“In reaching within to find these tunes, it was like I was going through my whole life and ideas that I’ve always played around with…or finding inspirations from things that have been important to me,” the War on Drugs drummer Charlie Hall explains about his first solo album, releasing on May 12. “That’s the idea of Invisible Ink,” he says, of the deeper meaning behind the album’s title. “These tunes have always been there, but I had to find them.”
In most cases, drummers are felt more than heard. This, ironically, is what inspired Invisible Ink. These nine instrumental pieces have been lurking just under the surface, waiting for Hall to realize them and give them shape. As the title insinuates, he spends most of his time relatively invisible behind the drum kit, but his art’s impact is as permanent as ink.
With the new album, Hall has built a universe in miniature, suiting his strengths as a composer. Take the spacious, atmospheric drums that pulse throughout opener “Montcalm,” providing a foundation for the diaphanous, swirling synth arrangements. “Midas Bus to Tromso” delivers on its namesake with its vaporous milieu, conjuring the solitude and tranquility of a nocturnal voyage. There’s also the penultimate tune, “Crockett’s Cove,” which features minimalist percussion reminiscent of water droplets in a cave as vast as the song itself.
We had the chance to speak with the drummer about the creative process of his first solo record, the many collaborators dotting the liner notes, whether he has plans for more solo music or not, and more.
SPIN: Why a solo album–and why now?
Charlie Hall: To be honest with you, I never thought I would do something like this. I’ve played music since I was three, and I’ve enjoyed playing music with other people my entire life. I wanted to be a music teacher when I was younger. I’ve always enjoyed the process of making music with other people, but I’ve always loved working on other people’s music.
I’ve always enjoyed helping other people dress up their ideas and write string or vocal arrangements or rhythm sections. The only reason why it happened was at the encouragement/urging of my friend and co-producer, Quinn Lamont Luke. He was like, “Charlie, you’ve been helping other people make records for 30 years. I want to hear what your music sounds like.” I was like, “I’m not even sure I want to know what my music sounds like. But sure, let’s do it.”
Quinn and Dave [Hartley, from The War on Drugs], more than anyone, have always had an idea that I should do this. Those were the two who put me up to this. They were like, “Why don’t you just see what happens?” Because of them, I did.
It sounds so dumb, but you just have to try. That’s the first step. That’s how you write a song; you just try, and then maybe you fail, but maybe you try again.
Are these some of the first compositions you’ve made?
To be honest, yes. I would write string quartets when I was studying music in school, but I never sat down and wrote a tune. That’s a different type of thing. I did compositional stuff when I was learning about music theory, but that was more cerebral and an exercise and learning about orchestration.
Then this record, which is something totally different, was like, “What universe do I want to inhabit right now?” Going into this, I didn’t have a preset notion of…“I want to make this record or that record.” I just wanted to see what my voice is and what shape these things take. That was the beautiful part of collaborating with some of my best friends on this. People hear something, and they reflect it back to you through their own lens. All of a sudden, it went from being this one thing, and somebody put their spirit into it, and it had this bolt of energy or this flash of color that wasn’t there before. That would steer me in another direction.
Speaking of your collaborators, there are quite a few of them. There’s Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie fame. There are your bandmates, such as Robbie Bennett and Dave. How did you go about choosing who you wanted to be on this record?
It was very organic. The first person I shared anything with, after I did the initial basics, was Jim Elkington. He’s somebody I love very much, and he’s such a beautiful musician. He heard a couple of things, and he was like, “Whoa, do you mind if I put in some pedal steel?” I was like, “That would be wonderful,” and then it came back to me. It was just like in Technicolor. That inspired me to keep going.
Chris Walla is somebody I’ve been friends with for a very long time, and we’ve worked together and share a love of a lot of the same aesthetics. He took some stems of mine, and he did his whole process, which you can hear really well on his own record, Tape Loops. But he ended up tying those first four songs together into a suite, and side one became evident. It was a lot like the tape manipulation he’s done. I even wrote a song around one of his tape loops that’s on track four, and it ended up being part of track three. Now, it’s one whole suite of songs.
It sounds like a very collagist kind of approach to music-making. What’s different about composing for a string quartet compared to making something like Invisible Ink?
It was a lot more textural. It was about trying to establish the musical mode and language that a tune is gonna be based on. I’d find inspiration and my favorite instruments, like my Wurlitzer electric piano or Quinn’s Rhodes, or my Jazzmaster. That would be the seed of an idea for how the tune would evolve, and then just take that further, and I’d play around with different drum machines and live drums on top of the machines, which is something I love to do. I’d also manipulate drum machines with delays to create a new thing out of an old machine.
Will there be more solo albums from you down the road?
Yeah, without question. Now, all I want to do is the next one. I love this record, and I’m proud of it, but all I can think about is starting to work on more stuff and more collaborations. I’d love to dive deeper into each of these motifs. There’s a cohesion to these songs, but there are some that I put aside for another time that would be more appropriate if I was doing something different. I’m just looking forward to continuing to grow and try new things and certainly collaborate with people.
That’s what it’s all about; the beautiful thing about music is sharing it with your friends. It’s about listening and reacting. Even just as a listener, that’s what music is. It’s like a vibration that starts there and ends with you.