by Alexander Laurence
Calla makes music that's a distinct soundwave of profound emotion. It's makeout music for those sitting in the dark, or for those basking in the absence of a loved one. Their whispered lyrics are like a letter from a distant friend. In a Calla classic "Strangler" these words are sung: "Something's gotten hold of my tongue/See what you've done?/I would give anything/ Just to see it happen to you."
There has always been a mystery surrounding this New York Group. Michael Gira described them as: "intense, challenging, and utterly committed to emotion." They started performing in Texas, and once were called The Factory Press, but moved to Brooklyn in 1995. In 1997, they added Sean Donovan and formed Calla. This past year, Calla has traveled all around the world to perform their unique music.
Calla is Aurelio Valle (guitar/vocals), Wayne Magruder (drums) and Sean Donovan (keyboard/bass). They released a self-titled debut on Sub Rosa in 1999 and followed it up with Scavengers in 2001. Recently, Calla added old friend Peter Gannon on rhythm guitar. Bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Cat Power, Interpol, and Sigur Ros have been eager to perform with them. They have released two records in the past year; Custom: The Remix Project (2002) and Televise (2002). I recently talked with Sean Donovan about the recent record and the recent tour.
July 10th, 2002: Calla are playing in New York City at South Street Seaport with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jorma Kaukonen. Check them out!
AL: You guys are from Texas. How did you meet?
Sean: I am from Dallas. The drummer and I went to high school together. We all met in the Dallas area. Aurelio went to school in north Texas. Denton and Austin are the best places to play in Texas. If you want to play show for 500 people, Denton is great. Kids will show up. Austin is a great music town. Denton aspires to be like Austin. If you are a bigger band you can play in Dallas. When I was growing up I never went to Denton, I either went to shows in Dallas or down to Austin.
AL: Was there a lot of clubs back then when you started?
Sean: There's this place in Dallas called Theater Gallery. That's where all the Dallas bands started. This whole area grew around that one club. Now that area is really commercial. So in twenty years it went from having no clubs to peaking in the 1990s to being a commercial area now. The Butthole Surfers and Jesus Lizard are from Austin. Bedhead is probably the biggest band to make it out of Dallas.
AL: What was The Factory Press like?
Sean: That was the other three guys. I always recorded with them and helped with arrangements. That was the band which moved up to New York. It was much rawer and aggressive. It was more like The Birthday Party and Joy Division. They moved to New York City in 1995 and tried that out for a while. It broke up in late 1996. When I moved to New York in early 1997, that is when we started Calla.
AL: New York City in the mid-1990s was a different place. There were still a bunch of old rock bands hanging around that wouldn't go away. Nobody was really into new music.
Sean: We all had high expectations of New York. We thought it was going to be like it is now: all these really great bands and all this attention. When we moved up there we had a reality check. At the time we thought people would be into the same music that we were into. We thought that they would get it a lot faster. We were wrong. New York caught on about as fast as Texas.
AL: Were there a lot of venues to play?
Sean: When Calla first started to play, there was a place called The Cooler. It is similar to what Tonic is today. Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo would always be there. There would be a weird mix of electronic music and rock stuff. That was a really great club. There was Brownies. The Ludlow Street scene had just started. The Mercury Lounge was there and then some other clubs went up around there.
AL: Did you listen to a lot of different music back then, like Movie Soundtracks?
Sean: No, not really. We still listen to the same sort of music that we always did. We still listen to Jesus and Mary Chain or New Order. Each of us has their own specialty of what they listen to. That was the case back in the beginning.
AL: You are familiar with Ennio Morricione and Barry Adamson and the stuff they have done?
Sean: Yeah. We weren't trying to emulate that stuff when we first started. It's just that some of the sounds and some of the textures are very similar I think. We were mixing similar sounds as was Barry Adamson. We used a lot of samples in the beginning.
AL: Which member writes all the songs?
Sean: Each song is different. We all write songs. It is a group effort. Someone will bring in a sketch and pass it around, and people will add layers. Aurelio will bring in a simple guitar riff. He will pass it off to us and we will work on it and structure a song. We will create a lot of possible sounds. We will listen to what we have done and decide what direction we want to take it. Then we will try to play it live. Then it evolves again. There are usually three or four transformations of a song. The songwriting process takes us a lot of time. We are not one of those normal bands who sit in a room and jams on a few chords, and write a song in five minutes. Aurelio writes all the lyrics.
AL: Have you gotten better live playing all these shows other the years?
Sean: It definitely helps with the nerves when you are playing every night. We actually signed a record deal before we had played a live show. We had finished the first record before we had ever played live. Each record is like the ideas of the first record reinterpreted through us playing live.
AL: You have been with a few different labels already.
Sean: Our record with Young God was always going to be a one record deal. Michael Gira really wanted to do that record. So we ended up doing Scavengers with Young God Records. We played with five or six shows with Gira around New York, when that record came out.
AL: What about some of the other records? You did a split record with The Walkmen. Then there is Custom: The Remix Project. How did those records come about?
