Sometime after the release of their sixth studio album, 2001’s The Tired Sounds of the Stars of the Lid, Austin-borne drone duo Stars of the Lid quietly, patiently moved from obscurity into semi-obscurity, renown as the most acclaimed ambient musicians since the heyday of Brian Eno. The three-LP opus featured more than two hours of melancholy, wistful orchestral drones that swelled and dissolved, a home-brewed sound with the ambitions of minimalist composition and the insularity of indie rock. It didn’t make too much of a ripple upon its release beyond raves from alt-leaning press, but it slowly spread. In the 14 years since, a generation of similarly evocative composers — Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ólafur Arnalds — have risen to prominence in Stars of the Lid’s wake. Vinyl copies of follow-up, 2007’s Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline, have sold for more than $200.
Their record label, indie-ambient touchstone Kranky, is responding with long-demanded vinyl represses of both 2001’s Tired Sounds and 2007’s Refinement, both out of print for some time. Though both members of the band stay more than busy with other projects — the Brussels-based Adam Wiltzie has composed music for the Oscar-nominated The Theory of Everything and tours with his acclaimed band A Winged Victory for the Sullen; the L.A.-based Brian McBride is a debate coach at USC and a member of psych-pop group Bell Gardens — the audience for Stars of the Lid only grows.
We caught up with Wiltzie and McBride to ponder how — and why — their fragile drone sculptures went from quiet critical sensation to the iconic standard for 21st Century ambient.
When did you realize that you guys were connecting with more than drone-heads and ambient aficionados?
Adam Wiltzie: Are we? Well, just from like a technical standpoint of album sales, I reckon about two or three years after Tired Sounds was released. Mr. Kranky [label co-founder Joel Leoschke] called me and said, “Yeah, something really strange is happening.” In its first couple years, it sold, you know, 5,000. And it sold almost 10,000 copies, three years later, all of a sudden, over this course of six or eight months. We didn’t do anything. Mr. Kranky, you know, hardly ever advertises anyway. I don’t know what happened. I wish I could tell you the world just decided, “They’re a cult phenomenon. We must support them.” I’m not really sure. I’m at a loss for words for what happened. And of the course of years, it just seems like it kept building. Although, at the same time I still feel as if we’re completely anonymous.
Brian McBride: I remember in the 2000s, I guess like the early portion of the decade, reading things and seeing our name being used as an adjective, which I thought was kind of weird. One of the things I started to notice was that when we would play some shows, different kinds of groups of people that I didn’t even know were groups would sort of come out of the woodwork and say that they listen to the music. Like a group of science fiction writers or people at yoga studios or new parents. I don’t really expect anybody to listen to the music, to be perfectly honest.
Wiltzie: When Tired Sounds was released in 2001, that was before the iPod was out. So, you know, when we got up to Refinement, I think we had all pretty much assumed, “Oh, this one’s gonna probably not sell half as much because the iPod’s out. Back then Mr. Kranky, he’s pretty much the dictionary version of a realist, said, “Well guys, fellas, just don’t count on it. Sales are going to be. . . it’s gonna stink this time.” And that one ended up selling even more.
You recorded both of these records, mainly, apart from one another?
McBride: There was a little bit of being in the same room. I think maybe for Tired Sounds there was twice that we got together?
Wiltzie: I have no idea, it’s too long ago. I would say most of the time we work more by ourselves than together.
McBride: For Tired Sounds I was in Chicago, and back in those days we used to send DAT tapes to each other in the mail. And, it was sort of a different thing from living in the same place, you know. Being so separated was kind of a good thing because it gave us both time to either think through or ruminate about what the other person had done and be a little more attentive and deliberate with what to do next. . . . Adam was still in Austin but moving to Brussles eventually.
Wiltzie: At the beginning of Tired Sounds I was about to move. Anyway, it’s kind of a hodge-podge of both. We went from the four-track to start recording digitally, so a little bit still has some fuzziness of the early Nineties stuff. . . . By [Refinement] I’d moved to Belgium and he was out in Los Angeles so it’s hard to get much further away.
What sort of environment do you have when you are working on your portion of the music? What do you like your emotional state to be?
McBride: Oh god. I was remembering what Bubba [Kadane] from Bedhead said, like, about you recording in Austin in the middle of the summertime and you sweating over your four-track. If your fans could only see you now.
