Sun Airway’s Jon Barthmus builds grand palaces of the mind
In a quote that has been attributed to everyone from Clara Schumann to Frank Zappa, someone once quipped that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Writing about the music of Sun Airway isn’t quite akin to dancing, but architecture certainly comes into play. If the dizzying layers of electronic rhythms, layered vocals, and symphonic timbres that make up songs like “Close” and “Wild Palms” evoke ornate façades, gilded halls, and sunlit gardens, it’s not by accident. Reached on the road in Los Angeles, Jon Barthmus says that making Sun Airway’s sophomore LP, Soft Fall, was his attempt at creating a sonic analogue to the Palace of Versailles.
“That was the first reference point for the kind of record I wanted to make and what I wanted it to sound like,” the Philadelphia-based singer and musician says. “I was just picturing these grand palaces, but also picturing an alternate-universe version where everything is weird and floating around and kind of nonsensical.”
It’s an imagined Versailles, then, which is fitting, since Barthmus has yet to see the real thing in person. His interest in the palace was piqued by a viewing of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, after which he spent some quality time poring over photos of the royal chateau. Nor did Barthmus’s research end there. The multi-instrumentalist—who essentially is Sun Airway, although he often collaborates with drummer Patrick Marsceill and the two are joined on-stage by three other musicians—soaked up more inspiration by hitting the local public library.
“Since I already had the Versailles/French thing going on,” Barthmus says, “I went to the French section and starting pulling off books, and André Breton kept coming up. I found it really interesting, and the whole French surrealism idea sounded like exactly what I was shooting for. So I just started researching more and more, and once I found some of his writing and poetry, then it was just an avalanche of stuff from there.”
The imprint of surrealism can be detected in the lyrics of Soft Fall, including these from “Symphony in White No. 2”: “You are the kind to get lost in your dreams, your dreams/And I’m no longer fit to come after you.” True to its title, the song shimmers with lilting orchestral sounds, which swell and crest over a steady dance-floor pulse. There are string parts all over the album, backing up Barthmus’s strong, clear melodies with dense layers of baroque beauty.
“Most of them started as just chopped-up samples of old classical recordings,” he notes. “Some of that’s what you hear on the record, but for a lot of it, I worked with an arranger who then took those parts I made and transcribed them into sheet music. We recorded a string quartet kind of replaying those in a studio, and then mixed that back into the recording. I really wanted a heavy string sound, but I wanted it to be kind of unique and fragmented, like the samples that I was cutting up, so that’s how it ended up.”
The result isn’t as disjointed as you might expect, but it is made up of tones that circle around one another and coalesce at just the right times to create moments of sublime wonder, like observing the Hall of Mirrors through a kaleidoscope. So, maybe it is like dancing about architecture after all.
Sun Airway plays the Waldorf on Friday (October 19).