Do you remember when you would take some time to truly absorb and enjoy an album over multiple listenings, hearing and discovering more each time? Transnational post-rock/neo-classical collective Memory Drawings creates an exotic dreamscape of organic instrumentation that pulls you in, evoking either a Gaelic coastline or a Middle-Eastern desert, on their latest album A Few Scattered Hours. Woven throughout the album’s 11 songs is a comforting (for me) 4AD vibe, following the Dead Can Dance lineage; though the solid bass and drums anchor it squarely in the rock universe – a sound foreign and familiar at the same time.
I recently had the chance to speak with Joel Hanson, one of the core masterminds behind the outfit, and get some insight into how this hivemind of remote musicians can put together something that sounds so put together.
My first experience listening to Memory Drawings came from a set of promo releases by the label Sound In Silence in late 2019. Upon hearing their unique sound I increasingly became intrigued, with repeated listenings of their Phantom Lights EP revealing the source of their differentiation – the plucky arpeggios of the hammered dulcimer.
Although Joel thought of this EP as “more like a collection of tracks [that] we tried to shape into a piece… Phantom Lights was really just stuff we had left over” [from The Nearest Exit sessions that didn’t make it onto that record]. Joel was also quite pleased with the exposure they received from the Sound In Silence label that released it in summer 2019. “More people wrote about that record than anything else we’ve done,” says Hanson. “So [George Mastrokostas] did a wonderful job just getting it out there… and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”
Neither could I, as this group of musicians have been steadily releasing material since 2012’s Music For Another Loss, but somehow had escaped my radar. It turns out the EP was just a warmup for the main course to come: 2020’s A Few Scattered Hours. The moment this release was announced, I couldn’t wait to hear it and, ultimately, I wasn’t disappointed.
Any further exposition into this band has to begin with their otherworldly aural foundation – the hammered dulcimer, skillfully performed by Joel. It’s a fascinating sound, not something you hear very often. I asked him how his journey with this unique instrument originated, with elementary school surfacing as the source. “I wanted to play cello back then, but we didn’t have an orchestra. My brother happened to be a percussionist, so I just said: Okay, I’ll take percussion.”
Exposure to the hammered dulcimer came a little later, [after] “hearing those early Dead Can Dance records,” continues Joel. “It was the perfect transition for a percussionist because you make melody by making rhythm.” He continued down this path, eventually joining a Minneapolis band called Passage, where he played alongside 2 guitars, bass and drums. But for this configuration, the dulcimer served as just one part of the stringed trio. As Joel observed: “There were typically two acoustic guitars and then the dulcimer and so there was never really any need to double track [the dulcimer] because one guy was playing chords and another guy was doing fingerpicking and you couldn’t tell who was playing what.”
This discussion of the stage setup of Joel’s previous band led to Memory Drawing’s distinctive residence amidst the borderlands between the post-rock and neo-classical realms. “You know,” says Hanson, “there aren’t many dulcimer-driven bands that I can think of. It’s usually like an ornament and it’s usually in the background and it shouldn’t be.” He contends that the learning curve and barrier to entry are not as low as people might think: “The one I have is kind of expensive now, but you can get the entry level one and it’s not that expensive. And it’s just easy to make something that you like, if you have a sense of rhythm and a little bit of patience.” Nevertheless, the likelihood of picking up such an inaccessible instrument at a young age is likely to get crowded out by more common gear, as “every kid grows up with a guitar and a bass and drum kit or whatever.”
The Hood Connection
Another major player in the Memory Drawings story, Richard Adams, holds down a sort of “home base” in the north of England – a geographic counterpoint to Joel’s frequent relocations (which include such exotic places as Morocco, Turkey, India and New Jersey). Adams, whose musical heritage spans from the early 90s and the band Hood to his current main project, The Declining Winter, maintains much of the equipment and technology that was used to lay down demos through to mixing down albums.
The two crossed paths while Joel was writing for a magazine in Seattle. “I wrote a review of Cold House, their record from 2001, and interviewed them,” recounts Hanson. “It was an email interview, but I quoted them extensively and then when Outside Closer came out, it was the same thing. Domino [their label] was really quite pleased with the review… and we ended up warming them up in Seattle when I was playing with a different band. I think they were quite intrigued by seeing the dulcimer and we just stayed in touch.”
It wasn’t until several years later that they finally got together in the same room to work on some material (due to the decentralized nature of the members, these things take time). “And this was January of 2008… when we first started. It took us four years to make the first record, but it was definitely way on the back burner… [because Richard] was doing The Declining Winter and a million other things.” These sessions would result in 2012’s Music For Another Loss, which was released on the Second Language label.
