Whoever keeps saying that what’s done is done really doesn’t know much about songs and their inscrutable life (better yet, lives). When Half String were recording their first and only LP, 1996’s A Fascination with Heights, they had envisioned something special for the otherworldly title track: they wanted Catherine Cooper from Alison’s Halo - cohorts in the perennially underrated Beautiful Noise scene of 90s Arizona - to sing the song. What they attempted together was ultimately unsuccessful, but that didn’t mean the idea wasn’t great. Time has proven them splendidly right.
Fast-forward some 25 years. Independent Project Records is planning an expanded reissue of A Fascination with Heights, and Half String’s singer-guitarist Brandon Capps considers options for a single. It has to be the title track. “It gathers together everything that was going on during that time”, he points out. What better occasion to revisit an old intention then? “We had originally attempted this during the original sessions,” Brandon explains. “The chemistry that the people involved with Half String and the other bands in that scene had was based on trust and a lot of respect, and I think that carried on. I had full faith of handing off the basic tracks and knowing that whatever Adam and Catherine Cooper from Alison’s Halo could come up with was going to be really amazing. I was really excited to see what they could do with the song, especially considering the change of the times. We really couldn't have done anything like this back in the 90s, in terms of transferring the basic tracks and playing around with them”.
Adam Cooper sat with the tapes and listened, admiring how well they were recorded: “a whole other level than what we were able to accomplish with our own material”, he enthuses. “There was a lot of thoughtfulness put into it and obviously a lot of attention to detail on getting things right. Back then you simply had to, there was no room for editing”. Suddenly, that mid 90s failed attempt didn’t feel like a missed opportunity anymore. “I'm kind of glad things turned out the way they did”, Adam reflects, “because we wouldn't have had as many tracks to work with for Catherine's voice. We were always under limitations, whether it was a 4-track or an 8-track. Even with all the bouncing that we would do back in the day, we still wouldn't have been able to pull it off. We were always lacking in harmonies with a lot of stuff because we ran out of tracks. This was really fun, I think it's the first time that Catherine has been able to explore as many harmonies as she did”.
Catherine Cooper loved the song from the very first time she heard it, all those years ago. “When Brandon asked us to do this, I just didn’t know what we could do to make it live up to what a good song it was”, she admits. “We didn't change much because, as Adam said, the production of it was already so good. I feel like we just added our little touch to it, a little fairy dust on top”. The fact that they didn’t change much wasn’t for lack of trying, Adam jokes: “I actually wrote parts for the song and got heavy-handed the way that I normally can with anybody's stuff. And every time I tried, it just felt short, especially in the guitar department because the parts were so good and so embedded in my brain I couldn't change them and feel good about it. I didn't want to Halo-ize the song at all, it's so different than what we would write. And the arrangement is so creative, it's got a really cool structure that doesn't follow the norms”.
To say that Half String liked Alison’s Halo remix of A Fascination with Heights is an understatement. Guitarist Matt Kruse, who’s been spending a lot of time with the song since Adam and Catherine reworked it, puts it simply: “now when I listen to the original it sounds a little bit strange, like that's the secondary version”. Brandon Capps particularly enjoyed the new-found focus on the vocals: “with Half String the voice was always mixed back in balance with the instruments”, he says. “My voice was never intended to be the lead, it was just intended to be kind of instrumental, a part of everything else that was going on. The way Adam and Catherine treated the vocals is great. Every time I listen to it I'm like, how many layers of Catherine's voice are there?”. As it turns out, even the Coopers have lost count of all the melodious layers; as Adam quips, “we've got the space here and we’ve got some decent gear at this point. So why not go crazy?
Making room for the vocals in the new mix meant setting other instrumental elements in the background. Yet, Keith Kassner’s hand percussion is still a crucial component of the song’s exquisite vibeyness. Kassner was a guest on the original album, as Brandon explains: “he was probably 19 or 20. Kimber [Lanning, Half String’s drummer] hit him up and asked if he wanted to try out some overdubs. He got a rough mix of the song and then came over one day with a miniature Japanese vibraphone, his congas and his wooden frog, and he had already mapped it all out. He’s the one that came up with everything on A Fascination with Heights, he had really no guidance from me whatsoever. I remember being blown way by that. Those were the days when Stereolab was super hip, so it was pretty exciting to hear our song get a little bit of that groovy lounge treatment”.
As we’re learning, a reissue is a good opportunity for a new single, and a new single is an even better opportunity to make the kind of music video you wouldn’t have dared to dream of back in the 90s. A strong sense of collaborative art-making is in the song’s blood, so it’s no surprise that a visual interpretation of the new A Fascination with Heights would find members of Half String and Alison’s Halo joining forces once more. Matt Kruse and his love for video experimentations led the way.
