Feature #18 – Cookies

The Facts: Cookies is a band from New York City specializing in popular music.  Ben Sterling formed the band shortly after the dissolution of his former group (the critically lauded Mobius Band) last year, enlisting Melissa Metrick (vocals/bass/keyboards) and Ian Ainley (drums) to help craft a unique and compelling sound. Unlike most good bands specializing in popular music, Cookies is a truly innovative outfit, incorporating into its productions a genuine love of 90s hip hop and R&B, electronic music, and – perhaps most importantly – savvy, distinctive songwriting.  We’re grateful to Ben for taking the time to answer our questions, and for creating some excellent lists. Those of you who are in the NYC area should be sure to check them out tonight (Thursday, November 10th) when they play at Glasslands, in Brooklyn.

Listgeeks: So far you’ve released six tracks, and based on the live set, it seems there’s more than enough material for a full-length on hand.  Do you anticipate releasing an album in the coming months? More generally, do you think we’ve moved past albums, for the most part?

Ben Sterling: We’re doing at least one more single and then probably an album. I like singles. I like albums. Grouping songs together will be around in some fashion forever… though our attention span is shorter, expectations are changing, and the internet means we often hear a song or two and leave it at that. But maybe that’s fair. It’s hard to make a record that deserves its length. They are very rare. Even “Rumours” has a couple wack songs.

LG: Your previous band, Mobius Band, was a little more on the traditional side, both in terms of the live show and from a production perspective . . . what are the main differences in how you approach realizing the songs in Cookies Vs. the way process worked in Mobius Band?

Ben: Mobius Band was a gang. We met in college and lived together and finished each others sentences. We were a thorough democracy with every decision. It was great for a long time. But then it wasn’t anymore. The dynamic broke down and got weird, like it usually does.

Cookies: “Love Will Never Do Without You” (Janet Jackson cover)

Cookies doesn’t work that way, it’s truly the opposite and that’s something I need after that experience. For me, the process of writing songs is very simple to start with and then excruciating to finish. The original rush of an idea is quick and beautiful and easy. But it’s just an idea, not a song or a production. The rest is basically window dressing and finishing lyrics, but without that it’s not a song, unless you’re making folk music or free improvisation. The original spark usually takes about ten minutes but I can’t finish a song in under two months.

LG: I’m a big fan of the boy/girl tradeoff vocal approach, which seems to be becoming a more central element in your productions. Has working with Melissa over time changed your perspective or approach in writing the songs, or did you envision that Cookies would have this type of dynamic from the start?

Ben: Melissa’s voice was at the heart of it from the beginning. I love her voice and have always wanted to do something focused on singing together. At least in my little hetero-framed world, the dynamic between men and women is relevant to just about everything, so it can point in every direction at once. It’s a really good challenge to write for a female voice. I’m not sure I’ll ever be totally comfortable with it. That’s part of why it’s so interesting in the first place.

LG: Who are some of your major influences at the moment from a production perspective?  Which artists have done things you’ve found compelling in the last year or so?

Ben: I’ve been digging back into early 90s New York hiphop. It’s such an optimistic era. Tons of 60’s and 70’s samples, everything soft focus.  A lot of Pete Rock and some lesser known stuff. Caribou’s “Swim” is probably the best pure production work I’ve heard in a few years, it’s untouchable. Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge.” Watch The Throne sounds amazing blaring from a car loud and distorted. New stuff: I have a feeling the new Chairlift album is going to be era-defining, based on one live show in June.

LG: You’ve collaborated with the photographer Emily Keegin and director/designer Wyeth Hansen, both of whom seem to have a visual sensibility/vision that really works with Cookies. Are the visual aspects of what you’re doing an important part of the process of releasing the music?  How did those collaborations come about?

Ben: Part of why Emily and Wyeth are in tune with the Cookies aesthetic is because they invented the Cookies aesthetic.  I knew what the cover was for “Summer Jam” before I’d written the song.  I’m so lucky to have Emily in my life, she is an amazing artist and thinker.  We’ve got some great stuff coming soon. Wyeth is the same, just a great friend that makes work I admire. He made the “Wilderness Tips” video in one night. I made him dinner and spoon fed him wine, and he sat there mumbling at the computer and made a video in two hours.

