Ice Choir: The New, New Romantics

Published July 30, 2012

ABOVE: KURT FELDMAN

You thought indie pop’s ’80s fascination was on the wane? You silly, silly music fan.

Previously the front man of 80s-inspired shoegaze pop outfit The Depreciation Guild and the current drummer for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Kurt Feldman is doubling down on the decade with his third act, Ice Choir. It’s as though Feldman has said, “You’ve got your ’80s? Well I’ll see your Eighties and raise you some sumptuous synths, honey-sweet vocals, and dewy lyrics from stylish, doe-eyed androgynous musicians.

The band’s debut album, Afar, comes out this week. It’s a sonic time machine—from the opening strains of “I Want You Now and Always,” on which Feldman’s supple tenor evokes those great Thatcher-era Georges, Michael and O’Dowd, to the closer, a Disneyfied duet with Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, “Everything Is Spoilt By Use.” Brits who were around for the age of Smash Hits and The Tube, and Americans who recall the golden age of MTV will hear in Ice Choir the lush sophisti-synth New Romaticism of Visage, Spandau Ballet, Johnny Hates Jazz, and Tears for Fears. But, if you dig a little deeper you’ll discover that there’s more than 80s just pop revivalism. The D.V. Caputo-designed cover art is inspired by some of Feldman’s favorite Japanese artists. Thematically, Afar speaks to distance: the distance from loved ones while on the road, or creating distance from those you are with every day.

Last week, we caught up with Feldman, not far from his Winter Station studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Afar was recorded.

JOHN NORRIS: Kurt, I remember reading from as far back as 2010 you saying that you were working something under the name Ice Choir and that you weren’t sure when that was gonna come out. So this is something that’s been brewing for a while?

KURT FELDMAN: Yeah it’s been going for a while, I don’t know. I guess it started around late 2010 as you say. I was writing some more songs after the last Depreciation Guild record Spirit Youth, and they didn’t really seem to fit stylistically with what we were doing. The other guys were all kind of doing their own thing and everybody was sort of, I guess losing interest in the project or creatively elsewhere. And I guess I was too, so we all just decided to amicably split and do our own things.

NORRIS: So you always envisioned in your mind, these songs being their own thing?

FELDMAN: Well you know those first two songs that ended up on the internet, which was “I Want You Now and Always” in an older demo form, and “The Ice Choir;” I think at that point I kind of drew a line in the sand like, Yeah, this is a new project. But when I originally wrote the songs, I think I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it. It did end up being a totally different project. I think I wrote it originally with Depreciation Guild, some of those ideas were being composed and sketched while we were on the road, and when I got back from tour and stuff.

NORRIS: And it was early 2011 that Depreciation Guild kind of went your separate ways?

FELDMAN: Yeah, we played our last show at the end of 2010, or January 2011 or something. But you know, no bad blood, those guys are still my best friends.

NORRIS: I don’t need to tell you that ‘80s is probably one of the most-used references in music writing in the past five years, right up there with “hazy” and “lo-fo…”

FELDMAN: And my favorite, “reverb-drenched”.

NORRIS: Exactly. But overused though the ‘80s thing might be, in this case it’s hard to get away from. For anyone who was alive in, say, 1987 and consuming music, especially UK pop music, Ice Choir will take them to a very specific time and place. And you know that’s the immediate association most people will have with this record.

FELDMAN: Of course, and that’s very intentional. The production is very ‘80s and there’s ways to deviate from that within the songwriting, which is what I was focusing on when I wrote this record. But the production, yeah I think it sounds authentically ‘80s. But that’s because I like that style, and it was very much a choice to make it sound like that. Analog synths and stuff.

NORRIS: There are no live drums on the record are there?

FELDMAN: No no.

NORRIS: So it doesn’t bother you if it’s seen as “revivalist”?

FELDMAN: It’s electronic but it doesn’t really sound like contemporary music. And I’m sure people are going to be turned off by that, but I don’t really care. I just make music that I would like to listen to. And a lot of it happens to be kind of an homage to the stuff that I love from eras that I appreciate. A lot of those guys I think criminally never really made a living, but I think they’re really worth listening to. If this record inspires to dig into my influences or discover any of that, then I feel like I did a good job, maybe.

NORRIS: Vocally, people may think, “There’s tracks on there where he sounds like Curt Smith [Tears for Fears].”  And for me there’s even songs where I hear a George Michael quality, which, for me he’s one of the great pop voices…

FELDMAN: He’s actually my favorite male vocalist.

