David Wimbish of The Collection was kind enough to take some time and have a conversation with me over email. We talked about The Collection’s new album, Ars Moriendi, how the writing process works, what it’s like to have a massive family for a band, faith, hope, love, and everything else in between. Because it’s getting pretty lengthy, it’s split into parts. Without further adieu, here’s Part One:
IVM: I think I first heard The Collection after reviewing All Creatures by ElisaRay – a sibling band of sorts – when I discovered the 2011 self titled EP and was captivated by the complexity of the music and the lyrics, both of which had layered depths that invited repeated listens and contemplation. Did you listen to this sort of music growing up? What inspired you to pursue music, and what drew you to this sort of community based model that The Collection exemplifies?
David: Growing up, electric guitars were the centerpiece of every band; they were the family dinner table. I thought I was being rebellious by giving up learning piano in order to teach myself guitar, but I quickly grew tired of the sound of the instrument. It felt like a crutch, at the time, so that others could write songs that sounded big and powerful by doing nothing more than turning up a knob. So, I saw this band, the Psalters, and it was so heavy, it felt like a punk show, but instead of drum kits and electric guitars, it was djembes and accordions. It made me realize that once you strip away the tattoos and funny haircuts, being “heavy” in music has to do with the frequencies and textures present.
I think, from that point, I became interested in music that was acoustically large in dynamic, with more complex arrangements. So, I grew up on hardcore music, but transitioned into classical, and big band, and Serbian military brass, and early 20s french pop, and really anything I could get my ears on.
You realize quickly, though, that it does take a lot of people to change that light bulb. You can’t make large sounding music with just one guy. We moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, and made friends with people that happened to be musicians, and, kind of by accident, became a family. It helps with stage fright, though, when you’re surrounded by a crowd of your best friends, and when you know afterwards you’re going to crash at the same place and eat the same food and dance and listen to each other’s weird music. It also helps, when you’re working hard at something, to know the people you’re working with love you and care about you outside of just the music or work context. It has been very beautiful to me.
IVM: Serbian military brass? That’s the first time I’ve had anyone talk about that as an influence. The idea of a band that’s more than a band; a family, as you said, is a beautiful concept. Has The Collection been a static group, or is the membership more fluid, people coming and going through various paths of life?
David: It’s crazy, actually, they have these huge festivals and it’s like a rock concert, all these people with tubas and trumpets, it sounds so heavy and people are dancing and drinking and camping out. It’s like a rock festival here, but for brass music.
For our band, for awhile, there was kind of an open door policy. You played piccolo in high school? Your grandma has an accordion in her closet? Join it, lets make something together! Except for a couple of times on the road, we had been sticking to playing mostly locally, so people played when they could, and worked other jobs in the meantime. The other day, our keyboard player came to practice right after a nursing shift. We finished practice, and she said, “Can I leave early? I just tried to resuscitate several people, and it didn’t go well.” Being in a band is just another part of living together, in between nursing and farming and teaching jobs for a lot of the band. That being said, there’s a group of us that have started to get the itch to be on the road, playing more consistently, and we’re working towards touring more full time starting this fall. We have the west coast and Canada in our sights!
IVM: So is there a difference between collaborating together on tour, or jam sessions, and what we hear on the albums? Your self titled EP from 2011 was written, arranged, and performed almost entirely by you, at least according to the credits – has that changed on Ars Moriendi ?
David: If you build a house yourself, it will only be as good as you. No single person will be a fantastic plumber, floor installer, trim maker, mudder, and decorator. So, while I was proud of doing almost the entire EP myself, it was limited by one factor – me. I’ve never been a good instrumentalist; I’m not great at any one instrument. The core band members have been together for awhile, both in life, and in the band, and it was natural to step back to scoring/orchestrating, and hand more over to each band member. I think it ended up representing the way the band has worked for awhile: the majority of the parts were played by core members, but there were guest parts by friends that have played once or twice with us, and then a few guest musicians in their first performance with us. It also allowed me to step back and try to focus on my voice, which I guess I consider my main instrument at this point.
IVM: So how do you approach song writing, individually and as a band?
