With two great albums and a couple EPs under their belt Chicago's I:Scintilla is ready to release their finest work yet, a brand new set of tracks under the title Dying & Falling and it's virtually guaranteed to push them to the forefront, granting them plenty of well deserved attention and recognition. In spite of the hectic pace at which they've had to work over the last year vocalist Brittany Bindrim and guitarist/programmer Jim Cookas were gracious enough to sit down with DarkTwinCities for a chat about topics ranging from the new music to their approach to songwriting, their views on comparisons, the Chicago scene and just exactly where "Beatle-esque dubcore post-grunge" came from.
DTC: So you've released two albums and your last, Optics, contained some reworkings of older material. With a new CD on the way will this be the first time you're putting forth an entirely new set of tunes since The Approach or is there still some recycled/updated songs included here as well?
Brittany Bindrim: There will not be any old material on our upcoming album Dying & Falling. We consider our first self-released album, The Approach, to be more of a glorified demo. When we signed with Alfa Matrix we revisited a few of the older tracks that reappeared on Optics because we wanted to give those songs the treatment we thought that they deserved. But there will be all brand new material on the new album.
DTC: Word has it there will also be a limited run companion CD. Do you still have plenty of older material you're looking to release?
Brittany Bindrim: We plan on releasing a limited edition double-disc version of the album that will feature remixes, exclusive new tracks, covers and previously unreleased songs.
DTC: How did you wind up on Alfa Matrix and what has been your experience working through a label based out of Belgium?
Jim Cookas: We sent out press kits to a few labels in late 2005 and on a suggestion from our friends Hungry Lucy we made sure to include Alfa Matrix. A couple follow-up emails later and we were in talks with the label. It has been a generally positive experience working with them over the past four years. Of course, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything and there is a bit of a language/culture barrier. However, they believe in what we’re doing and their promotional work has been great accordingly, especially in Europe.
DTC: When it comes to the lyrical content you feel free to include a wide range of challenging topics from submission within a religious context to fighting in questionable wars. It's both refreshing a well-conceptualized. In your view do a lot of acts these days seem to suffer from a lack of things to say? I see a dearth of message-oriented rock and pop with artists opting instead for the old standbys of troubled relationships and alienation.
Brittany Bindrim: I do find that a lot of musicians view their lyrics as an afterthought to accompany music they’ve written. I think there are musicians out there that have a lot to say and write very poetic and inspired words. But I would have to agree, in that I have not been very impressed with a lot of lyricists in current acts.
DTC: Have you ever written something and encountered a degree of trepidation regarding putting it out there? Is there ever a concern about how certain fans might take (or mistake) the lyrics? Any topics you simply won't touch?
Brittany Bindrim: When I am putting a song out there and expressing my beliefs whether it is about religion, politics, etc., I don’t feel too worried about possible backlash. It is not my intention to alienate fans that might have different views then I do. My passion towards these topics often fuels the lyrics and vocals. I strongly disapprove of censoring oneself to appeal to a broader audience. I think that makes for uninspired, boring, soulless songs.
I do, however, feel a bit apprehensive when I release a song that contains very personal lyrics. There are a few songs on the new album that discuss a few hardships that I have been through. These songs were tough but vital for me to write. I think it is important for anyone to rid themselves of the emotional weight of trauma and convert it into something positive. That is the source of some of the best art in the world.
DTC: From where does your capacity to create music stem? Did you have parents or other adults in your life as you grew up who encouraged you to study and appreciate music? Did you have a specific figure in your life that was the direct inspiration for the direction you've taken?
Brittany Bindrim: I was very influenced by my father and my grandmother. My grandmother (my dad’s mom) was a skilled pianist who could play any song by ear. My father is a very talented musician as well and can pretty much pick up any instrument and master it. Before my parents divorced my dad would play guitar and sing to us all the time. He would make up songs for my sister and I and play us our favorite songs from Sesame Street. Later though, I think my mother actually discouraged my involvement in music because it reminded her of my father. But I attempted to teach myself guitar and wrote lyrics and songs all the time in private. Finally when I went away to college I decided that I needed to get my voice out there.
DTC: The Prey On You EP precedes a new album and contains three tracks along with some remixes of those songs. Are all three of these tracks included on the new CD?
Brittany Bindrim: The new album will definitely have two of the EP’s studio tracks (“Prey On You” and “Ammunition”). We may keep “Hollowed” exclusive to the EP.
DTC: What other kinds of songs can we expect on the new album? Are you diversifying your sound more with the new CD?
Jim Cookas: I think we’ve explored both sensitivity and aggression in greater depth this time around. We have some extremely intense metal thrashers and we have some gentle ballads that fall better under trip-hop or ambient. Our new member, Brent Leitner, has brought his musical voice by writing a few songs on the album. We also have a collaboration with Broken Fabiola (Manufactura side project) that turned out really pretty.
