Gotta hand it to Chicago’s Treasure Fleet, not only did they release two albums within six months of each other in 2012 (the excellent Future Ways and Cocamotion), the band also expanded their horizons by producing a film – Sun Machine – which premiered last year at London’s prestigious Raindance Film Festival.
The soundtrack, available for pre-order now and out February 10th on Recess Records, is a timeless sounding psychedelic rock opus that might very well have been produced in 1969 for all we know! The music of Treasure Fleet is an absolute joy for classic pop-rock (The Who, Pink Floyd) lovers and will definitely appeal to fans of like-minded indie rockers Temples, Pond and Tame Impala.
Thankfully, Isaac Thotz (singer-songwriter) was cool enough to share with us everything (and we do mean EVERYTHING) we needed to know about Treasure Fleet and Sun Machine. Set your controls for the heart of the sun…
What is the motivation behind playing music that some might (erroneously) consider ‘dated’?
What’s funny is I don’t even think of it like that. I remember being a kid in the 80’s and the popular music that was coming out then, I didn’t like the tones and the production, and so I thought contemporary music sounded very dated, just like 70’s haircuts and brown plaid couches looked very dated to me then. And looking back now that music still does sound dated. But that’s always the case in art and pop art that people are going to trend toward certain conventions as a fad. Today there are conventions in popular music and underground music that sound very dated to me. In mainstream pop music, certain inflated acoustic drum and guitar tones are in. Anthemic choruses are in. In underground rock excessive unnatural reverb on vocals is in. In hip hop spastic hi hat sampling is in. Those sorts of production choices all sound very “dated” to me right here in the moment. In terms of our music sounding of a different era, I just have my natural biases and preferences. I like 90’s hip hop drum beats and tones better than today’s. I like the Beatle’s song structures. I like the four piece rock band arrangement. I like the mellotron. I don’t mind trashy rock drums, but I dislike poor singing. I love harmonies. Those are just my own personal biases. But then to get to the motivation of how we want to produce our music-I think we just want it to sound “timeless”. I think there are bands that try to sound much more of a particular era than we do-most often it’s the current era. We don’t approach it like that. Rather, we like to try and make something where people will hopefully go “when was this made”…”where were these guys from”. There’s definitely a starting point from which we’ve taken ideas, basically it’s been from the start of rock and roll. But that’s just a starting point, and we’ve always tried to pull ideas from all eras since. If some of those ideas seem old, it’s because they are. But others are very contemporary, and as I said, the goal is to make the whole thing seem timeless at some point out in the future.
What were the records you were listening to when writing and recording The Sun Machine?
Oh man. I feel like that’s too numerous to even start listing. Preston Bryant, who helped us record and produce the record was living with me during the four or five months it took us to make the record, and he has very eclectic taste in music is very knowledgeable about the history of music and the history of rock particularly. He was excited to turn me on to stuff that I was unfamiliar with, and I was very receptive, so I was listening to tons of stuff at the time. We were listening to everything from Hawkwind to Scott Walker to ELO to Serge Gainsbourg to Peaking Lights to Stereolab to the Zombies to the Flaming Lips to Harry Nilsson. It was all over the place. I’m not saying this to sound erudite. We needed to listen to a bit of everything in order to make the record we wanted to make. It was like this. We had the songs as demos that I had made, but we were in the process of making decisions about how to produce the songs, and a lot of what we were listening to was homework on how to get the results we wanted tastefully. The sort of “production story” of the record, if you will, corresponds to the story arc of the movie and the video production of the movie. You start off with a kind of 60’s-70’s rock band meets 70’s-80’s synthetic tones. That’s the overview of the record. Then song two is back to the beginning: British invasion era 60’s rocknroll band production. Then, as the record progesses, we work our way back into the future of contemporary now, where we have a song wholly played on an ipad in the third to last song, and then no one is even playing an instrument by the (first half of) the last song, but where rather we’re just using a drum machines and sampled tones and constructing the song on a computer.
What is the process behind producing such authentic late 60s sounds?
I’m not really an engineer or producer. Nor am I a musicologist or music historian. So I’m probably not the best source, but I can tell you what we did and what I think makes a difference as far as I know. We used an old tape machine. That’s a start. And we recorded as a live band. We didn’t close mic all the drums; we just did kick snare and two overheads. The sorts of guitar amps and guitar tones contributed to getting those 60’s/70’s feels for sure. Preston had a bunch of early synths. Those are some basics. And then I think it’s songwriting too. I grew up on my dad’s record collection, which was tons of British invasion era four piece rock band stuff. So when I go to write a song, I’m drawing on that a lot. We like harmonies. The Who, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys are still, I think, some of the best references for that, and we try to produce and mix harmonies in a way that’s sort of “vintage” feeling to some people, I would guess.
Tell us more about The Sun Machine film? What is that all about?
