The Eastern Sea: Walking in the Air
Matt Hines gets high for the holidays
By Abby Johnston, 9:07AM, Fri. Dec. 7, 2012
Matt Hines normally directs the Eastern Sea through emotive and lush folk rock, but on First Christmas, the local octet’s third's full-length, he delivers simple, meaningful Christmas arrangements. We caught up with Hines at home in Austin to talk about that certain “high” only holiday music gives.
Austin Chronicle: You had a lot of difficulty getting out your sophomore album Plague. What was the difference between that and new disc First Christmas?
Matt Hines: It was a night and day experience. Making First Christmas was the most effortless, easy, enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had. We did it in the middle of July in between tours. We took seven days and went into a studio in West Austin. We spent 10 hours a day in there for a week. It was way more organized than Plague.
That was so disjointed and took so long to do. This was really easy and smooth. The year was tough, but a Christmas album seemed like a great way to end it.
AC: What inspired First Christmas?
MH: I’ve been doing Christmas songs on the computer as kind of a silly holiday treat for friends and family and it made a lot of people really happy. It started where I was doing one song a day, and it was just a fun thing. We decided to do an official version. It used all of the songs that I’d done before, but just using different people and we also added some new ones. I’d never written an original Christmas composition before this record.
AC: How did you pick the classic Christmas songs on there?
MH: I guess it wasn’t really one process. Those songs were just ones that I wanted to do first. I want to do future Christmas records, but these needed to go first. “Silver Bells” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” were two I’d done three years ago, but I saw potential with them within our sound.
Our band has the tendency to do orchestral pop, so these compositions were more simplistic. And that’s how Christmas music has to be. I thought the songs I picked would fit the mood.
AC: Certain songs fit your established aesthetic well. “Walking in the Air” for instance.
MH: That is my favorite song by far. That is a really important song for me personally. A lot of these songs are important for me. I grew up with a lot of these pretty embedded in my Christmas experience. My dad really loves the animated movie The Snowman, so “Walking in the Air” was really for him.
I was really into the arrangement of the demo I did of that last year. Kind of this chugging, Latin-horseback-riding feel. It was this old school landscape of Mexican mariachi. I know it sounds silly, but that’s what I was thinking when I arranged it. Obviously that’s far off from the original song, but we tried to make our mark on the songs, which can be difficult with classics. Songs like “Walking in the Air” meshed with our aesthetic.
AC: Was it harder to adapt longstanding Christmas songs or write your own?
MH: I think it’s harder to put a spin on a classic song. Let’s put it this way, writing your own Christmas song is trying to take the drug that people put in their veins when listening to Christmas music. You’re trying to deliver a certain feeling – melancholy, joy, family time, whatever people feel around Christmas time.
When you’re writing your own, you have to tap into that feeling, but when you’re adapting an old tune you have to get into what the original possessed. A lot of popular musicians adapt Christmas songs and try to change it too much. I wanted to achieve the exact same feeling that you get when you listen to “The Little Drummer Boy.” That same drug-induced Christmas feeling.
AC: Kind of like that feeling after a few too many glasses of eggnog.
MH: Yeah, it’s kind of a happy-sad feeling that you get when you think about the people that you love. You long for a feeling that you felt before. It has a lot to do with nostalgia, but the dangerous part about Christmas music is that you border on oversaturated sentimentality. That was something that I wanted to watch out for when making this record.
Our last couple of releases have lots of heavy, emotional stuff in them. I wanted to do a lighthearted thing. There was definitely a purpose in making this. It shows we have a sense of humor. We can be creative without being heavy. It can be a complicated process, especially for us as a new band on a national scene.
We’re still trying to convince people that we do good work, so doing a Christmas record could have been a dangerous move. We just want to show people that we’re willing to work and not sit around.