drum takes to anybody else.

HN: I didn’t really think of drumming as being able to emotionally respond to music. How do you change your drumming to respond to what’s going on around it? How does that affect your process?

CW: My drumming changes but I’m not really able to know why. Here’s a basic idea. Have you ever watched a band play music for like a week that they played the same set?

If you’ve experienced that, you know if you play the same material over and over, then maybe one night you hear a guitar part a little differently than you heard it every other night. You hear it and you latch onto it. Maybe you’ll play a little differently. Maybe you want to accent what that person is doing. For whatever reason, you heard it that way. Maybe the next night you won’t hear it that way. When I think about playing to a click track, it’s a flat surface. A guide track is flat. There’s nothing dynamic about it. It’s going to encapsulate the song rather than letting the song exist.

I want there to be as much content as possible for me to listen to and latch onto. A song like “Rum,” there’s this steady tropical beat in the beginning. I keep it going all the way to the middle of the song and all of a sudden these trumpets break in. The trumpets come in and I want to dip out. I want the trumpets to sing. Then I come back and I come back with the exact same thing you heard but I’m playing it on a different part of the drum. I’m trying to accentuate that part. Then there’s this outro with all these pianos. Not just one piano. It’s quick and windy, like a windy road. All of a sudden I go into a backbeat. That’s three different drum parts. Had there been a click track with a guide, I would have never gotten the full understanding of the song. It wouldn’t have been possible. By recording on the end, I got to hear what it felt like, not just sounded like.

People have always been bummed the my drumming is not as visceral on the recording. I wanted to try it out. I always felt this responsibility in studio to keep time and to be the clock of the band. But live was not so much like that. I was more of the lead drummer. So I wanted to do it this time. It was such a great experience.

HN: When there’s just two of you, as the drummer there’s probably space for you to step into that role.

CW: It does have a lot to do with it being the two of us. If it was four of us, it’s harder to navigate because there’s all these other players happening. I really like to be in the moment. It sounds corny saying it loud, but it’s true. Being in the moment means sometimes you’re going to do something you won’t remember. That’s what I was getting at with being able to respond emotionally to the song. Sometimes you’ll do something as a musician and your brain is not registering memories.

For whatever reason, it’s firing different cylinders. I almost feel like sometimes when I’m playing drums there is no such thing as time. Time is necessary for memory and it feels completely timeless. So I forget what I did. That’s always been my feeling live, never in the studio. In the studio I felt time. I wanted to get lost in the song. That’s what happened. I really like a lot of my drum tracks. There are some fills I could never play again. They are fill that just came out of me and I’ll never get again, which is amazing. In some ways it’s a gift to people that are a fan of my band. I could never do this again but I made sure I recorded it.

HN: So how does two people with a bunch of instrumentation work in a live setting for you?

CW: I’ll give you this story, because your question kind of begs another question. How did the set up on the record happen? We recorded the record like I spoke about. I tracked my drums, then we mixed it. Then after we mixed it, we sent it to a label. A month went by. We hadn’t heard from the label. Andrew and I were listening to it. We call each other and we were like ‘Do you like it?’ ‘I don’t know. I don’t think I like it.’ ‘It doesn’t feel finished.’ Then we heard from the label and they said the same thing without even knowing we said that. I was part of the engineerin,g but I wasn’t the lead engineer. I was kind of helping out. So I went to the studio without the engineer and mixed “Gone My Love” by myself. I was just messing around. I wanted to get inside of it and see what was going on. I sent it to Andrew and he was like ‘Whoa, this is really good. Why don’t you mix the whole thing?’ I didn’t want to do it. I wanted some distance from the record.

I was down to be more of a producer and less of a bandmate. He was into it. If I’m a producer I’m going to be more frank with him. I said ‘First things first, the bass on the record needs to be redone. How about we hire a bass player, someone with a gospel feel.’ Then I found this bass software called Trilian. So we used the software.

I was trying to get this record back on track a little from the production side. It just didn’t feel right. Andrew goes home with the software. I don’t hear from him for a whole month. He sends me the songs, everything that you’ve heard is pretty much already on. All he does is play bass through a synthesizer. He sends it to me and I remember sitting in my office and I cried because it was so fucking good. I’ve known him for so long and when you know someone, you kind of box them in and think you know everything about them. I just had no clue he could play bass like that. It was everything I wanted as  a bandmate and a producer. So I’m crying because it’s so moving, so fucking cool.

Once the bass on the record now happened, the songs started to become what they are. There was more of an R&B vibe. That wasn’t there originally. It was hinted at.

It’s part of why it took so long. I kept saying that ‘I want this record to marinate.’ It was a blessing and a curse.

HN: How long was the whole process?

CW: We started tracking in 2009. We released in 2014. It was a long process. But I also got divorced, I got a full-time job. There was just a lot happening. We were growing and changing as people. From my vantage point, it came out pretty quickly.

HN: What’s your full-time job?

CW: I run a club in Philly call Johnny Brenda’s. The term that my parents understand is talent buyer. I’m just a promoter. I promote shows. I do that from the road. When we get off the phone, that’s what I have to do.

HN: We’ve been talking about pluses and minuses, a job like that is wrought with them. It’s nice you can work on the road but it sucks to work on the road.

CW: You said it, it’s definitely given me some gray hairs. Well, we’re excited to come back to Lincoln. We really like it there. We’ve heard really good things about the new club.