Pop Culture

Crumb on How Astrud Gilberto, Afghan War Rugs, Pitch Shifting, and More Inspired Their New Album ‘AMAMA’

Crumb’s third album, AMAMA, is no less hypnotic and disorienting than the New York band’s previous material, but it longs to keep its feet on the ground. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Lila Ramani, keyboardist and saxophonist Bri Aronow, bassist Jesse Brotter, and drummer Jonathan Gilad remain wandering experimentalists, and the new record – produced in Los Angeles alongside Johnscott Sanford and Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado – hones that quality by restlessly locking into a groove and playfully straying away from it. But, abstract as it still is, Ramani’s songwriting is also tenderly introspective and emotional, threading together signifiers of her upbringing – samples of a police radio scan about a flock of geese crossing a bridge in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Ramani’s grandmother singing in Malayala – with memories from the band’s early touring days – getting bed bug bites in a motel in Nebraska, a turtle flattened by the group’s van. But through these trips, down beyond what we might reasonably call memory lane, Crumb wake to a more solid and present understanding of home: “In our house we lay down side by side/ And it’s the way we always meant to lie,” Ramani sings on ‘XXX’, worlds away from the stress of an earlier song actually called ‘Side by Side’. Remembering – ancestry, alienation, upheaval, whatever led them to this moment – only solidifies how good it is, how big for all its intimacy.

We caught up with Crumb’s Lila Ramani to talk about some of the inspirations behind AMAMA, including Haroumi Hosono, Afghan war rugs, and Astrud Gilberto song, and more.


Cochin Moon by Haroumi Hosono

It wasn’t a conscious, like, “I’m trying to reference this album,” but when I listened to it, it struck a chord with me. Haroumi Hosono, from Yellow Magic Orchestra, went down to Kochi in Kerala, which is actually where my dad’s family is from. He kind of created a score for a fake Bollywood film. It’s very atmospheric, and he described the soundscape as “chattering bug noises.” It’s really visual, and I feel the soundscape of that inspired the soundscape of AMAMA. When we were talking about it, we mentioned there are a lot of nautical noises on the album. [laughs] Maybe not a direct influence, but when I listened back to it, I was like, “Oh yeah, the soundscape is kind of similar.” And it’s funny that it also references that part of India.

Afghan War Rugs

From what I can tell, this is the inspiration behind the album cover, which includes visual references to several songs on the album. What’s the story behind it?

Abe [El Makawy], my partner who is also our creative director, introduced me to those rugs. We’re big fans of that style – we actually have one. These beautiful hand-knotted rugs, I think a lot of time are made by refugees. They use this pictorial, cartoony style to depict the conflicts in that area; it’s this bizarre cultural mashup telling a story on a rug. I had the idea maybe that could be the album art, and Abe ran with it, basically telling the story of the album through symbols and drawings. He drew this thing and then worked with [Kalle Wadzinski] to generate the carpet. But yeah, the upper half of it corresponds to a song, and the goose mouth references one of the songs, different lyrical things all scattered together.

Was it a conscious decision to tell the story of the album through symbols instead of going for a more minimal style?

You’d have to ask Abe, I think he came up with the symbols while making the carpet. He’s always looking through and finding these visual elements from the lyrics or song names, building this world of visuals while he’s doing it. So I feel like he had those in the back of his mind already, and he wasn’t sure if he was actually going to put them on the carpet. But then we felt like we wanted it to be more busy or something, so he just threw it all in.

I thought it was interesting that the press release refers to the album’s sound as a “patchwork.” Does this visual style or metaphor resonate with you in the way you approach creating music?

Yeah, definitely. All these stories and sounds woven together definitely feels like that. It’s cohesive, but I feel like all of our albums feel a bit like patching things together, narrative-wise and sonically.

The textural aspect of it also feels fitting.

The texture of the rug came out crazy; you could really zoom into it so far that you see the little fibers on the rug itself. It’s wild how they did that, and it definitely speaks to the textures in the album.

Gowanus and Carrol Gardens

These are both neighborhoods in Brooklyn, right?

Yeah, they’re right next to each other. I grew up in Gowanus, but they’re very close.

I know the first song features a sample of a police radio scan about a flock of geese crossing a bridge in Gowanus, which is also referenced in the album cover. But I was wondering if you could start by telling me about what it was like for you growing up there. What feelings or memories do you associate with those places?

Gowanus is a really interesting place. It’s cut through by a canal, one of the most polluted waterways in the country. Maybe it’s better now, but when I was growing up, there’s a lore around it where they find, like, dolphins stuck in there and even dead bodies. It’s in this industrial kind of wasteland. My mom had an art studio right on the edge of Gowanus, so I grew up very close to the canal. It was a bizarre place to grow up. It’s kind of like no man’s land, but then you walk a block away and it’s beautiful brownstone Brooklyn. But the canal is a very unnatural place for humans and animals to reside. It has inspired a lot of Crumb’s stuff; our earliest music video was a Gowanus canal-themed thing.

Now, actually, they’ve knocked down a lot of the neighborhood, all the old buildings, and are completely redoing it and building, like, 50 skyscrapers. It’s definitely been on my mind, the demolition of the neighborhood I grew up in and the new thing coming in its place. I walk through and don’t even recognize it sometimes. Carroll Gardens, where I live now, it’s just brownstone Brooklyn, an old Italian neighborhood. It’s great.

When you say it’s on your mind, was it also when you were making the album? How did they fit into your vision?

My partner, Abe, grew up in Carrol Gardens; he’s like fifth-generation Carroll Gardens. We’re very steeped in this landscape. [laughs] He made the music video for ‘Amama’ using old footage of the neighborhood from his family’s archive, showing even our apartment in the seventies and the streets in the sixties. The visual landscape of the album in my mind is very intertwined with Carroll Gardens and Gowanus.

