slenderbodies’ latest record ‘are we?’ finds the duo collaborating, designing fashion, and enacting social change.
Stream: “focus” – slenderbodies, tim atlas
For Max Vehuni and Benji Cormack – the duo behind dreamy brainchild Slenderbodies – the past year has been a chance to think critically about themselves, as musicians and as people. It’s been an opportunity to examine who they are and what they are, and, in the process, create their latest record.
Available today via Island Records, are we? is held together not by a lyrical narrative, but by the self-exploration that went into creating it. Its whopping nine tracks see Slenderbodies dabble with new instrumentation and new genres of music. “We’re stepping out of bounds for the first time,” Cormack tells Atwood. “We’re putting on all these different hats and asking ‘Are we this? Are we that?”
For the duo, one of those different hats is collaborating with other artists. “Are we a project that likes to collaborate with others?” Vehuni asks. There aren’t usually features on a Slenderbodies song, yet are we? has two lead-up singles that feature other artists. “focus” (with Tim Atlas) dropped a few months ago, and “superpowerful” (with Crooked Colours) came out at the beginning of the year. Simply by making these two tracks, Slenderbodies explore and actualize that “are we” question.
Another reason for their new partnerships was the pandemic’s remote setup. “We were able to collaborate with people from all over the world, who we could have never worked with before,” Vehuni tells Atwood. Crooked Colours, for instance, is a three-piece set based in Perth, Australia. Before the pandemic, touring and traveling would have made a cross-continent collaboration like that difficult. But those barriers went away with the lockdown. “We’re all on Zoom,” Cormack says. “We’re able to stream our recording software to each other to make these songs in real time, even though we’re not physically all in the same place”.
The question of “are we?” is something that should be re-asked every few years. Who are we? What are we, as a group? Where are we, now?
– Max Vehuni
Another “are we” question that Vehuni and Cormack have been exploring recently is “are we activists?” When it comes to their music, Slenderbodies is essentially escapism. Their dreamy soundscapes and soft falsettos create an otherworldly space, for listeners and even for Vehuni and Cormack themselves. “This has always been a safe haven for us to make music, away from all the noise,” Cormack shares. But at the same time, they’ve been using their platform as artists to engage with the noise. They run a Causes blog on their site, and just last week they held a fundraiser in conjunction with the release of the music video for their single “heartbeat”.
“We thought about not putting that video out for a little while,” Vehuni says. “The content was very real. We needed to decide how to push it in the right way.” “It was a chance for us to ask another “are we” question,” Cormack echoes. “It was a chance for us to ask ‘Are we activists? And if we are activists, how are we activists?’”
We’re always evolving. We always have to ask these questions. Reflection is a part of our human experience and our intrinsic morality, to keep reassessing who we are.
– Benji Cormack
So who are Slenderbodies? Collaborators? Activists? Fashion Designers?
The tracks on are we? play with that question, but they don’t answer it. They’re not really supposed to. “The answer is asking the question itself,” Cormack claims. “That’s really what matters. Just allowing ourselves to explore it, and to make it tangible through art and through music.” On the most basic level, I guess you could say that Slenderbodies are two people who want to share their music.
“We are finishers,” Cormack says. “Completionists,” Vehuni adds. “We want to put stuff out into the world.”
Listen to are we? below, read on for the full interview, and check out Slenderbodies’ livestream tonight at 10PM Eastern.
Stream: ‘are we?’ – slenderbodies
A CONVERSATION WITH SLENDERBODIES
ATWOOD MAGAZINE: I FEEL LIKE SLENDERBODIES HAS A REALLY UNIQUE SOUND. HOW DID YOU FIND THAT SOUND WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED OUT?
Max Vehuni: I feel like it was a lot of trial and error – trying a bunch of different projects, and making a bunch of different types of music that I really enjoyed making. It was just a process of elimination. What do I want to do? What do I not want to do? The things that I ended up really wanting to do were: play guitar on a project, mess around with vocals on a project, and keep the drum production that I was developing. It evolved over the years to include more instrumentation, but that was the core of the whole project: very guitar based, very falsetto, vocal driven, and subtly heavy beats.
