Altopalo: A Team Effort
by Liam Thomas
With a sound that blends genre conventions at one moment and defies them at the next, Altopalo is an experimental four-piece band with an ear for melody and a deep sense of atmosphere that sets them far apart from their contemporaries. On their latest and most fully realized release frozenthere, lead vocalist Rahm Silverglade, guitarist Mike Haldeman, bassist Jesse Bielenberg, and drummer Dillon Treacy have constructed a sound that feels like calligraphy; patiently constructed, with an emphasis on technique that seems like it took years to perfect. A little while ago, I had the chance to talk over the phone with Mike Haldeman and Rahm Silverglade about their process, their inspirations, and about getting really angry at Ableton.
Before you all came together, I know that most of you were playing in various backing bands for different artists. In other interviews, you’ve also cited how important honesty and communication is to all of you as a group. For each of you guys, how were these experiences working in backing bands, and how do they extend to altopalo?
MIKE: It’s a combination of things. Some bands are willing to collaborate with you and celebrate your own individual contributions in interpreting the music that you’re being brought on board to perform with them. It can be that sort experience, or also the sort of thing where you’re expected to perform a very specific part and fill a role that doesn’t necessarily pertain as much to your individuality and personality as an expressive human. It’s sort of a combination of those two factors, in that like, on one hand, there’s a lot to be gained and picked up from collaborating and performing with other artists. But on the other hand, it can get exhausting to get hired for a gig where you’re just expected to be the guitar player, and not necessarily delve into the curiosity of exploring different sounds. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
RAHM: It’s kind of a nice incubator, being able to work on other people’s music. Like there’s not as much at stake; or not enough for us to get in a fight about each other’s differing artistic visions or something. I just remember rearranging some songs in a really fun way, but since it wasn’t my stuff, I got to experiment a bit.
Additionally, I’m aware that you guys came together as a band while you were still in school at NYU. I feel that when it comes to collaboration, an arts-centric university environment is something that really directly facilitates it. I guess just as a piece of advice for those of us still in college, how do you guys maintain that collaborative spirit outside of an environment that facilitates and accommodates it?
RAHM: Uh. We don’t.
MIKE: That was something I definitely took for granted when we were at school, just the fact that there’s this built-in community where a lot of the people you’re interacting with throughout the day and regularly in your life are always around you, with intersecting class schedules and all that. And once you’re catapulted out into the real world, the maintenance of seeing your friends becomes much more of an everyday task. You really have to reach out and plan ahead, instead of just having the apparatus of school there to make those things happen automatically. To maintain that same kind of collaborative community, you have to be active.
I know you guys isolated yourselves in a cabin in rural Indiana during the recording process of frozenthere. I wanted to ask about isolation, mainly to what extent do you think it's helpful to your process, and at what point does that isolation become detrimental to your work?
RAHM: New York is a terrible place to work, probably on anything. But in my experience with recording music, it’s just too noisy. Just being able to hear what’s going on in your own brain and your own soul is very difficult through all of that noise. So in that respect, I think isolation is kind of crucial. It makes you feel more present in any actual interaction with people around you, but it also makes emotional difficulties a lot more present. As far as the difficulties of isolation go, regular check-ins are sort of mandatory to combat them. We’ll all do like hot-seats with each other pretty regularly, just to see what’s going on.
MIKE: Also, in the interest of full transparency, the house that we recorded frozenthere in isn’t extremely isolated. It’s in Chesterton, Indiana.
RAHM: Which is a thriving community. A thriving Indiana community.
MIKE: It’s very flatland America. There was this local watering-hole called Leroy’s that we would go to every now and again. They had these karaoke nights sometimes, one happened the last time Rahm was there.
RAHM: There was no heat, no water, and we all grew beards.
So it was definitely very far removed from New York is what I’m getting.
MIKE: Yes, exactly. The key element of Chesterton is that it’s just far away from the din, chaos, and general business of New York. It was a time for us to be alone with each other. Like waking up every day with all of our equipment already set up in the living room and sort of being able to pick right back up from where we left off the day before. That kind of working environment was really crucial for us.
