Photo: Matthew Cooper

Track-by-track: Inventions take us through their new album Continuous Portrait

Inventions is the duo of Matthew Robert Cooper, best known for his ambient work under the name Eluvium, and Mark T. Smith who makes up one quarter of Explosions in the Sky. They just put out Continuous Portrait, their third album as a partnership, and a record that we love, so they generously agreed to give us a behind the scenes guide through the album’s creation in this track-by-track.

We started writing this record in October of 2017. Matthew lives in Portland, Oregon, and Mark in Austin, Texas, so that means we started writing by sending each other random sounds and melodies we liked. The first demo we shared was called “Carrots”, and the second was “Frivol”, neither of which made it to the record. But the third one was a demo called “Contretemps”, which ultimately became “Close to People”, and from there we were off and running. 

Over the following couple years, we wrote the nine songs on this record, and some details about each of those tracks appears below. 

In December of 2019, Mark flew out to Portland and then we drove out to Cannon Beach, Oregon, where we had rented a house that had a panoramic view of the beach and the Haystack-like rocks. The weather was terrible and rainy nearly the entire time. There was a neighbor happily trimming his hydrangea bushes in a total downpour. At some point Matthew said, “Who rents a house at the beach and then never goes to the beach? Us…” 

Thanks for listening.

1. “Hints and Omens”

The opening sample of laughter is from a man who tries to help people meditate and find comfort (from nothingness and depression and anxiety) by helping to create infectious, genuine laughter in the face of it. The laughter can be kind of maniacal but also so purely charming on the face of it – like having this purity and knowledge of meaninglessness can lead to pure joy and laughter (it reminds us of the end of Donnie Darko when he starts laughing in his bed knowing what is coming).  

That laughing (along with all that is wrapped up in the need and the comfort from it) became the notion we wanted to start with.

We started with some synth arpeggios and coupled it with a sample (“I get little hints and omens… what about you?”) repeating over and over again. We added some ungodly count of synths and pianos and weird percussives into a bed to structure it out. Then, as we do, we sent it back and forth, restructuring, adding and mutating elements. Right away it felt like an album-opening kind of piece to us. The end section for the song has a sort of filmic wrap-up kind of quality, the feeling of which we tried to revisit at the end of the album (in “Saw You in a Movie”). 

This song had maybe the highest number of individual audio tracks to try and balance–laughter, vocals, many synths, drums and little percussions, slide guitar, horns, multiple pianos, and lots of other little flourishes. It went through 16 demo versions, and the best demo name it had was “Hints and Almond Butter Long Form Inquisition”.

2. “Calico”

This one started out with a strummy acoustic loop, coupled with the synth melodies. We did some cutting and splicing and added a soft bed of flowing chords- building out a gentle chord change structure. Next we added more layers of samples of vocals and musical saws and choirs. We eventually had lots and lots of things going on – this happens often – so we try to then pull things back and have each bit-part get a moment to shine, instead of everything all at once.

Out on the coast we played around with lots of various percussion ideas for this one as we struggled getting the mix to feel right and have the right energy, to the point that we actually started wondering if we should cut the song from the album. At one point we were rummaging through the cupboards of the rental house for things to use for percussion sounds and came up with two little mini cereal boxes. We started shaking those but then we somehow moved into recording ourselves trying to mimic the sound of the cereal box “shakers” with our voices, texting the recordings from our phones to ourselves quickly, to place into the song. 

At some point we drove to Astoria and listened, and upon returning, pulled things back again and although we would like to say there are samples from mini cereal boxes on the record, we ultimately went with some more traditional drum sounds instead. 

We love how this song starts out feeling almost like an frenetic early Animal Collective song and ends almost sounding like a Jesus Jones song or something. We knew when it was done because all of a sudden it was midnight and we were standing on the beach listening to the track and staring at the ocean and walking around watching people with their campfires in the distance and it felt very alive to be a part of the world in a uniquely tribal sense that is hard to put into words.

The best demo name for this one was “Estereo The Cats Fancied”.

3. “Continuous Portrait”

This song started with the woozy synth and light drums, and in its first stages it was coupled with a bell-like percussion set that we eventually cut. We added in the vocal samples, the bleep bloop synth melody, and the guitar line, and that was the song. We liked it so much that the song stayed in exactly the same form all the way until we were on the coast, at which point we added the final ending synths where everything else drops out.

Matthew’s dogs are freaked out by the dove samples so he has to be careful playing this one in the house. The “you’re okay” vocal sample briefly led us to consider using that phrase as our album title. 