Benji Cormack: I think we did a lot of the legwork for finding the sound before we actually became Slenderbodies. We had been sharing the different music we were making for so long, so we knew that we produced and played guitar similarly, and that we were drawn to similar melodic tendencies. So all we had to do when we started the project was apply those parameters that Max was talking about, which was manipulating guitar, and then the software set of vocals. From that point, we were able to have a box to work in. And then over time, we’ve expanded the box.
YOU MAKE IT SOUND SO EASY.
Cormack: There’s definitely been challenges in it. But I think that when we start new projects, we’re good at developing an ethos, experimenting through different things, and then eventually finding a few songs that represent the area we want to work within.
AND IT’S JUST THE TWO OF YOU. DO YOU BRING DIFFERENT SKILLS TO THE TABLE? HOW DO YOU WORK TOGETHER TO CREATE SLENDERBODIES?
Cormack: We kind of do it 50-50. Max is more capable of playing drums. But as far as production goes, he’s been my mentor for the whole entire project. So most of what I know about audio engineering and mixing, mastering, production, I’ve actually learned through working with him in this project. We’re at a place now where it’s very balanced. We can both play keys; we can both produce to a similar level.
BUT THEN FOR THIS RECORD, DID YOU WORK IN PERSON OR DID YOU HAVE TO DO IT REMOTELY?
Vehuni: We definitely did it remotely. It was cool because when we first started the project, we were working in a similar fashion. We were working out of our own houses and just sending projects back and forth. And are we? is the first time since then where we ended up actually coming back together and producing a project from different places, from a distance… from an even greater distance than before. It was really cool to see how we had developed that skill set. And then as we started collaborating with some other artists on this project, it allowed us to kind of showcase that process with the other artists. To say, “This is how we can produce stuff remotely and work together. These are some of the things that we use to help us achieve that.” That’s been like a really cool process. And because of that, we were able to collaborate with people from all over the world, who we could have never worked with before. Like Crooked Colours, in Australia.
Cormack: It was cool to get back to a place of Sotto Voce, where we’re passing projects back and forth, and also add this new element of Zoom collaboration where we’re both we’re all on Zoom. We’re in a meeting much like this one. But we’re able to stream our recording software to each other to make these songs in real time, even though we’re not physically in the same place.
COMPARED TO A LOT OF THE OTHER WORK YOU’VE PUT OUT, THIS DEFINITELY HAS A LOT MORE COLLABS ON IT. WAS THAT BECAUSE OF THE PANDEMIC?
Cormack: There is an element of free time, but there was also this element where we’re really asking ourselves the question of “Who we are”, “What are Slenderbodies? We’re stepping out of bounds for the first time. We’re putting on all these different hats and asking “Are we this? Are we that?”
SO WHO ARE SLENDERBODIES? HAVE YOU FIGURED THAT OUT?
Vehuni: I think we figured out that it’s always changing. The question of “are we?” is something that should be reasked every few years. “Who are we? What are we, as a group? Where are we, now?” And then, the beauty of having that shortened to just “are we?”, you can ask more than one question. “What are we as a group? Where are we now? Are we this? Are we a project that likes to collaborate with others? Or are we a project that likes to use synthesis? Or are we a project that likes to dive into these other realms?” It just kind of looks at perspective in a lot of different eyes.
Cormack: It’s almost like an affirmation as a question. “Are we pop? Are we indie?” Putting the boxes that one could be in, or the labels that you could have, into a question to really see if it resonates with you, and then enacting that through music.
DO THE SONGS ON THE RECORD ANSWER THOSE QUESTIONS?
Vehuni: They almost explore the question more so. They allow us to look within ourselves and decide, or maybe not decide. When you allow yourself to ask a question like that, that can open so many doors of what certain ideologies mean to you. Sometimes that doesn’t come with a straight answer, and that’s totally okay.
Cormack: I think it’s almost like, the answer is asking the question itself. That’s really what matters. Just allowing ourselves to explore it, and to make it tangible through art and through music. It’s not about where you end up. it’s the journey you’ve had along the way, so to speak.
IS THAT WHAT BINDS THE SONGS ON THIS EP TOGETHER?
Cormack: In a way, yeah. It’s also the first record since Sotto Voce where there wasn’t a story-based concept around it. They’re all bound by asking this question, but they’re also bound through exploration. So many of these times when we just started were like, “Let’s make something fresh today”. And that’s where things began.
