:Interview: The Autumn Stones
The Autumn Stones
Interview Conducted by William Nesbitt during November 2017 via a series of e-mails
The Autumn Stones have two full-length albums out: Companions of the Flame (2011) and Escapists (2015). Describing themselves as jangly “dreampop,” according to their webpage, the band consists of Ciaran Megahey (lead vocals and guitar), Marcus Tamm (bass), Gary Butler (saxophones and guitar), Dan Dervaitis (guitar and backing vocals) and Ray Cara (drums). In the following interview, we discuss how the group makes its music, the realities of being a band, influences, the background behind some of the songs, and the status of the band’s next album.
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William: I read an explanation elsewhere about how you folks came up with the name. You discuss the musical roots as well as the idea of the phrase evoking the feeling of something that lasts a long time but maybe not forever. Can you recount that for us?
Ciaran: The name comes from The Small Faces’ song “Autumn Stone.” It is also cribbed from The Rolling Stones naming themselves after “Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters. I’m not really sure what an Autumn Stone is but I think Stonehenge has a Sumer Stone and a Winter Stone, so although I can’t confirm it, I suspect that there is also an Autumn Stone and The Small Faces got it from that. Stonehenge may have served as a solar calendar or ceremonial gathering place. I like that the name is mysterious and has a connection to the deep prehistorical past. I feel the same way about music in general. It can say these beautiful ineffable things to us that we never fully understand and yet it moves us like nothing else. It has a spiritual quality. Autumn symbolizes maturity and wisdom and Stones suggests longevity to me. I also like that we can refer to ourselves as “The Stones.”
William: In the vocals I hear some Bowie and Morrissey. Is that right? Whom else might listeners pick up on?
Ciaran: Those are definitely a few of my favorite vocalists. I would add Scott Walker, Ian McCulloch and Bryan Ferry to that list. Scott sings with that rich, honeyed baritone that just about every male singer wishes he had. I like singers who can sound romantic without veering too far into sentimentality. It’s a delicate balance.
William: Who are the band’s musical influences?
Ciaran: The Magnetic Fields are still my biggest writing influence. Stephin Merritt has the best combination of lyric and melody prowess of any songwriter I know. They also had a lovely sound prior to 69 Love Songs. On those first two records they sounded like Phil Spector, Joe Meek, and Laurie Anderson. Very other-worldly. Robert Pollard, Morrissey, and Ian McCulloch are pretty great writers as well. The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen really had it all. Their rhythm sections were quite dynamic and their guitarists were both so innovative. I’ve always been partial to the Shoegaze and Madchester eras as well. I really dig the new Slowdive album. They were always a big one for me. I saw them perform in Toronto recently. Their live show is just mesmerizing. In terms of newer artists Beach House, The War on Drugs, and The National have had some impact as well.
William: Literary influences?
Ciaran: I don’t read a lot of literature anymore. I have always been more of a nonfiction guy. I do have an affinity for satirical and sardonic writers like Orwell, Camus, Wodehouse, Vonnegut, and Bukowski. However I am much more into nonfiction. New Atheism and evolutionary psychology have had an impact. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker are some examples of writers I enjoy. I like to keep abreast of what is going on with politics as well and I would say all of that influences the writing. Jordan Peterson is a figure I have recently gotten into. I recommend checking out what he has to say. He seems to have a pretty good grasp of all of the polarization and so forth that is going on. I am also really enjoying Douglas Murray’s latest book, The Strange Death of Europe.
William: I am really into “Dreamweapon.” What does the title mean? Is it a weapon forged from dreams? A weapon only usable in dreams? The ultimate weapon? What is the song about?
