Founders Martha Weir (bass/vocals) and Neil Weir (guitar/vocals) have been leading their band The Chambermaids for a decade, in that time they’ve released two records (their self-titled album in 2006 and the EP Down in the Berries in 2009), and tried out what feels like a dozen different drummers. In the last few years the lineup of The Chambermaids has solidified around Martha, Neil, Nate Nelson (guitar), and Alex Rose (drums). That the band’s songwriting has sharpened so thoroughly over time has made the wait for a new album that much more agonizing. Their second full-length record, Whatever Happened Tomorrow, will be available in the coming weeks, with a release show to follow soon after. This is a joint release between Neil’s own label, Old Blackberry Way, and Guilt Ridden Pop. I’m quite fond of Martha and Neil, you can pretty much assume that I was laughing throughout our entire interview.
Martha: Started playing together in 2003, just the two of us. First show was July of ’04.
That was with the drum machine?
Martha: Yeah. I would say we probably started playing together the winter before that.
Neil: That seems right.
Martha: Because we recorded the demo that winter.
That’s a long time.
Martha: I’m gonna start crying in this interview.
Neil: When we started playing together and coming up with stuff together, there were things that I’d been playing since shortly after I got out of high school. The initial blast of writing stuff was easy because there was so much stuff to draw from. Looking back on it, there’s so much stuff I wish we would’ve done differently. I wish the songs weren’t so fast.
On the first album?
Neil: Yeah, I felt like I got caught up in this thing where I was trying to impress people or something. That’s the kind of thing I think about sometimes, “Ugh, this stuff should have more of a patient quality to it.”
Martha: I think, for me, a big part of that was– this was the first band where either of us were playing live. When you play in front of people it’s so much more comfortable to play fast and just rip through it. When there’s only the two of us, and you throw in the drum machine, it makes you feel completely naked up there.
Neil: That’s so true. I had this love-hate relationship with playing live. It seems like forcing this theatrical presentation of your stuff. To me a record is like a book, I’m not going to judge a book by the way someone reads it out loud. “I knew that person wasn’t really good at what he’s doing because he has a funny voice.” There’s the other side of it, I love hearing bands play together and I love the organic chemistry of a band. I don’t like records that sound like they were constructed with the contemporary digital methods of songwriting and arranging.
Martha: That’s why I like listening every once in a while to the demos we did ten years ago or the first record, to me you can see the progression, you can see a thread that goes through it all. I like looking at it and thinking about where my head was at that time versus now, to me that’s not a bad thing.
Neil: It’s the sort of thing too where, if the quality control has gotten better, which I think it has, you also have this fear like, “Is there a point where it goes too far?” There’s this progression, “Okay, we weren’t aware of the quality control that should’ve been done at this point, what is it that I’m not aware of now?” I can’t really think about it that much, either. It’s interesting to talk about, but I get lost thinking about that stuff.
Neil: I feel like there’s this core thing that happens when Martha and I work on stuff together that is unique outside of genre, year, or approach. To me, that thing is Chambermaids. The other people in the band are very important too, but when we started with the two of us working together– to me this has all been a continuous meandering outgrowth of that thing. The first EP that didn’t come out, which is Martha and me, then we started playing with Colin [Johnson] as a three piece, that became another era. I had never played with a drummer before, so that took things in a different direction. Every time we finish something, apart from that first EP, at the end it’s been like, “Okay, this is it, on to the next thing.”
Martha: Playing with Colin, like you said, definitely took it in a different direction. At that point we were practicing at least twice a week and we would just jam, that was really good for me. There was probably a year there where I felt like it was just me learning to make a rhythm section.
Neil: In some ways, it feels like there was a period of regression there. What we were doing before with the analog drum machine, the samples, and your bass playing where it seemed like it’s own unique thing. Then we all started playing together, and it was more like we needed to figure out how to play in a rock band.
Martha: Then Nate, he approached me at the bar one night and he said, “I really want to play in this band. I want to take the melodic basslines and the guitar and I want to do a bridge between the two.” I texted Neil, “What do you think?”
Neil: We’d been looking for a guitar player for two or three years.
Martha: Not actively.
Neil: Not actively, I hadn’t really told anybody.
Martha: He doesn’t tell anything that he’s thinking and expects everybody to figure it out.
Neil: Well, I was kind of saying that. I was looking for someone to play guitar for at least two years, but I’d only mentioned it once or twice, and couldn’t think of anybody. I liked the music that he played, but it seemed removed from what we did.
Neil: More aggressive and more math-y. It seemed like an exciting thing, but I had my doubts about it working. Which is weird because I think it works incredibly well.
When did Nate join, 2006?
Martha: No, first record came out in 2006. It was probably 2007. Or late 2006, you might be right. We recorded the next EP [Down in the Berries] in early ’08. I went to Austria for a year, we put it out when I came back.
So, Nate’s worked out really well, what’s worked so well with Alex?
Martha: He’s the best. To me there’s this weird correlation between Colin and Alex. Even though Colin wasn’t the greatest drummer when we started, he got so good and he had a very specific feel. There’s something of that in Alex too, in a weird way.
