The Myrrors :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

If you’re listening for musical borders in Borderlands, the latest from Tucson, Arizona-based psychedelic unit the Myrrors, good luck. In the record’s collected extended jams and briefer numbers, whatever lines exist to separate kosmische, drone, folk, minimalism, and free jazz blur, bend and then vanish entirely. Yet however borderless the sound here may be, songwriter Nik Rayne and his crew have walls, and division, on the mind. The band’s situated mere miles from the line that divides the United States and Mexico, and their meditation on how we keep out – and keep in – couldn’t feel more timely, as the horrors of family seperations and abuse on our borders makes clear the real, violent effects of othering those who cross lines defined by powerful forces outside themselves. But timely records can sometimes feel timeless too, and Borderlands is that kind of record. Its meditative intensity, and “Call For Unity,” suggests not only specific struggles in our time, but the struggles of people throughout history. “Tell me do you see it/the history in view/fooled us into thinking/it couldn’t happen here,” Rayne sings on the Amon Düül-referencing “The Blood That Runs the Border,” the “here”, gravely, could be anywhere.

I caught up with Rayne, whose music I’ve followed for more than a decade, to dig into the themes of the record, talk borders, and explore how record store culture has informed the band’s sound. Borderlands is available everywhere today on Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records.

Aquarium Drunkard: Coming from Tucson, how has your own perception of the “border” between the US and Mexico changed over the years? Is the record an attempt to comment on the concept of borders more generally, in terms of the definitions we come up with to divide our art, politics, and beliefs in daily life?

Nik Rayne: The title and themes behind Borderlands emerged pretty naturally during the process of working on the album. Living in Tucson really puts you at the front line of a lot of what has been going on regarding the border patrol, federal immigration policies, and abuses, institutionalized racism, the complexities of heterogeneous regional histories, all that…to the point where these issues really become an inescapable part of daily life. I had been thinking about trying to steer the next record in a more conceptual direction anyways, and when “The Blood That Runs the Border” became one of the first tracks cut for the session it more or less guided me into the rest.

That being said, domestic border concerns were just the starting point; the album speaks towards border conflict on a global scale, as well as what happens in that dead grey zone in between the “walls” that people construct, whether those are physical, social, or psychological. Another real historical border that played a large part in the ideas behind the album is the Durand Line, the frontier-point between Afghanistan (where my father is from) and Pakistan drawn by the British empire for political reasons which separated the Pashtun homeland and has caused endless problems over the years…many of which might sound familiar to people from, say, the Tohono O’odham Nation in the Sonoran Desert, whose land and whose families were also divided by foreign interest between two countries in a seemingly perpetual state of conflict.

As the saying goes, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

AD: What kind of stories did your dad tell you about his home country? Did you ever visit Afghanistan in your youth?

Nik Rayne: My father told me occasional stories about what life was like growing up in Kabul, catching pigeons in the street, flying kites…but after the whole extended family fled the country with the onset of the Cold War situation in the late 1970s, he never went back. Largely, I think, to be able to preserve the memory of Afghanistan as an intact and peaceful place, before international interference birthed forty years of perpetual war. As for me…I’ll go one day, as soon as circumstances permit. To be honest, I always feel this constant force pulling me there, a desire to dig back into those roots and reconnect with that part of myself. It’s still a tricky trip to make though.

AD: “Note From the Underground” closes the record. Obviously the title riffs on the Dostoevsky book, but does the idea of the underground hold similar space as the term “borders” does for you? Does “the Underground” mean more than one thing in your usage?

Nik Rayne: In the context of the record, I suppose “the Underground” refers to the idea of people living beneath the surface of society…and from that position resisting systematic oppression. I mean, the title obviously plays on that of the Dostoevsky book, but I wouldn’t say that there was any intentional thematic material drawn from there.

That being said, it’s also all just kind of a joke. We’re an “underground” band, and rather than writing “notes” we’re just sitting on one single “note” for twenty minutes…note from the underground. I’ll be honest and admit that any ideas of how that name fits into the concept of the record have been thought up after that fact. This track evolved independently from the rest of the material anyways, starting with a one-off three-piece show we played with Miguel [Urbina] on amplified viola, Grant [Beyschau] on drums, and me on bass. We experimented with it on our last European tour and then it was eventually recorded, months after the rest of the album had already been tracked.

AD: Do the songs that precede it feel more thematically connected? Is cohesion or even narrative something that typically plays into the making of a Myrrors record?