Ciaran: The idea for “Dreamweapon” came from Spacemen 3. They have an instrumental track of the same name. I have always loved that title and thought it would work well in a lyric. What I had in mind when writing it was the human mind. It’s a “dream weapon” in that it can conjure ideas that can prove to be very powerful and dangerous. The narrator of the song is marveling at that and also trying to channel its power for good. It is remarkable to me how much human beings have transformed their environment both for good and ill. It’s also fascinating how ideas take on a life of their own which can be very helpful but also make life more and more complicated. I guess it’s a sort of meditation on all of that. Think of how optimistic people were in the early days of the Internet. We believed that having all of this connection and openness would be overwhelmingly positive but the ideas themselves are impossible to tame. Ideas evolve and complexity gradually emerges without anyone really steering the ship.
William: The title of the album that “Dreamweapon” comes from is Companions of the Flame. What does that mean? What would it mean to be a companion of the flame?
Ciaran: The phrase “Companions of the Flame” was taken from the Qur’an and slightly altered. In several sections of the Qur’an it refers to unbelievers as “companions of hellfire” or “companions of flame(s)” depending on what translation you read. In the song “Companions of the Flame” the narrator is Satan and he is encouraging and applauding the handiwork of all of the jihadists doing his bidding by killing innocent people. In the chorus he is welcoming them into hell. As the album title, however, I think of it in more positive terms—a companion of hope, truth, innovation, enlightenment, and warmth.
William: It’s hard to pay the bills these days just from album sales. What other revenue streams do you have? Is everyone able to survive just from band income?
Ciaran: We don’t really earn a lot of income from the band so all of us have day jobs. We’re all over the place in terms of our jobs: libraries, finance, marketing, media, and construction. Music is more of a vocation for us rather than a career.
William: If you had to or could cover one song what would it be and why?
Ciaran: I’m currently obsessed with The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” That would be fun to take a stab at, albeit an ambitious choice. There is WAY too much cynicism in the world. This song is the perfect antidote. “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison is another one.
William: How is the third album coming along? Any changes in sound from the last two?
Ciaran: All of the songs are written and arranged and we are about to step into the studio in January to record it. Half of the songs are my compositions and the other half are collaborations with Dan. I would say that it is more “motorik” (a la Stereolab) but still pretty close to the style of our first two albums. There are some keyboards on a few tracks. That is something we have not done in the past, but it will likely be more a part of our sound going forward.
William: What’s the current process for starting and developing a new song? Is it an organic process in which people just contribute whatever they can and whatever the song needs, or is it more structured?
Ciaran: For the first two albums it has been all me in the writing department. I would write alone and record demos on my computer and then send them out to the band before rehearsing them. A little over a year ago, however, Dan Dervaitis joined us as our second guitarist and my songwriting partner. He does all of the foundational work such as the chords and rhythms. I do the vocal melodies, lyrics, and sax hooks. We have an arrangement much like Morrissey and Marr in that he sends me his music and I layer the melodies and lyrics over the top. All of that is done prior to rehearsals. The arrangements of the songs get fleshed out with the whole band later. So the intros, outros, solos, and parts where certain instruments drop out all get worked out during that process.
William: Where have you toured? Where are you looking forward to touring? What’s the best and worst thing about touring?
Ciaran: We did a little tour a few summers ago where we played Ottawa and Montreal. Montreal is one of the best places to play in Canada. It is known as Canada’s music city. Musicians often gravitate there as a place to live. I have even thought of moving there myself but have too much keeping me here in Toronto. The best thing about it is the partying. Obscene jokes, lots of drinking, and mischief. Our bass player Marcus is an absolute gentleman most days, but get him on tour and all bets are off. We had a blast on that mini-tour and hope to get back out on the road in 2018.
William: Please finish this sentence. If I weren’t playing music with The Autumn Stones, I’d be . . .
Ciaran: . . . playing in my other musical project called Loveproof. So far we are just a recording project but we may do some live shows soon. It’s a duo I have with my high school friend Brendan McGarvey. We have an album coming out on December 5th that I am quite excited about. I am also the singer in that band. We are similar to The Autumn Stones but a bit darker, more electronic, and dub influenced.
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Check out their two current albums and keep an eye out for the third as well as Neon Blood Volume One by Loveproof. By the way, Ciaran is very, very nice (as is Gary whom I also corresponded with).