BUT THERE ARE STORIES IN THE SONGS THEMSELVES. LIKE IN ‘HEARTBEAT’, AND IN THE MUSIC VIDEO FOR IT. CAN YOU TALK A BIT ABOUT THAT VIDEO?
Vehuni: That was a very unique perspective and a unique take on that song specifically. When we reached out to Savannah – who had done “belong” and “arrival” off our previous record, Komorebi – she was really taken by the song “heartbeat” and said that she had a really interesting story that she wanted to put to it. And when we ended up getting it, we were just really surprised by how differently it impacted her specifically in comparison to us. So we decided to go with it and see what it would entail. And what ended up coming out of it was just a very, very powerful and striking project. And you know, a lot of our music is based around escapism. So we thought about not putting that video out for a little while, because it was very real. And we needed to really decide how to push it in the right way, and allow people that are impacted by it to help where they can. So it is tied to a lot of different charities, and we’re hoping that people that watch it and get impacted by can learn more information by going to our website, or going to the different charities websites and reading up on the situation that does happen down south from under us and see where they can help and see where they can get informed.
Cormack: I think one of the beautiful things about the song is that the meaning of it is impactful, and emotional, but in a largely ambiguous way. You can apply it to many different relationships. When I heard the song – because “heartbeat” was one that Max wrote on his own – I applied it to a romantic relationship. But for him that wasn’t necessarily what it was. It was more open than that. And I think to hear this perspective from Savannah where it’s a brother and a sister – that’s really impactful. To have it be these children, living under one roof with what seemed like a single mother in a place that’s filled with conflict but also a ton of community – that really shows the human experience, which I think the song is largely tied to in its ambiguity of meaning. And I think that really matters. It was a really special moment, in the end to be able to do something impactful for that community. I think it all just ties to a greater meaning of “heartbeat”. I think that song really does tie to the depth of love, and love for anybody.
BUT EVEN BEFORE ''HEARTBEAT'', YOU STARTED A BLOG ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DO THAT?
Cormack: Growing up, my mom was always volunteering, so this is something that I’ve been into almost my whole life. And as we’ve grown as a band, even though so much of our music is centered around escapism, I felt just like I wanted to use my voice for something. And so it’s something that Max and I talked about in depth. And we’ve always tried to collaborate towards being a band that can still offer both things. If you want to access our music because you value the escapism of it, you can do that. And if you want to see the causes that we support in our personal lives, you can also do that. When the crises at the border began a few years ago, I was trying to take the social media in ways where it didn’t seem overbearing or feel like the majority of our content. And when the abortion ban happened in Alabama and a few other states, we tried to do something then, too. We’re still finding our voice, but this blog was a really straightforward way to have a place where people could go to stay updated with what we’re passionate about. You can choose to go see what we are keeping up with, or you can continue with our kind of an escapist –
Vehuni: Safe haven.
Cormack: Because this has always been a safe haven for us to make music, away from all the noise. So we do bring it to social media at times, but it’s been nice to have it be in one concise place. And also just from a writing perspective, it gives me a place to write down my thoughts and post them. And it was also a chance for us to ask another question. It’s another chance for us to ask: “Are we activists? And if we are activists, how are we activists?” I think as much as we evolve as individuals, our voice In the space of activism will continue to evolve as well. And we may fall short at some point, but in order to effectively be truly helpful, you have to be okay with failing sometimes. And so things may change, things may not be received well, but we just have to keep trying the best we can and learning as best we can.
ARE THERE ANY CAUSES YOU WANT PEOPLE TO ENGAGE WITH RIGHT NOW?
Cormack: I think that this video was a large focal point, especially because it was really special that we were able to find a very local charity, Barrio Esperanza, that’s actually in a clear spot in Cerro de Campana, in Monterrey. That’s a way you can give back to the community directly, and it was featured in the video. There’s also RAICES, which does work for people at the border who are fleeing inequality and violence, or you can give to Save The Children. But there’s also so much happening in America. Every major city, to the best of my knowledge, has a mutual aid network. One of the best things that you can do is find your local mutual aid network and start donating goods or time or food. Maybe that’ll be my next blog post: how to find your local mutual aid network. I live in Austin now, and there’s an awesome mutual aid network that was founded here in late 2019. They’ve been doing great work for the homeless community. When the freeze happened, they were delivering food to folks who were still without power and water. These are very real things that you can do to help your community right here right now. And local elections matter. I think that it really does run all the way up to how the government is run in the US. And of course, COVID is still impacting a lot of countries that aren’t in America, or Europe. So those places need help, too.
