premiere – two castles

two castles lead
photo courtesy of kyle lehman

eric charles christenson is somewhat of a renaissance man.  a managing editor at a local magazine and an active member in the chippewa valley’s burgeoning stand-up comedy scene, christenson has also been creating slices of lo-fi pop for years, first as wisconsin built and more recently as two castles.  last spring’s dream room ep found christenson incorporating more electronic elements into his home-recorded template, a practice that extended to, and was refined on, subsequent two castles tracks like “bonfire” and “liquor.”

a new year has yielded new material.  christenson’s latest two castles ep, night talk, is a concise three-song collection (plus a supplemental remix), with mournful vocal melodies stretched across an intimate digital soundscape.  we caught up with christenson outside a coffee shop in eau claire at the tail-end of 2015 to talk about transitioning projects, songwriting approaches, and his involvement in the minneapolis-based collective lowkey radical.  after appearing in a slightly different form on a split cassette last month, the finished version of night talk is premiering in full here on dimestore saints; find the tracks embedded in our exclusive interview, condensed and edited for clarity, below.

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you phased out wisconsin built & started doing two castles towards the end of 2014.  what was the precipitation behind switching projects?

wisconsin built kind of phased itself out.  it was one of those things where we all abruptly moved away, and none of us took it seriously enough that we thought about it when we weren’t together; it just kind of dissolved.  i wasn’t really thinking about playing music that much because i was working and moving around a lot and figuring that whole thing out.  i’d dinked around on some sounds when i lived in minneapolis, but the creative energy in eau claire once i moved back made me want to write songs again.

i always thought of wisconsin built as pretty lo-fi, yet organic in the sense of its instrumentation, but two castles feels decidedly more synthetic.

it’s a shift in production.  i used to worry more about live instruments, but then i started plunking around with electronics and making samples and stuff.  i did that a bit with wisconsin built, like recording weird sounds, then sampling them and repeating it and making rhythmic things out of noise, but it had never been so central to the song.  they were either guitar-driven or organ-driven, basically.  i haven’t lived in a place where i could have a drum set for a long time, and i’ve grown to like electronic music a lot more, so i don’t know, it’s been a natural progression towards starting to think about that stuff.

do you find any tenets of wisconsin built’s core methodology seeping into two castles?

i think so.  well, a little bit.  i mean, i didn’t completely throw out the playbook; i feel like the songwriting is still the same.  i write songs in two chunks usually: a theme and a verse, and then a chorus.  it would just be two halves, and then i wouldn’t go back to the verse or anything.  just do it and get it over with.  so that’s kind of the same; i still find myself writing two castles songs in chunks, but they’re just more complex chunks.

night talk feels a bit sharper, more pristine.  is that an evolution of what you want your sound to be like, or is it more a result of you learning how to get the most out of your setup?

i think it’s both. two castles has been a learning process.  i’m playing live instruments, but they’re midi-controlled, and i’m learning computer programs and patching sounds and learning how to manipulate new effects.  there’s certain tricks electronic producers have that acoustic artists don’t, so it’s learning how to do all of that while maintaining the lo-fi aspect.  

i felt like the wisconsin built concept was a bit too lo-fi, even for my tastes.  it used to be okay with me when i was casually putting stuff out, but it frustrated me when i started taking things more seriously.  i still crave that lo-fi sound and want to produce that and have it be accessible.  you can still make it fuzzy and sound like you know what the fuck you’re doing, you know?  people don’t trust lo-fi music because they don’t think the artists are taking it seriously, but adding an extra level of intricacy gives me a little more clout, which is nice.  i think people trust that the lo-fi thing is on purpose when everything else lines up.

these are all songs i’d written this fall, or added to and figured out.  “two tuff” is probably the most straight-up pop song i’ve ever written.  when you write a chorus like that, it’s hard not to repeat it.  it’s definitely the biggest song i’ve ever done; everything had been sort of minimal up until that point.  i want to be thought of as someone who’s good at pop hooks and can writing interesting and complex songs, not just someone who makes shitty lo-fi stuff.

are you listening to anyone different on purpose to go after that sound?

i’ve gotten into the soundcloud game; that’s where i find the majority of my music.  people are putting out half-beats all the time; it’s really casual, and you can see how that creative process works.  i’ve been trying to find lo-fi stuff, but there isn’t a lot.  a lot of people rip vinyl, make it lo-fi and add chill hip-hop beats behind it and have all their album artwork as anime characters, but i don’t know if anyone’s going at it as seriously or at the same angle as i am.

