A few years ago I had the pleasure of being introduced to the music of Nineteen Thirteen. This duo made up of Janet Schiff on cello and Victor DeLorenzo (formerly of Violent Femmes fame) on drums, has been reinventing all that music can, and should, be. Nineteen Thirteen can be described as nothing less than an experience, a simultaneous trip back in time and out into space. Their latest EP, Sci-Fi Romance, showcases this in the most perfect of ways. With just five songs on the EP, Nineteen Thirteen manages to pack quite a punch in a tiny package, something that can be said of their live performances as well.
Beginning with the title track, the listener is whisked into a world of Nineteen Thirteen’s making; a calm landscape brimming with energy just under the surface. As Victor describes it, picture yourself standing on a frozen lake with everything calm and still on the surface while below the inches of ice you see the fish swimming frantically through the ice cold water. Don’t get too comfortable, however, for just as quickly as the fish change direction, so does the music. From experiments in a pop sound on “So Fine” to the beat poet, jazz club feel of “Hot Garbage”, Nineteen Thirteen takes each song to a different place, mixing genres and styles, instruments and sounds with incredible ease. Janet’s classical training and Victor’s musical history work in harmony and juxtaposition to create something new and altogether unique. Funk? They got it. Pop? You bet! Romantic lines played on a century old Romanian cello? Of course! From the tricky composition of “Trick Zipper” to the trippy stylings of “Whistle Breath”, this EP is another step in the evolutionary musical love story that is Nineteen Thirteen. Sci-Fi Romance, indeed.
The new EP is titled Sci-fi Romance. How would you say that the title embodies the array of music that is on the album or how did you come to that title? What does it mean for these songs that are on this EP?
V: Well, there’s a big story behind Sci-Fi Romance itself as a title but the short answer is we were just working on a piece. I suggested it as a working title to Janet and she really liked it so then it came to pass as the title of the entire EP. But also the song “Sci-Fi Romance”, in my mind, signified the astral love affair between John and Alice Coltrane. John Coltrane had a very spiritual awareness and was very much one with the spirits and the spheres and the planets. He appreciated all different kinds of religions and music. Alice Coltrane came from a very religious background and played the piano and then they had this romance together. There is an other-worldly, outside the realm of what we have here on Earth, the notion to that. It’s the Sci-Fi romance, so it’s not just an exploitation sort of a movie or something. It has more of a spiritual connotation.
J: For me, it was like categories in a library. One would be to the left and one would be to the right like you’re standing there looking at an intersection sign in a library. It’s an interesting decision. It’s so significant because of my cello being more romantic of an instrument and then the looping pedals and the technology being more Sci-Fi.
The song “Sci-Fi Romance” is a very good mixture of those two I think. It’s very improvisational with all the drum work in the back, almost a frenetic feel to it; sort of a hurried rushed feel and then you’ve got this line over the top of it with the cello. How did you pull that song together to feel that way and yet so cohesive?
V: You are very correct in how you were describing the free-flowing nature, especially the percussion. It did start from a drum improvisation. I just got what I considered to be a good drum sound one evening. I recorded an improvisation and I really liked it. I played it for Janet and we started trying to think of how we were going to build the track from there. She came up with a very simple, nice melody of the piano line which reminded me, again, of Alice Coltrane in a way. It had a naïve and, in a very good way, sing-song kind of a feel to it. We just started adding other things like the two voices in the background. Janet and I are singing so there’s a human sci-fi approach and then there’s just straight playing. It was all born from improvisation which is different from some of the other pieces on this record. Some of the other pieces are bonafide compositions that we worked on for a while before we recorded them.
When you are composing your pieces, especially on this album it seems, you’ve brought in so many different genres and types and sounds. When you really sit down and listen to the album you can hear so many little things that you’ve brought in and layered. Does a lot of that come up improvisationally or is that something that you really sit and work on and go over and add to as you are composing?
V: It’s kind of in the realm of composing as you’re going along. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of a bare-bones framework but we don’t necessarily know what is going to go on top of it. Janet and I try to keep our minds open enough that we can try many different ideas and sometimes it takes us a while to come up with something that we both like. Nonetheless, it always starts and ends with some kind of searching in the improvisational realm or trying to find something that really surprises ourselves.
