Alex Tween of The Forms : Q&A

<img src="" alt=" " />Just before the release of their second, self-titled LP, The Forms’ singer/guitarist Alex Tween sat down to talk to QRO....

  In it, he covered everything from The Forms (QRO review) and their debut, 2003’s Icarus, butting heads & being in awe of their producer, the legendary Steve Albini, playing a rain-soaked show with The National vs. working at a company with them, the being a classicist and a dot-commer, being inspired by everybody from Shudder To Think to Jorge Luis Borges, and the worst next-door neighbor ever

QRO: You’re playing a one-off show at The Cake Shop (QRO venue review) this Thursday (QRO Calendar listing).  Why this single show?

AT: We’re a local band, so we try not to play too often lest everyone get sick of seeing us play.  But we are trying to do a few shows with our new album about to come out soon.  Also, the other bands on the bill [Yeasayer, Shapes and Sizes, Tulsa] are very good, so it seemed like a fun bill to be a part of.

QRO: Do you have plans to fully tour once The Forms comes out?

AT: Yes.  We will be touring the US in November, plus some regional touring this year as well.  We also plan to be on the road a good deal next year.

QRO: Your last show was a rain-shortened set at South Street Seaport (QRO venue review), wedged between The National, Takka Takka, and the weather.  What was that experience like?

AT: Nerve-wracking.  It’s funny because, leading up to the show, we were told there’d be like 12,000 people there, which would be the biggest crowd we’ve played for, so I figured I’d be pretty nervous.  But the day of the show came and the rain was constantly threatening whether the show was going to happen at all.  So all the stress was over that, and then when we finally did play, it was such a relief to be playing at all that being nervous didn’t even come into play.  Anyhow, our set, though shortened, really went well, and I greatly enjoyed The National and Takka’s also-shortened set, so all in all it was a good day.

QRO: You worked with The National’s Matt Berninger and Scott Devendorf at an Internet company during the dot-com boom.  What is it like, going from sharing an office to sharing a stage?

AT: It’s not so different, actually.  Despite everything that’s been going on with The National, Matt and Scott are still the same unusually nice guys I’d always known them to be.

QRO: Will you be playing CMJ this October?

AT: Yes.  We’ll be playing a showcase on Saturday, October 20th, at Club Midway with Mussels, Goes Cube, and The Flesh (QRO Calendar listing).  We’ll also be doing some day shows too: the Gothamist party, an in-store show at Sound Fix (QRO Calendar listing), and possibly a few others.

QRO: What was the recording process like for The Forms?

AT: Very grueling.  We spent something like 50 straight days in the studio without a day off.  On all of those days, we worked a minimum of eight hours and as many as sixteen.  All for about 30 minutes of music.  I felt like I wanted to die on more than one occasion.  But in the end, we’re happy with the results, and it was well worth it.

QRO: How was it different than making your debut, Icarus?

AT: We had a lot less time to work with on Icarus – Only about 9 days to record and mix everything.  So it was a little more rushed, and there are flaws I hear as a result of that.  On the other hand, it is more live sounding and less polished than our new record, and that can have its own charms as well.

QRO: How did you get Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Pixies) to produce both albums?

AT: Steve has only refused to record a handful of bands (Depeche Mode, Hole, maybe a couple others).  It used to be harder to find him, but nowadays his studio Electrical Audio has a website (, and if you call there, you can book sessions with him.  You may have to wait a few months though, and these days I believe he doesn’t agree to do many projects that aren’t recorded at Electrical.  But the studio is world class yet amazingly inexpensive, so that isn’t too much of a problem.

QRO: What was it like, working with him?

AT: We have butted heads a good deal with Steve because we have somewhat different recording philosophies.  He doesn’t like doing a lot of takes, overdubs/doubling, etc.  And that’s how we’ve tended to go about things.

But working with Steve is very comforting.  You don’t have to worry that it won’t ultimately come out sounding good, because his recordings virtually always do.  And there will never be any technical mistakes that will cause trouble later because he’s pretty much the most experienced engineer you can possibly work with since he has recorded over 1,000 albums.  I remember being amazed when one of the former Electrical Audio interns was doing some recording for Wilco, and he called Steve during our session because he couldn’t stop the high hat from being too domineering.  Steve replied, “You can do one of seven things…” and proceeded to list seven things he could try, ranging from putting coins in the high hat, to putting tape or gel on top of it, and several other suggestions seemingly out of left field.  It was pretty incredible.

QRO: Why the four-year break between Icarus and The Forms?

