Local Artist Spotlight: The Maldives

Interviews, Local Artist Spotlight, Local Music
Dusty Henry
photo by Renata Steiner

Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week, we’re featuring Seattle folk rock outfit The Maldives, who play Concerts at the Mural this Friday, August 25, with Industrial Revelation and Emma Lee Toyoda.

If you've been around the Seattle scene at any point in the last decade or so, you've likely run into The Maldvies at some point. The band has been a fixture in the city since they emerged with their sorrowful country tunes back in 2005, growing and changing the lineup over the years but consistently delivering some of the most heartfelt, folk-leaning songwriting in town. Earlier this year they released Mad Lives, a sprawling epic in the truest sense. It follows the story of a man falling in love with the sun and the subsequent perils and pitfalls that come with that, including blindness (their track "Staring at the Sun" takes on an extra special this week with the recent solar eclipse). The mythic ethos of the record is matched by some of the band's finest musicianship yet, heightening the drama with elements of psych rock and cinematic swells of strings. We caught with the band to talk about their sonic evolution, the mythos of their new LP, and the changes they've seen in the city over the years.

You’ve been performing as The Maldives since about 2005 and have crossed a lot of musical territory in that time. How would you describe the band from when you’ve first started contrasted with who you are today?

Man, I was on the 6 AM ferry to Doe Bay Fest a couple weeks back, and I put on our eponymous debut album The Maldives, and I was immediately taken back to 2005 when we recorded it. So many ideas! And so naive to the studio and the recording process! The songs were so simple, and my vocals weren't very confident. It is charming to hear! But at the same time, we went from being a bare-bones, garage pseudo-folk country thing, to where we are now. What I consider a more fully realized "cinematic" version of what we once were. And we all got haircuts and learned how to trim our beards. We are definitely in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot phase of our evolution.

Your latest LP, Mad Lives, is a concept record about a man falling in love with the sun, who drops into the sea, and goes blind staring at the sun. What inspired this story and what made you want to explore these themes on a record?

The concept sort of manifested itself after a particularly bad break up about six years ago. I felt lost and blind to all the things I used to know. Like a blind sailor on a bleak and unforgiving sea. Ha ha! Or something possibly less dramatic. More human. I was drunk a lot. And not like, fun times drunk. I was really lost inside myself. It is amazing how relationships affect us, in both positive and negative ways. At any rate, these songs developed into a concept quite on their own. All of the themes seemed to be threaded throughout, so I just constructed a timeline for the songs to relate to one another. I was really obsessed with the idea of someone slowly going blind from setting their own house on fire, the house they once shared. I dunno. I've always admired the songwriters that can tell stories, Springsteen, Dylan, Ryan Adams, particularly because I don't ever feel like I can write those kinds of songs. But I suppose we all tell stories in our own ways. I've always been more personally invested in saying more with less.

Musically, the record sees you experimenting with sweeping string arrangements and even some psych-rock. Is this a direction you’ve wanted to go in and think you’ll continue to explore? What were you listening to while working on this record?

Oh wow. Well, yeah! I've always liked all kinds of music, as long as it is good! I've never wanted to stagnate too long in one genre. It isn't so much that I get bored, but I just like too much stuff, I guess. Even though most of my bandmates are quick to point out how much I don't like. We were listening to a bunch of stuff: Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man, Tinariwen, Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, Arthur Russell, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, Nilsson, John Lennon's Mind Games, Pink Floyd's Meddle, Scott Walker, Ennio Morricone, Arvo Part, Josh T. Pearson's Last of the Country Gentlemen. To name a few. Always listening.

This time around you worked with producer Randall Dunn on the LP. What made you want to bring him into the fold? What did he add to the recording experience?

Faustine [Hudson, drummer] suggested Randall Dunn, so she set up a meeting in my old backyard in Ballard. We ended up talking about movies, of all things, not music. Randall and I both went to film school, but both ended up being musicians. I had met Randall on a few occasions, mostly though his band the Master Musicians of Bukkake, and through the folks in Rose Windows. Randall has, what I feel, an uncanny ability to listen to a song once or twice, and then hear a symphony behind the song. He brought in some of his stalwart musicians and collaborators, specifically Eyvind Kang on strings, and really deepened our approach to instrumentation and arrangement. This is just as much his record, as it is ours. Though, as modest as he is, I'm sure he would try to tell you differently.

Throughout your time as a band, how do you feel like the Northwest music scene has changed? What excites you about what’s happening in Seattle today?

I'm not even sure how to answer this question. I've been in Seattle long enough to see a lot of my favorite venues close, due to gentrification and development. I miss places like the Sit & Spin, RKCNDY, the old Comet. I admire places that just keep chugging along, despite outrageous rent increases, allowing local acts a chance to get on stage and show us what they've got. Places like Conor Byrne, the Tractor, the Sunset, and Hotel Albatross in Ballard. The Black Lodge, Lo-Fi, and The In. Seattle has just gotten so expensive, forcing artists to leave north and south of the city. This story is not new, but it is new to me. What's exciting to me is seeing how music and artists persevere despite economic and social changes. It is a tough world, but we can't be stopped.

For those who’ve never seen The Maldives before, what can they expect from your set at Concerts at the Mural?

Maldives have always been a changing line-up. This time around we are gonna be without our lead guitarist, Tim Gadbois, who moved to Michigan last year. We fly him in for shows, as our budget allows. We will also be without Kevin Barrans, our healthily bearded multi-instrumentalist, due to scheduling conflicts. That said, their absences give our other equally talented players to shine. Jesse Bonn will still be the guitar muscle and Adam Bily will be stepping up to fill the space with his sweet synth and keys. Like we've always said, we serve the song. And that's how we'll always be.



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