America is the home of several of the world’s most iconic synthesizer manufacturers, but it has failed to produce many world class artists who really put the instrument to work. Many have dabbled, but few have taken the step of replacing guitars with keyboards as European artists did.
It is unique, therefore, that Reed & Caroline, the duo of Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz, have emerged to present their second album of synthpop. Hays is known as a Buchla fan, but lives on the Moog coast and doesn’t limit himself to ambient pulsations. Schutz and Hays are both mates with Vince Clarke, formerly of Essex and the owner of a keyboard collection to die for. Erasure’s stoic synth man has put them on his label, Very Records, and on tour with his band.
We caught up with Reed (RH) and Caroline (CS) on their recent tour dates supporting Erasure to find out about their latest album, Hello Science. They kindly provided some input on each of the tracks.
CS: I sang a lot of Christian hymns growing up. I don’t know why, because I was Jewish, but for some reason at my school we sang Christian hymns all the time. I loved them and still love them, and that’s what ‘Before’ feels like to me. That song is very profound and it’s both scientific and philosophical. And I think putting those two together in a very simple way shows how good Reed is at using science as a parallel for other bigger issues, like dealing with death and that sort of thing.
RH: Vince really likes that song and he remixed the track as a bonus track on the album. Right now he’s into this whole inspirational anthemic thing, which is why he’s really loved working with Jack Antonoff from Bleachers, and he approached “Before” in that style. He added these little countermelodies. It’s like, the guy who wrote “Only You” came in and played keyboards on my song. That’s kind of amazing.
CS: To me, “Before” is kind of sad and happy at the same time: it’s in a pretty major key so it feels kind of resolved and straightforward, but it also has a sadness to it.
RH: How can you not want to write a song where the chorus goes, “Does dark matter matter?”
CS: I have some other music projects I do here and there, and I also do some writing. Before Reed played me that song, I had written some lyrics and one of them was “Does the dark matter?” And then he wrote this at the same time, which was so funny.
RH: When I came up with this song I just couldn’t get the bass right. I played it to Caroline in Berkeley but said so I was gonna throw it out because the bass wasn’t working, but she said I had to keep it. I just tried everything, every possible bass idea on the Buchla, and it just sounded like crap.
Right when I was flying back to New York, I got a text from one of the members of Kite Base, Ayse Hassan, who’s also the bass player for Savages. Kendra Frost and Ayse from Kite Base had been at a little PR show we’d for the last album, and I’d stayed in touch with them. It turned out they were coming to New York the day after I was flying back, and so I set them both up with the song, which was basically just a drum section at the time, and I recorded them both playing bass and singing. They really made that song. It’s a little less synth pop than other things on the record, at least in the way it formed together in my head. To me it’s more of a Joy Division or B-52s type of thing.
CS: I really love that song. I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll and I think that’s why I connected with it immediately. That’s kind of my comfort zone. This one isn’t quite as dark. It’s quite whimsical, a neat play on words.
I have twin daughters – they’re 11. They’ve heard a bunch of songs from Hello Science and they’ve heard “Dark Matter” a few times, and they love it. I haven’t played them everything because I’m still their mom and they don’t really want to hear me singing, but if they catch it and they don’t realise it’s me, they’re like, “Oh, what’s this?” When they hear it’s me, they’re like, “Turn it off!”
RH: This is going to sound really mundane, but that was just something where I came up with a little groove and thought about buoyancy going up and gravity coming down, and the lyrics mimic that. There’s not a lot more to it than that!
CS: I keep thinking that’s the dance hit but the structure of it is interesting. I mean, there’s no clear chorus. The lyrics just keep coming the whole time. There’s not even an instrumental break.
Another Solar System
RH: That was a late entry. I was reading in the newspaper about all these exoplanets they were discovering, and the words, “another solar system,” went into my head. I was seeing Vince later on that week and so I went over to his house and played it for him on a piano. I said, “Should this even turn into anything?” And he was like, “I like it, but just don’t make it into a march.”
CS: I think that song takes on a special significance in the age of Trump. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s also not so funny – we’ve discovered another planet so we can leave Earth now that this one’s all worn out. Which is kind of how Trump and other Republicans act. They don’t need to preserve the planet because they’re really not worried about it: they’re just worried about business.
I’ve never even talked about the meaning behind the lyrics with Reed but the chorus feels to me like it’s about having another world to go to when this one has been exhausted. He captures it in a funny way, but it is pretty terrifying.
CS: This one is literally only about science! Although I do think this one is really funny as it’s dominated by the cello, and it’s the least electronic track on an electronic album. It’s very dramatic too this one, because of Reed’s cello playing. He’s been playing cello for a long time. That was his primary instrument.
RH: A friend said to me that NWA would have called this “straight outta the conservatory” because of the cello, which I thought was fun. This is kind of loosely based on an étude that someone wrote in the 19th century that’s made of up rapid arpeggios and it sounds all fancy-pants. I still practice cello a lot in my spare time, and while I was practising this thing over and over again I started singing, “It’s science, it’s all about science,” and I decided that I might as well try it out.
There’s one Buchla note at the very end of the song, a chiming “bongggg” sound. I figured it could still make it onto an electronic record if there was one Buchla note on it! The funniest part was sitting at dinner with Caroline and her daughters when I went out there and one of her daughters said ‘So what are you going to sing on these songs?’ And I said, “I’m going to have your mother sing, ‘Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts,’” and they just burst out laughing.
RH: The string sounds on this are all pretend. That’s me playing the Buchla touch plates that are so darn expressive. I did about twenty tracks, a violin sound, a viola sound, a cello sound and I just kept stacking them on one another until it sounded like something, and fortunately that worked.
