The debut album from Chicago’s MIIRRORS, Motion and Picture, arrives today, March 24th, 2023, from Pravda Records. Lots of albums in recent years have long stories behind them, and for this band and album, it goes back over 20 years to a friendship between Shawn Rios and Brian McSweeney that gradually evolved into some unique musical sketches, a recording experience at Electrical Audio that led to a band, and a future open to many new possibilities. Rios and McSweeney have been joined by Andre Miller, Patrick Riley and Dmitri Rakhuba to create a five-piece that now writes their songs together and has found a new organic rhythm to their explorations of sound.
Creating soundscapes for the album that play with traditional song structures and seem to stretch and conflate time and space, MIRRORS also undertook an unusual experiment you’ll find included in the collection: a completed version of Jeff Buckley’s surviving demo of “Gunshot Glitter” that was released as an extra on the Japanese version of Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. It was an odyssey for them that shows their love for Buckley’s music and also their sensitivity to mood and atmosphere that you’ll find throughout Motion and Picture.
I spoke with Brian McSweeney and Shawn Rios about the development of the band and the songs, and where they are headed as their first album together reaches audiences.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that something unusual happened in that you recorded your album before officially putting a band together or playing out together.
Brian McSweeney: We kind of took a long approach with the band for a few different reasons. Originally we were just getting together for fun now and then, but as we kept playing, the songs kept getting better and more developed. We had talked at first about just the two of us going out. I was playing guitar and singing, and Shawn was playing drums. We were going to do it super-stripped down as bare as we could do it. We actually did that several years ago as a two-piece.
Shawn Rios: At the time, MIIRRORS wasn’t a thing, it was just that our friendship was leading us to get out there and play. But it’s been a thing for about three years. What’s new, historically, to the public, has been there for us for a while. It’s still very fresh in terms of a five-piece band. But we decided to make the record first, and I’m glad that we did. Usually bands grow their way into whatever scene they are in, then when they have enough money together, they make a record.
We had an opposite approach because we had time as a luxury. We knew that we wanted to put this on tape, and we did that, and we formed the band along the way, which I think was a service to the songs. The interesting thing for us is that right when we were at the point to function as a normal band, that’s when the pandemic hit everyone. We were ready to release singles, and three months later, that was not an option.
HMS: Was the majority of the recording done before the pandemic?
Brian: We really had the bulk of the album beforehand. There were just a few tracks that weren’t complete yet, mainly vocals. I’m very slow about writing lyrics. It’s kind of my kryptonite. I procrastinate since it’s the really hard work for me. I can have the melody the first day that we write a song. You want to say something meaningful, so it’s hard for me.
HMS: After listening to the album, I’d say that the music is relatively complex, and doesn’t always follow traditional song structure, so that must make lyric writing complex, too.
Brian: I don’t know if that necessarily makes it harder, it’s just hard, period. I know who my favorite lyricists are and I have a good idea of why I like them. Then you try to measure up to that. If I’m writing something on the guitar and I get stuck, I can just try a different chord, since there are a fixed number of chords. But if I’m sitting writing lyrics, there are an infinite number of concepts in the world! A billion words. It’s much more daunting work to me. But I’m up for the challenge.
Shawn: To add to that, what’s interesting and a relief to me, as Brian’s creative partner, is that all the new material that we’re writing beyond the first album is being written in a room with all five of us together. We’re writing in a way where the song components are very different. It allows freedom. I’ve noticed that Brian is able to come up with lyrics right there on the spot, even on the first day. For the first time, I’m noticing my best friend defeating the kryptonite. It seems to be becoming more natural, which says a lot about the space we’re creating and who we’re writing with.
HMS: It sounds like the positive aspects of having everyone in one room extends to many areas of life. It’s fairly unusual to find your band while recording an album, too. A lot of people have guest musicians on albums, but these guys actually became part of MIIRRORS through that process, right?
Brian: It is unique. When Shawn and I had a handful of ideas, we went to Electrical Audio in Chicago. We tracked the bones for our first four songs. We did do some overdubs and we had a handful of friends who wrote some parts. I spent hundreds of hours working in Pro Tools, doing editing, and creating parts from things that other people played for us. It was challenging, though I’m really happy with how it came out.
The song “Sinistry” is the first one where we all finished and wrote our parts together in the same room. After that, I say that I don’t think I’ll ever go back to doing it any other way. It also means that when the album’s done, no one has to learn anything in order to play their parts, it makes the process of recording so much faster, and it brings so much more life to things.
Shawn: You can hear it on the recording itself!
Brian: There’s so much life in the fluctuations and small imperfections. To me, that’s where a band like Arcade Fire get it right in their recordings. But that’s really how all of our new music is coming to life. It’s inherently a different sound because of that, and I’m so excited about where we’re going.
HMS: I noticed a special quality to that song. It’s unusually organic and feels like a unified vision.
Shawn: There’s an immediacy there. That also happened when we were making “Gunshot Glitter.” I’m proud to share that I’m the drummer, but we had our friend Matt Johnson play drums on that song because he was Jeff [Buckley’s] drummer. We felt that would be appropriate. In the studio, his first take on drums was the take. Brian’s first take on vocals was the take. There was that immediacy.