Sean: We have know the Walkmen since they were in Jonathan Fire Eater. That was one of the bands that The Factory Press played with. Troubleman wanted to do a split CD, so we went up to their studio and recorded two tracks. The Remix CD was done by friends of ours. We asked them to do it. It was originally going to be a 12 inch single. We liked the results so we decided to put out a full record.
AL: Do you like having many different records out there?
Sean: Yeah. It's best to confuse people. There is a lot going on in the band. People will come see us live and they'll think that's what we are about. Then they are surprised when they buy a record. And visa-versa. Both aspects are interesting. It gets people thinking a little bit more.
AL: Before you moved to New York, bands probably knew you guys already from touring in Texas?
Sean: We have always musician's favorites first, then critic's favorites second, and then eventually everyone else find out about us. We are trying to play a lot of live shows around to get people familiar with what we are doing.
AL: When did you record the new album, Televise?
Sean: Televise was recorded at the beginning of last year, 2002. The time span was probably three months. But we were all still working jobs full time. We would record late at night and on weekends. We probably spent five full recording days doing it. It was spread out over three months.
AL: Did you all eventually quit your day jobs?
Sean: I was the last one to quit. I quit my job before we went to Europe about two months ago. Up until March I was working. Everyone else sort of staggered when they quit their jobs.
AL: I saw some pictures of you guys in Tel Aviv. When was that?
Sean: That was the tour for Scavengers. That was a while ago. Maybe in May 2000.
AL: When did things change for the band when you could do it full time?
Sean: With us, we have always gotten weird reviews. When Scavengers came out, Alternative Press called us the number one band to watch. We have always had this exponential growth. Time Out has always been supportive of us.
AL: What do you think about all this attention to New York bands now?
Sean: It's good to see everyone doing so well. We have been friends with many of these bands for a long time. There is no competition. It's good to see your friends doing what they want to do. You can't control anything. We have never been a band who really cared about what anyone outside the band thinks. If someone pays attention to us, great. If not, we will still be doing it. We don't care about a "New York" scene. More people have come to see us because the attention to New York bands. Honestly I don't think that we really sound like any of those other bands. In the long run, they will remember a few bands, and a few will continue to have a long career. I think that we will be one of those bands.
AL: You were already playing music and playing in New York clubs before all the attention came.
Sean: Right. By this point we are all older and very level headed. We are willing to work hard for it. If you are a twenty year old kid, and all of a sudden you have all these people throwing money at you. It might sound like a good time, but five years later, maybe that guy isn't doing music.
AL: Do the guys in Calla have any hobbies?
Sean: I can cook. Aurelio takes photographs. He's a photographer. Wayne does graphic design. Wayne does all our website stuff. We want to have a messagebaord but we haven't had any time. Lately we have barely had any time to even update the tour dates. We all have our own outlet.
AL: Are you working on a new album soon?
Sean: We are working on some sketches now. We have some time off in the fall. We want to start working on some demos so we can start working on a proper next album.
AL: What shows are you playing this summer?
Sean: We are not doing Siren Festival this year. We are playing July 10th, in New York City at South Street Seaport. We are playing the Eastern part of the US in June and July. We are going back to Europe in August to do a bunch of European festivals. It's great to be appreciated in Europe. We just played there for six weeks. I was really glad to get back home. Traveling like that, makes you realize what you really do like about the US.
AL: Are there any other bands that you like?
Sean: Another good New York band is The Boggs. Another good Denton band is Lift To Experience. They are one of these bands who is big in Europe. They play outdoor festivals. Fans are very dedicated over there.
AL: Have you read any books lately?
Sean: I am reading The Fountainhead. It's really good. Pete was reading about Jack The Ripper. We went on the Jack The Ripper tour in East London.
AL: What is your musical background?
Sean: I actually went to school in Dallas for music. I studied composition. Pete also went to school for music. Me and Wayne were in a band in high school. And Pete and Aurelio were in a band in high school. I was in the marching band too.
AL: What does your parents think about the band?
Sean: They are excited. Our video was on MTV, and my mom couldn't figure out how to work the VCR, so she took a camera out and started taking pictures of the TV. They have been very supportive.
AL: Was there any bands that you grew up listening to that you eventually played with?
Sean: We got to open two shows for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. That was really cool. I used one of his songs for my wedding song. It's called "The Boat Song."
AL: Do you have any advice for younger people who want to play music?
Sean: You have to really want to do it. If you are into it to get famous or party all the time, that is the wrong reason to be doing music. If you love music, then you should be doing music. That is the only reason to be doing it. We are a good band to open people's minds. They might look at us and think one thing, but you get them in a concert and maybe they will start looking at music in a different way. If people are exposed to something good, they will recognize it for being good.
AL: There is a sophistication with Calla's music. There is an attention to sound. It's more like a techno band where there is a musical palette.
Sean: We definitely approach a recording as something that has to hold up on repeated listens. There has to be a lot of depth and details to a recording. We always pay attention to that. The first record is even more dense with ideas.
AL: What is the show like now? Do you play mostly the new album?
Sean: No, it's about half the new record, and half from Scavengers. We play one song from the Calla/Walkmen EP. Most people think that is a new song. We play two or three songs from the first album. Nobody knows those songs because nobody has that record. It's out of print. Arena Rock is going to re-release it in the Fall.