DTC: Prey On You contains some pretty intricate vocal work that jumps from key to key rather quickly. Be honest, how many takes were there before you nailed it?
Brittany Bindrim: I usually do about three takes. The second and third are always the best even if I were to do fifty. I find the emotion and intensity seem to be at the peak during either of those vocal takes for me. The first tends to be a warm-up for me but once I get that over with I feel much more comfortable with the song.
DTC: You've had a great number of people remix your work. What's it like to hear someone reinterpret what you've done?
Brittany Bindrim: It’s always exciting to get a remix back and to hear how another artist reinterprets the song. We’ve been lucky to have been remixed by such great musicians.
DTC: Does the way others put forth your original vision enhance your own songwriting and give you ideas you can add to your own sound?
Jim Cookas: I don’t think I’ve consciously taken much from the remixes in terms of our own sound. Perhaps the remixes I do for other artists are subtly influenced. Who knows?
DTC: Which mixes have been your favorites so far?
Brittany Bindrim: My favorites include Combichrist, Sebastian Komor from Icon Of Coil and Zombie Girl, Clan of Xymox, and Die Warzau.
Jim Cookas: I really like all the remixes Brittany mentioned but I think Angelspit’s remix of “The Bells” is my favorite. Sebastian Komor’s mix is making a strong run, though.
DTC: A blogger I read was recently discussing how promotion has become such a major part of the musician's responsibilities whereas in the past artists typically left that to the labels. These days some acts will use their Twitter accounts or MySpace pages to let the fans in on every aspect of putting together an album from its conception through the release as a way to build up a kind of "hype" or excitement that will hopefully translate into sales. Is it an enormous drain for a band to not just be concerned with the creation of music but also the effort involved in coming up with ways to convince people to buy their works and promote the music?
Jim Cookas: We have a very strong Internet presence but we are not a band that will tweet 45 times a day or generate any sort of false hype. In fact, the latter is one of the most annoying aspects of the 2010 Internet. Usually I don’t find it to be a drain to maintain our online hangouts. That said, there is no better hype than writing good music and I think that’s why artists need to maintain a balance between creating and promoting.
DTC: What was it like building an audience within the Chicago scene?
Brittany Bindrim: The music scene in Chicago is flooded with bands and it was tough to make it through the crowd in the beginning. It isn’t easy but eventually, if you put on a good live show and you write the best songs you can, you will outshine a lot of the dull crap on the scene. We’ve been here in Chicago for 2 years now and we are starting to get under the radar of the big players in the Chicago music scene.
DTC: Which people or venues really made a huge impact on elevating you to this point in your career? To whom do you owe a great deal of gratitude?
Jim Cookas: I think there are several Chicago promoters that helped us with our start. These include American Gothic Productions (Scary Lady Sarah), WTII Records (David Schock) and Demons & Darlings (Slash Sihlehallah). Recently we have begun to branch out of the industrial scene a bit and networked with Chicago’s alternative/electro scene. It’s a bit more mainstream, but we wanted to see how those fans would take to us. So far, so good!
DTC: How does the Chicago scene compare to others you've witnessed as you've toured the country?
Brittany Bindrim: While on tour we were happy to know that in a lot of the cities across the country we have as much or more support than we do in our hometown.
Jim Cookas: Now that we’ve played in essentially every major U.S. city I’ve grown to appreciate the Chicago scene even more. I love that we have three underground clubs that are dedicated to Industrial/Punk/80’s (Neo, Exit, and Late Bar) and there are plenty of related nights/events at other clubs. It’s also great that members of so many bands live in the same neighborhood as us: Die Warzau, Stromkern, Iris, The Gothsicles, WTII Records, The Atomica Project (Wade Alin), Kill Hannah, and Chris Connelly (Ministry, Revolting Cocks) works at the record store down the street.
DTC: Now that you've toured extensively what sort of things have you incorporated into your live act?
Jim Cookas: Our current live setup consists of drums (Vince), guitar (Brent), guitar (Jim), vocals (Brittany) and laptop (bass, drums, synths/etc.). We’ve had a variety of lineups over the years and I’m happy to say that this is easily the most talented and energetic.
DTC: What has worked and, even more interestingly, what simply hasn't worked that seemed like a good idea at first?
Jim Cookas: There have been a few bonehead ideas that we’ve had for our live show in the past and they usually originate with me! The point is that we’ve learned over the years to keep the technical aspects of the show relatively simple. It makes things a little easier when touring, reduces technical difficulties and allows us to focus more on playing as hard as we can.