Nik Rayne: Yeah, the A-side of this one was more or less designed as a suite based off of the border concept. In fact, “Formaciones Rojas” is technically a continuation of “The Blood That Runs the Border,” recorded as one piece and then split into two parts. If you listen closely the former actually begins where the “Blood” riff cuts out, and certain melodic phrases reprise themselves in different parts of the record. But another important point regarding “cohesion” here is that there was an active attempt to focus the instrumental sound of this record more around that of the Myrrors in its current live incarnation, which meant a much stronger emphasis on Miguel’s electric viola as a lead voice, a simplification of arrangements, and a step away from the organ and electric piano experiments of Hasta La Victoria.

But then again narrative is always a key factor in recording and assembling records for us, and going into any given album session we move by thinking in terms of flow and arc. Even when tracks are written or recorded independently of each other I always try and make sure that they make sense together before confirming their place on the record. If Grant and I like something but it doesn’t make sense in context then it gets shelved…maybe it will fit a later release, maybe it’ll just sit gathering dust. For that reason, we actually have a pretty sizable archive of unreleased studio recordings that I hope to compile and release at some point in the near future.

AD: In the studio, are you more or less playing together like you would on stage? Does it feel like there’s a difference between what happens on stage any given night and what happens in the studio?

Nik Rayne: No, actually both sides tend to function as almost separate entities. The majority of the albums so far have mostly been just Grant and I playing everything, starting from the rhythm section and working our way up. The live band tends to take on ideas from where the two of us are at in the studio, but it all gets filtered through whoever happens to be playing in the band at any given time and what the instrumental lineup looks like. Often the divide means that songs turn up very differently on stage…for example, we’ve been playing the title track to our last record Hasta La Victoria as a four-piece, and the keyboard and bulbul tarang parts have gotten necessarily shifted and retranslated to electric guitar and viola…which has somehow moved the piece into an almost Fairport Convention-y kind of vibe. But I think this sort of thing keeps the music fresh and also helps keep us on our toes.

AD: Does that potential disparity mean the Myrrors, as a concept, is always changing? Do things ever start sounding like something outside of your idea for the group? Are there any sonic borders to speak of?

Nik Rayne: I would say that live things are always shifting, though the recording side of the group tends to develop in a slightly more linear way – it’s always functioned within much tighter conceptual lines. Our approach with the live band has pretty much always been laissez-faire, letting the music develop on top of each musician’s individual approach to their instrument. Sometimes that does send things into unexpected areas, but hey, that’s also the fun of it. After all, the sound of the group on tape would be somewhat difficult to replicate regularly on stage, we’d need five or six other similarly minded musicians to make it work. Plus there are just so many disparate ingredients that go into our music to begin with that we can usually guide hatever instrumental configuration we’re working with into some sort of sonic direction befitting “the Myrrors concept.” For example, the four-piece viola-based lineup we toured with earlier this year had enough natural ’70s British folk-rock meets Amon Düül II vibes in it that we just decided to run with it and rearrange some of our other material along similar lines.

AD: Is that an area you’ve had it in mind to explore? What are your Britfolk reference points? What records do you appreciate from that scene?

Nik Rayne: I’m not sure we had consciously thought to pursue that direction before that point, though a lot of that kind of shit has always been floating around somewhere in the band’s DNA along with everything else we listen to in our spare time. Grant did get pretty deep into the British folk rock vibe around that time though so maybe he would give a different answer here. I mean, stuff like Pentangle, Mr. Fox, Trees, and Fairport is always in and out of rotation on the Myrrors sound system…we were listening pretty heavily to the latter’s Live In Finland album on the road earlier this year and I know that amped-up, 500 kmph version of “Matty Groves” was particularly inspiring for Miguel’s playing.

AD: I first met you in a record store. Did you meet other members of the band in record stores? How is record culture, in a broad sense, part of the Myrrors’ identity?

Nik Rayne: The only other current member that we met in a record store was Kellen [Fortier], who actually runs the best shop we have in Tucson, Wooden Tooth Records. Otherwise, it’s mostly been through contexts outside of music. But record stores and what you call “record culture” has always been a huge part of the band’s identity. We’ve spent ridiculous amounts of time looking through record shops and talkjng to fellow weirdos. After all, it was my and Grant’s love of records and the strange music we discovered through them that led to the Myrrors being what it is in the first place. A huge swath of our music is laced with references and nods towards the music we love as listeners. In fact, that probably resonates deepest with people tuning in on the same frequencies, so I suppose you could say that “record culture” is pretty fundamental to the music we make and the band’s following. words/j woodbury

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