Interview: We talk to The Rentals' Matt Sharp about Songs About Time (Hint: Read if you like fantastic photographs and/or quality music)

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I remember these streets, I remember these faces, no one here ever ages/
angels from machines, crowding the streets/
there must be some kind of factory where the angels are made to just be replaced/
I’ve written enough, enough for today

Generally speaking I’m a hip-hop guy, but even I can get behind something like “there must be some kind of factory where the angels are made to just be replaced.” It’s a line from a verse of the song “Song of Remembering” by The Rentals. Why am I bringing up this seemingly random song, and one that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with “our core mission” of technology writing? Because it does have something to do with technology, friends. Because it does.

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I spoke to Matt Sharp, founder and frontman of The Rentals, a few weeks back as a result of my weird fascination with film photography. (Incidentally, I have Louis CK, who you can now see on Parks and Recreation every week on NBC, to thank for my initial interest in film.) Current fans of the band know that it’s been working on a yearlong project known as Songs About Time. Rather than going through the standard rigamarole of recording an album in a secluded studio, then touring to support it (not to mention dealing with the apparently crazy record labels), Sharp and Co. came up with a different idea: how about, instead of one big album, which is so start-stop, we sprinkle a few EPs throughout the year, and document our days together for our fans in the form of short movies and frequent photographs?

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Or, in Matt’s own words:

The project is one year in photography, film, and music that’s all coming, in real time, on our Web site. There’s not a better word for it than a multimedia project, but we have one element of the site that deals with photography, one part that deals with film, and one part that deals with music. At times they intersect and feed off each other, and have a cyclical, creative rhythm.

That is, calling Songs About Time a multimedia project (which sounds like something you’d do in 6th grade) somewhat misses the point; it doesn’t describe the spirit of its intentions. It’s about using different forms of media to better involve fans with the creative process. It sure beats the old, “here’s out album, now buy it and a t-shirt and we’ll see you guys in three years” mentality.

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You should probably spend a few minutes now on the site, therentals.com, just to get a better idea of what the project is all about.

Below is one video that you’ll find on the site:

As you can see, this isn’t some hastily thrown together YouTube nonsense that was only made “just because.” It’s not done to placate some number-crunching road manager who thinks YouTube is the future. No, sir! The band works with an editor who’s on their case every week: “Where’s this week’s video, folks? I need something in my hands by the end of the day tomorrow.” (Those aren’t exact quotes, of course. Hopefully you could already figure that out.)

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So remember, that’s one proper video per week for an entire year. I’m sure you can appreciate the work that goes into that, and maybe, maybe feel a little more connected to the band.

So that’s the video portion of the project. What about the photography? Matt explained that he shoots a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 1600 black and white, in addition to one digital photo per day. Now, I know that many of you have never even seen a roll of film in your life, but the standard roll of film comes with 36 exposures. Imagine having an SD card that only held 36 photos, and you can understand what type of restrictions that places on you. You’re not going to be taking photos all wily nilly like you would if you had 4GB of space to play with. This restriction creates a tension that you’re constantly dealing with as a photographer. Is the lighting OK? Have I composed the photo as well as possible? And so on. You think about these things while shooting digital, of course, but if you mess up with digital you can just shoot 80 more photos, or constantly delete and re-shoot; it encourages laziness, and it sort of takes away from the fun.

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(Not that I’m calling myself a photographer—Oh, good God no!—but I can appreciate it as an art. Just because I’m not a professional footballer doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate how good FC Barcelona is, or how awesome the New England Patriots were two years ago. Well, except for that last game.)

And what happens to the roll of film? Matt shoots his photos, then stores the roll away till the end of the year, when the limited deluxe edition of Songs About Time comes out. Included in this edition (which will cost $275, and will include a coffee table book with photos from throughout the project, four vinyl LPs, a high-def DVD of all the videos, backstage passes to a Rentals live show of your choosing, and a whole heck of a lot more genuinely impressive goodies) will be a roll of undeveloped film, totally labeled and ready for you to do what you want with it. Want to develop it, to see what The Rentals were up to that day? Go right ahead. Or would you rather just hold onto the undeveloped film as a memento? Your choice.

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Let me just say that there is not a single bad photo on The Renals’ Web site. It’s like being in a photography museum.

I don’t think a band has ever done anything like this before.

So as we approach the end of the project, we return to the idea of, well, what’s the point, and did we accomplish anything in the process?

The most superficial response to that could be that The Rentals thought it would be a nice change of pace from the usual way of doing things. Record an album then drop it on your fans from high above, swooping down only occasionally to meet and greet them at live event? I don’t think I need to tell you that the music industry needs a bit of a shake-up to get things right again. More importantly, Songs About Time fostered creativity. Let’s say that every day for a whole year you have to come up with something to give to the fans. You’re constantly thinking, “Are these photos worth it? Would our fans appreciate them, or think they’re rubbish? Oh, man, and we still have to come up with a concept for our video this week! Quick, guys, we need some ideas.” That constant on-your-toes thinking necessarily leads the creative thinking, which begets good music.

We shot it on Sunday, then we edited it on Monday, then we released it on Tuesday. So we’re writing a piece of music, recording it, filming it, and sharing it with everybody two days after it was done. That can be so exciting. The day before you’re like, “Are we good? Is it good enough?” And before you know it it’s just out there. You don’t feel that kind of immediacy with the traditional way of making a record.

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If there was ever a band I’d say to support simply for what they’re trying to accomplish, then it’d be these guys. It doesn’t hurt that they’re actually pretty damn good, and I look forward to the new EP which is due out in a few days.

Many thanks to Matt Sharp for talking to me for an entire hour. That was inconceivably generous of him. And thanks to Fuji’s PR team, which put us in contact with each other in the first place. They also dealt well with my various insanities.

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