Strange Ranger started out as the duo of guitarist Isaac Eiger and bassist Fred Nixon, who released their full-length debut as Sioux Falls, Rot Forever, in 2016 before changing their name to Strange Ranger at the end of that year. Now split between New York and Philadelphia, the group has expanded into a quartet featuring bassist Fred Nixon, singer Fiona Woodman, and drummer Nathan Tucker. Though they have always pushed their sound in different directions, their fourth record, Pure Music, out today, is their most adventurous and larger-than-life to date. Infusing the timeless familiarity of shoegaze with influences from house, disco, and trp-hop, the LP builds on the promise of their 2021 mixtape No Light in Heaven, smoothing out its rougher edges and presenting an abstract stream of ideas in a more cohesive, concentrated form.
Although songs like the opener, ‘Rain So Hard’, hint at the dissolution of Eiger and Woodman’s five-year romantic relationship, the recording process behind the album, which took place in a cabin in upstate New York during a blizzard, felt like their most collaborative to date. The results are both disorienting and enrapturing, melancholy yet decadent, slipping into a space that feels simultaneously out of reach and achingly present. The vocal effects, samples, and odd textures that permeate the album don’t clutter but enhance its cinematic qualities and the interplay between the band’s voices, evoking fragmented memories that distort and wrap themselves around each other. “The rhythm of the club might lead me somewhere,” Eiger sings, but you can’t quite place it, a longing for a time you’ve never really experienced and can’t be sure has even existed. As the album continues its search for transcendence, though, the feeling that seeps through in those rare breakdowns – blurry as it still may be – is euphoric, shared, and totally real.
We caught up with Strange Ranger for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about their memories of recording Pure Music, their collaborative relationship, the idea behind the title, and more.
Pure Music emerged from the same sessions as No Light in Heaven, which stitched together some of the different styles that also find home on the new album. How do you see the relationship between those two projects?
Nathan Tucker: I guess you could say No Light in Heaven was like the B-sides, but we just released them first.
Fred Nixon: Yeah, sort of a reverse B-sides situation. In a way, making the mixtape was us figuring out how to make the album afterwards, entering into that new territory and then honing it a bit more. And then we put together the songs that that felt like a unit for the record, whereas the mix tape is totally scatterbrain.
Was there any overlap between the songs, or was there a clear trajectory from one project to the next?
NT: We pretty much had all the songs at the same time. We pretty intentionally wanted to make one thing that was really all over the place and one thing that felt way more cohesive. Definitely the stuff on Pure Music changed a lot as we are making it.
Isaac Eiger: The initial sessions occurred at the same time. We had somewhere between demos and actual songs for everything, and then we really made No Light in Heaven, and then we really made Pure Music. We wanted the mixtape to feel really chaotic, like you were sort of being pulled in all these different directions. And there was still this throughline, but the throughline was imposed on you as a listener, like, “None of this shit makes sense, but we’re gonna force it to make sense for you.” But the new one, we didn’t want it to be less crazy or interesting or whatever, but we wanted it to feel like it was one piece of music, you’re listening to it and it all goes together.
What originally inspired you to go in this experimental direction?
IE: I think we’d just gotten really bored of what we had done. We were listening to weird music, and we’ve always just made stuff that we want to listen to.
FN: It’s funny, people talk about the mixtape being a departure from our previous sound – I understand why it’s more striking because there’s more electronic elements and stuff like that, but I feel like every time we make a record, we want it to be different from the last thing. To me, the first three records we made all feel different from each other.
NT: And we’re just way better at doing things than we used to be, so those differences are going to be more stark.
With this departure, was it more of a challenge to familiarize yourselves with new production techniques, or to integrate them into your sound?
IE: We just got really into making music like that. We got really into dance music and ambient music, so that’s what we were making. It would have been a challenge to make a record where we werent’ doing those things. That would have been really boring and horrible.
NT: If what you’re asking about is the difference between learning how to do something and then actually applying it, I think the enthusiasm for the cool shit we were trying out – sometimes we would definitely take it too far. I remember there’s a version of ‘It’s You’, the last song on the mixtape, where there’s this insane, really bad UK garage bridge that sort of sounds like nightcore or something. [laughs] We were all psyched on it for like 20 minutes and then we’re like, “Oh, this is really not good.”