The best demo name for this one was “Morses Dif Jux 2”.

4. “Outlook for the Future”

This one was built from musical and vocal samples, with synth and bass guitar. But it feels more accurate to say: Have you ever had very little idea how something was made or why it worked? This little song had all sorts of magical moments occur in order to exist. All the parts just kept falling into place – it was like rolling a Yahtzee while falling down the stairs. 

We kind of think of this one as our collective favorite from this album. It’s hard to listen to it and not feel a smile.

This one was always called “Outlook for the Future”.

5. “Close to People”

This song feels like a big turning point on the record to us – we’ve always felt, and still do feel, that this album deals a lot with joy and happiness and positivity. But trying to understand those feelings involves more complexity than on first look – it’s like a good cup of coffee or nice wine – it has layers of emotion mixed into it that provide the uniqueness and earthy qualities that make life so worth living. Very sloppy mixed metaphors and emotions here–but at any rate we feel like a certain sense of discovery is opened up with this track, which leads into “Spirit Refinement Exploder”.

As mentioned above, of the demos we worked on that eventually made it to the record, this is the earliest one. It started with some samples that we found of the singing and speaking from a “living wake” – a terminally ill man was having an “end of life party” so that he could enjoy being around everyone to celebrate rather than mourn. We took those and wrote the main synth line, written in conjunction to listening to those samples. 

Then we added the string loop, as well as some glass harmonica and jumbled piano and horns and other things.. 

We had always thought of this song as more of an interlude, but deep into the album process we began to hear it differently and ended up adding the bass that comes in near the end, and on the coast we added the ending drumbeat. 

The best demo name for this one was “Contretemps Every Hand Orchestra”.

6. “Spirit Refinement Exploder”

There are a lot of loose cannons in this track that are barely hanging on and then at the end it takes off. Some of the sample choices create a feeling for us of rejoicing and questioning or concern or a feeling of something odd at the same time. 

This track started with guitar, and the “oohs,” and the “over and over again” sample, on a loop. It was engaging but amorphous until we added the drums, which just hold things together, along with some bass. We had quite a bit more play of instruments happening in the break but ultimately stripped it back to bare essentials which felt gives the track this moment of clarity in which to question itself.

This song probably ended up with the second most elements to try and balance, and we went back and forth between thinking we were refining the song and exploding it to its component bits. 

The best demo name for this was “At Play. At Play. Easier”.

7. “The Warmer the Welcome”

This one started with a kick drum and a piano/harp melody. Next came the tumbling, circular felted piano line. This song was always left in a really ramshackle off-time way throughout the entire demo process – we always knew we loved it, it didn’t even matter for literally two years that it was all rhythmically jumbled and a total mess and probably unlistenable to anyone but us. You could just use your imagination to hear the way it should actually be. Right before the mixing, we finally fixed it. 

Peace abounds like a river, they say. 

The working title for this song was “Neighbored/City Mouse Country Mouse”.

8. “A Time in My Life”

This track always had a groove in it that we felt has endless possibilities that we could have taken in many different directions. For a while we had in mind this kind of krautrock driving drum beat to kick in halfway through and it to turn into some pysch-jam kind of track. But ultimately we chose a direction more suitable for the album and the place it sits within the album. 

We asked Marielle Jakobsons if she would perform the violin parts on the end of this one–we gave her some notation and asked that she keep pretty close to it but then also do a bunch of crazy stuff if she were so inclined and she just nailed it. It ended up changing the entire mood of what we were thinking the song would ultimately do and we feel blessed by her energy on this one. We chose to make some instrument changes to highlight it as best we could and give it its rightful due. 

When we got to mixing this song on the coast, it was in the late morning one day, and there was sun for once, and we were just letting this play over and over and trying to figure out what we wanted to do to it, and just watching the waves crash, and it felt in sync with the surroundings in a perfect way. So we took that to mean the song was done.

The best demo name for this was “Djinn Approximations Variant”.

9. “Saw You in a Movie”

We built this song pretty traditionally–with just some piano chords to begin. It was then layered with strings, synths, and some samples that we always wanted to use in a song (“Who are you, what are you doing here?” – “I don’t know”). 

We’re pretty happy with how the orchestration ended up on this one–again returning to a silver screen type of emotionality at the end–there is a cool interplay of spirituality and darkness and light and theater in this song–is this really the end of our dear hero?

The best demo name for this one was “Mojave Goo”.

Continuous Portrait is out now via Temporary Residence Ltdread our review.

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