Originally appeared in ‘Comes With A Smile’ magazine (UK) issue #13
October 2003

The Twin Atlas - by Stephen Raywood

Sean Byrne and Lucas Zaleski, in a simple and serendipitous twist of fate, were randomly thrown together by campus housing while attending the University of Delaware back in the autumn of 1992. After trading their disparate musical influences (Byrne: Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine; Zaleski: Rolling Stones, Neil Young), they began playing informal, improvised guitar pop together with a couple of college friends. Byrne meanwhile graduated to drumming with a clutch of notable Philadelphia acts (Lenola, Mazarin, Matt Pond PA) and Zaleski moved to New York. But they still met up regularly to jam and in the late 1990s formed The Twin Atlas, a home recording project whose four albums of subtle psychedelic, melodic, folky pop are an unadulterated joy.

Contrary to what one might assume, Byrne’s decision to start The Twin Atlas wasn’t born of a long-held frustration to get his own songs heard in the now defunct Lenola. “My songwriting involvement was actually growing a lot in Lenola over the years, so, that wasn't really the case. I had bought a cheap recording machine towards the end of '98, and I was still meeting up with Luke once in a while to just play guitar and goof around. I started recording these get-togethers and then I would go back and add to the tapes, turning them from sorta improvised instrumental things into songs. Adding vocals, additional stuff, etc. so, that's how things started.”

How does the geographical split influence the creative process? “Living in different cities does impose a unique and slower pace on the project, which I actually like. Our normal writing/recording process is for me to have Luke over for a weekend and we'll just record a lot of basic ideas we both have floating around. Then I go back to those tapes at a later time and start adding on to our basic tracks, and eventually a structured song takes shape.”

Byrne’s involvement in other Philly groups has helped him define his vision of The Twin Atlas. “My experiences in the bands I've played with (Lenola, Mazarin, Matt Pond PA) has definitely had an impact on me on a variety of levels. From songwriting to technical recording stuff, etc. Even if it is reactionary, as in, knowing exactly what I "don't" want to do. I've learned a lot from those experiences and musicians.”

One of the most striking aspects of The Twin Atlas’s work is that for home recordings, they’re incredibly ornate works, miles away from the genre’s typical scratchy lo-fi aesthetic, and none more so than the first of this year’s brace of albums, “Bring Along the Weather”. Does Byrne agree? “Well, I'd argue that our earlier stuff sounds pretty rough around the edges at times. I guess one important thing is that the machine I've used is an 8-track as opposed to a 4-track. So, although I don't ever bounce tracks, I still have twice as many tracks to use to layer things, such as vocals, and that helps give a sound that is more "full" than if I was just limited to 4 tracks. "Bring Along the Weather" had a big boost in fidelity thanks to using some better microphones and then also adding some tracks & mastering the finished songs at a friend's "proper" home studio. That all really made a big difference in fidelity compared to our earlier releases.”

Another major difference between “Weather” and the earlier albums (2000’s niftily titled “The Philadelphia Parking Authority Must Die” and 2001’s “Kitchen USA”) is that “Weather” is a concise 14 song record, whereas the previous releases sprawled close to double length proportions. The result is a much more focused collection of songs, shorn of any filler. Was this a conscious move? “Absolutely. With our first two CDs, we were just representing a period in time of recording for us, and did not really consider the length of the CD as an issue. For us it was like a time-capsule sort of approach, as in "here is a CD that represents everything we wrote and recorded during this time period". Partially because we were not sure if more TA stuff was ever going to come out. But, by the time we started recording again after Kitchen USA, we knew that is was time to embrace an edited-down "album" format of songs that could be digested in whole, rather than some epic-length CD. I think some decent songs on our earlier CDs probably got lost in the crowd due to the amount of tunes on there, so, we wanted to avoid that this time around.”

This doesn’t mean that The Twin Atlas are any less prolific. (It’s also worth mentioning another limited edition CDR, “Subtle Citrus”, that they put out via their website in 2002.) Hot on the heels of “Weather” comes the second album of the year, “Inside the Skate Scandal”. Byrne explains: “"Weather" was sequenced first, but all the songs for both CDs do come from the same session (January to October 2002) and were recorded alongside of each other. So, I definitely think of them as companion CDs to each other. The production values are alike as both CDs were recorded by me using the same gear and both were then mastered with Dave Grubb at his home studio. Each CD was put together to stand on its own song-wise, but, they also compliment each other nicely I hope.”

“Inside the Skate Scandal” uniquely features a cover version, of the B52’s “Legal Tender”. Byrne gives his reasons for the choice: “Well, that song had long been a sort of guilty pleasure of mine that I realized I shouldn't feel guilty about. It finally dawned on me that what I really loved about it was the melody of the bassline and keyboard line that work against (or with) each other. I think it's a great pop hook, just disguised in a very silly sounding party/dance tune.”

With Lenola sadly history, does this mean that busy drummer-about-town Byrne has more time to devote to The Twin Atlas? “I still record with Mazarin but I'm not part of live/touring group. We just finished recording a new CD this past summer. Since Lenola disbanded, it hasn't really affected the productivity of Twin Atlas, since I was still with Lenola when I recorded all the material for "Bring Along The Weather" and "Inside The Skate Scandal", but, not playing live with Lenola anymore is probably what gave me the itch to finally start doing the Twin Atlas stuff live.”

Which begs the question: how does such an apartment-based home studio outfit like TA resolve the issue of playing live and replicating the lovely textures present on their records? Byrne is clearly pleased that they’ve made the leap to performing. “I'm just glad that we've finally done some live shows, because it was a bit of a challenge for me to follow through on just doing it. I love drumming with bands live, but to get up and sing & play guitar was a whole other thing. So, I just gave myself a kick in the pants to do it, and I'm glad I did. It's not been too bad so far. Me and Luke have been helped out greatly by our friend and old Delaware roommate Keith Allen on 3rd guitar and harmony vocals live. As far a replicating the recordings, our live set up is pretty scaled back (three guitars, two vocals), so, drums and bass aren't represented. It's a pretty mellow affair live. I'd like to add on a rhythm section eventually, though, with that many people on-board it will start to feel like a real "band" which is something I've been trying to avoid like the plague.”