AT: There are a lot of reasons for that.  Icarus was released on our label Threespheres, and our distributor went bankrupt, which definitely set us back for a while.  The Forms drummer Matt [Walsh] also had another band called The Desert Fathers that released an album (The Spirituality) and toured a lot.  I think it also took a while to find a good direction for the new album – some writer’s block you might say.

QRO: Was there something specific that broke the ‘writer’s block’?

AT: At some point we just decided to stop waiting around for lightning to strike and just start working.  With Icarus it was more a single magical moment of inspiration that happened from which all the rest of the music sprung.  But this time the music arose from more just really hard work.  We hadn’t thought we could do something good without that sort of rapturous moment happening so we did nothing.  But in retrospect, we were completely wrong and we wasted a lot of time waiting around when we probably could have produced a lot of good stuff.

QRO: The songs on Icarus had rather strange titling, like “Stel 1”, “Stel 2”, “Innizar 1”, and “Innizar 2”.  Where did that come from?

AT: It’s funny how the fact that those songs were split across two tracks ending up being the thing people asked us about more than any other aspect of the album.  We did it really just for convenience.  For example, the latter half of “Stel” is totally different from the first half, so we thought some people (ourselves included) might want to listen to just the second half sometimes.

As for the song titles, a lot of the lyrics on Icarus were pretty stream-of-consciousness and those words just came to mind.  Somehow they fit the songs well I think.

QRO: Is that song splitting the case with “Blue Whale”?  Why didn’t you do more of that, or any of the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ titles on The Forms?

AT: It is the case with the song splitting for “Blue Whale”, yes.  It’s more convenience because there’s a ten-to-fifteen second musical interlude at the end you might not want to listen to every time.  This album is a little bit more ‘in the light’, whereas I think Icarus was sort of in the dark.  Things are more out in the open on this album: the vocals and lyrics are louder and clearer, the songs structures are more sensible, it’s generally a bit less cryptic/unconscious/impenetrable.  So those kinds of titles I think fit better on Icarus than on the new album.

QRO: After how well Icarus was received, do you have any fear of a ‘sophomore jinx’ with The Forms?

AT: Maybe we’ll feel differently if there is some kind of backlash or sophomore jinx like you say, but I think the most important thing for us is to make music that we like.  If we do that, then I think whatever happens, happens, and it’s ok.  I think it’d be a much worse feeling to make an album we didn’t like that turned out to be well-received. 

Anyway, the handful of people that have heard the new album, even pretty hardcore fans of Icarus, generally say it’s better than Icarus, so the early prognosis seems to be good.

QRO: You were a classics and computers student in college.  How does that play a part in your music?

AT: Well, The Forms is a band with three other people so the music isn’t all about me.  But as far as my contribution goes, it did specifically influence the band name, which is in part a platonic reference, as well as the name of the first album, Icarus, which is a Greek myth.  I think also that those subjects are all about structure and logic, and I think particularly with our new album we really spent a lot of time structuring the songs in a way that made sense and flowed.

QRO: On The Forms there’s a track entitled, “Borges”.  Do you think The Forms’ music goes well with the works of Jorge Luis Borges?

AT: We definitely do feel a very strong connection to Borges’ writing.  Personally I think he’s the best writer ever, as does our drummer Matt.  He only wrote short stories, and not a single word is pointless or inessential in any of them.  With the music that we do, we try for something similar.  None of our song is four minutes long, and we really try to avoid having a single part or melody that is filler.  There are countless other great qualities of Borges’ writing that influence us: its crypticness, its creativity and intelligence, and its often deep profundity…

QRO: Are you and Matt more fans of his fiction or his non-fiction?  Do you have a favorite piece?

AT: We both prefer his fiction, though the nonfiction is great too.  The distinction is funny because the non-fiction seems like fiction and the fiction like non-fiction at times. 

As for a favorite story, we actually just made a video based on ‘The Aleph’, which is a fantastic one.  I also love ‘The Immortals’ and ‘Man On Pink Corner’ in particular, but they’re pretty much all great.

QRO: Boarding schools in England (and many that imitate them in the U.S.) teach Latin and Ancient Greek, and call their grades ‘forms’.  You’re a scholar of Latin and Ancient Greek, and the name of the band is ‘The Forms’.  Did you go to private school?

AT: It’s a weird question because technically I think you could call it a private school but it was founded by an anonymous donor and the tuition was free for everyone, so kids of very different socioeconomic / ethnic backgrounds from all over the New York area went there.  The founders specifically didn’t want it to be a rich kid school, which is why it’s a little weird to refer to it as a ‘private school’ since that term has so much baggage.  Anyway, I wasn’t aware that they called the classes ‘forms’…  That’s interesting.

