Royal Arctic Institute :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Hovering somewhere in the middle distance between ambient country, noir jazz, and post-rock bliss, New York instrumental group Royal Arctic Institute returns with From Coma to Catharsis. Recorded in collaboration with James McNew of Yo La Tengo and named as a sequel to the band’s 2021 outing From Catnap To Coma, the new album sounds, to quote AD’s Tyler Wilcox, something like “Tortoise covering Santo & Johnny.” Though members of RAI’s CVs include backing everyone from Roky Erickson to Townes Van Zandt in the past, the selections here function less like background music and more like an immersive soundtrack to a film you feel like you’ve seen before–only you can’t say exactly when or where. John Leon of RAI joins us to discuss. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Catnap to Coma and From Coma to Catharsis were recorded with James McNew of Yo La Tengo. When did you first connect with him and what’s his approach in the studio like? 

John Leon: Dave and Lyle have known the Yo La Tengo folks since the 1980s. They are all friends and James is just such a sweet guy. So it happened pretty naturally. Both records were recorded the same way. It was all recorded live with us sitting in a circle facing one another. He put mics up on all of the amps, but he also put up room mics so that we could capture the ambiance of that. It was a great experience. He is very easy to work with and he makes the whole process light and fun.

AD: Both were mostly recorded live. In an era when it’s never been easier to track individually or even remotely, what does the act of getting together in a room bring to a recording that feels essential? 

John Leon: It makes all the difference in the world! All of our energy is in the middle of that circle. We get to look at the expressions on one another’s faces and at the very end of a take, you get to have an immediate pow wow about how everyone felt it went. You get to take breaks and share meals together. It’s wonderful. I do a lot of remote sessions from my home studio. The convenience is wonderful, but it is just not the same at all.

AD: Instrumental music leaves lots of room for individual listeners to bring their own ideas or interpretations to the sound, but the titles of RAI songs are quite evocative on their own. Could you tell me where the phrase “Passover Buckets” comes from or refers to? 

John Leon: Yeah, it’s a funny one. During the 2020 lockdown, parents were stuck at home with their children and they were scrambling to find anything and everything they could to keep the kids engaged and entertained. A Jewish couple I know were desperate for this and so they gave their children Easter baskets with painted eggs. The following year, the kids wanted Easter baskets, but they got Passover buckets instead. I found it to be so delightful and creative on their parts. When they told me about it, we had a great laugh and the name just stuck.

AD: On that same wavelength, how about “Angelman’s Lament.” Who or what is the titular angelman? 

John Leon: Ah, this is inspired by Dr. Harry Angelman. Harry Angelman was a doctor who studied “Happy Puppet Syndrome” in 1964. This is a genetic condition present at birth for some children. Characteristics include distinctive facial features, intellectual disability, speech problems, jerky walking style, happy demeanor, and hyperactive behavior. It was once known as “happy puppet syndrome” because of the child’s sunny outlook and jerky movements. Now it is referred to Angelman’s Syndrome because of Dr. Harry Angleman.

AD: RAI pulls from a wealth of sounds—there’s a languid twang, a twinge of exotica, and a noir sensibility to the sounds. The word “cinematic” gets used to describe what you do; what kind of movies or images play in your own head when you’re working on tunes? 

John Leon: Well, most of our stuff is pretty moody and low-key. I always get the images of liquid when I listen to our music. Do you remember those lava lamps that had different beautiful colors floating around slowly? I kind of imagine a sea of that. Lots of different shades of blues and purples and yellows.

AD: In a great interview with Glide, you noted that the feeling of timelessness that comes in moments of creativity, “really is your direct link to the divine, however we construct that.” Does making music possesses a spiritual component for you? 

John Leon: Absolutely! It’s a process that I can get lost in. When I sit down with the band or at home and start playing, so often I lose all sense of time. I will start playing and all of a sudden look up at the clock to see that a few hours have passed. There is nothing else in my life that has that same element to it. When I think about having a spiritual experience, I think of getting lost in some form of non-linear time. So that is the closest I can get to something like that. 

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