A Little Night Music from Sun Airway


Published February 15, 2011



“The Midnight Sun Airway” could be the name of an old-school superhero, but instead it was an old-school airline from a poster that inspired Jon Barthmus’ Philly-based project, Sun Airway. With some inspiration from Norwegian Wood (the book, not the song), the moon, and a lot of experimentation, former A-Sides members Barthmus and Patrick Marsceill have found their musical talent less in classic rock and more in electronic pop. The duo released their debut album, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier in October 2010. Barthmus recorded the album in a home studio, experimenting with a variety of instruments and samples. The result is a collection of night songs that are hauntingly beautiful and full of synth sounds.

Sun Airway will be hitting the stages throughout the U.S. this spring with Cults, Small Black and Asobi Seksu, even playing at SXSW. From a record label switch since the A-Sides (from Vagrant to Dead Oceans), to a whole new way of recording, Barthmus has created a musical art project.

ILANA KAPLAN: So why Sun Airway? How’d you come up with the name?

JON BARTHMUS: We had a running list going of names that we were constantly adding to and taking away from. I saw on a poster for an old airline called “The Midnight Sun Airway.” I just kind of pulled those two words and put them on the list, and those were the ones we kind of were left with. There’s no real reason for the name. We just liked how it sounded.KAPLAN: That’s how great names come about. Who knew?

BARTHMUS: It’s hard. That’s the hardest thing about starting a band, I think, is picking a name. The A-Sides name kind of haunted us forever, because when we started that band, we only wanted to be like ’60s rock and rip off the ’63 Beatles. As we moved into different kinds of music, the name kind of haunted us.

KAPLAN: Who was your favorite band or artist to tour with?

BARTHMUS: Well, we’ve only done one national tour, and it was with Bear in Heaven and Lower Dens. They were all great people. We did some dates with Twin Shadow. Lower Dens ended up being my favorite, because I’d never even heard them before we started. I missed their set the first few nights, and then when I finally saw them, I was like, “Oh my god, this band is incredible.” Then we all kind of became obsessed and would watch them every night and listen to them every day in the van. It was just so good. They left the tour in Texas and all three bands went camping. That was really amazing.

KAPLAN: You’re touring soon, right?

BARTHMUS: Yeah. We’re going down to SXSW. On the way down, we’re going with Cults and Small Black. On the way back, we’re coming up with Cults and Asobi Seksu.

KAPLAN: What are your influences?

BARTHMUS: I mean, there’s so much at this point, but for me now, I’m looking more for production, since I’m kind of making records by myself. I’m looking for things like the quality of sound. Things that always stick with me are Phil Spector, My Bloody Valentine, and Brian Eno—just really rich, dense production values. Songwriting, I guess I’m always a classic pop songwriter. I like a ton of stuff, and hopefully a little bit of everything works its way in there.

KAPLAN: What was the theme of your album?

BARTHMUS: It started to develop unintentionally. I was just writing a lot about the moon and the night. A lot of it was because I was reading a lot of books by Haruki Marukami, and especially Norwegian Wood, which is what “Oh, Naoko” and “Waiting on You” are basically about. A lot of his books have really powerful imagery of night, mystery, and darkness. It was really resonating with whatever I was already writing. At that point, after I had a bunch of songs like that, I just decided to make the whole thing a “night music” album.

KAPLAN: What is “Waiting on You” about?

BARTHMUS: That and “Oh, Naoko” were kind of a suite of sorts. We first put out an EP with just four songs that we finished first, just so we had something out there. I kind of tried to keep those all in the same family, so they’re all kind of based on this book Norwegian Wood. I kind of played with the characters. It’s interesting because this happened after I made the music, but someone decided to adapt it into a movie.

KAPLAN: How did you go about putting together the sound for the album?

BARTHMUS: We tried recording some real instruments, but we couldn’t get anything to sound good. We scrapped it, and it mostly ended up being electronic and samples. The only thing we tracked live was vocals. A lot of it is really small, chopped-up samples of all kinds of stuff: a lot of really old, weird synth records, stuff where I would just take a quarter of a second and build instrumentation around it. It’s weird, because most people don’t even realize that a lot of it is samples. They just think it’s made from keyboards or software. You kind of suffer from this unintentional, lo-fi sound. That’s something I wasn’t trying to do, but it kind of fits in with whatever chillwave or lo-fi kind of music that is happening, because I am just not good at really doing it. I’m trying to upgrade my sound in the future.

KAPLAN: If you could play a show with anyone, who would it be? Dead or alive?

BARTHMUS: That makes it difficult. I don’t know. It would be hard to pick. Maybe Radiohead or something, but would just be horrible to play and watch that afterwards. Björk, maybe. David Bowie?

KAPLAN: How did you come up with the album name? It’s kind of a crazy mix of words: Nocturne of Exploding Crystal Chandelier.

BARTHMUS: Yeah. That kind of came about the same way the band name came about, where it was just pulling a ton of words and phrases from all over the place and seeing what stuck. One thing I saw was artwork by an artist from LA named Ed Ruscha. He had this piece that is just a color field that has the words “Exploded Crystal Chandelier Headache” on it. So, I just pulled those, and the “Exploded Crystal Chandelier” part was how the music sounded. The imagery of that just resonated with what I thought the music sounded like. I knew I wanted it to be “nocturne”—symphonies for the night. The title and the artwork, I wanted to be descriptive of the sound.

KAPLAN: What would be your dream for the band?

BARTHMUS: Short-term, I really just want to go other fun places. I want to play in Europe and Japan. I want to travel the world doing this. I just want to make more records. I would like to have the freedom to just work on that in life and just do it until I can’t do it anymore. That’s all I really hope for.