You’ve got songs like Sci-Fi Romance that are so improvisational and then you’ve got others like So Fine that really could be played on an alt radio station today. In fact, the more I listen to it, the more I hear this kind of Bowie-esque quality to it. That’s what it reminds me of a little bit, older David Bowie.
V: It’s funny because the two records that we’ve put out, both have some kind of homage to David Bowie on them. This song does continue as an example of that tradition but not in a conscious way, even though Janet and I both love David Bowie not only as a musician but in how he lived his life and the artwork that he created in many different ways. “So Fine” was an exercise in writing a pop song and putting a Nineteen Thirteen spin on it. We didn’t know what would happen but that’s what it turned out to be. Of course, the Von Schiff singers are featured on that song.
J: The Von Schiffs. [laughter] My sisters and I got together and we did some background vocals for “So Fine”. That was a lot of fun!
V: Along with my 2 daughters, Kiko and Perry. We had Kiko and Perry do just 2 tracks and then the Von Schiffs were double tracks, so there are 8 female voices.
How’s that been to bring your family into the fold?
J: It was good! My sister, Cindy, kind of took charge of the vocals. I picked the notes and then she conducted. We did it visually instead of with our ears because the eyes are quicker. We wanted it to be precise. We had a lot of fun doing it!
V: It was fun and it’s also the second appearance of one of Janet’s family members. Her son is on a song on our previous album. We try to get the families involved.
That’s incredible that you have the opportunity to do that! Not everybody has that. So then you go from a song like So Fine to songs that are more jazzy, more funk, again back to that improvisational quality like with “Whistle Breath” and “Hot Garbage”. Did you really pay attention to that as you were trying to put songs together for this EP or was it a more organic thing?
V: We didn’t have any examples set forth in our minds, but Janet and I share the same appreciation for a lot of different kinds of music. There’s a shorthand when we’re working on things. Janet brought in “Whistle Breath”. She had been working on that particular melody for a while but the reason she brought it in was that I had an old track of drums and percussion that Janet and I had recorded. We also had cellos on it. We weren’t happy with the rest of the arrangement, but we liked the rhythms that were there. We took that percussion track and edited it and then Janet remembered that she had this piece that she could put over that track. It developed in that fashion. Then our good friend Matt Meixner came in and played those great keyboards, almost like that Sly album, Fresh.
J: “Whistle Breath” has the keyboard’s base also. I layed down a very rudimentary baseline on the keyboards and then Matt Meixner, who is more well-versed in piano and keyboards, came in and helped us out. These things just kind of pop into my head. “Trick Zipper” I actually worked on for years before I finally got to record it. Matt also added keyboards on that one and Mike Hoffman is on electric bass on that number. It’s titled “Trick Zipper” and it’s also a very tricky song to play. We’ve spent some time on the live version of it also.
Speaking of which, since you started Nineteen Thirteen you have lost a member, but you’ve also brought in some various other guests along the way.
V: It’s almost like we had to lose a member to have a clearer vision of the mission of where we wanted to go with the music.
How has that changed the dynamic of how you are working, composing, and recording?
J: It’s certainly easier to get together with just one other person! I live a block away from Victor and the studio so it’s just up to us with our schedules. All our gear fits into my car which we really like. It’s just worked out really well for us. As for the composition, I write the music kind of independently from the percussion but then there are times that Victor and I really work together on the songs. He wrote most of “So Fine”. “Hot Garbage” we really worked together on the words and the poetry of that. We’re really happy with how that one came out an expression of mystery.
V: I really love that “Hot Garbage” track and using that operative word “mystery”. There’s a real atmosphere to that song that was another indication of a direction that Nineteen Thirteen could go. I hope it comes to pass that people think of us as a great instrumental duo but also start to showcase some songwriting.
You’ve added the vocals along the way too which is another change from the beginnings of Nineteen Thirteen. How are you incorporating more of that into your live performances? With it being just the two of you and you are already playing and looping and performing, what kind of challenges has adding vocals added to the live mix?
