Before Nina Mehta and Kate Rosko became Rings they were known as First Nation. With the addition of Abby Portner (sister of Animal Collective's Dave Portner), they came together with a new vision - an all-singing, all-playing circular framework inspired by the city they live in (New York) and the music of far off lands.
On the eve of their record-release party in support of Black Habit - their first album as Rings - Abby, Kate, and Nina sat down with Junkmedia after their soundcheck to talk about their inspirations, what it's like to work with family, and what exactly is the meaning of the phrase "tribal pop."
Junkmedia: How is Rings different from First Nation?
Kate: We used to have a different member and ever since she left and Abby joined we've had this idea of rings. We saw how rings come together and wanted our album to be called Rings. We also had this issue with being called First Nation and it being something that Native Americans used and identified with. And we knew that when we first picked our name and we didnít feel like it was the right thing to be doing. After a month or so of having that name we thought we'd choose another name and gradually we became Rings.
Nina: I think we always had the idea of changing names, having our name reflect the different stages that we went through and this is a really big new stage with Abby joining and the different music we're making. It's an evolution as we've grown as musicians and added elements that affect the whole.
What is your creative process like? Does it usually begin with an idea from one of you or is it a collaborative process from start to finish?
Abby: We're pretty collaborative. Usually we do 'jams.' We'll go to a practice space and all of our songs are from playing around, being really loose and letting ourselves be creative. And a lot of times that turns into a song. We usually record everything and then listen back to it and make changes on it and add to it.
Nina: And sometimes someone will come up with the idea for a song and through the process of collaboration it changes completely from the initial sketch.
Kate: We almost play all of our instruments all at the same time, too.
Abby: Except I don't play guitar.
Nina: And we write our own parts but usually we'll make suggestions for other parts as well.
How would you describe your sound and do you agree with how your music has been described?
Nina: That's a hard question especially when you're trying to break a lot of the terms and labels that are set. Whatever names that are come up with are always really insufficient.
Abby: We get compared to The Raincoats and The Slits a lot which, to me, is because we're girls making weird music and that's a comparison because they're girls. But it's weird to me. I guess I can see the similarities, but it's a very easy comparison.
Kate: The other thing that totally blows my mind is when we're described as 'tribal pop.' What is tribal pop? (laughs) It's obviously the blending of two elements, a poppy sound that maybe uses drumming? People say that. The guy who runs our record label [Paw Tracks] calls us that.
Nina: When we're given a label I think about how we're related to that and even more, how we're not related to that. It's interesting to think about how we're described at a certain point, knowing that we'll probably change and knowing that the kinds of labels that are given to us will be obsolete at some point.
Abby: And I think, too, we're given 'tribal pop' from our record, when actually our songs have changed to be more emo.
Nina: Especially with bands like ours, you can stretch to fit any label.
The Paw Tracks label seems like a big family that works together and plays together. Do you collaborate with the other artists on the label?
Abby: Just for right now we are.
Nina: We went on tour under First Nation with Animal Collective and we've played with Ariel and Peppermint.
Abby: Yeah we're all really good friends.
Nina: And even if we're not friends to start we then become, because it's such a small label. I think everybody's chosen collectively to work together but not in an exclusive way.
Abby: And I play music with Dan in Exceptor. It's all very close knit.
Do you foresee any collaborations in the future?
Abby: I do their (Animal Collective's) art for them. And that's collaborative, that's family and that'll continue. That's what I did before this. I went to art school and I've done their records since we were really young. It's easy for me to collaborate with them because it's family and because I can see what they want for record covers and t-shirts. I do all their merchandise. So artwork is definitely something I also do and am interested in.
What was it like growing up in a musical family? Was there always music playing in your house and was it something you knew you wanted to pursue?
Abby: Oh yeah. We both took classical piano growing up and we used to make music videos. I was always the back-up (laughs) and we made tons of them since I was five and he was six, us lip-synching to 80's songs and I'm playing the keyboard in the background wearing sunglasses and he's lip-synching. We did that constantly from a really young age. My mom used to have a windowsill with drapes that looked like a stage in her bedroom and we were always popping out of it and playing with each other on the weekend for hours. So yeah, since we were really little.
