Sad Music for Somber People
Toasting My Education and its dearly departed
Death lives in the imagination. Even the most well-adjusted of us slip into daily correspondence with thoughts of the end, from the size and splendor of our funeral to that secret, idyllic spot our ashes should be scattered.
An Austin act seemingly tailored to a funeral procession, My Education formed locally more than a decade ago. Its instrumental crescendos come incorporated with strings and electronics to such a degree that the enterprise doesn't feel tethered to late-Nineties "post-rock."
"It's sad music for somber people," deadpans violist James Alexander, 45, at a December pig roast the weekend following a release party for the band's latest disc, A Drink for All My Friends. The sextet doesn't balk at his description, but the music has splintered in and out of that designation with every new album. On A Drink for All My Friends, My Education taps into its most triumphant, untethered set of compositions, even as the title and theme pay tribute to the departed.
My Education's education began in 1999, when guitarist Brian Purington, 36, migrated from San Angelo "with a group of people to start a band." Among those was singer Joe Covington.
"Eventually he quit, out of spite," explains Purington, alluding to a common theme in My Education's growth – membership turnover. "I have not spoken to him in the 10 years since he quit the band, but I know he's married with two kids living back in San Angelo now," he emails me later. "I decided to keep doing the band as an instrumental [project] because half the songs I had written were instrumental. At that point, Chris Hackstie [41, guitar] was already in the band, and James [Alexander] joined."
Behind this core trio, 2004 saw the release of debut 5 Popes, a substantial if similar-sounding group of tracks Purington calls "more shoegaze influenced." 2005's Italian demonstrated growth, but My Education's first left-field release arrived with the following year's Moody Dipper, which boasted a wider palette of mood and style. Aside from three original numbers – or a pair and one interpretation, "Spirit of Peace (A Variation on a Theme by Popul Vuh)" – the band sounds unencumbered, though remixes by Kinski and Deadverse ground My Education in a habitat even darker and more distorted than the one they created originally. The album deals in extremes, and the addition of percussionist and master vibraphone player Sarah Norris pushes the sound skyward. 2008 marked the release of Bad Vibrations, after which the band continued expanding.
In 2010, My Education matched that darker evocation in a score it composed for the 1927 silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed by F. W. Murnau, the man behind 1922's seminal vampire scare-all Nosferatu. That summer, a happy accident – or at least roadworthy reality – resulted in a collaboration with Salt Lake City's Theta Naught as Sound Mass. For a June show at Kilby Court, not only was attendance poor, the evening ran late.
"Instead of just doing our individual sets, we were like, 'Let's play one together,'" recalls My Education multi-instrumentalist Henna Chou, 32. "And it was fun because people switched off. Their harp player would trade off on the keyboard with me, and it was really interesting how it worked out that time. It motivated us to try it again later."
An improvisational collaboration under the name Sound Mass came out in 2011. The ease of recording that album was far from typical, admits My Education bassist Scott Telles, 50, who also heads veteran local psych lords ST 37.
"Our compositional process is very lengthy because usually people come in with only the most rudimentary of ideas," he says. "We all whip it, beat it, and torture it until it starts to sound like a My Education song. The songs that came out on this record we've been working on for two years, if not longer for some of them."
This process frustrates the faint of heart, and those who don't fit the band's mold eventually squeeze out of their membership.
"We're socialists," offers Purington with less irony than you might expect. "Ultimately, the band should be greater than the sum of its parts."
My Education has experienced much turnover in its time. There will be more. Our interview takes place at the home of a band friend who's throwing a party for departing drummer Vincent Durcan.
That brings us to A Drink for All My Friends, inscribed with the phrase: "Respect to everyone we've lost." While a theme of memoriam remains ever-present, that presence feels fluid, unforced.
"It wasn't until we put the songs together that we realized there was a theme there," reveals Telles.
"It's interesting that the theme is present on multiple levels," Chou continues. "The old keyboardist plays [on the album]; the album is mastered by the old drummer; and with everyone that's left – they come to shows, they get on the list, we hang out together. They still have their influence and input in some ways.
"So, the title of the album pays respect to all of these people from the past, dead or alive."
"Respect to everyone we've lost" takes on further meaning with A Drink for All My Friends. In November 2009, drummer and graphic artist Jerry Fuchs – who played with the Juan MacLean and !!! – had finished a tour with Maserati when he was killed after falling down a broken elevator shaft. "Roboter-Höhlenbewohner," dedicated to Fuchs, begins with a relentless drum intro. Former keyboardist Kirk Laktas inspired the LP's title track (he guests on it as well), while "Black Box" takes the theme of loss to the broadest conclusion.
"This is the one song that was not written with someone/something in mind," says Purington. "It's a concept of writing a song around the black-box recordings of doomed airliners."
The found sounds on the track are those of actual black-box recordings from five separate airplane crashes in the Eighties. Thirty years removed, it's still a difficult listen. At least the album's "difficult" for all the right reasons. As a band, My Education has never sounded more cohesive. Is Austin and the greater national music community ready to embrace mortality-laden instrumental rock?
"I have no idea," shrugs Purington. "I will say, though, that I feel we're in a pretty good spot right now. But I don't know."
"I don't see us as fitting into current trends at all," continues Telles. "I ignore that kind of stuff. I've been playing in bands since 1979, so I've seen the roller coaster of trendiness and coolness."
Trends or not, the band successfully Kickstarted its way to Europe for a tour this spring, and there's talk about collaborating with Dallas writer/director/actor C.M. Talkington on scoring a documentary. Somewhat ironically, a band whose latest album muses on what's been lost – emotionally, physically – has the most to gain from the release.
"We've been working toward this point," says Telles. "This is our time."