How about lyrically or emotionally?

Yeah, the song ‘Amama’ for sure references me and Abe growing up in these two different neighborhoods side by side and then coming together. And the first song, like you said, also references Gowanus, the birds crossing the bridge. I’m sure there’s other places where it come about, but I’m endlessly inspired by where I grew up.

The opening track, ‘From Outside a Window Sill’, also includes the line, “Home is what I want and what I need,” and I feel like the record goes on to reflect on the experience of moving around a lot. Do you feel like your idea of home evolved throughout the making of Amama?

When we all listened back, it was kind of obvious that was a thread throughout the album, but I wouldn’t say it wasn’t an intentional theme. I was floating around for a lot years, and we were touring a lot. In the past year and a half, I got my own place for the first time with Abe and settled down, in a way. I think going from the nomadic stuff to planting your feet down somewhere can be heard in the album, too. Coming back to the place I grew up and having my own place has been amazing. I feel very settled here in my little nook of Brooklyn.

‘The Gentle Rain’ by Astrud Gilberto

It’s been a favorite of mine for years. The whole album [The Shadow of Your Smile] is amazing, but that song has always stuck with me. It was the kind of thing where I was like, “I want to make a song like this song.” [laughs] Or it was like an experiment. The chords [of ‘From Outside A Window Sill’] are very derivative of that song, and it feels like the Crumb version of it, like a spiritual predecessor. I was researching the song, and there is a movie called The Gentle Rain about an American going to Brazil, like a love story, so it was funny learning that. But the song is haunting.

Was it a challenge to take that approach and build a Crumb song with such a clear reference point?

It was refreshing because I usually don’t start that way at all. Maybe on this album, there were a couple of times where I was thinking about specific songs. I kind of made the demo with a very basic drum and bass groove. When I brought it to the band, the groove became way more distinct, and maybe that made it feel less like ‘The Gentle Rain’. It has its own vibe, but that was definitely the starting place; like, that was the name of the file, just ‘The Gentle Rain’. [laughs]

How has she inspired you as a vocalist? Is there something about the quality of her vocals that you’re drawn to?

Yeah, she’s amazing. I think she died – it might have been when we were recording the song. I remember I was like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” Her voice is very haunting and sad. The way the vocals are produced on the album is definitely really special; I was listening to it and trying to figure out what exactly was going on, it’s just very clean and loud over the music.

Pitch shifting

What inspired you to employ this technique more on this album?

It’s interesting because it was not only something we used when recording the album itself – we did a bunch of tape varispeed things where I would sing it lower than it actually was, and then it would kind of mess with the formant on the tape machine. But it was also something I used in making some of the demos on Ableton. I was just going crazy with transposing the whole song and messing it up to try to get it to feel right. We ended up using a lot of these weird, glitchy sounds from my original demos that are threaded throughout the album a little bit. It both inspired some stuff on the back end, and then also when we went to record it just used that technique a bunch.

When you were just toying with it, what did that unlock for you creatively?

I feel like I’m always learning things in Ableton; the learning curve is crazy. Itt definitely affects the songwriting a lot, just how familiar I am with Ableton. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily do that, but at the time, I was just crudely transposing things up and down. For ‘Amama’, for example, that actually created this weird vocal sound that we then tried to emulate in the studio using a similar technique. But it originally was just me crudely using these Ableton things that I probably shouldn’t have been doing [laughs], which is just a funny way that it feeds back into itself.

The 2022 documentary Fire of Love

Reading a bit about the movie, I thought it maybe fed into parts of ‘Dust Bunny’.

I didn’t even think about that, that’s funny. Maybe. It’s hard for me to think about movies or things that feed into the inspiration. I feel like that was such a striking love story that probably just stuck with me – them working together and then ultimately dying together in this crazy way. And it was just visually on another level, the footage they got from the volcanoes was amazing.

Did you watch it around the time you were making the album? What resonated with you about it?

It came out in 2022, so I could see it aligning with that. But it wasn’t in the same way as ‘The Gentle Rain’, where it was like, “I’m going to write a song about this.” But the love story was just really beautiful, and there are some love songs on the album. Even though it’s very tragic, they accomplished so much in the short time they were alive. I also didn’t know that much about volcanoes – it’s just crazy how many people volcanoes affect around the world. I just live so far removed from volcanic activity. Maybe I saw parallels in how I work with Abe – obviously not as dramatic as working on volcanoes, but it’s a journey, working with your partner on your craft.

Why did you want to close the album with what seems to be a love song?

Sonically, it feels like a bit of an outlier and a palate cleanser. It’s really simple and short, which makes it different. Narratively, the lyrics are about being home in your place, so it feels like a bit of a conclusion to that journey.

Motherhood

I was learning about how you have the same genes as your mother and your mother’s mother, all the way back, and that was blowing my mind. Motherhood and family is obviously somewhat of theme in the album; the title being AMAMA, which is actually the word for grandmother on both sides of my family, which are different parts of the world. I feel like I’m always kind of referencing family – it’s not the first time I’ve been thinking about a family member when writing. But the song ‘Amama’ definitely was special in that way, that she got to feed back into the actual song and also inspire it. We didn’t expect that to become the album name, it was kind of last minute. It felt like the right word and has a palindrome structure.

It’s just crazy to think about how all the little decisions of your family members, ancestrally even, have all coincided to create you and to bring you to this moment. There’s so many things that had to fall into place. And then referencing those members of your family, too, feels like honouring them – not just me, the other band members too. The video for the song sealed the motherhood meaning to me, because we used footage of the other band members’ moms. It’s just pretty wild that we get to do this – it’s all our ancestors, I guess.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Crumb’s AMAMA is out now via Crumb Records.

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