Trans-continental Recording Process
Even the title of the new album, A Few Scattered Hours, hints at the challenges of trying to coordinate an intercontinental crew of band members, or: “the scattered hours the band spent creating the album across distances,” to reference the release’s promotional copy. Also mentioned in the album’s liner notes is an intriguing fact about how Joel had stowed away his hammered dulcimer under Richard’s guest bed for the previous decade, which led me to inquire more about their trans-continental recording process.
“So, up until the last tour we did, which was April/May of 2018, I was living in Morocco, a two and a half hour flight from London,” says Hanson. “It just became so difficult to travel with it [the hammered dulcimer] that I would just leave it under his bed. And I would just be up there maybe three times a year for about a week. That went on for really the first three records.”
For this latest album, and after a lengthy mixing process for the third album The Nearest Exit that spanned between England and Morocco and “took a just unbelievably long time,” Richard “got tired of being the guy in front of the computer, editing all this stuff,” admits Joel. He repatriated his instrument when he moved back to the States and started writing every day while he was looking for work. “And what became those songs, happened fairly quickly, at least the initial dulcimer parts. And then I went in with the other Joel [Smith] who plays dulcimer, and then we tracked nine or 10 things, [in] one 10-hour session.” Hanson later went back to a local studio in New Jersey for more dulcimer overdubs.
Whereas previous efforts began with loose collaborations or jam sessions that were honed and shaped by various members, “this one was strictly built up from the dulcimer. Having the dulcimer tracks ahead of time, I just sent them to everybody and they often didn’t know what the other person was playing.”
Listening to final results – mixed, mastered, and on headphones – you would swear it was a live performance with all the players co-located, not “scattered” geographically with their segments re-assembled in Bradford, England. When I mention this to Joel, he’s quick to give credit where it is due: “So glad to hear you say that because I do think that’s the credit of Ross the engineer, and Jason and Justin, the guys that recorded it. I think it’s the best sounding of the four records by far because we were actually in a studio.”
Another prominent feature of the album’s sound is the strong and slightly swaggered rhythm, at times falling into grooves with a drive similar to Sly & Robbie. “That had a lot to do with Tim and Craig, the drummer and bass player from my old band Passage, I knew they would lock in really beautifully,” says Hanson. “And I wanted a little bit more of a rock drummer on this. That’s specifically why I had Craig in mind and I was quite pleased with [what] both of them came up with.”
Again, Hanson circles back to give credit to the engineering work once more: “It’s also the genius of Ross Halden as a mixer that was instrumental in it sounding as good as it does.”
Like previous albums, the new one includes a remix of (just about) each song – some ending up quite different than the original. I asked Joel if there were any in particular that really stood out to him: “On the current record, wow, I really love the Giulio Aldinucci remix of ‘Exit Wounds’ in particular. I mean [he] turned it into like a classical piece with three movements… That’s the way it strikes me and that middle one is particularly moving, I think.”
“I also liked The Green Kingdom one quite a bit. [Michael] had a little guitar in there at the end. I can listen to it a lot longer than it is – I have actually taken a few of those and just looped them and listened for about half an hour. And the Insides one too,” adds Hanson.
The remix by London’s Insides, for the song “The Right To Be Forgotten,” turned out to be a happy accident due to COVID-related lockdowns in 2020. The duo, with leanings towards post-rock and ambient and were active during the early 90s on the 4AD label, had just put out an album (their first in 20 years) but were not able to tour or play shows to support it. Joel was a fan of theirs, and consequently Second Language label owner Glen Johnson (ex-Piano Magic) happened to know them. He continues, “I remember that first record and… that 38-minute single called ‘Clear Skin’ (1994) that they did. The mix sounds so them, you know, so if you know that first record, it’s just kind of what they do. There’s no way that would have happened if everybody wasn’t stuck at home. So that was really cool.”
Another remix, that of “The Same Indifference” by the esteemed Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance, transpired under similar circumstances. “Glen knows Brendan. He’s in London as well, and not touring… [but] there’s no way he would’ve had time if they were off doing what they’re usually doing.”
End of Part 1
As you can see, there’s a rich story playing out here, with many of the actors criss-crossing paths over the past two decades. My conversation with Joel took many twists and turns, covering a variety of topics – not just the album and his music. Stay tuned for the conclusion of this interview in the coming weeks.