J: There were some moments where my brain just couldn’t handle it. It skips out a little bit. I’m looping with my feet. I’m playing cello with my hands. I’m thinking about the looper and then if I have a chance to mumble something, let alone sing, it’s a handful.
V: Janet does a great job with the singing. People like to hear Janet’s voice.
J: I’m a little resistant, a little bit shy but I like the result so I’m willing to do it. Not all of our pieces are going to have vocals and not all of them will be instrumental. It’s a nice mixture.
V: It’s another way of surprising the audience and showing different facets of our personalities that people might not be aware of. I’ve written tons of songs and played with many different musicians but I think in this experience that Janet and I have with Nineteen Thirteen it’s been the most amount of freedom afforded to each individual. Towards the beginning when we were just having our birthing it was maybe a little more difficult to adjust and think about changing it. We had been very successful with just the instrumental approach but then we started developing these other things and now we feel comfortable singing.
J: There’s some more microphones to deal with but that’s about it.
V: Talking to the audience is very important. Janet and I try to have a nice rapport with each other. So we’re starting to consider the whole show aspect of it now that we have plotted out for the time being what the music is.
You’ve done vocals live now?
J: We’ve been doing that for a couple years now. That debuted when we opened for the Avett Brothers. It’s just getting better and better.
V: It just makes us more versatile and if you have something and it’s available to you, why not use it?
You two seem to work so well together. Each of you is open to the other one and able to accept things from the other and just bring that to the albums and performance.
V: It’s almost as if we’re passing notes back and forth to each other on stage. There’s always some kind of an inside soundtrack happening between Janet and me when we’re performing. I think that also enters into when we’re writing music together or we’re recording. They’re sacred things to us. It’s fun to perform and to make yourself presentable. Janet has a three letter thing. LTP. Look the Price, so we always try to look nice when we play and we want to do it more and more.
Do you both just feel unbelievably blessed to have found each other to work with?
J: Oh, totally! He’s a great creative partner of mine. One of the best! We’ve been working together, just me and Victor, for four years. We really depend on each other as friends and co-workers.
V: It’s been great so far!
Can you tell me about the artwork on the EP?
J: We’ve been getting a lot of compliments on it. This was in a restaurant in Racine where Victor is from. He takes me once in a while. It’s called The Yardarm. It’s in a harbor and there are lots of sailboats all around. This sailboat is in a window. It’s a miniature sailboat in a brass lined porthole window looking out. We were there just at the right time.
V: Yeah. It’s not an affected picture. It’s an actual picture and it looks like it’s mocked up. If you look in the background you can see the ships in the harbor behind it faintly in the white.
J: We were just there at the right time and we love that picture.
V: The back cover is a collage that I put together that to me is almost some kind of a science-oriented representation of a woman. Then the inside is 2 pictures that Janet took and then I have a picture of the Lady of the Lilacs underneath the disc tray. So there’s a little audio-visual tour.
With your live performance, you mentioned the Avett Brothers. What are some other artists you’ve been able to play for?
V: We opened for Langhorne Slim. Rainn Wilson was another one. That was a crazy show. That took place here as part of Rainn Wilson’s book tour. We had an opportunity to interview him in front of the audience at the historic Pabst theatre here in downtown Milwaukee.
J: Yeah, my skirt cost more than we made. [laughter] That performance was somewhere I had wanted to play my whole life. All three of my parents were there and it meant so much to play at this historic theatre in Milwaukee.
V: It’s an absolutely beautiful theatre that’s been restored magnificently. It has great acoustics, good sightlines. It’s just a classic.
Anything else you have coming up?
J: We have some other good things coming up. We’ll be playing with Trapper Schoepp at the Colectivo Back Room coming up and we’re looking forward to booking some more shows out of town too.
V: It’s fun for us and we don’t do it for any immediate rewards. We’re looking at this as a long-term thing, so we don’t have to worry about it that things aren’t accomplished in a certain way. Just as long as we’re working, not only on the recording but also on rehearsing and performing the music live.
How do you change things up between your recording and playing live? It’s an interesting setup with it just being the two of you.
