Null Device's steadfast synth-pop
The Madison band discuss their new album, "While You Were Otherwise Engaged."
The electronic project Null Device has drawn on a variety of inspirations over the years, from acid house to stark techno to bhangra. But just about every measure reminds you that the Madison-based band’s central devotion is to the romantic synth-pop of the 1980s, and especially the lean, clean atmosphere of New Order. Producer/singer/violinist Eric Oehler started the project in the early 1990s while at UW-Madison, and it has since grown into a full-fledged band, refining a dramatic, hook-obsessed, eclectic, but unpretentious approach to pop.
The band’s sixth album, While You Were Otherwise Engaged, comes out this week. Oehler, singer-synth player Jill Sheridan, cellist Kendra Kreutz, and co-founder Eric Goedken (who lives in Boston) titled the album in honor of an in-joke from a recent tour. (It was explained to me off the record.) In addition to writing and producing more collaboratively than ever, the band tried to go in even harder on its central influences, if that’s possible, while still keeping their ears open to the ever-diverse and fertile world of electronic music. Opening track “Shadow And Flame” sets a ruminative tone for the album, with Sheridan writing the lyrics and Oehler singing in a soulful but refreshingly ego-less voice. Sheridan’s vocals, as heard on tracks like “Faraway” and “We Reach Tonight,” have those qualities as well, and that’s one of the reasons why Null Device’s music adapts so well to experimentation—the vocals provide a strong center, but also a clarity that lets a variety of production approaches shine through.
Ahead of the album’s release, Sheridan, Kreutz, and Oehler met up to discuss lyrical inspirations and their evolving production process.
Tone Madison: With the new record, was there anything you were trying to do differently?
Eric Oehler: A little bit. For one thing, we have Kendra on board now, which we didn't have before, so we have a full-time cellist—meaning basically we have a full-time string section. After [the 2013 album] Perihelion, we did another EP where we brought Kendra on board and we kind of stripped everything down and re-did a bunch of tracks. They worked well enough that I'm like, "We should just be doing this all the time."
Kendra Kreutz: I think for the cello parts, there was a lot of learning on this album of how to get the cello to do more than the bass line. In some of the old songs that we played in our live shows, I'm handed the bass line, which is actually some of the most fun stuff to play. It's bass, it's lower, but it's also lyrical to have the cello line come in. So there's a lot of songs where there's conversation between the cello and violin, and that's kind of a new tradition too.
Tone Madison: Eric and Jill, do you mostly write things for yourselves to sing, or do you do a lot of lyric writing with the other in mind?
Eric Oehler: Since I do a lot of the singing but not all of the singing, when Jill writes something that I think works for her voice, I let her sing it. Most of the time everybody else writes lyrics for me. I'm not fond of writing lyrics, so I don't do it a whole lot. There's usually one, maybe two songs every record that I do myself, and the rest of the time I let Jill or the other Eric handle the lyrical duties.
Tone Madison: And so when you're singing, it's not necessarily coming from a super-personal place.
Eric Oehler: Well, it's coming from somebody's super-personal place, but not necessarily mine. There are a number of songs where the lyrics are kind of opaque to me. It's like, "I don't really know that this is about, but it sound good."
Tone Madison: And a lot of the lyrics on this record do feel a little existential, especially "Shadow And Flame."
Jill Sheridan: Yeah, I wrote that one, and they are a little existential. Oddly enough, that one is sort of inspired by having a child. It was inspired by this idea that if the world ended, I still have this connection to the people that I love, so I kind of had these visions of the world kind of being over, something catastrophic happening, but there's still kind of this place of calm where I have this connection to someone. That basically was inspired by the paranoia that becomes very intrinsic once you have a child—you're constantly worrying about your child.
Eric Oehler: You can always kind of tell which lyrics the other Eric did, which lyrics Jill did, and which lyrics I did, kind of by how they fit together. Other Eric does a lot of kind of wordplay and word interchange stuff and lots of really oblique metaphors. Jill gets kind of the existential themes. And then I write a lot about like, "Well, I went to this club or I traveled to this place."
Jill Sheridan: "We Reach Tonight," I did the lyrics for that one, and that was kind of inspired by just kind of some of the hectic craziness when you have a little kid, and my husband was working a job when he had a really just crazy schedule working night shifts and stuff like that. That one was kind of inspired by the idea of knowing that, with all the craziness and just sometimes things not seeming the best in a relationship, underneath it all I knew we had this connection.
Tone Madison: The genre of music that you're in has this strong element of drama and romance to it, so it's interesting to find that in these everyday situations.
Jill Sheridan: Although on the other hand, "All Along This Line" was inspired by trying to figure out if I should quit a job or not, so that was a little different. So they're not all so existential, I guess.
Tone Madison: Eric, I know just from your posts on Facebook that you're a pretty huge gear nerd. What were some things you discovered or learned in the process of making this album?
Eric Oehler: Well, for one thing, until maybe last year, I'd never really tried to record cello before. I'd recorded violin before but it was always kind of iffy, and I think I nailed that down a little. I tried some things with mic positioning...and I just was spending a lot of time woodshedding the mixing process and figuring out where parts fit together a little more than I did previously. From the technical side, it's a refinement of everything I've been doing before.
Jill Sheridan: And then you have people like me and I'll be over listening to a demo and I'll go, "Can you make that more smacky?" and he just knows what to do. It's very non-technical input and he knows what to do.
Eric Oehler: It also helps that in the past couple of years I've decided that since I play with a band, I might as well get their opinions on things rather than being a total control freak about everything. I bounce everything off of Jill and Kendra and Eric and get their opinions. That helps me kind of winnow things down. If something's just not working, sometimes I'm too deep into it myself to notice that something's not working—"I spent an hour and a half making that snare drum sound like that, we're gonna use it!" And someone's gonna say, "The snare drum doesn't sound right," and there you go.
Tone Madison: It's like that in writing, too. If you've just been plugging away at something too long, you need to have another set of eyes or ears on it.
Eric Oehler: One of the things I do for other people's recordings is mastering engineering, which is kind of part of that, where you're the other set of ears and you're polishing it for the final step. But you're listening and you're not deep in the mix so you don't have those attachments of "Well, it needs to sound like this."