Straya came our way through a recommendation by He Whose Ox Is Gored drummer John O'Connell. I was hungover in his kitchen after a late night in Seattle. 58 people were dead from a shooting in Vegas the night before and we woke up to the news that Tom Petty had also passed. John squeezed oranges and fixed me a drink and we listened to Straya's Sobereyed in its entirety. I was struck by how limitless the music was, how grand the scope. Turns out, I'm not alone, as rave reviews continue to pile up for the Minneapolis post-metal band's second LP. I had a chance to correspond with them recently about various sentient topics. Read the interview below and go see Straya on March 29th at Mortimer's in Mpls. Or, if you're like me and live elsewhere, check out this rad live video of my favorite track from Sobereyed, entitled simply "K."
Filmed by Sam Silverness for Natural Media
Taken as a whole, ‘Sobereyed’ is a colossal piece of music. I’m curious how a band goes about writing a record like this. What can you tell me about how ‘Sobereyed’ came to be?
Cody (guitar/vocalss): Sobereyed took a long time to come together (e.g. “Timid” dates back to 2015), and the writing was more conceptual than anything we’d done previously. There wasn’t a ton of “jamming” to figure out these songs. Ideas — either constructed parts or just concepts — usually originated with one person, then were brought to the whole band. There was a lot more talking before diving into playing than there was just feeling out parts, etc. Even before all the core pieces of the album were finished, we wrote out a sort of sonic path we wanted the album to follow. The major dynamic contrasts and flow were very critical to the album.
Toby (drums/keys): Like Cody said, I think we tried to be very aware that we were writing a record, not just songs. Four of the songs were more or less written independently (Timid, Acoustic Song, Leach, and K.) and I think those were the pillars we structured everything else around. But even before we were completely done writing those songs, we were talking and thinking about song order, album flow, etc. We agreed on loose ideas of what we thought the record was still missing, and then brought in concepts that we individually had on how to fill those spaces.
Is the record a concept record? It’s obvious to me, with both the Faulkner and Kafka references, that there’s something literary behind it.
Mark (guitar/keys): Sobereyed is not a concept album in the lineage of 70’s prog where there is a focused thematic narrative throughout (e.g., Pink Floyd’s Animals or Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans)—and it certainly is not a Bowie-esque concept album with characters and a sense of physical space being constructed (e.g., Outside or Ziggy Stardust). I understand the sentiment behind the question, though, as a feeling of “literariness” seems to be a large factor in how people define the concept of a concept album.
A distinction that feels relevant to me is that many concept albums have a transparent artifice and organization to them: “I am going to write all of these songs about different types of people that I feel negatively about, and I’ll represent them symbolically as different types of animals like Orwell did . . .” Sobereyed is much more diffuse than this, with lyrical themes simply being derived from the art we had been engaging with at the time and how it made us feel about the world. Luckily, all four of us have some overlapping sentiments that we wanted to share, so we built an aural/textural/harmonic narrative to give it structure. It’s important to me to not create art that forces others to engage with it in one particular way, so I’m not sure if I/we could ever write a “traditional” concept album.
As for the Faulkner reference in the title, that was half aleatoric; I chose texts that I felt fit the mood of the beginning of the record, then mined them for passages that called to mind descriptions the album cover. There is no direct (intended) correlation between the themes of that text and the themes of any of the lyrics—but it is a text that I like to have existing in a network with Sobereyed. Kafka is much more directly linked to the thematic content of the track “K.” Aside from the direct reading of “Vor dem Gesetz,” the lyrics are essentially my impressions/meditations after rereading two of his novels.
Tell me a bit about the Minneapolis scene today.
Cody: I’m not sure what to say about it, at this moment. There’s not a singular sound of the scene; it’s a lot of little niches. Fortunately, Straya gets to play on all kinds of different bills, thanks to nice friends who make a wide variety of music. If you know where to look, you can see some great and strange music most nights of the week. For example, tonight I’m excited to go to a free show at a bowling alley to watch Sanjeev’s screamo band play with an experimental noise group.
Overall, it bums me out a bit to consider the scene as a whole: Two of the best venues for underground bands — the Triple Rock and the Reverie — have closed in the past year. It doesn’t really feel like there’s a “home” venue anymore. The main music press here consistently brings up the same types of radio-friendly, highly groomed pop acts. One company owns many of the popular venues and books most of the bigger shows, effectively monopolizing the parts of the scene that aren’t explicitly DIY. So, I tend to stick to going to shows my friends put on. And the more time I spend here, the more great musicians I meet.
You grew up with the internet. Every musical nugget has been available to you. How does one think about music with that advantage? How does one discover a major influence? For example, in my formative years, I found out about bands from reading zines, or word of mouth, or going to shows and seeing the opening bands, and, to a minor extent, the radio. I’d imagine it’s different now?