I think there was a real breakthrough with that song. I was sitting at my daughter’s drumkit and Matt was sitting at my drumkit, and we were trying to work out this song, but in the moment, something came through and it took off. We figured out the arrangement as an imagined completion of what had been a four-track demo. Brian nailed the vocals. It was a real treat to see that and know that was it. Brian wanted to record again, but we said, “No!”
HMS: How did you approach Matt about doing this?
Shawn: I’ve been friends with Matt since about 2006, so when we entertained even the thought of taking this on, it seemed only natural to get Matty involved. We were very sensitive about that, though, since Matt left the band before Jeff died. I waited to see him in person in LA at his home. He jumped on right away. He made the song better. We also recorded another song with him that we haven’t put out yet. We also sent the song to the drummer who was playing with Jeff at the time of his death, Parker Kindred, and he was excited to know that Matt was involved, since they are friends. It was nice to get the gold star from these guys.
HMS: I’m a huge Jeff Buckley fan and have been listening to his music my whole life. What made this experiment come to mind, and why focus on this song, particularly?
Shawn: We had gone over some stuff that we thought would be great, but we wanted to go after the four-track stuff, the stuff that Jeff did at his house in Memphis late at night by himself. That stuff seemed really interesting, like a really great coloring book that only had a few colors in it so far.
Brian: In no way do we think that we did the songs better, but we wanted to see what it would be like to finish an idea that had been started. And that idea came from someone we treasured and still treasure. The only reservation we had was if Matt had said “No.”
HMS: Are there decisions that you were aware that you were making to build the song into a complete version? Was there a particular approach you took?
Brian: The biggest challenge was that this had always been one of my favorite songs. I remember buying the Japanese import with Sketches [for my Sweetheart the Drunk] on it, which was the one that had “Gunshot Glitter” on it. It was pretty amorphous as a song with a bit of a rambling in the back half of the song, but the seeds were there. That was tough. Who am I to alter the arrangement of that song? But it was obviously a demo and a sketch, so I thought, “Let’s do it.”
Shawn: It’s hard because in your mind, there is this sacred cow in the room. We had to get past that and approach it as songwriters while keeping in mind, “What would Jeff do?” There’s plenty of material from the Grace era where you can hear him fleshing out music and lyrics and lyrics change.
What we did is we laid out the demo on a Pro Tools grid, and we carved out parts that we thought we could work with and discarded parts that we thought were trailing off. That was difficult. We started playing with things, but it wasn’t until Matt Johnson was in the room until we figured out that middle part. There was an audible sigh in the room when we found the last piece of the puzzle that was missing.
Brian: When we were about 25% of the way into the work, Matt even said, “This is what Jeff would have wanted. He wouldn’t have been precious about it. He would have said, ‘Let’s do it and have fun!’” When we finished the song that day, Matt said, “Jeff would have loved this.” If I had told 22-year-old me about that moment, I wouldn’t have believed it. It was one of the most life-affirming moments, musically.
HMS: I feel like can see why these songs on the album, including “Gunshot Glitter”, go together. The opener on the album, for instance, is “Parallax” and it sets the tone and mood that’s part of the album. This question, “Am I alone?” seems to have to a lot to do with the album, and the idea that human beings are very small, but are facing these big challenges.
Shawn: We knew when writing and making “Parallax”, when he and I just got together to play, that we were dealing with a song that could be an intro. It might even be the first song that we wrote together. It has a pulse and feeling to it that there’s an excitement but there’s more to be said. We knew it was the one to start with. As a result, now that we’re playing live, there have been a number of times where it’s felt right to open with it. It has a space within it that allows you to feel things.
We had a vision for how the record begins and ends, and we wanted it to relate to a film narrative that takes you through these emotions. We named the record Motion and Picture because there’s a visual, cinematic quality to the things we’re making right now. There’s something that feels like a film about this album. When the vinyl comes out, you’ll even be able to see the way the art is laid out like a film.
HMS: I heard that your video for “Nightwalk” was shot in an empty Chicago. It really has an eerie feel to it.
Brian: That was shot squarely in the middle of the pandemic. I have been a photographer forever and I have a camera. Shawn thought we should go around an empty Chicago and get a lot of footage at night. We did and it kind of has the feel of the song. Also, “Nightwalk” was the first song that came from a seed that was not Shawn and me. One of our guitar players, Dmitri [Rakhuba] is from Chicago but lives in Nashville. He remotely sent us a clip of something he’d been working on.
It had this bossa nova vibe to it and Shawn and I were listening to it one night. It had such a cool feel to it that we tried to interpret it into MIIRRORS. Thinking about it now, there are a few other songs on the album that came from ideas that go back as far as 2005. We then reinterpreted ideas into the sound that is MIIRRORS right now. “Where Do We Go” started as a drum loop idea. Some of the songs come from very different spaces and the thread is really Production and our interpretation, as a band, of those ideas.