Read any review of Arms and Sleepers and you will find mention of a powerful dream-like nostalgia, an almost spiritual quality infused in their music. Trip-hop, ambient – call it what you want – as the proliferation of ‘chill-out’ compilation albums of the late 90s demonstrated, the line between transformative and dull ephemera is a delicate one and takes a great deal of talent to tread. The fact that the Boston duo have been doing so since 2006, across 16 album and EP releases, tells its own story. Although you would be forgiven for thinking Mirza and Max float through life on a cloud of pure wistfulness, this is far from the case. R$N spoke to Mirza Ramic on the frustrations of the creative process, how he judges a live audience and why their latest album ‘Swim Team’ has a little more ‘oomph’;
Congrats on your new album 'Swim Team'. What made you want to create a more 'amped up' sound for this one?
Thank you! Well, I think it just happened naturally - every album is a reflection of who we are and what we feel at the moment, and 'Swim Team' is similarly a reflection of the last couple of years in our personal lives. There was a lot of looking back, both into the distant past and the recent past, as well a lot of looking forward and thinking about what's to come and what to do next. For some reason all this translated into more electronic/soulful, beat-heavy music, but it wasn't necessarily a super conscious decision to do that.
The promo says you were inspired by childhood memories in the 80s - can you explain how you go about re-imagining old memories through music?
It's a personal journey that both of us approach differently when working on music. I'm not sure what this is like for Max (the other half of Arms and Sleepers), but for me it has a lot to do with remembering little details from the past and revisiting things like TV shows that I used to watch when I was little. By recreating the atmosphere in which I existed back then (from loose fragments of my memory), a lot of emotions and feelings reawaken and become especially pronounced when mixed with music.
How long does it take you to produce a track that you're happy with?
This really varies - anywhere from 1-2 years to 5 days. The title track from our new album was completed from scratch in about 4 days, while the track 'Hummingbird' went through several phases and took about a year to complete. Really a lot depends on how inspired we are at the moment, what kind of a mood we're in, other things going on in our lives, and of course luck - the key ingredient.
What's your biggest frustration about the creative process?
The creative process often tends to be frustrating because 90% of the things we do make us feel like we should quit music forever. And I'm not exaggerating here - it's just incredibly difficult for us to write music that we think is worthwhile. Of course, that magical 10% when things do come together nicely is lovely and tends to inspire us to keep going. But it's incredibly frustrating to go through a 10-hour day of trying really hard to write something good and coming up empty.
Your music is often described as dreamlike - do you feel there is a relationship between music and dreams? As scientists still struggle to answer the question of why exactly we dream and how it works, can music perhaps give us better insight than science at this point?
I would imagine that there is a relationship between pretty much everything a human being experiences in life and dreams. I'm not sure how music could specifically give us insight into understanding this subject, but I would place my bets on science to figure it all out.
How long does it take to organise a tour? How do you first go about it? Can you take us through the process from when you said "right let's tour!"
It takes a while, and it takes a lot of hard work. We've worked with many booking agencies in the past and I have booked shows myself, but either way it's a time-consuming process if you want to get things right, and a stressful process when you're in a smaller band. Touring these days tends to be the best way to make money for artists, which unfortunately is a real life necessity in order to keep making music. For that reason, touring a lot is a good thing because it ensures we don't go bankrupt. Generally, tours are booked in support of a new release, and this is what I'll be doing for the next year or so as our new album just came out. Right now we work with several different booking agencies, so they throw ideas our way and then we talk about how to make it happen.
How do you choose the venues?
We don't usually have much choice here - we leave it up to the local promoters.
If you're playing a very relaxed gig is it sometimes difficult to gauge the reaction of the audience?
Every audience is different, and every show is different. I try to give my 100% during every live performance, and sometimes the intensity on stage does not translate into visible intensity in the crowd. But everyone reacts differently to live music, and I know that I personally have had intense experiences at shows without showing it on the outside. So I try not to make judgements about audiences not being into it or whatnot, because there have been many, many shows when I thought that the crowd was kind of lethargic and then discovered after the show that they were just very focused but super into it. Of course, it helps to have people really get physically into it - dancing, etc. - but that's in no way a requirement as a live music experience (and a music experience in general) is a very personal thing.
What is the prevalent music in Boston?
We haven't really been involved with the music scene in Boston for some time. We rarely play in Boston and have been totally out of touch in terms of local bands and music styles. Caspian, who is from north of Boston, is probably the only band we still keep in touch with.
How does living in Boston affect the music you produce?
I'm sure it does affect us but I'm not sure exactly how. We don't really think of Boston much when working on music - our home studio is a little secluded, secret space that is very much disconnected from everything else. Of course, Boston affects us as human beings and is a place where both of us have spent most of our lives. So it's a very important place for our lives, but not necessarily for our music.
Going back to the beginning when you were first starting out, how did you find your sound and what was the moment that you realised other people wanted to listen to it?
It took a while to discover our sound, though that sound continues to change and evolve with every new release. I think after Max and I decided to make music on our own (we had been in several bands with other people prior to Arms and Sleepers), we had certain limitations (for example, no drummer) that forced us to learn to overcome them. This led to a more electronic and ambient sound, but then of course we wanted to expand on that, which led us to write all these albums that don't sound very much alike. But I think realizing that the two of us had a special connection and then working on our debut EP ('bliss was it in that dawn to be alive') was the first time we felt like we had something meaningful to share with others.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Pride is a strange concept and one we try to steer away from. Maybe a moment in our music careers when we felt a lot of joy was hearing our music on National Public Radio (NPR) as we have been avid listeners for years.
What you do when you're not touring?
Lately, there has been a lot of touring for me so I haven't been home as much. For the last two years, I was in graduate school full time so I was your typical student spending a lot of time in the library and at coffee shops. Otherwise all the normal things most people do - working, spending time with friends, etc. I do tend to see a lot of movies in theatres and also have started biking a bunch.
I read that you are taking an MA - what area is that in?
I just finished my Master's program in international relations. Max is still pursuing his Master's degree in philosophy.
‘Swim Team’ out now on Fake Chapter records.