IE: The problem is if you push it too far, it’s like hyperpop, which we’re not into at all. There has to be some kind of aesthetic boundary in what you’re doing so it doesn’t just feel totally mindless.
NT: Often Fiona is the one to be like, “Yo guys, what we’re playing is not…” [inaudible due to laughter]
Fiona Woodman: My duty, gotta keep my boys in check.
IA: There’s definitely shit on the stuff we made where I’m like, “Fuck, we shouldn’t have done that.” But it’s like, you know what, it got mastered, it’s on vinyl, so…
FN: I mean, everything that you make you look back on and would do differently at different points in time.
You recorded the album at a cabin in upstate New York with a blizzard raging outside. Was that where the initial sessions took place? What are your memories of that time?
IE: That’s where most of the early sessions took place. It was just really crazy and intense. We were staying up super late. I felt pretty psycho a lot of time.
FW: I feel like most of the actual progress on the record was between 10:00 and 4:00am. We were literally snowed in.
IE: We read in some Talk Talk interview about how when they made Spirit of Eden and and Laughing Stock, they would record for a really long time, like, some guy playing flute or something, and then they would take a five second clip of it and fade that into the track and fade it out. So we were doing that with the computer and a bunch of other weird shit. We were just having tons and tons of ideas and throwing most things out.
FW: I wasn’t like super involved in the records previously, but it was definitely a very different way of making music. Isaac and Fred would bring outlines or bones of the song, and then we would all riff on ideas. Definitely the more dance sections of the songs were really fun, just really jacked on caffeine at two in the morning. [laughs]
FN: It was a very immersive experience. I was making a drink that I was calling psycho sludge, which was just coffee spiked with brandy, staying up all night and throwing ideas at the wall.
NT: It was really thick French press coffee, but made with pre-ground coffee that was too thin for French press, so it was kind of seeping through the press and leaving this centimeter-thick layer of sludge at the bottom of the cup.
IE: Fred was feeding us undercooked chicken.
FW: And I was filming the entire thing. I have hours and hours of everyone – what is that Mortal Kombat song?
IE: Oh yeah, I fucking love that song. Just the theme song from Mortal Kombat.
FW: Everybody’s got their mug full of disgusting brandy-spiked coffee going nuts to that one.
FN: In certain ways, I remember it as almost annoying, being totally immersed in that studio and living environment being all the same thing. Because you’d be like, “It’s 4:00 am, I’m going to bed now.” And then somebody would have a breakthrough or something.
FW: That was usually me. I was like, “I can’t do it, I’m falling asleep.” And then I would wake up at like three in the morning, walk out of the room to you guys just looking insane – like your eyes are bloodshot, you look back at me and you’re like, “Fiona, we made a breakthrough!” And then I listen to it and I’m like, “This is not gonna work. This is true insanity. What the fuck have you done?” And then the next morning we’d come back to it and be like, “We need to dial it back a little bit.”
IE: I wish I could hear a version of the record with all the horrible ideas still there. [all laugh]
Strange Ranger’s Version?
IE: Yeah, literally.
FW: The Strange Ranger mix. Psycho Sludge Mix.
FN: I remember one specific example of that. It was a mixtape song, not an album song, but that scenario where Fiona woke up and went to go to the bathroom or something and comes out and we’re like, “Fiona! We’re out here double-chorusing the end of ‘It’s You’!” It’s like the meme with Charlie from Always Sunny in the mail room. And then the next day it was a single chorus.
FW: I remember that also with the end of ‘Blue Shade’, the hardcore dance section. I was like, “I don’t think this is gonna work, you guys.”
FN: Fiona said it was sounded like Muse, and then we had to change it. We were in denial about it at first, but you were right.
IE: That really hurt my feelings, but it was totally the right decision. [all laugh] I feel like that song was, “It’s like Muse, it’s like Muse, it’s like Muse,” and then when we were finishing the record upstate, I remember being like, “Fuck it,” and then we chipped a ton of things out and it’s like, “Now it works.”