QRO: How did the band all meet?

AT: While we were in high school, matt and I were in a band together that played a Battle of the Bands that Brendan [Kenny, guitar] and Jackson’s [Kenny, bass] band also played.  It so happened that both of our bands covered a Shudder To Think (QRO photos) song, which I’m sure is the only time in history that two high school bands randomly covered Shudder To Think.  Anyway, we stayed in touch ever since.

QRO: What Shudder To Think songs?

AT: They did “Red House”, and we did “X-French T-Shirt”.  At the Shudder To Think reunion last week, those were two of the four songs they played, funnily enough.  Brendan and Jackson were there.

QRO: How does the band balance having day jobs with recording and touring?

AT: Matt and I are both web programmers, so for us it’s getting easier because the technology is getting to the point where you can work from anywhere, so it may be possible to work our usual jobs even while on tour.  Brendan and Jackson work more non-virtual jobs so it’s a bit more difficult for them because they have to miss work.

QRO: You worked in web designing during the dot-com boom, and today.  How have things changed, and how have things stayed the same?

AT: It’s night and day. 

The dot-com era was a wild ride.  You had all these young people being handed tons of venture capital $$$, and so a lot of it got spent on fancy offices, parties, $3,000 office chairs, etc.

Unfortunately no one really had any relevant experience because everyone was so young and the technology was so new.  So most businesses ending up failing, but the ones that survived managed to learn what they did wrong and have since managed to sustain themselves.  The end result is maybe less crazy and fun but it’s certainly a lot more stable.

QRO: Do you have any new, post-Forms material?

AT: We just did a song for a compilation, also recorded with Steve Albini at his studio in Chicago.  I can’t really divulge the details yet, but the info about it will be released in October.  We are very excited for it, almost as much as we are about our new album in a way.

QRO: Do you play that song live?

AT: We haven’t had a show since we wrote it!  But I think we’re planning on doing it.

QRO: Are there any songs you really like playing live?

AT: We have a song called “Red Gun” that I like playing live.  It’s a song where three of the four band members do a lot of singing, and when we play it well I think it sounds good.  Plus, “Red Gun” is not very hard for me to play or sing, which appeals to my inherent laziness.  I like the song itself a lot, too.

QRO: Are there any that you don’t, or don’t play anymore?

AT: There are a lot of songs we used to play that were more in the vein of the music from Icarus: very fragmentary, lots of starts and stops, etc.  I feel they worked on record where you can listen multiple times and take it all in, but live I think the audience was confused about what was going on and it just didn’t translate very well.

QRO: What cities have you really liked playing at?

AT: We like Kansas City… People are really into music but there’s no pretentiousness, and the quality of the average band and musician is very high.  We like New Orleans too… It’s an amazing city.

QRO: Are there any new places you want to go to on this upcoming tour?

AT: Well, this tour we’re hitting mostly our favorite places.  But we’ve never played Minneapolis or New Mexico… both intriguing places.  I have lots of crazy dreams for this like an Alaska tour, Africa tour, etc.  But that won’t be happening this year anyway…

QRO: You all have played outdoors shows like the one at South Street Seaport, and indoor ones like this upcoming one at The Cake Shop.  Which do you all prefer?

AT: Personally I like the outdoor shows, but only at night.  I remember going to the Siren Festival in Coney island a few years ago and the lineup was comprised of all these dark, atmospheric bands (TV On the Radio, Blonde Redhead, etc.), and it was strange to see them in this daylight setting with beach balls being thrown around.  But at the same show the Trail of Dead, another pretty dark band, played once the sun went down and it was definitely effective, and then The National at the Seaport show you mentioned also worked very well in that nocturnal setting.

QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?

AT: We played a show in San Francisco that went way beyond midnight.  During our last song, a guy who could not have been more than five feet tall started throwing ice at us.   We later found out that this guy lived upstairs and I guess was being kept up by the music.  Since it was our last song, we just kept playing figuring we only had a minute or two left to go. 

He then took a beer glass and hurled it at our drummer Matt, barely missing his head by about two inches.  The glass shattered into a thousand pieces on the wall behind his drum kit.

  The man then stormed off in a rage and had disappeared by the time we finished the set, but apparently he told the owner that the next week, he was going to come back and throw knives at the band.

  • Anonymous
  • No Comment

    Leave a Reply