Did it ever become competitive?
Abby: No, it's always been very friendly.
Has Dave and the music he makes with Animal Collective been an influence on your own music?
Abby: He's definitely a huge inspiration to me. He is in every way. He's my older brother. And he makes art too, so it's been this really cool thing now of us both making art and making music. And Kristin, my brother's wife, she produced our record. It was amazing working with her. She recorded and produced it. She knows our music really well.
Nina: It's also important to think about the way we're family in ways that aren't direct, like with Abby's brother. We were friends with them before we knew Abby, so it's an addition to the family thing and beyond that as well.
Abby: We were talking about how he's our biggest fan and how he always has been. Before I was even in the band he loved them. We were laughing about how he listens to our record constantly, every day and he was that way before I was in the band.
Do you have any direct influences, be it a genre of music or a particular band?
Kate: For me it's everything from music to different cultures. I know that's a very broad answer but...
Nina: We're very open to alot of things. If you look at our ipods, you'll see that they'll be a Ride song, a Timbaland song, Arvo Part, everything from classical to Northern African to West African to Indian to R&B to straight up lady pop singers.
Abby: The three of us grew up listening to different things. I didn't listen to as much intense hard-core punky stuff. I listened to more hippy stuff, like The Dead. In that way it's cool that we all work together because we all have very similar tastes but also very different tastes.
What are you listening to currently?
Kate: I'm always listening to Kate Bush. Always. I have everything of hers.
Abby: I just got the new Vashti Bunyan record, all the old stuff that she put out, the more poppy stuff. I've been listening to that alot. I really like her. I also downloaded all these weird Enya records. (laughs) I'm so into it. I listen to it all the time, it's ridiculous.
Nina: I've been listening to alot of Annie Hall and alot of Northern African music.
Changing direction for a moment, I have to know, whose dogs are those on "Is He Handsome?"
Kate: That's an amazing question!
All: They're not dogs!
Nina: Well one is a dog and one is Abby! The dog is responding to Abby.
Abby: We were recording that part of the song and I go (takes deep panting breaths) like that.
Kate: We recorded in a small country house in Kentucky and there was a beautiful dog there.
Abby: We really bonded with the dog. We played with it outside and he would come in and hang out in the studio. We were recording that part and he freaked out because he thought I was in trouble and was barking at the door. At first we thought it was really funny and then we got the idea to let him into the studio and he was barking at me while I was doing it.
Kate: So when Abby was going (panting breaths) the dog was going, Woof! Woof!! in perfect rhythm.
Why did you decide to record Black Habit in Kentucky?
Nina: We wanted to be someplace where we could stay and be together and be away from the city and have some time and space. When you record you always create your own universe but in the city when we record it gets broken up by subway rides and the phone calls you get on your cell phone. I'd been hearing stories about this place for years; I've seen pictures of it and heard it was a magical place.
Abby: We were there for eight days in the beginning of spring.
Nina: It was freezing cold when we got there and by the end we were swimming in the water.
Abby: There were turtles and crazy funny wildlife walking around and voles running around the kitchen.
What can we expect from the show tonight? And is this the beginning of a larger tour?
Abby: Yeah we'll be touring with White Williams. And tonight we're trying to play all the songs from our record because it's our record release party, all of them except for one.
Kate: And then some little intro things, some new stuff we're trying out.
Nina: Guest Species in the Conference House is opening. He's a really amazing speaker and performer. And then Dave and Josh and Kristin are playing before us.
Abby: They're doing some stuff from the film. Danny Perez did this movie for Animal Collective and they're doing the soundtrack music for the film. They're going to show it on the screen while they play. I've never played the same bill as him (Dave) so I think that's cool.
Does it make you nervous that heíll be here watching you?
Abby: No. They've seen us play. I don't get nervous.
Nina: I do (laughs).
Kate: I used to get really nervous before a show.
Nina: I guess another thing that you can expect is...we've been practicing in our practice space together in a world of our own, in a "ring," and we're trying to recreate that. Instead of facing the audience and projecting to the outside, we're trying to rein in on our energy together and look at each other and communicate with each other and stay inside the ring.
--Photo by Kathy Lo.
By Christine Wright.
February 4, 2008