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.