Reed & Caroline’s second album Hello Science was released via digital download and as a limited-edition CD on July 6th 2018. In advance of the album release our friend Mat Smith sat down with Reed & Caroline’s Reed Hays and Caroline Schutz, to find out more…
May 24, 2018: at a tiny concert space tucked away at the back of Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side, Caroline Schutz and Reed Hays are performing songs from their second album.
From the opening ripples of ‘Buoyancy’, Schutz’s plaintive voice drifts across the venue like gentle waves, a siren among the curious stew of electronic sounds and melodies that Hays is coaxing from his Buchla system. Hays switches occasionally to furiously rapid cello playing, his technique with the instrument all the more watchable for knowing that he’d had to quickly glue the bridge back on after it snapped off during the soundcheck.
That Hays is able to make the Buchla sound so accessible – this being a machine, after all, that was designed by Don Buchla without keys to dissuade a user from settling into some sort of wearisome classical tradition – should be no surprise. After all, the first Reed & Caroline album, 2016’s ‘Buchla & Singing’ displayed a talent for wringing unexpected synth pop sweetness from Buchla’s invention, a far cry from the box’s purported original uses within the fabled Electric Kool-Aid Acid tests.
Seeing the duo perform these songs at Pianos is strangely fitting, as the tracks had their origins in an earlier performance right here. “We’d just performed our first ever show when we were told we’d need to round out our set list with more songs because we’d be going out on tour,” recalls Hays. The impetus for this burst of creativity had come from Vince Clarke, one half of Erasure and whose VeryRecords imprint issued ‘Buchla & Singing’. After that first show, Clarke had dropped the bombshell that Reed & Caroline would be taking the coveted support slot for Erasure’s 2018 North American tour. “We didn’t know exactly when it was going to be when he told us we’d be supporting, so I frantically set about writing new material in case it was only going to be three months away. A lot of second albums are the leftovers from what didn’t make it to the first album. I didn’t have any of those!”
The result is a body of work, ‘Hello Science’, originally conceived merely as songs to be performed live in front of concert-goers shelling out their hard-earned dollars to watch Erasure. Sidestepping the hoary cliché of a difficult second album, what began under extreme time pressure has become a solid collection of poignant songs that cements Reed & Caroline’s position among electronic music’s long history of synth duos, with twelve songs that appear to be entirely about science. Nothing else. Nada. Just science. Got it? No? Then try this lyric for size and then report back your findings to the class.
“Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts – it’s science! It’s all about science!”
— Reed & Caroline, ‘It’s Science’
For an album so confidently, and boldly, about science – and one that is so richly researched and detailed – it may come as a surprise that its themes led Reed Hays into a state of doubt and panic. “I had a massive identity crisis about it,” he says with a sigh. “I’d written a bunch of these science songs, in a relative hurry, and while I was recording Caroline singing them she was like, ‘Is there anything that isn’t about science?’ We started second guessing ourselves, I guess. We’d also seen an interview promoting the last Erasure album where they were talking about the need for optimism today. Then I remembered when Vince first heard the initial Reed & Caroline stuff he’d said ‘I really like the optimism that’s in here.’ We thought ‘Oh gosh, shouldn’t we write some things that are more spiritual and optimistic?’ Somewhere along the line I realised that my love of science is something spiritual and optimistic. In these troubling political times, people are putting science into question. It’s almost like a faith that’s being outlawed. Because of that, what ended up as ‘Hello Science’ became really personal for me.”
Listening to Hays’s lyrics, covering such wide-ranging topics as Kepler’s theory of Platonic solids, how unsung female African-American ‘computers’ supported the likes of NASA’s space programme, or ruminations on the importance (or otherwise) of dark matter, one would assume Reed Hays had spent his entire education with his nose in a science textbook. It was anything but the case. “I was too busy practicing the cello to even take college-level chemistry classes,” he laughs. Nevertheless, the heavy research effort put into these songs belies the speed at which they were written. “I think it comes from the idea of science saving us all. It’s all very Star Trek on one level, but also any of these facts are just really interesting to ponder, as well as being mind-blowing.”