Going off of this emphasis on collaboration, as well as the importance of honesty to you guys as a band, I personally think that your practice of creating a structured song from an improvised piece really speaks to this sense of honesty. I just wanted to ask if you could walk me through this process for one of the tracks from frozenthere. Like what was one kernel of improvised inspiration that you expanded into a full piece?
RAHM: Well, if anybody wants to get a sense for how we improvise, they can come to any one of the upcoming Altopalo shows. But seriously though, take Mono for example. Most components of that song were improvised at a show we did at the Palisades in Brooklyn.
MIKE: Absolutely. Back when we were playing a lot of shows, we kept a habit of setting up an audio recorder to capture everything that happened during the shows; from our improvisations to our structured songs, and everything in between. We would always return to these recordings and review them, and if there were any kernels for good ideas (we call them germinals), we would chop them out of the recording and put them aside into a folder that we’d use for inspiration later. Generally, a lot of the songs on frozenthere took shape from growing out of those germinals.
That’s pretty wild. Going off of that, I think frozenthere is an album that really rewards patient listening. I get this feeling of delayed gratification from it that I think a lot of modern music has left behind. Additionally, a lot of your lyrics on the album deal with themes of technology and its implications on social and romantic relationships. Considering how people consume music through streaming platforms these days, do you think listeners musical attention spans are waning in any way?
RAHM: I mean, I would say so. But that being said, I don’t think that’s something we’re entirely exempt from.
MIKE: I would agree with both you and Rahm, but definitely not in some kind of “holier-than-thou” way. When it comes down to it, we all love the shit out of a ton of pop music.
RAHM: And when it comes to us as a band, frozenthere is a very poppy altopalo album compared to what we released before it.
MIKE: Exactly. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but before frozenthere, we released a record in 2015 called noneofusscared. It was the first thing we ever produced and released as a band. As an opening statement, it was pretty extreme, pretty chaotic. We were just throwing all the paint at the canvas at once. We were just excited about the idea of making stuff, being new to the world of music production and all, discovering the sounds we liked. We wanted to make something outrageous. And I think our response to that on frozenthere was to create something more patient and understated that, as you said, requires more careful listening and acceptance of songs that move much more slowly than our earlier work.
Continuing with the theme of technology, I’d like to share a quote from an interview you guys did with The FourOhFive;
“have you ever had a video call go blurry and become garbled and glitchy as your device and your interlocutors try to re-establish a stable connection? Those types of moments really interest us, - lensed by tech, but nevertheless peeking through there still.”
I think this is a really vivid image that encapsulates the feeling I get while listening to the album. It made me want to know, can you guys think of any other technological points of reference (similar to this example) that informed your artistic choices on frozenthere?
RAHM: Being angry at Ableton when it's being all glitchy.
MIKE: That’s definitely one. There was also a friend of ours that mediated his long-distance relationship entirely through Snapchat. That was something interesting to bear witness to when we were recording frozenthere, and it definitely served as a point of reference for a lot of the things we discuss on the project.
I definitely feel that examining how technology affects relationships serves as a thematic centerpiece of frozenthere. To me, it feels like you guys are writing some of the most decidedly modern love songs I’ve ever heard. Do you feel that this is an apt characterization of your music?
MIKE: Well, I really appreciate the compliment, but I don’t really know if I stand as a proper unbiased judge of that since I’m helping contribute to the music.
RAHM: I’d say that the album is much more about the difficulties of loving than the more flowery, rosy, lovey-dovey aspects of it. I’m glad we’re able to create some realistic downers.
MIKE: I mean, they’re not all downers.
I totally agree. I think that kind of realism and relative abandonment of optimism is what really gives these songs their modernistic edge. Lastly, before we close out, do you guys have anything you’d like to promote?
MIKE: Well, I’m not sure if this article is going to be too widely read in Europe, but we are going to Europe for a series of shows that starts around the 14th of May. All of the details regarding that are on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter profiles. We’re also always working on new music, so there’s new stuff inherently on the horizon very soon.
RAHM: Yeah. Cliff Bar just released this new Banana Nut flavor. You should write about that.