Related Links:

Cookies Website
Cookies tumblr

Cookies Twitter
Cookies on Listgeeks

Listgeeks Feature #14 – “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art”

Adolf Konrad, packing list, 1962–63. Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers, 1962–2002. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

The Morgan Library & Museum is currently featuring an impeccably curated, list-oriented exhibit called, “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art,” which runs through October 2nd, 2011.  Derick Rhodes (one of the co-founders of Listgeeks) recently had the opportunity to visit the exhibit, and apart from being overwhelmed by the profoundly fascinating array of lists on display, he thought it would be of special interest to the Listgeeks crowd to hear more about how the exhibit came together, and what inspired the selection of lists.  Liza Kirwin, the Acting Director of the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, who curated the exhibit (and compiled the accompanying, highly recommended book), was kind enough to answer Derick’s questions about the exhibit and provide some insight into this unique collection of lists:

Derick Rhodes/Listgeeks:  How did the idea for the exhibition and associated book come about?  Was there a specific list that first sparked your interest in curating the material?

Liza Kirwin: Picasso’s list, recommending European artists for the 1913 Armory Show, has long been considered one of the great treasures of the Archives of American Art.  Written in Picasso’s hand, complete with misspellings and curious omissions, it revealed the behind-the-scenes organization of a landmark exhibition in the history of American art:

Pablo Picasso, recommendations for the Armory Show for Walt Kuhn, 1912. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, 1859–1978. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

In 1996 this list was included in the Smithsonian’s pan-institutional treasures show, “America’s Smithsonian, Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution.”  Then, when I organized an Archive of American Art’s treasures show in 2000, I again featured Picasso’s list, as well as Reginald Marsh’s 1953 “list letter” to collector Lawrence A. Fleischman; the John Trumbull auction catalog of 1844 with appraisal prices; Worthington Whittredge’s illustrated ledger with thumbnail sketches of commissioned works; and Everett Shinn’s personal account book listing titles and prices of his contributions to “The Eight” Show at Macbeth Galleries, 1908. There were a lot of lists, which got me thinking about this form of documentation and what it could tell us about the lives of artists.

I like to use common forms – the diary, illustrated letter, or love letter – as a hook to draw people into more esoteric aspects of American art history.  It occurred to me that the list was a perfect vehicle for this kind of cultural exploration.

So I started making lots of lists of lists.

LG: The exhibit features a wide range of fascinating lists, from such disparate people as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, and Eero Saarinen.  Strolling through the space at the Morgan, I started to wonder what sorts of lists or list-related materials were excluded.  Were there certain compelling things that you wanted to include that were a little too far from list form?

LK: That’s a good question. Some artists, such as Oscar Bluemner, were such avid list makers that it was hard to choose just one or two lists from their papers. When I started this search in the Archives, I thought I would find more lists of books to read, or New Year’s resolutions, but I didn’t, which seems odd to me.

Oscar Bluemner, list of works of art, May 18, 1932. Oscar Bluemner papers, 1886–1939, 1960. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

After the book was published one of my colleagues found artist David Ireland’s list of “assholes.” It was short, just five individuals, but one wonders how they qualified. I thought of including that list in the show at the Morgan Library, but in researching the names I could only identify two of the five, and I felt that such a list deserved greater context.

An art historian, who had written about painter Ad Reinhardt, told me that she had seen a list that Reinhardt kept of parties he was not invited to. I looked for that list, but sadly it is not among Reinhardt’s papers at the Archives of American Art.

Ad Reinhardt, list of paintings, ca. 1966. Ad Reinhardt papers, 1927–68. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

Now that I revisit some of the lists that I didn’t use the book, I regret not using them.  There is a lengthy letter from Charles Frederick Briggs, a writer, novelist, editor and critic, to artist William Page, dated February 24, 1846, that includes his Briggs’s opinions, in list form, about portraiture and history painting. I may have decided not to use it because it was more letter than list.

LG: One of the things that’s been interesting about starting Listgeeks is observing the many forms a list can take.  Some of the lists in the exhibit/book are simple and practical (like Franz Kline’s grocery list) while others are more emotional/expressive, or elaborate, multifaceted art objects (like Eero Saarinen’s list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities).  Are there specific lists in the exhibit you felt were especially revealing?

Eero Saarinen, list of Aline Bernstein’s good qualities, ca. 1954. Aline and Eero Saarinen papers, 1857–1972. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

LK: Some of my favorites are Janice Lowry’s lists that she kept in her journals. They are most interesting read in progression – to-do lists that move to successive pages, and successive days, as well as lists of “angry grievances,” and “people I need to forgive.” She used lists to clarify her thoughts and move forward from day to day.

Janice Lowry, to-do list, August 9, 2003, journal no. 101. Janice Lowry papers, 1957–2008. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

LG: Are there further plans for showing the exhibit in other cities?

LK: I am hoping that the show will travel to at least one more venue, but a second museum has not yet been confirmed. It is a quirky show (art-historically significant lists), but one that appeals to list makers and anyone interested in American art. If any of your readers have ideas, please let me know.