If his education wasn’t exactly filled with science, his upbringing was. Hays grew up in Huntsville in Alabama, a city where rocket scientists were relocated to from Europe after the Second World War, and science was literally all around him every day of the week. “My father was a social scientist who taught ethics to engineers,” he says, noting the puzzled look on my face. “I’m serious. He was a social psychologist. I still don’t know what that is, but he started an engineering ethics department at the university down in Alabama. He dealt with everything from environmental concerns to the actual ethics of whether an experiment was going to help humanity or screw it over. This was in the early days of AI, when no one was sure if it was going to happen tomorrow or in a hundred years. He would lay down the moral and ethical groundwork for dealing with something like that. We’re only just starting to see the importance of those ethics now.”
Given how naturally Caroline Schutz’s voice blends with Hays’s music, it’s perhaps a surprise that she doesn’t share Hays’s enthusiasm for all things science. “Caroline grew up in New York City museums,” deadpans Hays. “Reed writes the lyrics, so that all really does come from him,” agrees Schutz, “but I know he uses science to get at deeper issues. Reed really uses science as a way to cope with those things, which I think is interesting. It’s a way of making yourself feel better about those issues by looking at them from a scientific perspective. That’s the way that I can connect with the songs.”
So at the outset I said this album was all about science, but I lied. It might appear so, but it’s really not; ‘Hello Science’ is just as much about human issues. A track like ‘Before’, which opens the album, might be breaking down the interconnectedness of the past, present and future into a hymn-like song, but it’s just as much a mournful reminder of the finiteness of our earth’s resources and our very corporeal impermanence. “That song is both scientific and philosophical,” reflects Schutz. “Reed is good at using science as a parallel for other profounder issues, dealing with death and that sort of thing, but presenting them in a really simple, accessible way.”
Getting under the skin of these twelve songs reveals themes of loss (‘Entropy’), sexual inequality (‘Computers’), squandering our planet’s legacy (‘Another Solar System’), the darker side of internet-enabled home appliances (‘Internet Of Things’) and data proliferation and theft (‘Digital Trash’). These are big, often terrifying topics, things that could prompt an existential crisis in all but the most inured soul, all packaged and presented through the prism of scientific endeavour. “Caroline and I spent a lot more time together on this project compared to ‘Buchla & Singing’, where a lot of the songs were instrumental,” reflects Hays. “We had a lot of deep philosophical conversations about what these songs were about and how they should be presented.”
Although electronic instruments like the Buchla have an almost limitless capacity for making moods, one of the reasons that Reed & Caroline’s music works so well is precisely because of Schutz’s distinctive vocal, a humanising factor when twinned with Hays’s alien sounds. “I think the reason Reed always liked my voice is because it is kind of plain, it doesn’t have a lot of vibrato, and it doesn’t sound like I’m singing show tunes,” says Schutz. “It’s always straight and unaffected, and so in a way it goes well with the robotic things he creates, but I guess there’s also a certain breathiness about it that definitely makes people connect to it. I think the other thing about not having that singer-y vibrato is that it’s a more approachable voice for people. Listeners definitely picked up on that before I did.”
One immediate difference between ‘Hello Science’ and its predecessor is the use of cello on tracks like ‘It’s Science’. “The cello and the Buchla are the two instruments that I play,” explains Reed Hays matter-of-factly. “They are the only two things that I can touch and convey part of my soul. Antonio Stradivari, in the 18th century, was sort of a Don Buchla character. He was constantly perfecting ways to make the cello more expressive and efficient. Until Stradivari, cellos were all different sizes, some of them were as big as basses and people really used them primarily to play the bass part in church.”
Under Hays’s honed playing, the instrument proves to be a perfectly adaptable foil to the electronics. “Well, it’s like another voice,” says Hays. “It’s a tenor voice, and the only thing you have to be careful of is not to get too sad with it.”
Adding cello to the album had its origins in an artist friend asking Hays to sit in a corner and play cello at his gallery opening. “I brought a Buchla along and made this really ethereal patch,” he explains. “I improvised for about three hours and people seemed to like it, so I went back into the studio and I recorded a much shorter thirty minute version. I played it for Vince and after that he was always nagging at me to put cello on a couple of things.”
The other addition to the kit used on ‘Hello Science’ was a Vako Orchestron, manufactured by a Mattel subsidiary as a portable alternative to the Mellotron, the tape-loop playing keyboard beloved of Barclay James Harvest and countless other prog groups, John Lennon and Jean-Michel Jarre. Instead of tapes, the Orchestron used clear plastic discs where each concentric groove on the disc represented a different note.