NORRIS: Your voice sounds so clear and clean, it suggests someone who is getting more confident as a singer.

FELDMAN: Yeah. I was never really a “singer.” I still don’t really consider myself one. I kind of forced myself to kind of go for it more on this record, and I think I’ve been more content with the vocal performances on this record that with Depreciation Guild.

NORRIS: I know you did a lot of the work on the album while you were out touring with The Pains last year.

FELDMAN: You know, you’re sitting in a van for most of the day, you eventually run out of things to say. A lot of the times we’re all in our individual headphones and laptops.

NORRIS: Lyrically, you’ve got some elements of romantic poetry in there. Speaking of which, I think you may have saved the sweetest song for last. This song “Everything Is Spoilt By Use” that closes the record. Caroline [Polachek] from Chairlift sings on it, and the title, for those who don’t know comes from John Keats.

FELDMAN: I’m a fan of his. I was reading a lot of romantic poetry when I was writing this record, just to get my head in a certain space. I love the rhythm and the language of a lot of those poets; there’s a lot of the elements of that that I wanted to submerse myself in, and let it seep into my writing. I think it kind of worked in some ways. But that one, “Everything Is Spoilt By Use” is an actual line from one of Keats’ poems called “The Fancy,” which is one of my favorites. It’s sort of about your interests and passions sort of existing as a spirit, or a sprite, and how if you set that free it’s going to being you this bounty of creativity and inspiration. That, somehow, really resonated to me. I guess the song is not really that positive of a message; it’s really more the flip side, like, What if you restrain that spirit and keep it on a leash, what’s gonna happen? And those are the two voices in the song. Me, the creative, and Caroline as the spirit, the fancy.

NORRIS: So you knew it needed another voice in there?

FELDMAN: Yeah, yeah I wrote the song as—I love the Disney ballad element and even Prefab Sprout had that second voice. It was like Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith, like a dichotomy that I always loved. I really wanted to capture that spirit. Also really like a Disney ballad.

NORRIS: Yeah it has a bit of a “Somewhere Out There” quality to it.

FELDMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: Meantime, that album title Afar reminds me of a line from Wordsworth’s great Immortality Ode. Not sure if that was at play there?

FELDMAN: I think that’s very perceptive. I was reading some Wordsworth. But really I wrote this when I was on tour a lot; I was away from really everyone and everything that I knew, and was experiencing this sort of alien isolation, perpetually like an alien. You sort of feel like that after a while because you don’t really know anyone in any of these cities, you just come in to play a show. It’s a great experience for travel and stuff, too, but it can be really isolating. I think “Afar” was sort of an ode to that. A lot of the subject matter that it touches on is also like shutting everything out, and that was a big part of this record.

NORRIS: You’ve got Patrick South, Raphael Radna, and Avery Brooks in the band with you. It’s a good-looking band; I look at those promo photos and have to ask whether style is important to Ice Choir?

FELDMAN: You know, I wouldn’t completely ignore it, but I wouldn’t say it figures that much into the substance of music. It can just be an added bonus, if you’ve got good taste all around. Patrick, for example, I consider him to have some of the best taste in music of anyone that I know and I think somehow music and fashion are sometime inextricably tied. And he also has a really good fashion sense, for example. I think that occurs more often than not.

NORRIS: In terms of live shows, you guys have only kind of done one-offs here and there not really a full-on tour right?

FELDMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: Is there gonna be one?

FELDMAN: We’d like to. We’re not opposed to it. I hope people enjoy this record and want to hear it. There is a live band that exists for the purpose of playing these songs in a live context, but I don’t know I hope it translates into a band that people want to see tour. But for now, the band is, my really close friends who I really respect as musicians and we’re really playing just kind of one-off shows cause we really love these songs.

NORRIS: What would be the obstacles to touring with it?

FELDMAN: We’ve performed all these songs live and it’s been really fun, I just feel like we’re not really that band; we’re not the rock band to like hype up the crowd and be like “Oh yeah. Did you see Ice Choir? It was an awesome show.”

NORRIS: But are Depreciation or The Pains that sort of…

FELDMAN: Yeah, I think more so. More than this band. I mean, I hope people enjoy this, and it’s definitely my goal to bring everyone an impassioned performance whenever we play.

AFAR IS OUT TOMORROW, JULY 31ST. YOU CAN SEE JOHN NORRIS’ VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH KURT FELDMAN THIS WEEK ON NOISEVOX.