With an album dealing with the separation from loved ones, friends, lovers and family members through distance, break-ups, growing apart or passing away, a German alternative/progressive krautrock project led by Kevin Thellmann produced a record that is all about personal. Paying tribute to the records he grew up with, the album could be tagged under autobiographical.
Prog Sphere talked with Kevin about his vision with Crumpled Blanket and what led to the inception of Chin Up, Cheer Up album.
Let me know about your mission with Crumpled Blanket.
I think I wouldn’t even call it a mission. I just get a lot of pleasure out of writing songs and recording them. So I guess my mission would be to enjoy myself, if that makes any sense? I didn’t even bother to make a page on facebook or myspace and everyone can get the music for free on bandcamp if they want to. There is no specific goal I’d like to achieve despite having fun, but if other people enjoy the music that also makes me happy of course.
What is the story behind the project’s name?
That’s kind of hard to explain. You know when you wake up in the morning and turn around in your bed and all the feathers in the pillows and blankets are making those little crackling and sizzling noises? Do you know what I mean? I just love that noise or just being in bed or sleeping in general. I think there is no specific name for that noise so one day I just had the words ‘Crumpled Blanket’ in mind and liked how that looked written out. A friend of mine told me the name reminded him of a really old nasty blanket. The kind that you’ve had since you were a child and that really deserves to be loved and cuddled with. And even though that wasn’t my intention with the name, I also really like this interpretation.
What are the circumstances that led to Crumpled Blanket’s formation?
There is this band I also play in called Half Hour Handshake. We can’t practice at the moment because all the band members moved pretty far apart from one another and we also lost the place were we always used to jam in the past. But I still had the urge to make music so I just started doing things on my own.
What evolution do you feel the “Chin Up, Cheer Up” album represent?
“Love Is A Tree, With Lions As Leaves”, the last Half Hour Handshake record sounds really clean and sweet to me and has lots of short little songs. Marc, who plays drums on that record changes up the rhythm every couple of measures and that really keeps things exiting and unpredictable. And Nicks’ keyboards sound really dreamy. Compared to that “Chin Up, Cheer Up” feels like the total opposite. No more finger-picked guitars, the rhythms are much more repetitive and monotonous, everything sounds messy and distorted and most of the songs are rather long. So to me it feels like a step in a completely different direction.
Usually I have at least basic ideas for songs in my mind before I start recording but for this album I jumped right into the record process. So the songs were all written as I recorded them. Most of the time I started with a drum pattern and just improvised to that with a bass synthesizer. From there on I added other instruments until I got sleepy and went to bed. Then I would listen back to what I did a few days later. Sometimes it was crap, but other times nearly finished songs emerged from working like that. Like the majority of “The Colors You See With Closed Eyes” was basically done in a few hours and it turned out to be my favourite song on the album. The other songs took much longer though and required a lot of revisiting and rearranging, scrapping things and doing them over again differently. They slowly evolved into something completely different than what I started with.
How did you approach the writing process of the album? Tell me about your songwriting methods.
Instrumentally I feel like the album almost wrote itself, just really slowly. I took my time and lots of breaks between working really intensively for a few hours. That’s the advantage of home-recording, to work whenever you feel like it. Recording this album in a professional studio wouldn’t have been affordable for me at all. Most of the things you hear on the album were rewritten and rerecorded multiple times until they reached a point were I knew I couldn’t improve them anymore. For the lyrics it seems like I can only write about things that are really personal and important to me.
I understand that recording “Chin Up, Cheer Up” was kind of a therapeutic experience for you. Elaborate on this.
Yes, the album was done in a very unusual time of my life. There was a lot of change happening. I had this girlfriend I’ve been with for more than three years and we broke up, my grandfather died and my parents sold the house I grew up in. Those were just things that made me think how quickly situations in life can change and I didn’t quite know how to handle those things but having an outlet for them in music helped a lot.
Give me a snapshot of the topics you explore on the album.
The album follows a very loose narrative. The first song is basically about breaking up with someone and the sudden realisation that a future with this person is not possible anymore and you’re simply on your own. But then there are also songs on the record that glorify the situation of being alone and the exciting times you can have when you’re only responsible for yourself and nobody else. “Shadows Clouds Cast Upon Landscapes” deals with missing someone and can be seen as an encouragement for someone who is separated from a loved one or lost an important person in their life. The last song deals with self-doubts and that it’s sometimes more wise not to overthink a situation, but rather be confident about yourself and do what you feel is right. This may sound a little cheesy but in a nutshell this record is a about becoming a man. Or in other words: trying to be a better person.