NT: I think that’s sort of illustrative of the weird vibe of making it, because not only did the whole thing spring out of these formless late night session, but you’re painting with such a broad brush a lot of the time, making music on a computer, that there’s going to be all these really dramatic decisions being made. And then other people in the band are just gonna be like, “No, that actually kind of sucks,” and no one can really get their feelings hurt about it because you’re just trying to do something that is so unlike anything you’ve tried to do before. It didn’t really feel a way I had made music with other people before, ever. It felt totally unconnected to anything else that was going on in my life at the time in a really nice way.
Isaac, you mentioned this Talk Talk interview, and in a press release you also cite a quote by Burial. How does reading about other people’s approach to music inspire you collectively?
IE: The way that musicians and artists we like make their work is definitely inspiring, especially if you’re experimenting with different ideas. It’s like a torch far away and it’s all dark, and you read this interview with somebody and you’re like, “Oh, I know what to do now.” Also, hearing about people’s headspaces when they made things that we really care about, it just tells you a lot about how to do the things you want to do, why this person did this, and how you can do your own thing.
I wanted to talk about the term “pure music,” which comes up on ‘She’s on Fire’ and gives the album its title. To you, is it tied to escapism? Is it something you’re after?
IE: It’s both wanting escape and the exact opposite. It’ wanting to make the present moment feel infinitely more intense than it feels, or infinitely more calm, or whatever. You’re where you are, and it feels lacking in a way that you can’t describe, so you want it to feel another way. It’s not escapism in the way that you watch a TV show to get out of your horrible life. It’s escapism in the way that having your favorite song come on just annihilates your entire sense of time for a few minutes. It’s wanting to break through to something more, but it isn’t actually anything else than what’s happening right now.
Do you feel like you’ve all had different emotional experiences and visions of the album throughout the process?
NT: Making music collaboratively can be in a weird way lonelier than not, because what the record means to Isaac, what the record means to Fred, is different on some level than what it means to me. Those experiences aren’t the same thing. I think about this with the last song on the record, ‘Dazed in the Shallows’, where I have this iPhone video from those early sessions of us all dancing around like maniacs to that song right when we figured out what it was. Now, when I listen to that song, it has all these all these emotional connections and undertones for me. And I’m sure it has all these things for everyone else, but those things are different. There’s kind of an inherent loneliness about that, just knowing that the way something feels for me is not going to be exactly the same as it feels for everyone else. But at the same time, that, I think for all of us, is one of the more euphoric songs to play in the set, and something we all feel really proud of making. That moment of us all dancing, it was really the opposite of loneliness. It’s like both of those things at the same time. Which I think art always is, right? Most of my favorite art is about that ontological problem of just: How do I connect with other people in a way that is meaningful when I can never really know what’s inside them?
FW: And that feeling of hearing that one part of that one song, when the chorus hits for the first time, and you literally get goosebumps everywhere – chasing that fleeting feeling always.
NT: Where you’re like, “I fucking love my life, and I love these people I’m with.” And you know, I don’t always feel that way.
Can you each share something that you love about the rest of the group?
FN: Something that comes to mind that I’ll offer that applies to the group, which I feel like is a very us thing, is our ability to endlessly engage in painfully pedantic arguments about food. [all laugh] We all have extremely strong opinions about the silliest things, and I feel like we get used to arguing about, like, what the best fry sauce is.
FW: Spirited discussions.
FN: Yeah. It’s funny, because I feel like I’ll take that dynamic outside of the band, and someone’s like, “Why are you arguing with me about ranch dressing?”
FW: I literally spend more time with you three than my family, even. We spend so much time together on tour and making music together, so you end up having a lot of really weird discussions about what Skittles flavor is the best or something silly.
NT: Not even in the context of your original question, because it sounds like I’m just like scraping the bottom of the barrel for things I like about these people I spend all the time with, which is not true, but I’m often struck by how compatible our ways we like to spend time are. Obviously, when you’re in the van with someone every waking moment for a month or whatever, it ceases to feel that way a little bit after a while. But then I’ll just hang out with other bands, or just other groups of people that do stuff together, and I’m like, “Damn, it’s pretty easy with us.” [laughs]
IE: Seeing other bands is really interesting. People do things so differently, and we’re just so used to how we do things. But it’s always weird. It’s like seeing another family.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.