It’s not surprising that Aaron Collins chose to conduct our recent interview in a coffee shop. Given the entries in his planning calendar, which include juggling his work schedule, two bands and all the activities related to his debut solo album, Godlessly Oscillating, one wouldn’t be surprised if Collins were taking his caffeine intravenously these days.
Collins’ current hectic workload is largely a byproduct of last year’s dissolution of SHADOWRAPTR, 2011’s Cincinnati Entertainment Award recipient for Best New Artist, where Collins was both singer and drummer. Six months after the atmospheric quartet released its acclaimed sophomore album, 2013’s Love a Good Mystery, guitarist Stephen Patota broke ranks with SHADOWRAPTR to devote more time to his other successful project, The Happy Maladies.
“It was a big release; we packed (Over-the-Rhine venue) MOTR, tons of people bought the album,” says the hypertalented drummer/multi-instrumentalist with a weary laugh in the back room of Sidewinder in Northside. “Then we kind of sat back and didn’t keep the momentum going. Meanwhile, Steve was playing with The Happy Maladies and that was building some momentum, as well as some other projects he was doing, and I think he had to make a decision. He was remorseful and we were all disappointed, but I think everything happens for a reason. I really loved that band so doing this (solo) album was a way to distract myself.”
With SHADOWRAPTR’s demise, Collins occupied himself with Comprador, his other original music outfit, and Groovemilk, his cool cover band. At the same time, he felt the pull of material he had written during his tenure with SHADOWRAPTR.
“I always had songs going on,” Collins says. “I’d be like, ‘I’m going to save this,’ or ‘I’ll use this for the band.’ The songs I’d saved hadn’t been recorded or put in anything yet, so I finally had the chance to get some of those out again and refine them and make an album.”
Many of the songs that comprise Godlessly Oscillating were informed by a fairly tumultuous period for Collins, which included SHADOWRAPTR’s unexpected conclusion, the end of a five-year romantic relationship and his decision to stop drinking. Even songs conceived before Collins’ momentous life changes reflected his conflicting emotions and passionate conviction concerning his musical pursuits.
“I got sober and that really changed the way I looked at everything,” Collins says.
“I was getting over this band I really loved breaking apart, and before the band broke up, me and my girlfriend broke up too; we’d been dating since I was 19. We broke up the summer before I started recording the album. ‘Albatross’ is kind of a break-up song. Part of it was written while we were together, and parts were written as we were breaking up. That was a crazy year. It was one of the biggest years of growth in my life, so it was a great year to make an album and cope with the changes.”
Godlessly Oscillating is a wonderful pastiche of Art Pop/Rock and Psych Folk and nearly a true solo project as Collins wrote and performed everything on the album aside from a few single-song cameos (Patota and Comprador’s Charlie D’Ardenne on guitar, Eddy Kwon on violin, Adam Petersen on keyboards). Henry Wilson from Cincinnati Recording Service produced, mixed, and mastered the album. Thematically, the mood on Godlessly Oscillating is melancholic yet hopeful, while exhibiting a stylistic streak reminiscent of Collins’ avowed heroes, Radiohead and Sigur Ros, with introspective tracks like “Albatross” trembling with the artful brilliance of early Rufus Wainwright. Most importantly, the album represents Collins’ newly minted solo identity.
“When I wrote stuff for SHADOWRAPTR, it was for SHADOWRAPTR,” Collins says. “Before the idea developed further, it would be like, ‘Am I writing this for SHADOWRAPTR or for me?’ If it was for SHADOWRAPTR, it tended to be more complicated and complex. There are elements that SHADOWRAPTR fans probably like in my music.
“In my solo stuff, I liked the idea of getting away from the big epic song thing that has 50 different movements rapidly happening. I looked forward to being in one place for four minutes. It was nice to write songs that weren’t odysseys and (get) back to the bare bones of a song. I thought I had an idea of what my own solo album would sound like, but I always wanted to hear what it would sound like if I actually made one.”
One of the pitfalls of recording alone is the tendency to solve musical challenges with a sameness that inhibits diversity or depth, resulting in work that is insular and bland. Collins’ broad experience — drum lessons as a pre-teen, music theory and marching band in high school, self-taught guitar, piano and bass skills — and a long history of self-recording allowed him to sidestep those problems.
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time using a four-track cassette (recorder) and experimenting with recording on my own, so I’m really comfortable doing it myself,” Collins says. “By the time I’ve gotten to the point where I’m doing the album version of songs, I’ve kind of gotten it mapped out. There’s still some experimentation and writing happening as we go; like the bass lines, I had some small idea of what I was going to play, but I pretty much wrote the bass lines while I was tracking. By the fifth or sixth take, I’d have the bass down. This was actually the easiest recording I’ve ever done.”
Collins has assembled a band to present Godlessly Oscillating live, gigs for which he is attempting to shoehorn into his calendar along with Comprador and Groovemilk dates. As the album gains more exposure, demand for his solo gigs will rise exponentially.
Collins used a fair amount of religious imagery as lyrical fodder gleaned from his Catholic upbringing (he doesn’t adhere to any particular theology at present as he continues to explore his spiritual path, an expedition that is at least partially illuminated in the album’s title), and while there’s a definite streak of darkness running through Godlessly Oscillating, there is a certain buoyancy to the proceedings as well, a silver lining that appoints the black cloud. Collins is clearly hoping the emotional duality of the album will connect with listeners.
“(Friend) Adam (Petit) said that a couple of
the songs brought him to tears,” Collins says. “I think it would be cool
if it kind of fucked people up a little.”
To hear more of AARON COLLINS’ music, visit aaroncollins.bandcamp.com.