percussionist Cale Parks has embraced the double-edged ideal of making music alone, cursed by the absence of anyone to affirm his endeavors but blessed with the freedom to blend his own electronic concoctions—like the deep layers of texture, wispy vocals, swimmy synths on his new EP, To Swift Mars (out now). It's a snapshot of the sound Parks has always wanted, fastened with the organic touch of a real drum set. When Paste caught up with Parks to chat about his latest solo venture, he was calling from his New York apartment, the musical microbrewery where he cooked up two previous albums with just a computer, a pair of headphones and a set of ears fine-tuned by years of studying orchestral production.
Paste: Tell me about your musical background, and the extent of your studies in college.
Cale Parks: I started playing in bands in high school, like garage bands and stuff. And then I started studying in college [at Bowling Green University in Ohio]. I started off as a classical performance major in percussion, and I played mallet instruments in an orchestra. Then I switched to jazz studies and played in the university percussion ensemble, and played classical percussion pieces. I then met a guy playing vibraphone who had this band in college called Aloha. So I started playing with Aloha when I was 19. I've been signed with Polyvinyl records since I was 19, and that's where my history with Aloha pretty much has been. And then the solo thing came out in 2006—I was still working on the new Aloha record. I basically started making a bunch of solo records on my own. A lot of the tracks I used for the Aloha stuff just didn't fit. So the lead singer, Tony, just said, "You should make a Myspace page for these. So I pretty much just made a MySpace page for the solo tracks... And so I asked the Japanese record label if they were listening to my Myspace, and they were. They said, "We love your CD. Let us put out your solo record.” So that's really how it all came about. The label from Japan wanted to put it out, and once it came out over there I talked to Polyvinyl Records here about putting it out in the states. So they put it out. There was never really a huge commission to go solo or to break away or anything. It just sort of happened and I hadn't even played solo shows at that point. And then I made another record last fall and started thinking more of songs that I'd be able to perform in clubs and stuff, to perform live. And that's sort of where I am now. The EP is coming out and I'm able to do more live shows and sing more with the actual songs and thing like that, as opposed to little ideas of pieces, which is kind of what the first album is.
Paste: So you put out Illuminated Manuscript in '06 and then Sparklace in '08.
Parks: Yeah, Sparklace is the anagram of my name. [Laughs] It was the first record where I started singing in my songs, and recorded all on my own. And then the new EP was actually recorded with me and T.J. [Lipple, Aloha bandmate] in the booth, running the studio in D.C. and making cuts. And then I had it mixed by a friend of mine, Brian Jacobs, with a band called Apes & Androids. So this EP was the first thing that I had done with other people.
Paste: What were some of the elements of what you were producing for Aloha that led to you eventually posting your own tracks up on MySpace?
Parks: With Aloha, we would bring ideas to the table and everyone would sort of have these little ideas for pieces and songs. A lot of times I'd write songs full out, with verse, chorus, parts and everything, but no singing and no lyrics because I don't sing in Aloha. It would be awkward and imposing to have to sing this with someone else. It just sort of happened naturally. It was something he felt like he didn't want to work with. And so he encouraged me to do it on my own.
Paste: And what is the extent of your contribution to Joan of Arc?
Parks: Well, I haven't played with them since 2006. That was after college and Aloha has never all lived in the same city together since college. I was the youngest guy in the band, so they were all seniors and I still had three more years to go in college. So they moved everywhere, and then after I'd finished college I just decided to move to Chicago and still do Aloha and tours and stuff long distance. And that's the way we've been functioning since 2002. We've been long distance. And then I moved to Chicago and just from playing music at shows, I knew Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc, and he said, "Yeah, you should jam with us sometime." And so I did, and I liked playing with them. It was very much like hanging out. Joan of Arc is more of a collection of musicians—it's not like you're joining the band forever. I was just in Chicago, and I helped them out by playing on some recordings and they asked if I wanted to go on tour. So I did two tours with them. So I haven't actually been in Joan of Arc since 2003. It's really just a collection of musicians that play together, and I ended up being on a lot of recordings.