jamie xx has some lo-fi flourishes in his work; i loved his record that came out.  people like shlomo have that lo-fi flavor while keeping really fast hi-hats and fuzzy bass tones.  i fuck with that vibe.  my older stuff is shlomo-influenced, shuffly sounds and stuff.  i’m still listening to a lot of indie rock, and i think that comes through.

you’ve been doing releases a bit differently than before: a string of singles and now this ep.  is this a more desired way of putting out material now?

i used to detest this, but this is what a lot of mainstream pop artists do: they just put out five singles and then drop a six-track album or something.  i don’t need to drop an album or anything.  i don’t have enough songs where i’m jonesing to release a huge statement piece.  i enjoy making songs, so when i finish one i have the urge to put it out.  i feel like that’s an efficient way to do it; you make sure people hear each song, and it’s a gradual way to get people into your stuff.  when you do that too, people can see your progression as an artist.

you don’t see yourself ever putting out a full-length?

not for awhile.  eventually, probably, but at this point i’m fine just doing a little bit at a time.  it’s easy for people to digest, it’s easy for me to make.

two castles kelsey smith
photo courtesy of kelsey smith

how are live shows going?

i’ve been playing some really sweet shows, like the local aire festival and leaqfest.  i played at lake house a bunch of times; we had a show at the mousetrap in october with ego death from the twin cities and danger ron & the spins.  i think people fuck with it; when you’re a lo-fi person, the sound is always dicey, no matter where you play.  sometimes it sounds amazing, like at local aire, and other times it just sounds like fucking trash.  i’ve had more really good shows than the handful of weird shows that have happened.  i really fuck with this material though, more so than with the wisconsin built stuff; i never really felt good about that.  but it’s nice feeling confident about the stuff you’re putting out so you can actually give a shit about what you’re doing.

it seemed like everyone left in the eau claire scene in the fall of 2014 started merging together, started working with each other exclusively on new projects, so i wasn’t too surprised to see lowkey radical come out of that.  i’ve only really talked to eric (wells, bka sayth) about it; what’s your level of involvement?

the lowkey radical thing acts more as a collective than as a label.  eric hit me up about it awhile ago.  we were already playing shows together and collaborating on different things; alex (tronson, bka north house) and i are making songs together, alex and serena (wagner, bka sniffle party) are making songs, serena and i are making songs.  it was sort of a natural spirit of collaboration.  we all have different styles, so it made sense to put an umbrella on it.

do you think having that collective platform helps broaden your accessibility to audiences that wouldn’t otherwise find you?

i’ve seen it, yeah.  we dropped this tape and now i think a lot of people are going to hear my stuff that haven’t before because of sayth.  i don’t want to feel like i’m leeching off his popularity, but anytime anyone releases something, the squad just puts out the call and you make a big splash on social media.  it’s teamwork.  it’s a lot easier to go at something from a collective standpoint, to think about where the label’s at and how your stuff can fit into that puzzle.  if any one of us happens to blow up, it would have this residual effect on everyone else.  we’re all taking bets on each other, and it helps that we really actually fuck with everyone else’s music.

we can collaborate on different things musically, but i can hit eric up about a show or something, we can share a pool of resources and brainpower.  the label elevates the level of our music, i think; it’s nice to have people to bounce ideas off of, especially when you’re a solo artist.  alex and i always bounce beats off each other. he’s the person i send all my stuff to, even when it’s not done.

do you want to step back and do more physical releases?

i think so.  i think i could put this ep out on cd or something.  it would be nice to have, especially after a show, because people might really like the music, but i’m relying on them to go to my soundcloud page. and i’m not even telling them to do that when i’m on stage.  i’m having fun writing songs and playing shows, but if i’m going to take this more seriously there’s going to have to be more stuff like that.  the fact that i’m not relying on this financially helps.

does that lack of urgency help your creative process?

i think so, yeah.  i’m a slow writer in almost everything.  it takes me awhile to fully form an idea, so this gives me time to get things right.  i take a lot of old ideas and let them sit for a minute, then revisit them and polish.  i’ll make a minute-and-a-half beat and i’ll bounce that, put it on a mix cd and drive around listening to it in my car, maybe write some lyrics to it and record them on a voice memo.  if you listened to the voice memos on my phone it would be hella embarrassing because you can barely hear the beat through the speakers and it’s just me belting while i’m watching traffic hoping no cop sees me.

it takes time to collect all the pieces i need to feel good about a song.  that happened with “porch.”  i had an old version of that song that i thought was done and i was sitting on it forever, then i revisited it and added some layers, and now it’s ready.

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you can acquire a digital copy of night talk by navigating to this link.  for more two castles information, click any of the following options below.

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