Purity Ring's Corin Roddick on Not Settling for a Cult Following

The tandem of Corin Roddick and Megan James, collectively known as Purity Ring (which will headline the Boulder Theater on September 29 and 30) find themselves in a classic indie conundrum.

The pair's previous album, Shrines, earned consistently strong reviews and attracted listeners aplenty thanks to its very personal take on electronic dance music — a sound that was thoughtful and pensive at times, but still beguilingly danceable. However, its sophomore effort, Another Eternity, has had a tougher time with critics, simply for being cleaner and hookier than its popular predecessor — as if Roddick and James needed to make less accessible music in order to establish their artistic credibility.

Roddick, the man behind Purity Ring's music, regards such reactions as nonsense — and in conversation, he admits to frustration over such silliness. He continues to see Another Eternity as a step forward for Purity Ring, in part because of the different manner in which it was created. Whereas Shrines was mostly assembled while he and James were in different places, its followup found them face to face — a format that led to more direct collaboration that was accomplished in real time.

After touching on the contrasting approaches to the albums and the assorted bumps that he and James encountered during Eternity's writing and recording process, Roddick (with whom we last spoke in 2012) reveals why he's the guy in charge of music rather than words, admitting that he doesn't know the lyrics to many of his favorite songs. He also talks about the influence on Purity Ring's music of outside hip-hop productions that he's helmed; the way aural clarity, or the lack thereof, can alter the critical reaction to a track; and his belief that all performers would like as many people as possible to hear their music, whether they admit it or not.

Michael Roberts: I understand that the process of making Another Eternity was very different from the one you and Megan used on Shrines. How would you contrast the two different approaches?

Corin Roddick: The biggest difference is that Shrines was the first time Megan and I had ever worked together. And it was really my first attempt at producing musical electronically, as well. So there was a lot of learning in there as we went along. And as well, we were living in different cities at the time, almost on opposite sides of the country. So we didn't really have the chance to spend a lot of time in the same room. We would send things back and forth, and we had very separate roles. Like, I would completely make the music and Megan would come up with vocals, and we'd smash the two together, and that would be the song.

But then, for Another Eternity, we had the opportunity to work on it together in the same place, mostly, which was pretty different for us. We spent a lot more time working on all the different parts of the song and building them up and being more collaborative. I think that is what really affected the sound of it and made it different. We didn't want to make the same album again. And being able to majorly change up the process was a big way to help that.

When you guys were working in the same room together, how long did it take to get comfortable? Were there some stops and starts?

Yeah, definitely. The first time we got together, it was like, we actually don't know how to write songs together [laughs]. There were definitely a few days after we got together to work on things where nothing really got done and we felt like we didn't really have any momentum.

[Take a listen to the Shrines track "Fineshrine."]

Were there awkward silences? Or songs you started and then realized, "We're forcing this"?

I wouldn't say it was too awkward. I guess the hardest thing about it was that we hadn't written any music for over a year. We'd been so caught up with touring for Shrines, and then we took a bit of time off after that. So the biggest thing was we didn't remember how to write music at all [laughs]. And then aside from that, we were trying to do it collaboratively and in a totally different way. So for a while, we were definitely thinking things like, "How do we do this?" And "What does it mean to be in a band?" It was really hard ]laughs].

Eventually, though, we had a sort of breakthrough where things started working. And we were like, "Oh, good. What should we do next?"

Do you remember the first song where everything came together?

It was "Sea Castle." We were working at this ranch in Texas, and the idea was we were going to spend a week there and shut ourselves out from the outside world and really dig in on the album. But we spent most of the week really not making much progress. And then, on the last day, I think, we came up with "Sea Castle," and we were like, "Thank God!" [Laughs.] That kind of set the tone for the rest of the album.

(Here's a live performance of "Sea Castle.")

You later reconvened in Canada, right? That's where the lion's share of the material was recorded....

Yeah, most of it, we went back to Edmonton to record. That's where Megan was living at the time and where we both grew up. It was nice to be in familiar territory. And it was really very cold out, the middle of winter. That was a good season to lock yourself inside and try to create something.

Once you got together, did things pick up like they had with "Sea Castle"? Or did it take a little while to get going again?

It seems like every time we try to start working together, there's always some down time of getting the ball rolling. I don't think we can ever jump in and do something great right away. You have to kind of get comfortable and maybe try a few things, brush the dust off.

There's the perception with Purity Ring that there's a real separation when it comes to the creative process, where you handle the music and Megan handles the lyrics. But I imagine that when the two of you were working together, there was more of a blend. Was that the case?

Yeah. We definitely had a lot more impact on each other's roles. Like I still primarily handled the instrumentation and Megan primarily handled the vocals, but we gave each other a lot more feedback about what we thought was working or not working. When you're actually writing a song together, you have to consider all the parts of the song and how things are going to fit in with all the other instruments and all the sections — kind of making sure that nothing is out of place, or that it's not in the way of something else.

I'm not really much of a lyrics guy. Megan definitely handles the lyric side of things. But this time around, I definitely had more input on vocal melodies and Megan had more input on where the production stuff was going. Not that she necessarily produced it, but she would explain to me what she thought would work or wouldn't work, and we'd work on that together. And I think that really helped.

