An Interview With The Formalist

Q: How did The Formalist initially come together as a band, and what inspired the name “The Formalist”?

A: The Formalist is comprised of Erik Laroi and myself (Stephen Krieger), and we met back in college in the 90s when Erik was playing drums in a shoegaze band and I was playing drum machines in experimental electronic music outfit. Over the years he and I found ways creating electronic pop music together – and The Formalist was the way for us to do this. The name speaks a little bit to how we make our music and also maybe try to live our lives – a sense of precision, intentionality, the desire for everything in its right place.

Q: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the title “A = N” and its significance to the song?

A: A = N is derived from the lyrics, which revolve around the ideas of amnesia and nostalgia.. Setting up the title as an equation was kind of a nod to the fact that there is a real process in remembering and forgetting, and that the struggle to see oneself clearly reflects that problem or equation to be solved.

Q: How did the concept of blending retro doo-wop vibes with electronica come about for this single?

A: The cords came first in creating the song, and it dates back to perhaps 2017 or so. We worked on this song longer than anything else on this album – it took a while for it to find itself and its finished form. Something about those cords invoked echoes the 1950s and informed the sense of how the past washes over you in kind of a distant abstract form.

Q: What was the creative process like in the studio while crafting “A = N”?

A: The song is a really nice example of how Erik and I create as The Formalist – I wrote the baseline on a synth, but then Erik took it up on electric bass and performed the version you hear in the finish track, which really allowed it to grounded and performed. On the other side, I took some of the high guitar parts that he played and turned them into ambient washes of sound, almost unrecognizable. Much of the beat for this is an electro shuffle created in the MPC, but what makes the song feel organic are the tambourines and percussion that Erik then played in the studio. So it’s a nice example of how it’s hard to tell where what he created ends, and what I created begins.

Q: How do you feel “A = N” represents the evolution of The Formalist’s sound compared to your previous works?

A: Well, it’s certainly the only ballad on the record! I think it is maybe the most explicitly retro-futuristic of any of the songs on this album, and it kind of ties together a lot of our themes into one sort of dreamy abstract place. I think the vocal melody here is one of the more romantic and singable things we’ve ever recorded.

Q: Were there any specific artists or genres that influenced the creation of this song?

A: It’s a little hard to say on this one – you mentioned this sort of 1950s doo-wop sound which I think hangs out in the background – I would say there’s a little bit of noir influence, maybe more from film than from songs, a little touch of David Lynch, Blue Velvet, mixed with the sort of lush guitar washes of early shoegaze from the 90s, also a big influence on us in general.

Q: The lyrics of “A = N” seem deeply emotional and nostalgic. Can you share the story or inspiration behind them?

A: I think we explore the ideas of nostalgia and memory a lot on the album – but this song takes it on directly. As we were saying before about the title A = N, there is a mix of forgetting how things really were (amnesia) and also cultivating or transforming our memories into something different from what they really were, which is nostalgia. The things we let go of and the things that we miss. We create our lived reality through this strange process of remembering and forgetting – the song is really about how the loss of memory is transformed by nostalgia, how we see ourselves in our changing world.

Q: How do you approach incorporating storytelling and emotion into your music, particularly in “A = N”?

A: This song and many of the others don’t always tell explicit stories, we try to write them more the way we experience or remember the world – which for me at least is not always so literal. I think that our lyrics and sound design both reference a lot of things and allow themselves to stay a little bit abstract. My hope is that the feeling or a sense of resonance for people, even if they’re not telling a story that’s particularly mine to tell.

Q: What challenges did you face while producing “A = N”, and how did you overcome them?

A: We worked on this track for a long time, over several years, and I think the hardest part of it was figuring out how to structure it as a song. It is essentially two stanzas – there’s no real verse or chorus in it – and we ultimately came up with presenting the two stanzas twice, the second time in different sonic contacts from the first, separated by a wistful wordless bridge that changes the feel of the song completely. In this way, the song enacts its lyrics — a lot of things change around the narrator’s perspective, but he’s still singing the same song.

Q: Can you talk about the collaboration process within the band and any guest artists involved in the recording of “A = N”?

A: The entire Formalist album is just the two of us – no guests on this one. But I do think that Erin Tonkon did a beautiful job mixing the record, and Simon Scott put a fantastic finishing touch on it at the mastering stage.

Q: How has the band’s dynamic evolved over time, especially in terms of collaboration and musical exploration?

A: With a name like the Formalist, you can imagine that having two rather perfectionistic people working together on songs has the potential to be challenging… But I think that we’ve learned to appreciate all the ways that we each give the songs and each other or something we wouldn’t have in ourselves alone.

Q: The Formalist has been known for its unique sonic explorations. How do you maintain originality while experimenting with different musical styles?

A: I think our use of different styles comes from a rather natural place of being inspired by a lot of different things over many years. I don’t think we ever set out to say ‘let’s make this section of sound like Joy dSivision, and this next section sound like Sigur Rós’ – I think it just happens, as we follow the direction that each song seems to want to take. Often, this involves having different genres rise to the surface in different sections of a song – a totally acoustic breakdown bridge for instance, in A = N, or a sparse ambient electro drop in the middle of In Slow Motion. It’s just what feels right and necessary at the time.

Q: Are there any plans for an album or EP that “A = N” will be a part of, and if so, can you give us a hint of what to expect?

A: This track will be part of our full length album A Trace of Yourself, coming out on Mother West records a little later this spring.  We’re really excited to share the entire album, which includes songs both heavier and lighter than the ones we’ve released so far, and hopefully will continue to challenge people’s expectations of what The Formalist can create.

Q: Looking ahead, what’s next for The Formalist? Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations you can share with us?

A: At the moment I think getting the album released is the next priority, really looking forward to seeing what people think of it and where it goes. It takes us a long, long time to finish a collection of songs, so for now I’ll just be happy to see these out in the world. 

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