YOU'VE SAID THIS A LOT, BUT SLENDERBODIES IS AN ESCAPIST OPPORTUNITY. AND THIS IS A YEAR WHERE PEOPLE NEED THAT, BUT IT'S ALSO HARD TO DO THAT. THERE’S A LOT IF BALANCE IN THAT.
Cormack: There’s a ton of balance. I have a playlist right now called “there is power in the times that we rest”. I think that that really matters. You have to give yourself some peace in order to be efficient and effective. Whatever you’re committing to, whether it’s something in your personal life, or whether it’s helping others on the activist level – you have to give yourself peace and quiet. Otherwise, you’re going to get burned out, and you’re not going to be helping anybody.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PERSONAL FAVORITE SONGS ON THE RECORD?
Vehuni: I would definitely say that “lime ocean paradise” is one of my favorite songs. So is “heartbeat”. Those are the two that I tend to keep coming back to. I mean “heatbeat” just came from a really heartfelt place. I love the story that it portrayed. And at the same time, it was just an effortless song to write. It flowed really, really seamlessly. And similarly with “lime ocean paradise”. I’m really excited to play that one live.
Cormack: I also like “lime ocean paradise”, and then I think the other song would be “summer lost”. It was really fun to write the lyrics together. They paint these really vivid pictures. And it was really fun to put ourselves into these stories that we weren’t at all a part of. Like “lime ocean paradise” is about being hundreds of miles away on an island, having kind of a spicy time with someone. And then “summer lost”, to me, even though it wasn’t planned this way, became the companion song to that. In a lot of ways, without us intending it, they tell this story that is very cohesive. I just love the lyricism and the wordplay. And in both places, we were experimenting with different ways to topline, different ways to create melody. To ask that question again. “Is this type of melody who we are?”
WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT SLENDERBODIES THROUGH MAKING THIS RECORD?
Cormack: That’s a great question. I think that’s one that I haven’t even asked for myself yet, in the shuffle of everything. I think, as Max said, we learned that it’s always evolving, and that we always have to ask this question. Reflection is a part of our experience and a part of almost our intrinsic morality to keep reassessing who we are.
Vehuni: And the retroactive exploration of the music we make has been something that has been consistently very important to us. Because again, when writing certain music, it might take on a certain meaning. And as it falls into the album, and as you’ve listened to it more and more, more and more meanings start to come out of it. Sometimes I will resonate with those new meanings more than the original one, and I think that’s been really cool. That’s been a really, really cool thing to experience. And it happens time and time again. It’s always very exciting to watch that meaning morph, to discover new ideas around a song that you might have already listened to hundreds of times.
AND WHAT DO YOU HOPE LISTENERS TAKE AWAY FROM THE RECORD?
Vehuni: We hope they ask themselves who they are and what they want to be. And to keep asking that. Because if who they are isn’t exactly who they want to be right now, then they should allow themselves to develop and get to that place, when they ask those questions.
ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT THE SHOW TOMORROW?
Cormack: We just brought on a new drummer named Blake, and he’s gonna be playing with us tomorrow. It’s been really exciting to rehearse with him. And for the two of us, it’s the first time we’ve seen each other in nine months. So that’s pretty amazing. And we’re just excited to see how this record is received. The record was such a collaboration between us, between all of the other artists that we worked with, between our team. There was a lot going on in terms of collaboration. It really does feel like a team effort. Also, I’m really excited about the merch line. I don’t know if that seems kind of trivial, but we designed it ourselves, and it’s another big question. “Are we fashion designers?” I’m just kind of excited for the whole thing, and I’m excited for this to be out. So much of who we are – and I think that this has stayed constant – is that we’re people who want to share music. It’s always been that way, even before we were together. We are finishers.
Cormack: We want to put stuff out into the world.
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