When you'd hear the lyrics, did you ever say "Maybe you should move in this direction, because that's the strongest part" or anything along those lines?

For me, I'm mostly just about how the lyrics sound with the melodies. I can't even really tell you the lyrics to my favorite songs of all time. Lyrics just kind of wash over me. It's more the sound that the vowels and consonants make with the notes. Maybe a certain word sounds really good with a certain melody. That's what I'm looking for more, and that's more of the feedback I'd give to Megan. There'd be a lyric with a melody, and I might say, "Why don't you try switching this around, because the tonality of that word sounds better in this context." But I don't worry that much about the meanings of things. I try not to get too into that.

(Below, check out a performance of Another Eternity's "Heartsigh.")

It's interesting that you say you might not even be able to remember the lyrics of your favorite songs. Are there kinds of songs where the lyrics stick with you more, as opposed to the singing just being a collection of sounds without any particular meaning?

I think it depends on the genre a bit. For example, I think hip-hop is much more lyrically driven, because often there isn't much melody in the delivery of rap. There's a lot of rhythm, but I'll notice the lyrics much more in a rap song because they're more directly delivered, I suppose. But with a melodic pop song, I'll hardly notice the lyrics at all because I'm so focused on how good the mouth noises sound with that melody. So I think it changes with the genre in that way.

You've done some outside production work in the hip-hop genre: Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Angel Haze. Do you think you're drawn to hip-hop in some ways because in that genre, the lyrics stand out that much more? Or is it something else that appeals to you about it?

There are a lot of things that appeal to me about hip-hop, from the actual lyrical delivery to the style of the drums to the actual bounce and rhythmic feel of everything. I've always been drawn to hip-hop, and I think you can definitely hear that influence in our music, especially on the rhythmic side. So I think for me to collaborate with rappers is a pretty natural thing. I think if you were able to strip away Megan's vocals, you can imagine someone rapping over a lot of our stuff.

For you, the hip-hop influence is really overt. But I imagine some listeners might not pick up on that.

i love hip-hop, I love pop music, I love experimental music. I'm pretty open to a lot of things and they all influence me in different ways. But you can kind of pinpoint the different things from each genre that influence me. With rap music, it's definitely the drums, and from pop music, I really love the melodic sensibility of it, so I try to work that in as well. And with experimental music, I really love the ambient sounds, the washy drones and things. I think all that stuff is in there woven together somehow.

There have been a lot of reviews of Another Eternity in which critics have said something along the lines of, "They're going pop," which I understand really annoys you....

It is somewhat annoying. I'm not annoyed because I'm thinking, "We're not a pop band," because we are. We're definitely a pop band. But it's annoying because I feel like we've always been a pop band. From our very first song, we were trying to write catchy hooks and pop melodies with interesting music going through it. That's always been our goal, to try to create forward-thinking, futuristic pop music. So it's kind of funny when people are saying, "Wow, you're a pop band now." It's like, "I don't know if you really listened to any of our previous work. If you did, you'd understand where we're coming from" (laughs).

But I try not to get too bothered by this other-genre stuff. I think critics and some listeners just get too wound up about what's happening on the surface.

That's where I was going with my question. Do you think one of the reasons that so many people have reacted that way is because the sound on the new album is clearer and cleaner and less murky than it was on Shrines? And maybe they can simply hear what you've been doing all along this time?

Honestly, I do think that's probably 90 percent of it. And that's funny. It's really all you need to trick someone like that. You can take the poppiest song in the world and distort the vocals a little bit and suddenly everyone is like, "This is the coolest, hippest-sounding thing." But if you produce it to just sound clean, some people might say it's very pop and mainstream and radio-friendly. Just really small tweaks to the formula can completely change someone's perception of it. It was interesting for us to play with those things and see how it affects listeners.

(One of the catchiest songs on Another Eternity is "Bodyache," heard here.)

Did you consciously set out to do that? Or was it more that you were moving in that direction anyhow, and when you heard the reaction and looked back on what you did, you thought, "Well, that makes sense"?

More the latter, I guess. It kind of seemed like it made a lot of sense for us to try and have crisper sounds and have the vocals more up-front. We were just more confident about the songs and we wanted to display them in a way you could actually hear them. But we didn't really think through the perceptions people might have. We weren't thinking about that at the time, obviously. I think it's never good to think about those things when you're writing it, because you might make choices about the music that could mess you up. You might make choices in the writing process that aren't beneficial. You need to make whatever sounds you're going to make in the moment, and if people like it, that's great. You can't worry too much about what people are going to think of it. That never yields good results, or at least, it doesn't for us.

Bands on independent labels often have these weird expectations foisted on them — the idea that they should be content with a smaller, cult-sized audience, and if you try to broaden your appeal, you're selling out. Is that kind of mindset baffling to you?

I think it is a bit baffling. When we started the band, our goal was to have as many people to hear it as possible. We want our music to go as far as it can — not in a greedy way, but we're ambitious, and we want people to hear it. And who wouldn't want that? Any artist who's making something they're excited about, they want to share it. They want people to see it or hear it. So it doesn't really make sense to me that anyone would want to put a lid on that, just for the idea of feeling exclusive.

The types of bands or listeners that are too concerned about something not feeling exclusive anymore aren't really the kinds of listeners I want to cater to.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts