The Sound of Animals Fighting

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Back in August of 2006, I interviewed Rich Balling—referred to by his pseudonym, The Nightingale—of The Sound of Animals Fighting. The interview was arranged by Jason Shawn through and originally posted to his music site Smother.

The band was gearing up for a brief run of shows on the West Coast which, at the time, were to be their only shows ever. Thankfully, that would prove not to be the case. Fast forward nearly eight years and the band regroups to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first record. The brief tour of hit both coasts, including a weekend stop in New York City (only a five-hour bus ride from DC!).

Seeing the group perform live was quite an experience and reminded me of my brief intersection with some of my all-time favorite musicians.

Here’s the original interview, in its entirety, preserved here for posterity.

Smother: First things first, how are you doing?

The Nightingale: I am well. I have a ton on my plate right now: I am two days from finishing my student teaching assignment and will have my credential to teach English next week, I am packing to move to Texas, and preparing for these shows. On top of that I am engaged to be married soon, and everything seems to be happening all at once. Much stress, but I am handling it well.

Smother: The Animals have been pretty busy lately. The new record has been out for about two months now. How has it been received by fans and critics?

The Nightingale: At first, we were not sure what the reaction would be. No matter what kind of record we put out, there would be haters and lovers. The question was not if, but how many. There have not been nearly as many haters as we expected, considering how broad and strange the new album might appear to people not used to hearing unconventional songwriting in our scene. In fact, the “scene” has become so laden with pretense and bands that put out bad record after bad record while saying how “different” each record is, that I feel sick even saying that our music is different in this interview. Because you have all heard that before, and the record is never different. In any case, I am proud of what we have done with our experiment. It has allowed us to literally make music without being concerned with opinion.

Smother: Prior to its release, you noted online that Lover, the Lord Has Left Us… would be dramatically different than Tiger and the Duke, I’d say you’ve lived up to that. Has there been any backlash or negative reaction?

The Nightingale: I went into that a little bit with the last question… but the truth of the matter is the lovers have far outnumbered the haters with this album. And like I said, we did not know what to expect either way. The problem with most of the haters is ignorance. They might say something like, “I don’t like the new song you released, that Indian girl is singing off-key. I wonder if the band realizes that?” And in my mind I am thinking, “Wait a minute, this person does not like the album because they think the Indian girl—Amirtha—is off-key. First, that kind of music operates in a completely different mode/key/scale/register… everything, than the Western music we are comfortable hearing. And she is not singing off-key. In fact, she is very much on-key, and so the reason this person doesn’t like the song is not even a real reason.” Worrying about what other people think will drive a man to his knees.

Smother: Going back in time a bit, what was your inspiration for Tiger and what did the group hope to accomplish with the project?

The Nightingale: I wish the answer was more exciting, but my girlfriend was reading something about Bear Vs. Shark in AP and said the phrase, “the sound of animals fighting.” I thought that the phrase was so cool that there had to be a band by that name. My imagination ran wild and I immediately called everyone, starting with Anthony [Green], who I had really wanted to work with for a while at that point. I wanted to assemble a band that could write songs even though its members were spread across the states. We achieved every goal.

Smother: Tiger focused greatly on guitar- and drum-based “progressive” arrangements a la The Mars Volta and others. Lover draws upon elements of Eastern music, electronica, industrial, ambient, and even hip-hop to a small degree. What served as inspiration for this record?

The Nightingale: Tiger, in all its guitar glory, is something we are very proud of, but strangely, was a much easier record to write than Lover. I make no apologies for the uncanny skills of the musicians in the rhythm section of this band. We could/would/might/just may write another Tiger if we want, but that may or may not ever be something we’d want to do. Lover was a chance to really push the envelope. Bands often sit in the studio and will add a ten second drum machine part to a new song for their new record and leave the session feeling like they are super revolutionary. Then the record comes out and in six months nobody cares and the band realizes that they were kidding themselves. Ten seconds of drum machine in a song is not being experimental, it is wanting to be but not going all the way. Lover is a record that may or may not be understood at first, but as bands continue to push boundaries and become more and more extreme with ideas and recording techniques, Lover will stay current for quite a while.

Smother: For Tiger, each member of the band was only allowed to hear their individual parts during the recording process. For Lover, each member was given a day or so to complete their parts. What was it like working within these rather restrictive creative confines?

The Nightingale: It separates the men and women from the boys and girls, that is for sure. It is not easy, but the people involved all respond well to these challenges because as you spend a large amount of time touring and recording in certain parameters of one band, you begin to forget what it is like to be forced to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Forcing these musicians outside of that zone was a thrilling, productive challenge for them.

Smother: From a technical standpoint, were The Animals given much in the way of direction when recording their parts? For example, “I need four bars of X here” or was it completely open-ended and arrangements were created after-the-fact?

The Nightingale: Everyone is given a canvas. Some may be given a canvas with a few colors already painted onto it. They have complete artistic freedom to an extent. The only filter being the overarching vision that I have going into the record, and what it takes to keep a consistency with the record and its ideas. Pretty much, the artists make jeans the best way they can, and I am the quality control person putting the #45 sticker in the pocket.

Smother: In a teaser podcast, you mentioned that the song titles on Lover share a common element. Can you give your fans any more clues as to what that might be?

The Nightingale: I can’t possibly ruin the mystery. ;)

Smother: The last track on Lover, “There Can Be No Dispute That Monsters Live Among Us,” appears to rail against the established notion of Western music. Is this a rant against modern popular music or all of Western music?

The Nightingale: Some of the best songs ever written are from the West. It is not Western music that is being railed, it is the notion that some people think we can’t, for instance, include Sanskrit vocals in a predominantly Western song because, “it’s not supposed to be that way,” “it’s never been done,” “because… because… you just can’t do that!” The moral of that song is, “even noise can be music,” because really, it can. And if the ears of the listener are uncomfortable, that does not mean the music is bad, it means the listener does not prefer to hear it.

Smother: The band has a set of shows coming up at the end of this month in Southern California and Las Vegas. Rumor has it these will be the only shows the group plays. Any truth to the rumor?

The Nightingale: I would say the rumor is closer to the truth than not, unfortunately. There will be a DVD filmed at the shows, and the shows are going to be just as intense as we can be.

Smother: Regarding the DVD, are we talking big, three-camera shoot or something a little more intimate?

The Nightingale: Intimate in the camera work yes, but there will be three cameras. Nothing flashy, but good quality.

Smother: The artwork and liner notes to your two records have both been extensions of the music and supplement the message. Despite operating largely in secret, the band has put a great deal of effort into being visually appealing. How has this aspect of the creative process worked on each of the group’s albums?

The Nightingale: That is a good point that nobody has really approached us with before. The thing is, we definitely do not wake up in the morning and think, “what color-coordinated masks and cute outfits can we wear today?” The masks were simply a way to keep the anonymity… and what better thing to use than cool-looking animal ones. We may not stand for image-driving music, but we are not opposed to things that look cool. I like movies almost as much as music, and my favorite movies are the ones that look cool, even if the story isn’t the best. Visual appeal is entertainment. Embracing that does not mean we have to be Diesel-wearing models with razored hair and slick bangs. The aim for the stage show is to play the music the best we can while putting on a visually appealing show. But that appeal will come from multimedia and oil paint and dancers and ladders and lighting, not from haircuts and jeans and pseudo-ideology.

Smother: A fan of the band recently created two music videos, one for “All is Ash…” and another for “Horses in the Sky,” set to clips from the video game “Kingdom Hearts.” For a band who strives to elegantly mix seemingly disparate genres, what was your reaction to this sort of multimedia mashup?

The Nightingale: I was blown away simply by the fact that another human being took time out of their life to do that with our music. I think most anyone would take that as a compliment. My favorite of that series is the one for “My Horse Must Lose.”

Smother: Are there any plans to officially produce any videos or other multimedia pieces?

The Nightingale: The DVD will include a ton of the stuff we will have on stage, which is very driven by multimedia.

Smother: And now for the stereotypical penultimate question: Where do The Animals go from here?

The Nightingale: That is about as unpredictable as anything right now. We seriously are not thinking past the shows. A third album is not out of the question, only because trilogies just feel right… but beyond that I have no idea.