CS: This one is all about companies abusing your personal data. I’ve always been very cynical about technology – not for music, but more in terms of privacy. Whenever a company has assured me that my privacy is guaranteed, I’ve never believed them. I’ve worked at those companies before as a graphic designer and I know how they work. I know that they’re not infallible and I know they screw up. So it’s kinda funny to me that it’s finally all coming out. Once you put something out there on the internet it’s going to be out there forever, even if you put it in a private chat room. Privacy has become a quaint, old-fashioned notion.
My mom has Alexa in her house and I’m like, “Mom, you realise you have no privacy now? They’re listening to your conversations.” And she’s like, “What do I care? I’m 88 years old.”
CS: This one doesn’t exist on a million different levels. It’s just a soulful, joyful song.
RH: People really like the handclaps on that one. They’re from the Buchla 100.
CS: My 11-year old daughter Amalia wrote the melody for “Ocean.” She’s like, “Where are my royalties?” I’m like, “You don’t even get an allowance!” Amalia plays piano but she also has a keyboard in her room, and she was messing around on that one day and came up with this nice intro that I really liked, and that became the intro to “Ocean.”
RH: This is one of my favourite songs on the record. I wrote it in a real hurry, right before I went out to record Caroline singing something else. I thought she wouldn’t be into it because it’s kinda dark. The way it ties into the Reed & Caroline thing is that it’s mainly about me missing my friend Rene. There’s a song about him on our first album called “John & Rene.” We played “Entropy” at a show, thinking we were taking a risk, but people really liked it. I originally thought that would be the song we put in the set so people could go order drinks at the bar, but instead they listened.
CS: “Entropy” is one of my favourite songs on there too. It’s very dark, and emotional, and I connect to that. We all deal with loss in our lives so anyone can relate to it. It’s an intense song but people really do stop and listen to it. In all my other music, with Folksongs for the Afterlife and The Inner Banks, the songs are in minor key and depressing, just like “Entropy.”
CS: This is an ode to women – particularly African-American women – who have been involved in science and aeronautics but not been given credit. Not a lot of people knew that the people behind the scenes doing a lot of the hard calculations in some really important scientific endeavours were actually African-American women who were segregated, working in a separate space from the white people, and they were doing the math to get rockets to launch.
RH: They were genuinely women who computed, and they were actually called computers. At Harvard, way back in the early twentieth century when astronomers were taking in information about stars through telescopes, they had women catalogue everything and run the numbers. They were called computers because they were literally computing. I also knew that NASA employed women to run the math while space flights were underway, because mechanical computers weren’t as fast as real computers back then. Those women were indispensable to so many things.
Vince loves the squelchy bass sound on this one. The original track was much goofier. I did it over it and gave it more of an aggressive edge, or the closest I can get to aggressive anyway.
Internet of Things
RH: I was trying to read the New York Times online one day and I couldn’t reach the Web site for about an hour. It turned out that all these little gadgets had all been hacked and had overwhelmed a server in New Hampshire. It was because so many of these mundane gadgets had computers with no password at all or a password like “password123” or whatever, so I thought I’d write a song about it. Right in the middle of the song, I got my mother – who just recently passed away – to record some words in Russian, because I thought that would be topical. She says, “All the toys and tools conspire to work together.” It seemed appropriate.
CS: The dark humour in that song is just so Reed. I think it’s the B-52s influence. But actually it’s more than dark – it’s sinister. It’s about the sinister nature of the tech, and questioning the concept of what progress really represents in the digital world. Is it just where it’s expanding into everyone’s home or is it actually ever going to be something that is helpful to humanity? I think it’s all market driven and people are just going along with it. Of course, Reed would never try to believe in the next thing, given the Buchla he plays is from forty years ago…
RH: That song was also a source of our identity crisis. That’s one of the first songs I wrote, and we started to worry we were getting too dark about this stuff given we were supposed to be optimists. I think the way around it in the end was to just make it playful.
CS: Do I even sing on this one?
RH: I sampled your vocal from “Computers.” I ran it through a module on the Buchla called the Frequency Shifter that alters the harmonic content of things. It’s kind of like a ring modulator, and so every time you hear “computers” it sounds a little different from the time before, because I’m doing different things to the feed. It’s the kind of thing that could be put on a continuous loop.
I wouldn’t have known this either, but Continuous Interfold is a brand of computer printer paper from the early 1970s. The only reason I know that is because I was looking through some old stuff that a cousin had given me and there was some drawings that I had done when I was three or four, and they were on the backs of computer printouts from my father. They had choo-choo trains on one side and on the other side these little lines of computer code with notes by my dad. I looked down at the bottom and it said, “Copyright Continuous Interfold.” And I thought, “What a great song title!”
RH: This is about the astronomer, Johannes Kepler. He spent a lot of his life unsuccessfully trying to prove that the Platonic solids all somehow fit together in harmony, or were some sort of key to the universe. To prove that, he would make these wooden models of dodecahedrons and other shapes on string to synthesise the effect. He was looking for a unified theory, but particle physics hadn’t been invented yet, so he was going with shapes instead. It didn’t work, but then a lot of things didn’t work out for him.
When I wrote this, I was basically just playing around on the Orchestron with a choir patch. For a moment, I felt like an actual keyboard player, which is scary because I can’t really play keyboards. I put this thing called the Buchla Music Easel on top of the Orchestron, and I played one melody on the Buchla and another on the Orchestron and just kind of cooked up the track that way.
Hello Science is out now on Very Records.