DTC: What sort of gear are you using to create the I:Scintilla sound? Is there hardware or software you absolutely swear by that's been invaluable to you and are you interested in experimenting with new equipment?
Jim Cookas: This album has a few instrumentation changes from our releases in the past. For starters, all guitars have been tracked with tube amps (Marshall JCM 800, Marshall JCM 2000, Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier). All of the synthesizers are software-based. I basically live and die by Spectrasonics (Trilogy, Stylus, Omnisphere), Native Instruments (Battery, Absynth, Massive) and Rob Papen (Albino, Blue, Predator). As far as effects, I can attest that every song is filled with Audio Damage plugins (Chris Randall of Sister Machine Gun’s audio software company).
DTC: So what's still on your wish list?
Jim Cookas: I am definitely looking to use new equipment in the future. In particular, I want to move (back) into analog synthesizers. That’s the cool thing to do nowadays, right?
DTC: It would seem so. How do you go about songwriting? Is it pretty static in that percussive elements always come first and are then layered with synth and guitar followed by lyrics and vocals or is there more of an organic approach where, say, Brittany might come up with a vocal melody and you try to build a song around that?
Brittany Bindrim: The process is an evolving one and is different for each song really. Some songs come very natural while others take a bit more work. I write lyrics and melodies all the time so I do have a “vocal sketchbook.” Usually a song will begin with Jim or Brent and they give me a rough start to a song or a synth line and drums or whatnot and I will write a melody and lyrics to accompany that. The structure of the song evolves and then more layers are added, subtracted, tweaked.
Jim Cookas: When we first started out I would hand off a fully arranged instrumental composition to Brittany and she would add lyrics and vocal melodies. In fact, most of the first album’s music was written before she was in the band. The process now is much more dynamic. All members are having a voice during the construction of almost every song so it is much more of a group effort.
DTC: I've read comparisons between I:Scintilla and Garbage or The Birthday Massacre, Collide, Curve, etc. Does it bother you when people make these comparisons? And what about genre/subgenre/microgenre associations? Are the terms people use to describe a band's sound even relevant with all the cross-pollinating going on these days?
Jim Cookas: The human mind constantly needs comparison to reach understanding and I’m perfectly happy with those comparisons. It’s usually the easiest way to describe our sound to those who have not yet heard it. I do think the subgenre thing is getting out of control. Do we really need classifications with as many words as “Beatle-esque dubcore post-grunge?” By the way, my side project is founder of said genre. You heard it here first!
DTC: So have you ever read a description of I:Scintilla's sound that totally confounded you?
Jim Cookas: One of the best descriptions I’ve read of our sound is “Rob Zombie meets The Cranberries.”
DTC: That is great. So why do you do this? With CD sales having fallen off from what they once were and the influx of armchair musicians out there vying for the time, attention and money of a shrinking pool of listeners what compels you to even attempt a career in music? Is there really nothing better to which you would rather devote your time and energy that might be more profitable?
Brittany Bindrim: Because it is buried deep in our bones. It’s our marrow. Without music we’d shrivel up and become little skeletons.
Jim Cookas: There is nothing else we’d rather be doing with our time. All four of us have music in our DNA so it’s an obsession and compensation isn’t a factor. We are heading towards a day when music will be universally free and musicians will be paid essentially nothing. We may as well get used to it.
DTC: What's the toughest part about being a recording and touring artist in your estimation I mean, aside from having to endure this interview?
Brittany Bindrim: Having to keep a day job.
Jim Cookas: Time is at such a premium for me. I don’t know if I keep my to-do list too ambitious but it seems like once I finish a task something new pops into my brain.
DTC: What musicians make you reconsider your decision to create music simply because they're so damn good it makes you envious? Which artists out there today absolutely blow you away?
Brittany Bindrim: Skinny Puppy always blows my mind with every release and every tour. The messages of their music, the stage theatrics of their live show and their complex song structures are guaranteed to leave me humbled.
Jim Cookas: 60’s era Doors, 70’s era Bowie, 80’s era Skinny Puppy, 90’s era Nine Inch Nails, 00’s era Tool
DTC: So what are your touring plans for the future? Once the new album is released are you going to trek across the States again? Any plans on making it out to Europe? How difficult is it to put something like that together given any family and/or job concerns?
Jim Cookas: We don’t have any concrete touring plans other than one-off shows on the east and west coasts. We’d love to visit the entire country again but if a compatible offer doesn’t come through we’d be perfectly happy getting to work on another album. More than anything we want to get back to Europe. Touring isn’t too difficult for us as our schedules are relatively flexible.
DTC: Well, thanks for taking the time for this. It was fun.
Jim Cookas: Thanks again for the great review and excellent interview!
See also: Review: Prey On You EP