Chris Spada and Brett Middleton began recording under the name Mariana Rivals in 2005 at art school in Brooklyn. Now living in Connecticut and California their long distance collaboration has produced three stellar releases that highlight their ambient, passionate and futuristic sound. We caught up with Chris and Brett to talk about their early musical influences, how they started playing together and the making of their latest E.P.
CMM-What music made the biggest impact on each of you as children?
Brett- When I was a kid, my mother played The Beatles in our house daily. Help!, Hard Day’s Night, Sgt. Peppers, The White Album found their way into my subconscious early on. The Beatles were music as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know much else for years. After awhile, I was exposed to Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, CSNY and Michael Jackson among other artists. Steely Dan especially showed me just how tight and perfect a record could be.
When I started to seek out my own music, I got into U2 big time. Early stuff like October, War and Unforgettable Fire, but to me, U2’s best were the Achtung Baby-Zooropa years. The production and the way they built these huge songs from a simple guitar riff or synth line run through a very particular effect really stuck with me.
My preteen and teen years were all rock. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, etc and through that, I became interested in everything. Heavier stuff like Pantera, Sabbath, QOTSA, The Mars Volta, to Radiohead and all the way the way to Neil Young and pretty anything from the 60s and 70s. I was really into prog and jam bands for awhile too. I wanted to consume it all. This mentality influences me to this day. We’ll approach any given song a variety of ways before we settle on a direction. Its not uncommon for a song to have few different genre-specific versions before we say, “Ok, this is definitely more of a synth song than a guitar song.”
Chris-My parents were big into the Beach Boys, Steely Dan & the Beatles so it was a good base to start with as a kid. As a teenager I was really into punk, hardcore and shoegaze. Bands like The Misfits, Black Flag, Fugazi, Hot Water Music and The Appleseed Cast were super influential in showing me that you could make really impactful music without noodling guitar solos or unneeded complexity.
CMM-So Mariana Rivals formed when the two of you were attending art school in Brooklyn. What led to you all deciding to play music together and what were the main influences that went into forming you all's sound?
Brett-I had been playing for years by the time Chris and I met at Pratt Institute in 2002. Chris was just coming into performing and had a totally new outlook to it that I found refreshing. His approach really taught me to just let go. Chris brought all these influences and ideas to the table that I weren’t even on my radar. Particularly, punk rock, shoegaze and pretty much the entire Polyvinyl Records label roster. Because of that, I was able to loosen up and do things I didn’t even know I liked!
We started overdubbing on drum tracks I’d generally record at my parents house (they frown upon drums in a dorm room!), bounce a shitty mix, then run out to my car and take a drive in the country and blast them. We loved how these songs sounded in that car. The songs started out in a more acoustic-driven, mellow rock space, then quickly moved into a post-punk space. From there, we really started to plant the seeds for what eventually became the Rivals sound. We recorded two 8-10 song LPs and various other oddities. We also had revolving door of about 5 members over 2-3 years. Oddly, we then stopped playing together entirely for about 10 years! During this time, we both took time establish our careers, get married and have kids. I also recorded a lot with some other projects and on my own in NYC during this period.
Around 2013 we started talking about doing it again. I had just moved to California in 2012 and Chris was starting to send me some song ideas to test the waters. The first one that we really started working on in earnest was “Wasting” off our debut EP. We’ve been steadily working on new material ever since.
Chris-In my freshman year of college, the roommates were randomly assigned. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that I had very little in common with my roommates picked in the lottery. Naturally this lead me down the hall to the room that always had good music blasting. I immediately hit it off with Brett and we began to collaborate on his trusty Tascam tape deck. As Brett mentioned, we both were approaching music from different influences/angles so I attribute our sound to us fusing together our musical pasts.
When we started recording again after many years away, we had consumed almost a decade of new perspectives on music that influenced this new direction of Mariana Rivals. Bands like the War on Drugs, Craft Spells, Real Estate, Wild Nothing, and Hammock really left a sonic impression on me that absolutely changed the way we were writing music.
CMM-What was the writing and recording process for you all's new "Take/Chroma" single like? What are the songs about? Any particular gear that you all used
Brett-For me, Take/Chroma felt like a rather long, laborious record to make. Even though the final release totaled only two tracks. We started out with loftier intentions, it was going to be a longer EP with 5-6 songs. We even had most of them recorded to varying levels of completion. But then my wife and I found out we were expecting our second child and it became more difficult to balance that with career and taking on a larger Rivals effort.