Hays picked up his Orchestron at the fire sale when Sound City, the venerable Californian studio used by everyone from Neil Young to Tom Petty to Nirvana, went under, attracted by its signature deployment by a certain set of German synth luminaries. “Kraftwerk used an Orchestron on three of their albums,” he gushes. “It creates a very scratchy, low-bandwidth sound. It’s the source of the strings on ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and the choir on ‘Radio-Activity’, both of which are very unique sounds. They were the only band to really run with it. The Orchestron company made this giant one for Yes. Patrick Moraz tried it once and said ‘This thing’s never gonna work,’ and never used it again. I told Vince about it and he thought I was completely insane, like ‘Can’t you get samples of all that instead?’”
Serendipitously, Hays was connected to a cousin of a friend, Pea Hicks (Optigan.com), who had inherited the machinery to manufacture the clear plastic Orchestron discs. “For ‘Hello Science’ Caroline sang every note on the keyboard, and Pea made a bunch of optical discs from those recordings,” continues Hays. “That opened up all sorts of possibilities for adding really interesting vocal sounds to some of the tracks by reducing Caroline to little optical floppy discs.
The first song where Hays used the Orchestron was on the geometric otherworldliness of ‘Metratron’ that closes the album. “I was basically just playing around on the Orchestron with a choir patch. For a moment I felt like an actual keyboard player, which is scary because I can’t really play keyboards. I put this thing called the Buchla Music Easel on top of the Orchestron and I played one melody on the Buchla and another on the Orchestron and just kind of cooked up the track that way.”
The combination of Buchla, cello and Orchestron gives ‘Hello Science’ a slightly off-kilter quality, a sort of Wes Anderson oddness, like music for children played by adults. At least in the first half of the album there’s also a nod to 1981-era synthpop, something that wasn’t immediately evident on ‘Buchla & Singing’. “Vince had a little more influence on the shape of the sound of this album,” explains Hays, “and he stopped me from throwing songs out when I thought the whole project was a dismal failure. Sometimes I would play him something, and he’d say ‘Try an instrumental countermelody here,’ or ‘Maybe do something quirkier and sparser with the percussion,’ and suddenly the song worked. I don’t think it was to the extent that these tracks sound like Yazoo songs, but clearly this is a man whose sensibility was forty years in the making. The second half was where I went, well, there’s still a Buchla so I need to let it do its Buchla thing.”
Among the tracks in the second half is ‘Ocean’, were the central melody was written by Caroline Schutz’s pre-teen daughter Amalia, something that prompts Schutz to laugh. “She’s like, ‘Where are my royalties?’ I’m like, ‘You don’t even get an allowance!’ Our household’s pretty musical – my husband’s a musician, and both our daughters play instruments. Amalia plays piano but she also has a keyboard in her room, and she was messing around on that one day and came up with this nice intro that I really liked, and that became the intro to ‘Ocean’.”
Despite living on different coasts – Hays in New York and Schutz in Berkeley – one of the reasons that ‘Hello Science’ sounds so natural is because it wasn’t realised as a file-swapped distance collaboration. “It’s literally Reed and Caroline going back and forth, coast to coast,” explains Schutz. “My mother lives in New York and so I come in a lot, and Reed comes out to California a lot. You kind of get used to that flight after you’ve done it so many times. Whenever I come to New York I set aside a certain amount of time to go and record with Reed. We record pretty fast – I’m not sure why, but we do – so we’re able to get vocals done for a couple of songs usually in a day. And then we have a little guesthouse kinda thing here in Berkeley where we have some musical equipment too, and Reed uses that when he comes out West. It just works.”
‘It just works’ is, in its own succinct way, a fitting description of Reed & Caroline.
Like a lot of duos throughout the last forty-odd years of synth music, this is one that, on paper at least, simply shouldn’t work. And like its creators, ‘Hello Science’ is an album rich with contradictions, where contemporary concerns are executed with decades old (and centuries old) musical equipment, and where songs that celebrate women computers and songs that reminisce about the perforated printer paper you drew on as a kid can happily coexist.
It might be all about science – but it’s also human too.
Interview: Mat Smith
ORDER ‘HELLO SCIENCE’
The limited-edition CD format of ‘Hello Science’ is available in the online shop while stocks last.