LG: What’s your relationship with list making? Could you share a list you created (handwritten or otherwise) in the process of curating the exhibit?

LK: My whole day is governed by lists. Here’s one of my typical to-do lists from my desk:

And here’s a list of lists not included in the exhibition:


Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

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Listgeeks Feature #2: Russell Leetch from Editors (www.editorsofficial.com)

Editors formed in Birmingham, England, in 2002, and have seen their profile increase dramatically with each of their three successive album releases.  Their most recent album, “In This Light and on This Evening,” (2009) topped the UK album chart (as did its predecessor, “An End Has A Start”), even as the band transformed its sound from layered, guitar-driven indie rock to a more synth-based/industrial sound.  Listgeeks caught up with the band’s principle listgeek, bassist Russell Leetch, as the band head back into the studio with Mark “Flood” Ellis to start working on the material for their fourth album.  After you check out the below interview, be sure to have a look at Russell’s lists: Favourite 80s Bands, Favourite 90s Bands, and Favourite Meals of 2010.

Listgeeks: Sonically, it seems like the band made a pretty big transition from “An End Has a Start” to “In This Light and on This Evening.” Is a similar kind of revisiting the sound of the band happening with the fourth album?

Russell Leetch: Whenever listening back to our previous albums there are always annoyances or things that we may have not liked or wanted to have improved on. It is only with hindsight that you can look at these and move forward. Once we have completed a record we usually tour for an extensive period of time and the songs change again . . . so it is after this period when we start thinking of making a new record that suggestions of who we are going to use and what we may want it to sound like come into play. When we were making “An End Has A Start” we were going for a more polished, fuller sound, which we achieved but maybe pushed a bit too far for a second record. With the third we really wanted to move away from having 30 guitar tracks on a song and for people to hear the band playing in a room again. With the latest record we are rehearsing the songs so they are ready to record when we go into the studio. Studio time can be expensive and it is usually best to have the songs fully rehearsed and ready to go before getting into the studio and changing them in there. At the moment  things are sounding heavier than ever. When the band plays in a room there is always a dynamic to having strong individual parts and usually at volume – this is really prominent at the moment. We are pushing all elements that Editors consist of and that’s the best way of making a record.

LG: Has working with Flood (Depeche Mode, U2, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nine Inch Nails), both on the current project and the third album, pushed the band to develop new ways of incorporating synthetic sounds or different types of technology into the making of the music?

RL: Absolutely. Flood is well known for his work with bands incorporating synthesizers, and is very good at triggering the mode of a song by using a synth to create a rhythmical force or something as a drone for building a song around. When we made the first record it was a straight forward “rock” set up – guitars, bass drums and a micro korg! Now we use Logic running a variety of different things, whether it’s a drum pattern to free up Ed or having a synth keep the chords. We all have individual keyboard set ups and Ed tends to play the majority of his parts using an electronic kit – this really can shape the songs in different directions, especially when rehearsing. Modern bands have so many opportunities now to create such great music for not many pennies!

LG: Do you think an awareness of your audience plays a role in how you approach making albums? When you’re working on new material, is there a sense of what might work better sonically in larger venues and festival environments?

RL: I think to an extent you know what’s going to really work when you rehearse it, you feel the energy as a band first and this is what will be passed on to the audience. I don’t think we are ever far off what’s going to really excite the audience. Whenever you’re recording you try and make what’s best for a record but there is always going to be a thought about what happens live.

LG: Finally, the bass plays a prominent role in the sound of Editors, with songs often reliant on what you do with the bass as a melodic force.  Is it difficult to know when to bring a more melodic/upfront approach to your playing on a track, rather than approaching things in a slightly more traditional/supportive way? Does it just sort of come intuitively? Peter Hook (former New Order) and Carlos D (former Interpol) both come to mind as players who have also straddled this divide with style in the past . . . whose work do you admire when it comes to the bass guitar these days?

RL: I think myself and Chris take turns in supplying extra melodies to a lot of our songs. Prior to the start of the band I wasn’t a bass player and more of a piano player/guitarist. I think this has often led to there being more melody rather than root notes and basic rhythm from the bass guitar. Bass can play such a vital part to some songs without people even noticing it, and it’s taken me ages to realize this. I really enjoy Hooky’s bass playing – he really carries a lot of Joy Division’s work.  Pretty much all the riffs come from him and I like that. I have always liked Carlos from Interpol as there are lots of intricacies in his playing – more than I would ever play but I do admire how strong personalities approach their instruments, it’s what makes great bands. My favorite contemporary rhythm sections are Radiohead, The National and Elbow.