Dawson//Caplan is Evan Dawson and David Caplan, a duo based in Holland, Michigan. Their debut album, Mantra, was released this fall. Each of the album’s nine songs was partly assembled out of found sounds. — Matthew Baker
Baker: What’s your songwriting process like, using found sounds?
Dawson: Computer-based music is a backwards process: we have recordings made, and then we start writing the song—or we do both at the same time. It’s collaging without borders, where one’s work could be source material for the other person. In the selection process we search for things that vibrate when combined.
Caplan: I usually start by collecting sounds and textures that fit a certain mood or image I’m thinking about. It’s a lot like cooking, really—preparing all of these separate ingredients and then seeing how they come together.
Baker: Can you talk about your sources for the sounds you use in Mantra?
Dawson: My sounds came mostly from recording my mouth. Or they were purely computer-generated. Several times we recorded acoustic guitar, and there’s a lot of ambient noise, but a lot of it was processed to lose the source’s identity. Caplan did all of the sampling.
Caplan: I pull from anything and everything—videogames, movies, TV shows, songs, field recordings, software plugins, FM synthesis, Dawson’s recordings, and my own voice. We work hard to sculpt each sound to really make them our own, taking everything into consideration—timbre, pitch, clarity, space, psychological impact, etc.
Baker: Talking about your album, you’ve said that “Mantra refers in part to the repetition inherent in looped based production and technological glitches (such as with a broken record) which have been used in this case to bring focus to more elusive and at times unsettling content.” Is this “repetition” in your songs intended to induce a sort of transformation (spiritual or another), as in a mantra?
Dawson: I can recall listening to a CD—at some point during this project—that began to skip. The stereo was creating, in real time, newer and evolving loops, changing the flow and rhythm constantly. Instead of trying to “fix the problem,” I began to listen, and I hope that this attitude is somehow present on the tracks. We were also very excited by the potential for a time-based media to make one lose their sense of time.
Caplan: Like listening to waves, or the wind, these sounds that just wash over you because you’re not counting bars or beats…
Dawson: Our release/listening party was held in a dark and empty house, and at the end of it there was a long duration of silence. It may have been a couple minutes, but everyone felt present, like we were listening to each other.
Baker: As an artist, Dawson, how has your background with painting and sculpting influenced how you think about songwriting?
Dawson: Since I have no training in music, I feel a greater sense of freedom. When Caplan began talking about music in visual terms, though, and about “sculpting sound,” a major chord was struck—I retained that freedom to create, but was able to apply many of the concepts of seeing to hearing. At that point it’s really just about perception.
Baker: Many of the songs in Mantra are wordless. As poets, what’s behind that decision? Is it difficult to find ways of expressing the ideas behind your music without words?
Dawson: This project was very process-oriented. It was about the collaboration and exploration. I think we were trying to listen more than speak.
Caplan: One of our primary goals was to evoke a sense of place through everything we were doing. Often this place was imaginary, or virtual, and we felt that having prominent lyrics would distract the listener from going to that place. In effect, we would get in the way of our own songs. Lyrics bring the author in the forefront of the listener’s mind, as they consider his/her mood, intentions, motives, personality and associated history.
It’s like movies—while you’re watching a completely animated film you just accept the fiction of it; you just go to that place and allow the story to unfold. Throw a recognizable actor in a horror flick—an example of an environment is just as obviously virtual—and people end up judging the film against all of the other things he has done, scrutinizing the authenticity of the emotions he conveys, the costume he’s wearing, the special effects used around him, and so on.
We are very much interested in telling a narrative throughout these songs, mostly by presenting a linear place in which the listener can explore himself/herself.
Baker: When there are words in your songs, the lyrics are often intelligible. Do you see the way you use language there as a sort of poetry? Or more about rhythm than meaning?
Dawson: On the first song that we made together, “Hibernation,” we had a pretty lengthy discussion about how putting a human voice in the mix places a human in mind—it becomes definitely figurative. Adding words then makes the figure a sort of narrator. In my mind, our figures are having identity crises, their bodies are pliable, liquid, their languages are muddled, they are becoming. In the context of virtual or imaginary space, this might be poetic.
Go here to download “Hibernation”
Or listen to Dawson//Caplan’s Gouging My Inner Eye
Or listen to more music in our current issue