“The lyrics are from the perspective of a child who's exploring - a little bit too aggressively perhaps - and is struck by curiosity”, he reflects. “It was always Brandon's voice that was singing those lyrics, so I'd always picture a small boy. But with Catherine's voice it became the voice of a female child, and that shifted my whole perspective on it. It changed the mood, and made everything fresh and new for me. I heard the song many times over the years, but to have that new voice there really inspired me. I have a background in motion graphics and after effects but I had never really done anything like illustrated animation, with actual characters and elements that tell a story”. The girl we see walking through a forest in the mesmerising video Matt created conjures the idea of a children’s book - “one that’s not for a child but from the perspective of a child”, he points out. “It’s like this simplified magical kind of story. But the bridge felt different to me, somehow revealing of the real world. So you have the illustrative side, from the child’s perspective, and then a shift to video footage, actual reality, that I think goes well with the lyrics”. The parts we see in the bridge came from Adam Cooper, whose garden footage had caught Matt’s attention. “The timing was perfect, there were blossoms on all the trees”, Adam recalls. “I was always curious of how he was going to integrate it, I like the concept behind the whole thing. The feel of the video is so unlike anything from that era - you picture this 4AD thing, a bloody liver on the ground, or weird footage…so it's really refreshing to see something that's so bright and shiny and not as dark as things from that time tend to be”. Catherine concurs: “there is a brightness and lightness and innocence to it, you are looking at it through a child's eyes but then there's the reality…It’s like life, right? There's always a little bit of darkness underlying everything. You can take what you will from the song, but I do I feel like Matt did such a great job with the video conveying that feel”.
Back in the day, both Half String and Alison’s Halo ponder, the idea of being able to produce a video simply wasn’t a reality. There was no budget, and even artists with a camera at hand would have had very limited options. But since it’s hard to turn down the opportunity for what-if musings, Brandon Capps tries to imagine what a 90s Half String music video would have looked like: “the things that we were looking to back in that day were probably super atmospheric, all psychedelic colours and moody, obscure images. When I first saw Matt’s storyboard I was like, this is so outside of what I would have ever considered for it! It’s bright and kind of positive, which is surprising ‘cause some people have had a pretty dark read on the song. I'm glad that it went in the direction that it did”.
In addition to allowing new listeners to discover some truly beautiful noise from the past, this second life of A Fascination with Heights has made it so that its key players could connect again after a long time. “The further we step away from that time”, Brandon considers, “the more we recognise how special it was - not that we didn’t know back then, but years after I realise how lucky I feel to have been around all of that”. Looking back at the Phoenix scene with true fondness, Catherine Cooper can’t help but praise Brandon and Half String drummer Kimber Lanning in particular. “There are so many scenes that have happened around the country, and it’s usually in bigger cities: when there’s so many people, it's easy for a scene to happen. The Phoenix area, on the other hand, is so spread-out it’s really hard for things like that to happen organically. There was a lot of groundwork that was done on Brandon and Kimber’s part to really pull people together and to create something great”.
Adam looks back: “We were all hitting the ground running. There weren't really a lot of shitty bands within our scene, even the ones that were on the fringes were amazing. Maybe it was a pushback, a reaction to what was going on at the time, to the whole jangle desert rock scene. In a lot of our minds it was like, screw these guys, we're going to do better than this! I hate to say it, but a lot of those bands that we pushed back on I actually have grown to enjoy at this point”, he laughs.
Letterpress printed postcards for Arizona shows featuring Half String and Alison's Halo. Design by Bruce LIcher.
Phoenix, they all agree years later, really was an unusual place. Still is. “A weird city in a weird state”, Brandon sums up. “There's this level of oppression that you can't help but feel, but there's also this longing to want to do something interesting and special. And that's why, although it’s such a spread-out city, it was easy for people to get on board. The scene that came out of it was very inclusive, too. People that normally would have never played their songs on a stage felt welcomed enough to be willing to try it out”. Matt Kruse’s personal experience captures that same undefinable magic quite perfectly. “In 1998 I moved to San Francisco and spent almost twenty years there with stints in Vancouver and Oakland”, he explains. “During all that time I had very few collaborative successes musically. I played in a couple bands, but it never really went anywhere. Then I moved back to Phoenix three years ago and suddenly all this creativity is coming out of me both with video-making and writing songs with other people. I’m not sure why that is, but there's something about Phoenix that is inspiring”.
There seems to be a hazy glow covering the Valley of the Sun. Think of it, it’s all over the songs. Half String were making in the mid 90s, too. Wide-eyed jewels, halfway between dream pop and shoegaze, determined to keep finding bliss in the midst of noise. 25 years on, they’re more successful at it than ever before.
This is the third dispatch of The Notes and The Words, an ongoing series of articles
by Camilla Aisa exploring the artists and music of Independent Project Records.