J: With the recordings, we can start out with several tracks going, but in the live performances we build that right in front of the audience. It takes a little longer to build up these songs. We just need to work on those until we get the right version. It’s always a thrill when something comes out of a mistake. I always try to remember what I just played, so if I miss a note and I like that combination I just heard it can start a whole new song. So, the more we play together, the more music we’re going to make.
V: Oh, is that what’s happening? [laughter] I know what you mean though. Sometimes I’ll play a rhythm or something and think “Oh, I should remember that.” I like that. It’s something fun to do. In the really early days of the Violent Femmes we would show up and we would just have a small little bass cube amp, a small fender amp for Gordon, the bass and the guitar and I would usually just have a snare and a cymbal, sometimes a floor tom-tom, but that would be it. Can you imagine you’re flying all over the world playing all these incredible places but you don’t have to pay that much air freight because there’s hardly anything there. We would show up to these shows and these technicians that were helping us load up the gear would say “Ok, here’s this bunch of gear, now where’s the rest of it?” We’d have to say “That’s it.” It’s the same with Janet and I. She’s just got a bass amp that she plays through and I usually just have the snare, a floor tom, and one cymbal. We have 2 vocal mics, a mic on the cello itself and the looper. It’s very compact and that adds a clutter-free approach to the music because it’s simple. The set up of it is simple. The building blocks are simple. That leaves us free to improvise over the top of it. It’s almost opposite of a lot of groups that have a lot of equipment.
J: After playing “Hot Garbage” we might need to make a quick getaway so that’s nice too.
V: We have to consider our escape route. [laughter] But I like that phenomenon of the audience looking at the stage and wondering what is this going to sound like? There’s really nothing there and then they hear it and the sound is so big to them. Cinematic is a term we get a lot. Meditative. Some of it is very aggressive though. It’s all part of the show for us now. We’re learning the stagecraft of it.
That’s something I kind of wonder too, because in music these days, everything is so gentrified. Is that a word? I’m making that a word. Everything has to fit into this niche or that niche and you kind of transcend that. There’s not one spot that you can be put. It’s so different from things that you’re hearing elsewhere. So when you’re going to book events do you ever encounter those questions from people? Do you ever get kickback on what you are? How does the audience respond to that?
J: I think the people that come to us to book us, they’ve already heard us and hopefully they’ve heard us within the past few years. Maybe they’ve heard some of our songs on the radio or live so they do already have an idea of who we are and the versatility we have. I haven’t necessarily gotten a request not to sing or for us to remain instrumental. People seem to like the spontaneity or the surprise of what we might do next to keep them entertained.
V: I think people are really pleasantly surprised at what they are seeing and hearing, especially given the buildup that I was describing before where the set up really isn’t much. We get so much out of what we have there that I think we get the occasion to win people over, especially people that haven’t heard us before. We have a lot of repeat offenders now though, people that come back to hear us over and over again.
J: They’re having fun
Do you think that the pendulum kind of swings back and forth in music? Do you think that people are more appreciative of the simplicity of it given the overworked state that music has been in now for a while? To have something that is so simple and so stripped down and still lovely and creative, are people swinging back that way?
V: I think people are more willing to listen to things that are different these days and that is because there is such a cross-pollination between all different kinds of music of the world now. It’s really hard to escape anything and to be unique is really a challenge. The way Janet and I try to cultivate our uniqueness is to really draw from what we both are as people. The more we get to the hear of what that is, the better the music is. We want the music to go other places as well. Maybe there will be more of a visual aspect to it one day or maybe we’ll do more involved video presentations with the music or maybe use the music in a live setting for another theatrical performance or what have you.
J: People wouldn’t book if they wanted a band “like” Nineteen-Thirteen. If they want NineteenThirteen they have to have us or our music there because we’re pretty unique, especially as we add different instrumentation. What are you saying lately, Victor? The duo that sounds like no other.
V: It’s our trademark line now. Music from the duo that sounds like no other.
J: That’s our Sci-Fi Romance.
The music of Nineteen Thirteen, including Sci-Fi Romance, can be found on your usual digital sites.
Better yet, watch for a live show and pick up a CD while you are there.