David: Songwriting is a mystery to me. Sometimes it’s like jumping into a pool on a hot day, sometimes its like planting a seed and waiting all year for it to grow, and sometimes its like plowing the fields all day with no break. If I had the formula down, I’d probably write a lot more. Usually, some idea comes to me, it may be a melody, or a chord structure, or even just a general tone. Sometimes it’s the lyrics. Many times, I start singing gibberish, just words that sound right together. Eventually I start sculpting it into something specific, a body starts to emerge from the sculpture. I used to take what part of a song I had and demo it, adding instruments I thought I’d want, but I find, as I get more and more comfortable with music theory, I’ve been skipping demoing and going straight to scoring out parts. We play them together as a band, sometimes people get ideas. “What if we change this ingredient? What if I add paprika instead? Is this still the same dish if we use yellow squash instead of zucchini?” The end result comes out a bit more like a group project, still centered around an idea, but with individual flare.
I also find, lately, that I’m becoming more aware of my specific traps. Oh, I’ve used this texture in three songs, or every time I don’t know what to do, I resort to this specific chord structure, or I sing this word a lot just because it feels immediately good to sing. So songwriting is becoming a longer process. Inspiration usually lasts ten minutes, and the next days/weeks/months/years of working on a song are more work than inspiration, battling hard and sometimes winning, and sometimes losing.
IVM: So how was Ars Moriendi sculpted? What ideas or themes emerged in this group of songs?
David: The first songs being written for the album were a straight progression, more or less, from the EP. Most of us had been moving to the same neighborhood, and our band life was becoming more and more communal. The songs were very much about life within a big band family, the joys of being together. A few months before we started the record, we encountered some deaths of loved ones, which is always difficult, but these were in especially difficult contexts for processing through. We were seeing friends trying to hide the pain they felt. They would mourn for a week, and then put it out of their minds. We realized that there is no place to grieve, at least in many of our environments. So the songs started being about not only the joys of being together, but learning how to grieve well together.
Strings have always moved me emotionally more than any other instrument group, especially in sorrowful situations, so the arrangements pretty naturally began to lean on the strings in a major way. This was also the first records I’ve done working heavily with woodwinds, especially the Clarinet, and a few other new instruments I’d acquired, namely the Didgeridoo (heard on “The Borrowers”) and the Pipa (Heard on “The Middle One”).
Most of the recording team of the album was our Head Engineer and Co-producer Edd Kerr (who is brilliant!), our bass player Hayden Cooke, and myself. Having a team of three of us there throughout the entire process (which ended up being almost 5 months, between recording and editing) helped us to keep the vision of the finished product, and iron out instrumental and lyrical details.
IVM: I’m sorry for your loss, that must have been a difficult time to go through. But that’s also where the strength of being a community lies, I would think, in being able to grieve together and comfort each other. I noticed that even though the presence of death, and of nothingness, looms large in the background, most of the songs aren’t about death or grief per se, they’re about questioning, and searching for the right way to live. Some have posited that the art of dying well is tied directly to the art of living well, what are you thoughts on that idea?
David: Thanks – It is difficult. But, as you said, it’s also been beautiful to find what strength lies within this band relationally, and to have a reason to rely on each other.
That’s a correct observation – the songs are definitely more about questioning. If your solid friend, who is searching for truth, kills himself, what does that say about truth? If your Father-In-Law who has very different beliefs than you dies unexpectedly and quickly, what does that do to OUR beliefs? Everyone, Christians and otherwise, have specific beliefs about how we should live, and what happens when we die. But when you see death in a close way, you realize that we know very little about it – even Christians base their beliefs on their own interpretations of very confusing bible passages that talk in story about “heaven” and “hell”. Almost every christian you talk to will believe something different than their peers. So, these experiences brought me to a place of realizing that life, death, and god are all very much more mysterious than we’ve made them out to be. I think I’m farther along that path now than I was when we first started recording, but Ars Moriendi is the beginning stages of that thinking.
The songs are also ordered in a way to reflect one giant story, from the beginning of a persons life, through questioning, and ending with them taking their own life. I wanted to follow, to some degree, the journey of my friend that took his life. So, each song stands on its own, but it also is ALMOST a concept album in some way.
I also would agree that the art of dying helps us to learn the art of living: for me, it has been realizing that things are more mysterious and harder to understand than I used to think. And, in that, we have a charge to love everyone, to give up ourselves in order to serve other people. We don’t know exactly what happens after this life, but we know that during this life, there is a lack of love and wholeness in many areas, and we can be a part of bringing that to others. We can fill our unknowing with love. It makes life worthwhile.
