Photography by Victoria Masters
Stadiums & Shrines has its roots in the golden era of underground music blogs. Founded by Dave Sutton over ten years ago, the site retains the anti-commercial, esoteric ethos of those years, which feels remarkable in an indie music industry that seems to become more professionalized by the day. Combining impressionistic prose with abstract imagery and top-notch music curation, Stadiums & Shrines continues to carry the proverbial torch for the joys of discovering new music on the internet, even as it’s evolved beyond its original function as a daily MP3 blog.
The site’s Dreams series began in 2012, inviting artists to write musical accompaniment for surreal landscapes by collage artist Nathaniel Whitcomb. And with the newly assembled Dreams compilation, released on Cascine this past Friday, June 15, Sutton and Whitcomb have assembled the definitive collection of these audiovisual pairings in a double LP and accompanying gatefold book. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Bing & Ruth, and Ricky Eat Acid have all contributed tracks to the series, taking inspiration from Whitcomb’s collages as they tour the imagined landscapes of their unconscious construction.
Like the photo collages of Chris Marker or Duane Michals, Whitcomb’s pieces force our quotidian experience into unfamiliar territory. You feel as if you know these places, and yet you recognize the distinctly imagined or impossible qualities of each landscape. The audio components for these Dream collages create space for extended rumination, offering hints as to how they want to be heard, but never quite telling us.
We spoke to Sutton and Whitcomb about DIY spaces, ambient classics, and reaching for abstraction in a concrete world. You can catch the upcoming release show for the Dreams compilation, with Julie Byrne, Bing & Ruth, and Yumi Zouma (DJ set) at National Sawdust on July 1.
Can you guys introduce yourselves?
Nathaniel Whitcomb: I’m Nathaniel, and I’ve been doing collage work pretty much for the last decade or so on and off, and the dreams collage has been a culmination of that collage work and an ongoing thing for the past eight years. So this is the result of all that work. And outside of that, I used to work in advertising and have transitioned to being a stay-at-home dad for the last two years, and that’s been awesome.
Dave Sutton: I’m Dave, and outside of S&S I work in music. S&S was my first entry into a community of music blogs, which eventually introduced me to The Hype Machine, so I work at Hype Machine doing editorial. As of the past year, I’m working at Ghostly International doing similar work.
Ghostly! I really dug that latest Mary Lattimore album.
Dave: Me too. It’s been a true honor to work on that album. Super excited for her.
How did you guys conceptualize the Dreams series?
Nathaniel: I started working on the collages based on a book that I read called Atlas of Remote Islands, where an author basically told a one-page story on all of these islands that nobody can really access, but that there’s these little stories attached to. I really liked the idea of having a place and a short story to take you a little deeper into it. So when I started doing these collages based on places, I knew I kind of wanted a writing component, and that’s when I contacted Dave to see if he could add that element to it.
Dave: We had become friends through our websites. Nathaniel had an art site where he was sharing some motion collage work, and he had done some projections for bands that I was following. We just got to talking, and he sent the new series of collages over to me, and that’s when we realized there could be a third medium. I was trying to write for the collage, and he was looking for something to listen to. And simultaneously, S&S was taking a step back from being a daily MP3 blog in 2011, and I was just feeling kind of fatigued as that whole world become more industry-centric. So Nathaniel and I decided to team up on this series, and make it the central mission of S&S to really slow down and invite the community of artists that we’d gotten to know to participate.
How closely do you work with each of the artists?
Dave: We started with the artists we were already close with; we asked Dustin Wong, who had a project inspired by dreaming where he asked fans to verbally record their dreams, and he would try to interpret them musically. Sometimes there’s someone I know well, like maybe Julie Byrne or Jordan from Mutual Benefit—or sometimes I just reach out through email and see. Maybe like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — she and I didn’t know each other at all. She just replied to the email with a smiley face and said “Yeah I’d love to do it.”
From there, we just send a couple collages of Nathaniel’s to choose from; they select one and work with that, and send the piece of music back to us. From there, myself and Matthew Sage (our partner with this project)—we work inside a Google Doc and come up with a piece of writing that defines a connection between the sound and the image. Then we share that with the artist and plan on posting that together.
This compilation introduces a whole other stage in the project. We never intended for it to be a compilation to begin with, so some of these threads are from five years ago. We came back to them and asked if they wanted to be a part of this, and went from there.
How does that collaborative writing process play out?
Dave: It’s kind of a co-dreaming exercise that we landed on. The first few ones—it was more traditional, maybe I would jam with something and then I would share it with Matthew Sage, or with Nathaniel, and we’d back-and-forth in editing. But then, as we got more into a groove, Matthew and I would do it in real time and discuss in the chat section on the right side where we wanted things to go. We would finish each other’s sentences in a way. That’s really where I think the project starts to make a lot of sense: In this subconscious interconnectivity alongside the piece of music that the artist contributes.
Nathaniel: It’s a lot of fun to watch them write in real time. I’ve spent a few evenings just watching the two of them go back and forth and seeing the words appear in front of me. It’s pretty special to see that side of things based on something I made possibly up to a year ago.
Why National Sawdust?
Dave: I used to live around the corner from it. I remember when it was being built, and just being really intrigued by the space. I’ve seen a number of shows there, and once [the compilation] looked like it was going to be a real album and something we could celebrate, I always pictured it at National Sawdust. It just seemed like the right environment. S&S has always done DIY shows. There’s something about Sawdust as an immersive and still delicate space for a project like this.
Can you speak a little about the book coming along with the double LP? Was it always meant to be a companion to the album?
Dave: That’s been an integral part of it all the way through. I’d say that almost even predated the record. The way the book’s laid out is it displays the collage and then the record that goes along with it, and then corresponding tracklistings and stuff for the track you’re intended to listen to. So each one of these tracks was inspired by one image, and then the music came back, and then the writing happened, so they’re meant to be taken in as one single experience.
Nathaniel: We landed on this gatefold design, where it’s stitched into the LP cover, so there’s like 18 pages to flip through alongside the LPs.
You mentioned Dustin Wong’s dream project — it strikes me that different people experience sound in really different ways when they dream. What do you hear when you dream?
Nathaniel: I don’t necessarily hear things while I’m dreaming in a traditional sense. But for this project, I think that dreaming for me was the process of making these collages. I would sit down with a few pages and then start cutting pieces up, and then spread them around me in almost a 360-environment. And then I’d just start. I’d usually put some ambient music on, and then just start finding connections that existed through it. So it’d usually be a couple-hour exercise in finding things that might line up in different ways that [they] wouldn’t in real life. I kind of treated that as an exercise in dreaming outside of sleep.
What sort of ambient music did you put on when working on a collage?
Nathaniel: Early on, it was actually some of the stuff that we would be listening to, like Ricky Eat Acid and a lot of early traditional Brian Eno and Budd. But then it would evolve into Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter. So a lot of ambient music that would allow for space to exist where I could bring a creation into it.
Any final musings on dreaming?
Dave: Dreaming for me — I don’t often remember my dreams, and I’ve almost considered this project as almost daydreaming, where it’s a meditation, or a mindful exercise to take a break. I think our minds are always trying to process what’s happening in reality and—you know that stage before you’re falling asleep, where activities start to intersect in ways that don’t make any sense? That’s kind of the way I’ve seen this project, where the text that we’re coming up with is sometimes totally surreal and makes little sense, but in a way it creates some new reality that we can play with.