Basically, the movie better tells the story of the album. The album has a story arc, but it’s sort of loosely held together, and the movie makes that story more clear. Here’s how the story came about. Initially we were going to try and record a few songs for a 7 inch or two. As we started recording, it was going very very well, and we basically decided that what we had was too good and too cohesive to waste on some 7 inches, so we changed course and started trying to figure out how to make the recordings into an album. I started looking at the songs’ feels and lyrical content and how and if they all held together, and a story started to appear. It’s about this character who’s not well functioning, kind of a deadbeat. He’s searching for something. He’s looking in music, in drugs, in the lives of other people, in art and culture of the past. He doesn’t fit in and he doesn’t know why. He feels like other’s are in possession of a knowledge of something that he just can’t put his finger on and he certainly can’t obtain, call it “how to be a regular human.” So that’s the kernel that was in the songs to begin with. Then there was something in the production of the record, where we had some songs with, for example, synths and highly affected electric guitar tones coupled with djembe and maracas. That sort of thing was popping up all over the record. I started to realize part of the story inherent in the recording really is the story of humans trying to understand organic/biological human existence in a computer/information age: how does one human’s physical existence fit in with the intellectual body of ideas that humans have created and that humans have come to understand as a thing independent of human biological existence. So that became part of the story. And so it’s a work of science fiction, exploring those sorts of themes. You know…what’s the point of human existence…that sort of thing. It’s a very narrow focus.
What drives the wild ambition to record such epic, widescreen rock music?
I think it’s just the challenge of it and the ecstasy that comes with doing something really creatively ambitious. We all wanted to do something that was going to be difficult to pull off and we knew we weren’t already automatically going to be good at. We all know how to make a good punk record. But we knew how much more fun it would be to try and pull off something that none of us knew how to do. Neil kept saying during the process, “Man I can’t believe how much I’m enjoying this session…And I can’t believe it’s still fucking going!!!” It was almost a two years, the process. It was certainly overwhelming at times, but it really was a joy. I mean, I’m not going to say it didn’t take it’s toll, but now that the making of the thing is going to become something that’s behind us, I have to say, it was an absolutely intense and amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Are there any contemporary bands you would consider have inspired your philosophy of music making?
I’m not sure if this will count as “contemporary” because a lot of the people I respect a lot have been making music for a really long time, and it’s only in virtue of their long careers that I’m able to see who they are and what they’re about. And it’s mostly people more than bands. A ton of the usual suspects come to mind. Okay. I haven’t thought of this in years, but probably one of the biggest influences in my “thinking” about music in a more general sense is a man named Peter Schickele. I don’t really know his biography, but he ran a Public Radio program in the early 90’s. The tagline for the program was that he would explore Duke Ellington’s principle of music that “if it sounds good, it is good.” And so he would, for example, I don’t know, I think I remember a program where he explored animals in music, where he played classical music like Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” where different instruments represent different creatures and then Beatles’ use of actual animals sounds in a song like “Good Morning” and talk about the different means to an end of representation. But he was above all a comedian, and so he did all of this in a very light hearted and funny way. So it had all the important elements: open-mindedness, comedy, taste. I loved that show, and it really got me to not think about music in terms of eras and styles and genres and scenes, and think of it more in the artistic realm. He would talk about composition and mood and themes. Much more general ideas. And I think that approach had a great influence on me. Plus he introduced me to Duke Ellington’s maxim. That’s a great starting point. Once you like something, you need to ask yourself: “okay, why do I like this,” and anaylize that thought. I can think of something very contemporary that embodies the same point. There’s a scene from a documentary I watched not long ago that just popped into my head. It’s Mac DeMarco sort of goofing on mixing a song. I’m guessing the interviewer asked him to explain how he mixes or something. And he’s sitting in his tiny little apartment in Brooklyn (I think) and he’s just making the simplest moves on this shitty little mixer or tape machine or something and he’s like: “here’s the kick, here’s the snare, here’s the bass, here’s guitars,” all in his sarcastic slacker manner. And it sounds really great, of course, simple as it is. And the upshot of the scene is “this isn’t fucking rocket science-quit being a poser and just make it sound good.” Ellington’s maxim.
Do you attempt to reproduce studio recordings in live performance? What are your live shows like?
Well, we’ve recorded so many different ways, it just wouldn’t be feasible to try and sound like our records. Maybe someday we would have the time and resources to try and recreate the recordings in a live setting. We all grew up playing in punk bands. There, the recordings and the live band are approached in a similar fashion. You take the live band into the studio, play the songs, and that’s the record. We’re a rad live band though, if I do say so. The tracks with a full band on our records are always recorded live with Mike, Neil, and me. That’s true for all our records. So the records are a representation of us playing together, and live all those feels are there for sure. But some of the production on the records gets sort of elaborate and we couldn’t do everything live. Live it’s more straightforward four (or five or six piece) rock band mode.
How would Treasure Fleet define success?
I guess it goes back to something I said in my answer to the first question: we’re successful if we can pull off making music that’s timeless-music that people in the future find interesting in it’s own way and are going to want to return to and listen to. And I suppose there is a level of notoriety that one desires to accompany that so that you don’t just fade into obscurity before the that future time comes to test you. Anyway, I think that’s success.