Neil: Alex’s drumming has a very strong personality and feel to it that doesn’t get in the way of other things. He has a really nice touch. I think a lot of drummers will try to hit the drums super loud and they end up killing the tone from them. He doesn’t hit that hard. In some ways he’s more of a 60’s/70’s rock drummer with a lighter touch, but also ragged at the same time. That combination works really well.
Martha: We’ve always taken an approach of “simple is better.” Sometimes you play with people that try to make things more complicated, “We should have a cool key change here, this should be off-beat.”
Neil: I compare what we’re doing in some ways to the first Stooges record. You’ve got this real minimal stuff going on that takes on this hypnotic quality, because there isn’t all this stuff going on that’s trying to grab your attention. Your brain disappears into it because it’s so repetitive. We’ve played with people who are technically really good musicians, who have a tendency to try and make things more complex. “What if we do this, and we do this,” then suddenly this core thing that’s supposed to be hypnotic is gone. If the stuff isn’t there to serve the core, then it becomes just a bunch of little pieces stuck together, it doesn’t make sense anymore. When we’ve tried playing with people who have wanted to make things more complicated, thinking that would make things more interesting to listen to, it spoils the recipe a little bit.
When you have a studio [Old Blackberry Way; owned by Neil] at your disposal is there a temptation to use a lot of tracks for each song and record things gradually over a long period of time? Is that at all explanatory for the break in between your records?
Martha: It definitely expands the time it takes to record a record, because you do have that luxury of squeezing it in here and there, instead of being like, “We’ve rented this place for four days and we have to have it done or else we’re screwed.” Many times I’ve gotten really frustrated because we just keep doing the same thing over and over again.
Neil: The last EP, we recorded two and a half, maybe three times before we actually did that version of it.
Martha: I think we did it three times.
Neil: Maybe not the whole thing three times, but there are definitely two full recordings of the record. What’s been really nice on this record is that half the songs on this have never been played live. On this record there is 12-string stuff, there’s quite a bit of acoustic guitar. So it’s building up the atmosphere and texture of each individual song, with the recording being the end object, rather than the recording being a representation of something else.
While still trying to keep from getting away from that core.
Neil: Right, there’s not really a bunch of wild extra parts, or anything like that.
It’s like, “There’s going to be one or two parts, I’m going to try them all these different ways.”
Neil: The same thing with vocals, “This time sounds too whispery, this time sounds too shout-y.”
Martha: We do a lot more unison singing on this, rather than just lead vocals and background vocals. There are times when I’ll listen to the stuff and I can’t tell who’s singing.
Neil: There were health problems in the band, there were interpersonal problems in the band, and there was not really knowing if the band existed for a long period of time. We ended up not playing shows and it was this realization, to me, that making music and playing local shows every two weeks or every month, those things fight against each other. I’m not an accomplished enough musician to just go out and do it, it requires a lot of practice. In some ways, we spent years getting ready to play shows, for me making the record is kind of what it’s all about. I would compare it to writing a book versus being on an endless tour to promote your book.
Martha: You mentioned the gap between recordings, 2009 to 2013, I was really sick for two years.
I do remember that.
Martha: Yeah, I was basically in bed for almost two years. I got sick while I was in Austria. I was out of commission for 2008 to the end of 2010, or mid-2011 probably. We tried to practice, but I felt so terrible. When you feel that terrible you are completely creatively devoid. My brain didn’t work, I could barely figure out how to make a meal during the day, make a sandwich.
Neil: All of her songs ended up being about making sandwiches.
Martha: “I’m sleeping again! I’m sleeping in again!” [We all laugh.] At that time I thought I’d never get better. I had tried everything, I’d gone to a million different doctors, I thought it was permanent. That played a huge role in bringing everything to a halt. Then I did finally start getting better and it was like, “Where do you pick up and what do you want to do and how do you want to do it?” Everybody’d been doing other things during that time, obviously. Me, over at my house just trying to make a sandwich.
Neil: And she’d almost finished the sandwich by then.
After that much time how do you stay excited about a project?
Martha: I actually got a lot more excited about this record after not listening to it for a really long time. I felt like we were so immersed in it for so long, it definitely made me more excited about it when we stopped constantly prepping for shows and just worked on it bits and pieces at a time.
Neil: I’m not excited about it a lot of the time, I just kind of accept that. It’s the same thing with songwriting, I’ll go through periods of a couple months where the idea of even writing a song seems foreign to me. The idea that something creative is always going to be exciting leads a lot of people to never finish things. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m like, “Okay, this is going to be kind of annoying and grueling,” but that’s just part of the process. The initial blast of an idea and getting things into place is exciting, this thing goes past you, it’s outside of you, you just have to follow it, and then you get to this point where it’s like, “Wait, where am I? I got this far and everything has stopped, now it’s a lot of work.” It’s a lot of work to make sounds work together, to take something to completion, all the interpersonal stuff when you talk about a band, not only communicating ideas and having their ideas work with your ideas and balancing those things, then scheduling stuff, and on and on. It’s worthwhile because I care a lot about it and I care about the results. The results are the most important thing to me and I think that’s what makes me plow through the process. I expect it to be a pain sometimes.
Martha: It’s never been a party.
Neil: We’re not a fun band.
Martha: There was probably a time or two when it was fun.