Sister, I'm a poet
Rainer Maria completes about one new song a month. On the surface, this sounds a bit slow, especially considering that the Madison, Wisconsin, trio has relocated to rural Connecticut where their daily chores include feeding dogs, going to the library, and spending a few hours each day just working on new songs. But after singer-guitarist Kyle Fischer explains the band's writing routine for each song -- one to three weeks on music and another two on lyrics -- it's easy to see why it's such a long process. It's also obvious why Fischer is so glad he and singer-bassist Caithlin De Marrais and drummer Bill Kuehn don't have to work day jobs between tours and recording.
With that glacial pace, it's a wonder that Rainer Maria has been so prolific since it formed during the summer of 1995, releasing a demo tape, a couple of seven-inch singles, two full-length albums, and a CDEP, plus contributing to a few compilations (all of which have been released on Illinois label Polyvinyl Records). And the band did it all while touring extensively and going to school and holding down jobs. But if Rainer Maria's songwriting seems slow to outsiders -- especially when compared with its output -- it can't compare to how it drags on for Fischer, who, along with Kuehn, churned out two-minute punk-rock songs at the rate of one a week with the band Ezra Pound, before departing to start their own group.
Yet that's the way it's always worked for Rainer Maria. Once Kuehn and Fischer slipped away from Ezra Pound, De Marrais joined the band after having met Fischer in a college poetry class (fitting, since the group is named after poet Rainer Maria Rilke) and moving into the house the other two members already shared. She had never played in a band before, and Fischer had been playing guitar for only four months when he left Ezra Pound. He had played drums in his previous band, but was replaced by Kuehn, who already knew how to drum. That lack of familiarity was significant in the beginning. "We learned to play our instruments together," Fischer says. "It's really important, and has effects that will last forever, but it's no longer the defining issue of the band."
Just a few weeks after De Marrais joined Rainer Maria, the trio recorded a demo tape and began touring. Since then, they've continued this rigorous schedule of record, release, tour, tour some more, write some songs, repeat. Polyvinyl, then a label and zine, recruited the band for a compilation in early 1996, and in many ways, the label's growth has mirrored Rainer Maria's development. For example, Polyvinyl's first full-length release was also Rainer Maria's first full-length, Past Worn Searching, which was barely promoted but still sold well. And the band's second disc, Look Now Look Again, was just named one of Spin magazine's 20 best albums of 1999. The latest collaboration between Rainer Maria and Polyvinyl is an EP, Atlantic, which will be released on November 23.
In four years, Rainer Maria has gone from demos on four-track recorders to recording at Pachyderm Studios, known for Nirvana's In Utero, The Clash's Combat Rock, and -- as Fischer points out, laughing -- AC/DC's Back in Black. They're no longer newcomers trying to match the note in their heads to the ones on the guitars. "We're still growing and learning, but now we have to admit we're all pretty darned good at our instruments," Fischer says.
As Fischer, De Marrias, and Kuehn have progressed, albeit slowly, as songwriters, their sound has also changed. Look Now Look Again was a departure from Past Worn Searching, and, according to Fischer, Atlantic is just as big a change, though less immediate. The music is more understated and the vocals are softer, instead of focusing on De Marrais' primal scream and Fischer's guitar snarl. Pachyderm's equipment allowed the band to create layer upon layer of music and vocals that, until first listen, Fischer says he never knew were there. Atlantic is much subtler than previous outings, something Fischer credits to the high recording quality. But he's quick to add that the album mainly reflects the way they work as a single unit, anticipating one another almost telepathically when writing. If nothing else, it helps that they don't listen to one another all of the time.
"We've made a point, particularly in the last three years, of not just listening to the music of our contemporaries, but also going through the history of music," Fischer says. "Everything from jazz to blues to Britpop. We listen to a lot of different types, and it's paid off in a way. We've managed not to merely sound like the music of the moment but also have a more recognizable quality that's not only for people who listen to what we listen to but also people who listen to other kinds of popular music."
But then Rainer Maria was never doing breakneck 60-day tours and spending month after month tinkering with each song until it was absolutely perfect just for the hell of it. With Atlantic, they've taken a more classical approach, arranging the album like the first three movements of a symphony with a prelude ("There Will Be No Night"), an intense middle passage (the title track), and a faster ending piece ("Soul Singer"). It's also the first record on which they have ventured into writing songs with four verses. It's an ambitious recording that matches the band's lofty goals. "I think that, to be honest, we wouldn't be here doing this if we're not trying to do something that stood up beside the greatest songs ever written," Fischer says.
With the EP soon to be released and the tour barely started, Rainer Maria is already looking toward its next album. They hope to write 12 to 14 songs before April to record in the spring for the tentatively scheduled nine-track disc. They'll play a few of the new ones during the tour because, Fischer says, it's a good test and a perfect chance to extend the writing process, which begins with someone bringing the basis of the music to practice and the other two adding their parts. At first the music is the focus; then lyrics are added. "It's a winnowing, sifting kind of process where we don't really let the songs sprawl but don't want, on the other hand, to make it simple. There is a lot of attention paid to any given song. We have high quality control even as far as the lyrics go," Fischer says.
But despite the recognition the band received after Look Now Look Again, they haven't had any offers from any other labels. In fact, Kuehn continues to book all of Rainer Maria's shows because, Fischer says, they can't even get the booking agent they want. "We get offers from people smaller than us," he says. "We would be helping them because they could say they were booking Rainer Maria, but it really wouldn't help us. It might even hurt us." And, despite any growing pains with Polyvinyl, they're still happy with the label and insist that it, plus its San Francisco-based distributor Mordam, can do everything the band needs at this point. They like the level they've reached now, something of a comfort zone that allows them to walk the dog and write songs without any pressure to come up with hit songs.
"I don't know if we could ever conquer the stratosphere, or if we really want to," Fischer says. "Right now we're in a good place. The band affords us time to work on it. I never anticipated that. It's incredible. I'm pleased now that the next few years we can concentrate on this primarily. That's really beautiful."
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