You name Gentle Giant, Yes, Can, The Mars Volta and Animal Collective among the influences that shaped the album’s structure. Let me know how do these influences reflect on the music itself.
Some of the songs reminded me of those bands when they were finished. “Contagious Enthusiasm” reminds me of The Mars Volta, while “The Colors You See With Closed Eyes” is pretty much my version of Can’s “Future Days”. Not that they sound the same but the way they evolve and the way they are structured. And for the whole structure of the record those progressive bands from the early seventies were a huge inspiration. For example Gentle Giant’s “In A Glass House” has such a great flow. There’s only 6 tracks on it but every song is the most logical conclusion of the song that came before it. The same thing applies to Genesis’ “Nursery Cryme” or “Lemmings” by Bachdenkel for example. Every song on those records is just perfectly placed and that’s what I also wanted to achieve on “Chin Up, Cheer Up”. From a sound point of view I think Animal Collective had the greatest impact on me. They combine the craziest sounds on their records which would theoretically not make any sense but just work so unbelievably well and beautiful together. And also from a songwriting perspective they are pretty much the greatest band out there to me right now.
I don’t really know to be honest. I’ve never had that moment where I thought: ”I’ve got to write a song now!” I just sit down with an instrument and play around until something exciting emerges. Then I repeat that melody until it’s stuck in my head and hands so I can play it without thinking. I’ve never thought about what moment or what other song or book it was that influenced a certain melody. Sure sometimes when I recorded something and I listen back to it I think “Oh Kevin, you totally ripped that vocal melody from Peter Gabriel” or something like that. Unintentionally of course! But then I just try something different. This goes for the music, but lyrically I’m always kind of stuck with something personal. In the future I’ll try writing the lyrics first and then add music to that. I’ve never done that before.
What non-musical entities and ideas have an impact on your music?
I guess a lot of musicians would say that but just life in general. And I like reading, especially early science fiction but all kinds of stuff really. Around the time when I did the album I remember reading “When The Sleeper Wakes” by H.G. Wells, “Amerika” by Franz Kafka and “The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien to name the ones that stood out the most. But basically all kinds of art that can make you totally forget where or who you are for a moment. Even some videogames can do that for me, if they’ve got stories or worlds that really pull you in. Oddworld and Elder Scrolls games are always unique and atmospheric and also the first Bioshock was very thrilling. I don’t watch a lot of movies but I think Wes Anderson makes very special ones.
Tell me about the setup you used to record “Chin Up, Cheer Up.”
This was really simple actually, I used an old version of Cubase which came with one of my pedals I ordered years ago. I had an old Squire guitar plugged through effect pedals right into an Edirol stereo sound interface. For the vocals I had pretty much the cheapest Sennheiser Mic you can get and ran it through this Roland SP-404 sampler to use its effects on my voice. I also used the SP-404 for some sounds and rhythm loops. But for most of the drums I used the Akai MPK mini’s drum pads which I played with my fingers. The synths were also done with the Akai using only free VST Instrument plug-ins. There is so much free stuff out there that just sounds mind-blowing, it’s unbelievable. The compressors, EQs and limiters I used during mixing and mastering were also free plug-ins. Sure it’s not the same as the real thing, but I’m just a student with no money so I take what I can get. I think the production turned out great, especially when you think about that it had cost me next to nothing, only a lot of time.
How would you describe what you do with Crumpled Blanket to someone who didn’t listen to you before?
Oh, I have absolutely no idea. I would just put on the record and make them listen. That says things way better than I could ever describe them with words.
Are you working on any new material at the moment?
Yes, actually just a few weeks ago me and a friend, his name is Oliver, formed a new band called REAL WAR. It’s just the two of us and he is a very talented singer. It’s still open in which direction this is going, we just started working on two songs but they already sound pretty exciting.
What are your future plans?
First of all I’d like to finish recording those two REAL WAR songs so they can be released as a little preview of what’s to come. Then write some more songs and then, the thing I’m looking forward to most: playing live again! Crumpled Blanket is a solo project so those songs won’t be played live but with REAL WAR we definitely want to play shows as soon as possible. Also because of my love for the early Genesis records I recently bought a 12-string, but I’m still struggling to get this beast under my control.