Chris wrote the lyrics for both Take and Chroma. As far as meaning goes, I’ll leave that to him, but to me, Take is as close as we’ve gotten to a “love song” and Chroma is about an out-of-body experience during the apocalypse or something. Chroma is this weird mix of one of the very first chord progressions I ever wrote when I was about 12 and this sort of cosmic psychedelia not uncommon in Tame Impala songs or something from Desert Sessions. It starts in this unsettling, sparse place and then builds in a way that I find to be deeply satisfying.
The basic recording setup for each song was generally this:
We switched to Logic from ProTools before last year’s Monument and continued for Take/Chroma
DW Drumkit recorded with a 4-5 mic setup through tube preamps
Thunderbird bass sent through SansAmp pedal, recorded direct and compressed (usually heavily) in post
We have a couple of guitars: a couple of Gretschs, Fender Jazzmaster, Tele and Strat and a Gibson SG. We either record direct through a tube pre and maybe even the SansAmp pedal or we mic a couple of different amps with a variety of different mics until we find something we like. Most effects are added after. What really made Take/Chroma different from previous efforts was our synth game. Mainly the use of Juno 106 and 60 synths. We were really able to use synths as a way to texture the mix and reduce the amount of other tracks by half. What normally would’ve taken a few guitars to achieve, we achieved in 2 synth parts. Going forward, synths are going to have a big impact on our sound. For mix, we relied heavily on SoundToys plugins, namely Decapitator and Sie-Q. We wanted a lot of analog warmth or tape saturation and so I put Decapitator on pretty much every track. We also got into TAL reverbs and a dbx 160A compressor.
Chris-Take (to me at least) is a song about really wanting something that isn’t there. The idea that you are searching for something or someone that isn’t in pursuit of you. So it’s a bit of a creepy tune when you think of it. Chroma is a song about being disillusioned about a situation, environment you are in, someone you are around and the winding path you will go through to discover your next step. To Brett’s point, it does have an out of body vibe to it for sure.
CMM-What do you all find the most rewarding part about making music and art? Has there been a moment were you felt like everything came together all at once after years of honing your craft?
Brett-Chris and I are both musicians as well as artists and designers. That plays in heavily when we approach Mariana Rivals. We want it to be the full package. When we we were growing up, the record sleeve artwork, album notes and everything were as important as the music. We love making music but take as much pride in the artwork, website and videos too.
We have such a long history of playing together that we have a few moments where we’ve felt like things have really started to gel. Back in school we’d have those times when we looked at each other like “that’s pretty cool,” but for me, releasing Monument in 2016 made me think, “ok, now we’re getting somewhere.” I’m really proud of Take/Chroma too and I feel like our best is still yet to come.
Chris-The best part of being a designer and musician is that it really forces you to take complete control of what you want someone to feel when they listen to the music as well as see the visual art.
CMM-If the band were able to do a soundtrack for a film director of your choice who would it be and what would the film be about?
Brett-Tough question. I loved the work Survive did for the Stranger Things soundtrack and it really kick started my interest in synths again. I think doing a soundtrack to a series would be really fun. Something longer form.
Chris-I think it would be really fun project to score a movie. I’m a fan of the David Gordon Green’s movies, Prince Avalanche and Manglehorn, scored by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo. The subtlety that the score brings to those films would be what I’m after.
CMM-The Oakland/Bay Area has always had a spectacular underground music and art scene. Any other bands and venues that you all recommend these days?
Brett-We feel a particular connection to bands like Rogue Wave, Tycho and Toro Y Moi—all bands from or transplanted in the Bay. Tycho and Toro Y Moi both started with the DIY principles we practice. Its fun to see Tycho tagging places on Instagram that are part of my daily routine and its interesting to think that we may be influenced by similar parts of the California landscape. Rogue Wave also followed us on Instagram, so we feel pretty good about that! As far as venues go, I’m into all the rehabbed theaters in California, particularly the Fox in Oakland. Not necessarily underground, but still a great space.
CMM-Any future plans for the band? Tours/recordings etc.
Brett-We’re currently demoing songs for a full length. We’ve got about 7-8 new songs right now and a few leftovers from the previous releases. It’ll be our first LP record so that’s exciting. In some ways, the songs feel like a logical progression from what we’ve done but in others they feel completely different. They feel more like sunny day music.
As for touring, it’s difficult for us to make that happen right now. I live in California and Chris lives in Connecticut and we get together in person once or twice per year when scheduling permits. We’d need to live at least on the same coast to be able to gather more musicians and rehearse regularly. We hope to try and make that a reality in a few years but only time will tell. We’re a studio band for now with the potential for a few one off shows here and there.
Chris-I’m excited at where the demos for the LP are going. Looking forward to getting together in person to get these tracked. Like Brett said, I’d love to get our music in front of live audiences but right now it’s a bit off into the future.
CMM-Any finals thoughts/comments?
Brett-Nothing other than stay tuned and thanks for featuring us, Dave!