INTERVIEW: WE SPEAK IN COLORS
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Andrew Armstrong has been traversing the landscape of sound and fiction as We Speak in Colors for years, exploring deep and intimate themes in what can only be described - in the man's own words - as 'bummer-rock'. We talk to him before his next visit to Bahrain.
SWITCHED: Hey Andrew… excited about returning to Bahrain?
ANDREW: No doubt. I’ve been plotting my stops since confirming this trip. Jan burger, a shawarma malgoom, breakfast at Haji’s, and a walk through Muharraq will be happening. And of course, I want to end up with a pile of machboos in front of me at some point. It’s still hard to totally nail down, but something about visiting Bahrain last year made me feel like I really saw the gulf. Or maybe just saw a new layer of it. It felt exciting, older, more provoked, more expressive than what I’m used to here. Being there somehow felt dramatic.
SW: What are you looking forward the most at Sound+Fiction?
AN: The food! Just kidding bro. Being immersed in all things music- performance, discussion - for a weekend is a music obsessive’s dream. Can’t wait to make new friends. That’s always my favorite thing about events like this- discovering a new artist that wasn’t on your map before, but you totally connect with.
SW: Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been up to?
AN: I just put out a new single (Chemical Rain) a few weeks ago. I recorded it with my friend Harrison Wargo back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania while visiting over the summer.He’s an absolute freak of a musician and producer and I was desperate to hear one of my songs filtered through his aesthetic. I had a feeling we would click. I was right. I love working with people who are down to drown in the thing, to not come up for air til you found it. he embodies that work-ethic. just hermit til you find it.
"Growing up, I could never have imagined getting obsessed with performing and being in front of people. Public speaking was terrifying to me."
SW: Your latest single ‘Chemical Rain’ seems to be a bit of a departure… would you describe it as a transformative song?
In some ways, I hope all of my recordings feel like departures. Though this mentality doesn’t exactly work well with giving people a clear image of who you are, it keeps me satiated. I’ve released a few EP’s and a handful of one-off singles over the last 4-5 years that all sound pretty different sonically. I’m obsessed with music that has electronic elements, whether they’re the predominant instrumentation or just subtle additions. I wanted to shed the acoustic guitar and explore that world for a bit.
The producer, Harrison Wargo, has a really developed set of capabilities - he’s a music lover first and is just so diversely expressive. in recent years he’s really taken to programming and synths, and that’s what really compelled me to work with him. I wanted to use those elements, but still have it framed around “the song”.
I recorded my acoustic (which we later stripped away) and vocal track and then he just went nuts on it. Although I provided some direction with guidance with pulling back in some areas, or taking a sound a different direction, it was really just him going crazy in his incredible basement studio. the counter-melodies, instrumentation, and dynamics he created are unreal.
SW: You have a way of telling stories, both through your music/song and while performing on stage. How did you get to that level of comfort, to bear your intimate/personal reality?
Growing up, I could never have imagined getting obsessed with performing and being in front of people. Public speaking was terrifying to me. A class presentation in school would have me sick for a week. A whole room looking at me, in any situation, even as an adult, was connected to nothing but panic.
Songwriting for me was a solitary thing and I really became content with that being all it would ever be, though there was always a deep yearn to be a public “artist”. I just never thought anything like that was in my cards.
Years of encouragement by friends, fellow musicians, and producers I worked with, along with some chemical influence and a housemate’s electric guitar, a flip was literally switched in my head. Since that first show all I want to do is play in front of people. There is no greater thing than connecting to one of your songs during a performance while having a bunch of eyes and energies bouncing off you.
I take great pride in my songs being over-the-top intimate without feeling confessional. With photography and films, I love shots that are super tight and close up and then ones that are wide and panning. It’s the same with songwriting- I try to get right up to the nose of a situation or feeling or observation and then get some wide panning shots that have a wide lens, but still remain vulnerable. I also enjoy writing in a way that is existential and fantastical, so it never feels embarrassing or hopefully too heart-on-sleeve.
"I want my music, both sonically and lyrically, to feel at once intimate and ambiguous."
SW: You’re a bit of an investigative soul, often recording audio conversations, notes, and engaging with people you come across… is that creatively and personally nurturing to you?
AN: It all feels like it comes from the same ocean. Like you’re just catching different waves at different times. it all just feels natural to do, the same as songwriting. I start to feel psychotic when I’m not documenting my thoughts, whether it’s talking into a portable recording, archiving words/phrases on paper, or taking film pictures. I’ve got hours and hours of random stuff, stacks of papers, and a bunch of rolls of film sitting in hard drives.
I would certainly go crazier than I already am if I wasn’t constantly documenting. it feels instinctive.
SW: How has life been over the past few years, living in Abu Dhabi? How have you changed since arriving?
As a kid from small-town Pennsylvania, this has been an unimaginably wild experience. the traveling, meeting people from all over the planet, seeing the desert, and all the self-scrutiny of moving away as your parents move into old age has been super formative. in most ways, I feel built to be an expat, but more than ever I feel a strong sense of family and home.
Living in Abu Dhabi itself has been simultaneously extremely exciting and confusing. I’ve learned so much about different parts of the world and languages and geography and have gotten to eat incredible food form so many places. All the while making some great friends. as many people echo though, there is something sterile about being here. I crave alleyways and grit and nooks, and those things aren’t very plentiful here. you have to constantly remind yourself to adjust your sights on what it does have here: comfort, 12 months of sunshine, easy access for traveling, etc. In the end, this will be an unforgettable chapter that will undoubtedly shape the rest of my life.
SW: Was Dubai never tempting to you? How different do you feel the music scene between the two?
It was, after my first year, but in the end, I think it was best I stayed in Abu Dhabi. I will certainly look back at this period as a very personally isolating time. The isolation, though uncomfortable, has been advantageous in some ways, I think I would’ve gotten sucked in to too many distracting avenues living in Dubai. I’ve gotten a lot of writing, thinking, listening done while here.
And the scenes between the two aren’t really comparable. Dubai is just bigger scale-wise. while Abu Dhabi has a killer open mic night (432 hz), and a seriously rich electronic night, (boogie box), it just doesn’t have the scope of community that Dubai does.
SW: Lastly, why do you make music?
I’ve heard a lot of artists of different genres share a similar sentiment- I think it’s just a matter of being compelled to do it. It doesn’t feel like a decision or a choice. I wonder if we’re all just born with some innate desires, characteristics, passions and it’s just a matter of someone or something exposing you to that thing and allowing you to realize you love it. I feel most comfortable and most myself and most clear-minded when I’m writing or archiving every day.