While on a trip to Italy years ago, multi-instrumentalist and composer Casey Frantum was struck by the sound of clanging cathedral bells and had the foresight to grab his phone to capture it, knowing the dramatic quality might lend itself to his work.
Those bells now serve as the opening to Bang Dust, the debut album of Hovering Shrikes, his latest project with his good friend, poet and lyricist Ryan Wilson.
Frantum explains, “When we started [working on Hovering Shrikes], one thing I kept harping on to Ryan was ‘I want to have a very cinematic feel to the music.’ While we were writing the tracks for Bang Dust, I had gone back to a couple albums I loved in college (Interpol’s Antics and The Clash’s London Calling). I tried to capture some of that musical paranoia, apocalysm, and magic dust from those albums.”
These inspirations, along with a general affinity for 80s electronica, goth and post-punk, guide the arrangements on Bang Dust. Precise, muscular percussion supports Wilson’s densely packed lyrics exploring topics from country music folklore (both Shrikes are big fans of the podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones, with “Knoxville Boy” being their response to The Louvin Brothers’ version of “Knoxville Girl”) to the shifting, unreliable nature of perception (explored in the song “Faustine in the Machine”). Throwing together such varied ideas in a single space is nothing new to the duo.
They met over a decade ago at Linfield University, and early on it became apparent that their bond would strengthen around the act of creation. Wilson, a creative writing major, recalls: “I attended [Casey’s] senior thesis presentation for music composition, and I just remember him doing this really sick drum solo and thinking to myself, ‘I wanna scream poems with that.’
“The first show we ever played together [in a project eventually called C.C. Swim] was a Battle of the Bands at our school. It was a packed house of several hundred people and we played some kind of goofy synthpop songs about dancing inside my belly and astral projecting between the holy imagery of The Color of Pomegranates and the horny filth of [James] Joyce’s love letters to Nora Barnacle. We were, to our own surprise, well-received and ended up taking third place, and I think we’ve just been chasing that dragon ever since.”
C.C. Swim continued in various iterations until 2012, when the founding members ventured into other projects (Frantum was actually the first drummer for Summer Cannibals and honed his guitar and keyboard skills in his one-man band, Brakemouth; Wilson found a new band in Ormolus and had a solo lo-fi project, Homunculust), but they had always talked about collaborating again.
In early 2020, the two got serious about a project they’d been casually exploring since 2017, with solitary writing punctuated by occasional jam sessions in Frantum’s basement. Right before the pandemic hit, Wilson explains: “We had some real nitty-gritty talks about what we missed about the C.C. Swim days and what we definitely didn’t miss, and how we could set ourselves up to make good stuff and have a good time doing it. We were fresh out of school the last time we formed a band, and this time—for better or worse—we had a few office jobs under our belts, so one big difference was a focus on planning and organization.”
If anything, the pandemic seems to have dialed in their commitment to organization even more: The two collaborate on multiple spreadsheets cataloging lyrics, production needs and album outlines (currently, five albums comprising sixty-five songs total are in the works). Acknowledging that this might sound a little antithetical to a creative project, Wilson says, “We love music but we’re not the most rock’n’roll dudes in the world.”
But perhaps buttoning up the less artistic details has freed up more mental space for some deep dives into the mythology fueling their work. Frantum says, “I do take on musical inspiration a la a film studies class in that I’ll try and listen to a bunch of a focused subset of music and try to distill what makes it “work.” I don’t like to do straight genre work, but I do like having that in my ears so I can mix textures. From there, unless Ryan gives me a chord progression, I try and match the musical drapery to the imagery I get from the lyrics.”
Although he’s quick to dismiss the notion of being well-read, Wilson adds, “At the risk of sounding like a writer of problematic fanfic, sometimes there’s a part of me that needs to eke out just a little bit more of the story to feel satisfied, as I’m not quite ready to leave it behind… The most egregious of these in Bang Dust is definitely “Faustine in the Machine,” which is at its core an interrogation of the unreliable narrator from Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel.”
The result is a frantically pitched line of questioning over a driving guitar line in the album’s shortest song. This leaves the listener breathless, with more questions than answers, much like the novella itself, which Wilson describes as “a sort of temporal-looping love triangle involving a ghost (maybe?), a mad scientist (maybe?), and a dying castaway (maybe?) being told through a fever dream on a tropical island.”
Whether they are traditionally “well-read” or not, it’s clear that Hovering Shrikes approach creation from a very thorough, thoughtful place, and that they have a lot to say about the stories they have consumed.