IVM: It’s incredible how distant and definable death is before we’ve experienced the death of a loved one. Once that happens all of our preconceptions and philosophizing can be shattered by the immediacy of experience. Another thing I noticed about the album was the kernel of hope sown throughout your songs, especially in the last few. The angst of doubt is so present, but it’s also belied with that inkling of hope. There’s a hint of 14th C. mystic Julian of Norwich, who acknowledges the mysteries of God, but trusts that in the end, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Is that an area that you’re concerned with through the album, the question “will all be well?” Or, rather, is the hope found in Ars Moriendi reliant on us; our impetus to “fill our unknowing with love”? What role does God, or at least our notions of God have to play in all this?
David: I met a friend recently for coffee, and he showed up late because he had been working through some things with his daughter. I asked if she was OK, and he said, “Well, she’s not now, but it’s just high school kind of things that feel big now and won’t in a few years.” I told him that is was great that he would still spend time working through it with her, and he said, “I don’t know her future – she could die tonight. So the fact that it is hard now does mean something and is worth spending time on. Just because she won’t care in the future doesn’t mean I should ignore it. I don’t know if she’ll have a future.” It blew me away, it’s such a description that we must love NOW, because we don’t know if all will end well.
The truth is, I’ve been in the middle of a philosophical garage sale, so to speak, trying to clear out the house a little more. The things I say, they are questions I have been asking but haven’t found answers to; planes I’ve flown but haven’t landed. A God that could part seas could also save my friend from killing himself, yes? But, he didn’t. Why? I don’t know. He could save those I saw suffering underneath the trash in India a couple of months ago, sleeping in the intersection. He didn’t, though. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know what his role in all this is – I hope and have believed it is with good intention. But, I DO know that OUR role is to love others, to bring hope to the hopeless, rest for the weary, and healing to the sick, in whatever way possible.
Because, in every good thing that has happened to me, the gifts of love I have received from others are always the most piercing. Like, we’ve been so happy to be selling albums and doing interviews and playing shows that people actually come to for the first time in new cities. But, this last week, a friend gave us a large amount of money when they heard our vehicle broke. These friends have given money before during other times of need, and they are not especially well off – it had to have been hard for them to give it to us. We didn’t even ask for any money! The way that pierces my heart, the hope that love like that can give, it is always deeper than anything around me. When friends have stayed up all night crying with me, when my wife has spent hours making me a gift, when someone shares their struggles – it is a deep hope we receive. That is the role that I hope God has as well – the teacher and bringer of that hope.
IVM: That’s a great idea about a focus on loving now. A selfless carpe diem. And I understand the “philosophical garage sale” so to speak, trying to find answers to questions; some that I may never understand. It’s something I find oddly comforting, like that line in “The Borrowers” – “I don’t know anything at all – What a relief!!” I’ve recently been reading Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, and he wrote a poem called “Love”, which ended on this couplet:
“It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.”
I think there’s a comfort in that. That we can love and serve without knowing. Knowledge of the heart is often more valuable than knowledge of the head. Now, that “deep hope” that you spoke of, that arises from these moments of love, how does that weave itself into your music?
David: That’s a great reference, that line from “The Borrowers.”
Last night, the band had a long late-night hangout to just talk about parts of what we all believe individually. It’s funny how we can all think that other people want us to be a certain way, to believe a certain thing. So everyone ends up pretending they are all in a place they are not. All it takes is one person speaking honestly about how they feel, saying, “I’m feeling unsure about this or that”, and suddenly everyone says, “Oh yeah, me too! I just didn’t know if anyone else did too.” So, I think honesty is love. Not lying to yourself, or to others, not stealing the truth from others: that is love. I try to let that make its way into my music – I want to be honest. Who I am when I wrote our EP was way different than who I was when I wrote Ars Moriendi. Who I am now is different than who I was when I wrote Ars Moriendi! So, I hope each time I put something out there, I can be an honest person, and allow others to say, “Oh yeah, me too! I just haven’t been able to say it yet.” There were albums like that for me. mewithoutYou’s catch for us the foxes was the first album that let me be honest. As Cities Burn’s Come Now Sleep was the same way. They were the first times I realized I wasn’t alone, and it felt loving that someone would let me know that, through music.
Stay tuned for further installments in our conversation with David Wimbish of The Collection.