Wiltzie: In the Austin days, god, that awful heat. I don’t know how people live down there. Sweating over that reel-to-reel four-track, the thing ended up rusting from my sweat build-up in that thing. It wasn’t very glamorous, I can tell you that much.
McBride: I like late at night because there’s no distractions. There’s very little chance there’s gonna be dogs barking. You’re not gonna get phone calls. Working on the music, for me, it’s kind of important to not fake it in some ways, to not try to force this emotional state out of it, to sort of pay attention to what’s going on in your life, if you’re feeling inspired or motivated just letting it happen. Especially after you’ve released a bunch of records for a long time, you don’t want to manufacture longing.
Wiltzie: In general I don’t really remember most of it. Things I remember about Austin is just the blistering heat and massive drugs and depression. You know, it was a really strange part of my life, so I obviously worked a lot later in those days because it was so damn hot I could barely concentrate in the daytime. Things have changed a lot since then. It’s Belgium, it’s totally different. I’m older, I can work on music anytime. I’m not really sure how to feel about it most of the time. It definitely reckons a lot of sadness for me. I feel pretty lucky that it’s had this longevity and it’s still there, but at the same time when I look at it I feel very ambivalent about it.
McBride: I remember them by the people that I was with. Tired Sounds I was with my first wife and [laughs] Refinement I was with somebody different and they were radically different relationships. Refinement, I had moved to L.A. and I was having incredible doubts as to whether or not I had made the right decisions to move out to L.A., especially with this person. With Tired Sounds, it was sort of the end of the relationship, and it was amazing at times but it was also super traumatic. She was the love of my life, and so I was making music through all of that. So, I don’t really remember “sessions.” “I remember Saturday and Sunday I only worked in the chord of B, and I was fascinated by the sounds of the trains outside.” I don’t remember it like that.
Wiltzie: Also, just to be clear, we’ve always recorded at home. We’re home recording kind of guys ’cause we never had any money to record in studios. We’ve always had these old archaic four-track reel-to-reel cassette recorders that we recorded all of our stuff on ’cause that’s all we could afford and we made the best out of our predicament.
McBride: It was the kind of thing that you lived with. We were both living around our four-tracks and always trying to come up with something new. So yeah, “session” is a weird word.
Did you know going into Tired Sounds that this was going to be a double-CD/triple-LP epic?
McBride: Yeah. That was definitely a plan. I think we had decided [to] take a break from trying to be in the radar, you know, that constant, incessant desire to release another record and instead release something longer that would give people something more extensive to chew on. Both the last two records we knew from the get-go.
Did Kranky push back at all at the idea of three LPs?
Wiltzie: No, just the opposite. They would release a six-record set if we wanted to. He couldn’t be more supportive.
We’re told you might be working on a new record?
Wiltzie: Ummmmm. [Laughs] What record? One thing about the press is they love to make up things. I mean, we’re kind of working on things, but we’re not really consciously working on a new record. We have some things going on next year that are gonna generate new music. 2016 will have some new music we’re gonna play live. We’ve been playing some new pieces here and there over the past couple years but, yeah . . . . I mean there’s not really any news about a new record. I think we’ll just realize one day it’ll be done and then it’ll be done, but like everything we’ve done, it’s slow. . . .
McBride: Stuff is happening. Obviously we’re both working on things, but it’s not like there’s an ETA. It’s a good thing to take a break, I have to say. It’s kind of good walk away from your work. And things have changed dramatically since we put out those records. I mean, if you think about the recording process that we used, obviously our ability to interact with string players was much different than it was before the last record. I wouldn’t say there’s a new record. Yeah, there’s work being done for sure and you could call it what you want.
How are things, specifically, different than the way you made music in 2007?
Wiltzie: For me personally, I’ve just been experimenting a lot more with orchestral players, and I’ve gotten better at writing sheet music, and I’ve dealt in more and more recording with orchestras. So I feel very confident in experimenting in a larger capacity with people that don’t have any idea of what I’m doing or understand my music, where before I think I let that intimidate me a little bit more.
McBride: We just know more people at this point in time, after having gone on tour for so many times. We have folks that are really amazing string players that we can consider friends and that was something that was more rare back in that time. To get a hold of a really great cello player, you know, it was sort of a desperation moment.
This is really the longest you guys have hibernated between records at this point.
Wiltzie: I guess so.
McBride: I mean, really, when you think of it, all this time that a record hasn’t been released — that was us releasing a record, but it was the most minimal record we’ve ever released and nobody knew it was a record.