Paste: What has it been like being with Aloha when everyone is living in separate cities?
Parks: It's worked well in the past, and then this last record—we have a new record coming out in the winter on Polyvinyl, and it just got mastered and it sounds really good. We haven't had a release since, like, 2007. We get together before a tour and play together, the songs for our live shows. So if we have a tour, we'll get together a few days before the tour and sort of have a marathon, band camp style rehearsal where it's just all day long and night. We just hang out together and play the songs, and get tight and then do the tour. And as far as writing with Aloha, we just do it long distance. Sometimes we'll make a demo, or I'll make a demo and then we'll listen to it and then add things, add our little bits here and there, and then send it back to each other. We'll use computer software and recording stuff at home. And then we'll just paste it all together. It's really just finding time to set aside with any band. Even if you're a band and you all live in New York, it's the same thing. You just take off work that week and commit to being in the studio and whatever happens there, happens there. We just sort of know how we work well together, where we can go in to a studio in whatever city, and we can make something and finish it at home. It really has worked so well and I don't know any other way to make music with Aloha. It's just really easy for all of us.
Paste: How have you embraced the freedom in making your own solo record that you couldn't do with Aloha.
Parks: It's a lot easier. You're there, and you're at home and you can do whatever you want. There's nobody there telling you that they want to add this thing or that thing. It's really easy to finish a song, and then just play it for some friends. I guess the negative is that it sucks because there's nobody there to tell you what's good or bad as far as quality control is concerned. So I'll just have to send out a demo to all my friends and wait for them to tell me either, "Yeah, it's good," or "No, it sucks." I'll send stuff to my girlfriend a lot. I think she has a really good ear. And you just sort of do things that way. And it's really easy to get a lot more done when it's just yourself. I mean, I love making things and I work on it all the time whenever I can, so I just end up with a ton of material. There's always something new on the horizon in that regard. It's really easy to work with yourself. But at the same time, it can be limiting to new ideas.
Paste: You use a lot of layers and synths in your music. What does the process of pasting these elements into one cohesive form look like for you?
Parks: It's all about multi-tracking, and the ability to add as much as you want on your computer and have it all be there at the same time. As far as layering goes, I just love the depth and quality that keyboards can make... If it doesn't sound right, then you can work until you get it to sound the way you want. You add certain things until you're happy, and then you stop. And then, in theory, it should be ready to go. But for me, I just add things until it sounds the way I want it to sound.
Paste: Have you been interested in electronic compositions for a while?
Parks: Yeah. It's really the most accessible and feasible thing to do when you're home when you're limiting yourself to just playing in your apartment and writing in your apartment in New York. You can't get too loud and you can't plug in your guitar to an amplifier and just go crazy. But you can just sort of play the synthesizers with your headphones on and zone out to whatever you're imagining. I like making beats as a drummer. I like making beats on drum machines and writing that way—coming up with different ideas. I feel like a lot of my favorite bands are electronic musicians that use beat makers. The sort of techno artists that I like are all drummers. Even though they're not organic drums, they're still the way that drummers interpret rhythm and how they put them together. So, the techno and house music is all sort of interesting. And a lot of my friends do that. You really can't go too crazy on a drum set in your apartment. Limitations definitely affect how you write music.
Paste: What percussionists have you been listening to lately for inspiration?
Parks: I just got off tour with a band called Lemonade. They're from San Francisco but they've been catering to New York. They're like—how can I describe them? There's a bass player, a singer and a live drummer, and they have beats and tracks coming from behind them. It's like live house music. Live, psychedelic house music, and it's awesome. Their rhythms are amazing. And hanging out with them, riding around in the van, there was just so much exposure. We all traveled in one car together, and there was so much exposure to electronic music and beats. It's amazing. I can't even begin to name all the random mixes they've played through, artists I have no prior knowledge of.