Toby: I don’t know about the others, but for better or for worse the main effect has been that I often now think of music in terms of time. Everything is always available for me to listen to, and if there’s any particular niche or genre I want to explore there are literally hundreds of lists that could guide me. It kind of becomes a matter of what’s “worth it” at a given time or what’s the “right thing” to spend my time listening to, which is really confusing and disheartening. On the bright side, this glut of music also means that I usually give up on trying and just listen to what my friends recommend, which is always great and very rewarding. I think I end up attaching to the records my friends love a lot more than to records I know I “should” check out, etc.
Sanjeev (bass/vocals): I have always discovered new music primarily through friend recommendations so things haven’t really changed much for me. Maybe that’s because music has always been a social and not purely personal experience for me. The particular access routes have changed (I mostly stream now) but how I find the music in the first place is basically the same.
Mark: Digital files of music being easily and often freely available was integral to my development as a musician, especially as a child. In November 2016, we lost our most important digital cultural institution, the private torrent tracker What.CD. (Yes, I’ve heard the argument that file sharing is making artists lose money—but US copyright laws are insane and a massive barrier to creativity. I am not advocating for breaking copyright law here.) Everything was so meticulously cataloged on their website (much more so than the library that I work at), and you could always find that strange demo from your favorite artist that isn’t available anywhere. Having that kind of access didn’t make me voraciously dig into everything that I could, though; it mostly led me to finding very specific artists/records that felt perfect and investing a lot of time into interacting with them. My path to locating those works was usually through reading articles on Wikipedia, searching through similar artists on Last.fm, and finding strange playlists. As I’ve grown older, though, recommendations from friends (who are now also older with more developed taste) have become increasingly important.
Cody: Most music that has been really impactful for me has come from other people’s recommendations. I’ve definitely found artists I like through things like clicking around on Bandcamp tags or waiting for a streaming algorithm to feed me a song it thinks i’ll like. And I recognize that our band has grown up with an endless supply of digital music available to us. I’m glad we’ve lived in a time that allows us to hear art from all over the world, and that music is usually accessible for free to anyone with an internet connection. But like Sanjeev, music is often a highly social/communal thing to me. I love to share music and have it shared with me.
Tell me a bit of the band members’ interests outside of Straya.
Toby: Currently I’m super into trying figure out how to work Ableton.
Sanjeev: I spent a lot of time organizing with the Fight for 15 here, and I’m starting to get back into organizing with local socialist organizations. I am in two other bands in Minneapolis, and I’ve also started strength training. (Editor's note: Sanjeev's other bands are Tulip and Sleep Debt. Both have yet to release music, but are playing locally in Mpls.)
Mark: I spend most of my time lately on Wikipedia or reading Samuel Delany. Physical activity is really important to me too; I make most of my important decisions on a bicycle or a long walk. And I think that everyone could stand to watch more animated films/TV shows.
Cody: I work as a journalist, so most of my energy outside of music goes into consuming/trying to understand the news and the topics I cover(climate change/environmental issues). I like to bike whenever I can, too.
As a label, we’re interested in challenging certain aspects of capitalism and social conservatism. However, we’re reaching a stalemate between ideological standpoints in this country. If we’re to make progress, the arts are more important than ever. Often it’s movies, music, and writing that changes culture. Where does Straya fit in to this polemic?
Cody: Our music isn’t overtly political, as you’d find with even a cursory read of our lyrics. To me, this album is more of a means for meditation and release, which has grown more important even over the course of making it.
Sanjeev: I remember waking up after the election to a gray and foreboding sky. I could barely drag myself out of bed. When I mustered up the energy to make some breakfast before work, my eggs and bread turned to ashes in my mouth. I felt powerless, afraid, and alone. In this condition, people are physically incapable of struggling for a better world for themselves, and for all of us. The political drive of my music is to combat these dispiriting processes through acknowledgement, connection, and resonance.
Beneath the atomizing forces of neoliberal capitalism under which we all struggle today, music has so much radical potential. People working together and connecting can help re-establish the communal bonds that have been severed under the indoctrination of the “bootstraps” myth. I want to acknowledge the mundane isolating terror that most people wake up to every day but also communicate that this isn’t the only truth there is. (This is most clearly seen in “Leach.”) By re-discovering the social nature of humanity and working together, we can start to erode the foundations of the structure under which we all toil. Music, and art in general, has the power to shatter the narrow expectations of what is possible and allow us to imagine a radically just and equitable world.
Talk about the last thing that inspired you. It can be anything.
Sanjeev: The West Virginia teacher’s strike. Solidarity!
Mark: Hearing a friend talk about a collection of short stories that I lent them—or watching Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev for the first time!
Cody: A random call from my friend Adam, and Ryuichi Sakamoto's “async.”
Straya's Sobereyed continues to rule this writer's musical world. They've got a host of dates up at their bandcamp page plus are working on a potential tour of the West Coast this August.